Author Topic: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric  (Read 4458 times)

Tage

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fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« on: April 11, 2007, 07:19:39 PM »
So I was reading through a summary/critic of Atlas Shrugged (for work, no less), and came across a very interesting bit at the reviewer's closing statements. I probably should post this in Writer's Group, but I never go there, and I bet people will see it here too.

"Fiction and philosophy have seemingly opposite objectives in their purposes. Philosophy relies on an inquiry, and the balancing of arguments and counter-arguments, while fiction is a fantastical creation served up for reading by the author. By definition, the marriage of fiction and philosophy can only result in the procreation of rhetoric. By using fiction, one is not bound by any constraints in what one chooses to consider in the philosophical inquiry. Thus, one can architect a fictional work so as to strongly emphasize one side of a debate, while ignoring the other."

I've always thought that the world of speculative fiction was the last bastion of morality literature. Good vs. evil, faith vs. science, and all that stuff. So is fiction a place to present interesting philosophy, or does the nature of fiction necessarily turn any philosophic ideas into nothing more than rhetoric, since the author is making up all elements to suit his/her liking?

EDIT: Bad Tage! Don't forget to link source material--
http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~girishv/fiction/books/reviews/atlas_shrugged.html
« Last Edit: April 11, 2007, 11:39:32 PM by Tage »
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Archon

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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #1 on: April 11, 2007, 10:54:47 PM »
I think that speculative fiction is a very useful tool in examining philosophy, especially as it tries to explain human nature. In speculative fiction, the author takes people outside the normal parameters, by definition. In this way, we can dissect the human experience, and figure out more about the world around us. For example, the concept of time is not very commonly explored, except in speculative fiction, when it is commonly talked about in stories related to time travel. Because time becomes the basis of the entire story, it is inevitably explored in greater depth throughout the story, even if it is in speculation. The concept of mortality is most commonly addressed when dealing with immortality. Mind control brings up issues of what will and consciousness really are. There are so many issues dealt with in speculative fiction, that even if the author is using them as rhetoric, they still have great benefit to our understanding of philosophy.

Another benefit of speculative fiction is that it gets people out of their native environment. This is especially important when exploring the nature of people, because it allows people to distance themselves from social elements, that would otherwise be too close to view objectively. Take prejudice, for example. A person might have their own ideas of the social order between the races of the world, which would have an effect on their understanding of prejudice. However, if you have a story in which the conflict revolves around a group of aliens being discriminated against by other aliens because of their antenna length, it will give the person a much more objective viewpoint. From that viewpoint, it is easier to really observe the nature of prejudice.

So, I think that speculative fiction can serve as rhetoric, or as philosophy, or even both. It is a good point that, since an author gets to, in essence, choose who the reader has sympathy for, and who the reader doesn't, it is a very effective persuasive tool. However, I think that, as a whole, speculative fiction does a lot to explore areas of philosophy that other areas of literature tend to neglect.
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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #2 on: April 11, 2007, 10:56:44 PM »
I think this is a great question, Tage.  Something that I think about a lot as an author.  Bringing in Ayn Rand is a good one too, since it relates so directly to fantasy novels.  Terry Goodkind has stated explicitly that he is an objectivist (or whatever it is her philosophy was) and wishes to be seen as a successor to Rand philosophically.  Many readers, however, find his lengthy diatribes on philosophy distracting and annoying. 

Yet, he continues to sell very, very well.  So, a lot of people must LIKE it as well. 

I say I try to stay away from this sort of thing.  And yet, where fantasy allows me to sculpt an entire world--with societies, mythologies, and everything else--to fit how I want the story to progress, I don't know that I can get away from slanting my works toward a strong rhetorical point of view.  If I believe, for instance, that hope will be rewarded eventually and show that in my books, then I am putting in a philosophical viewpoint without even trying. 
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dreamking47

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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #3 on: April 12, 2007, 12:14:52 AM »
Fiction that presents only a single viewpoint, or an obviously stacked deck, is generally considered bad fiction; hypothetical (i.e., fictional) situations and dialogues are a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry, dating back to Plato and Socrates. Both fiction and philosophy attempt to reach a shared understanding of truth through language.

The problem is that the critic is generalizing from a single bad example.

MattD
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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #4 on: April 12, 2007, 01:11:45 AM »
MattD,

I'd agree that fiction with an explicit moral is generally worse than fiction that doesn't try.  And yet, some of my favorite pieces are ones that have an obvious rhetorical motive.  Have you ever read "Harrison Bergeron" (sp)?  Or, "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas?" 

It works better in short fiction than in long, in my opinion, but I don't consider either example to be bad fiction.  Heck, Left Hand of Darkness could be considered rhetorical in this same sense, but it's very good fiction.  Of course, I think it does spent time showing various sides of an issue, so I guess maybe it's a bad example.
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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #5 on: April 12, 2007, 02:14:35 AM »
Harrison Bergeron was a very good story, as I recall, and I do believe that you spelled it correctly. I agree with MattD somewhat, in that stories that are overwhelmingly pushing an agenda on you aren't usually that good. However, storytelling has a lot of intricacies, and you don't have to beat your reader over the head with your point to make your story persuasive.
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dreamking47

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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #6 on: April 12, 2007, 03:49:07 AM »
I'd agree that fiction with an explicit moral is generally worse than fiction that doesn't try.  And yet, some of my favorite pieces are ones that have an obvious rhetorical motive.  Have you ever read "Harrison Bergeron" (sp)?  Or, "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas?"

In fact yes -- two of my favorite authors (edit: and sadly I just read http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/11/books/11cnd-vonnegut.html).

Le Guin presents the opposing viewpoint in all but the last two paragraphs of "Omelas," and that adequate inclusion of an alternate perspective is really all that I called for.  She does everything she can to present Omelas as a utopia, to the point where we can certainly imagine people choosing to stay.  I didn't say anything about an "explicit moral," although Le Guin never does have her narrator say "and the ones who walked away were good and the ones who stayed were bad," in the way someone like Rand might have.

Vonnegut doesn't explicitly state his moral, either; but you're right, it is an example of story that doesn't give any airtime to an opposing point of view.  I also think you're right in that the expectations are somewhat different in short fiction -- and also in satire.  I did write "generally considered bad fiction," because there are always exceptions.  I confess I was thinking more of novels, spurred on by talk of Rand and Goodkind.  At the same time, I do distinguish between whether or not I like a story of any sort and whether it is "good fiction," in the same manner you've been grappling with in some of your recent blog essays.  In this case, the questions might be  "in a story like this with an obvious rhetorical motive, how well is that motive conveyed and could the story actually convince anyone who wasn't already convinced?"  I think the lack of an opposing point of view does lessen "Harrison Bergeron" in both respects.  It may not be "bad" but neither is it as good as it might have been...good-bad fiction is a continuum, not a duality.

I don't think, by the way, that having an "explicit moral" is the same as having an "obvious rhetorical motive."  I dislike stories with a simple rhetorical motive, but the stories that have left the greatest mark on me are ones where I felt that the author considered their story important, vital.  Left Hand of Darkness is a good example of that.

MattD
« Last Edit: April 12, 2007, 01:19:58 PM by dreamking47 »
"It had blood in it.  That makes it a good metaphor." -- Tonk Fah, in EUOL's Warbreaker

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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #7 on: April 13, 2007, 04:21:18 PM »
I would agree that good fiction should present an opposing point of view. However, I've found that most fiction tends to only superficially address opposing viewpoints, which would not be permitted in philosophical inquiry. I really can't think of any works of fiction that really explore multiple view-point all with equal depth.
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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #8 on: April 13, 2007, 06:55:59 PM »
Omelas is an intriguing example to bring up, because it's one of the more complex "message" stories in all of sci-fi, and stubbornly resists any clear conclusion. Is the society good or bad? Were the ones who walked away rebellious or weak?It's open to a lot of different interpretations, instead of simply beating you over the head with an overt moral, which is what makes it so good.
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dreamking47

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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #9 on: April 13, 2007, 08:30:29 PM »
Omelas is an intriguing example to bring up, because it's one of the more complex "message" stories in all of sci-fi, and stubbornly resists any clear conclusion. Is the society good or bad? Were the ones who walked away rebellious or weak?It's open to a lot of different interpretations, instead of simply beating you over the head with an overt moral, which is what makes it so good.

Also, there are not just the explicit moral questions, but there is the issue of psychology which appears in a lot of Le Guin's work: the idea that people, when they reach puberty, agree to lock up their inner child, keep it malnourished in the dark, so that they can be part of what society defines as civilized, adult culture.  And then you look at what that culture is, and wonder about the connection between psychological and moral development.  I agree, it's good stuff!

I would agree that good fiction should present an opposing point of view. However, I've found that most fiction tends to only superficially address opposing viewpoints, which would not be permitted in philosophical inquiry. I really can't think of any works of fiction that really explore multiple view-point all with equal depth.

Most individual works of philosophy are written to make a point, too.  I don't remember Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx et al ever granting equal validity to the viewpoints they opposed.  One of the problems with the original quote is that it pits an individual book against all of "philosophical inquiry."  Philosophical inquiry (as a whole) would be more properly compared to literature (as a whole).

MattD
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Re: fiction, philosophy, and rhetoric
« Reply #10 on: April 14, 2007, 12:34:06 AM »
Most individual works of philosophy are written to make a point, too.  I don't remember Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx et al ever granting equal validity to the viewpoints they opposed.  One of the problems with the original quote is that it pits an individual book against all of "philosophical inquiry."  Philosophical inquiry (as a whole) would be more properly compared to literature (as a whole).

MattD

You're correct that individual works of philosophy by Nietzche, Hegel, Marx, et al... rarely grant validity to the opposing side. Maybe I'm misunderstanding something, but to me philosophical inquiry is a group activity where many individuals contribute thoughts to promote thinking and understanding. Thus, individual efforts would be hard pressed to really fullfill the criteria of philosophical inquiry. That does grant a lot of validity to the original quote. Philosophers go through the process of creating their philosophies by interacting with other people in the process of inquiry. Fiction doesn't necessarily follow that route.
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