Monday, July 16, 2018

Reconsidering Philo-Fiction

Some years ago the philosopher Terence Blake raised the question of "philo-fiction," fiction which uses philosophy the way science fiction uses science, and whether we might see it come into its own as a genre. Of course, that raises the question of what we mean by "philosophy." My initial thought was that philo-fiction as he used the term (fiction where the fundamental rules of the universe differed so deeply from our own) could be thought of a subset of science fiction, and so, perhaps.

My answer's changed since then. Fiction dependent on such a radical difference, it seems to me, is so demanding for the writer, and the reader, that it could probably never be very prolific--so that while we probably will keep seeing people try their hand at it every now and then, I don't think I could see it becoming a full-blown genre, certainly not on the scale that science fiction has at its peak.

However, I have also found myself thinking about the matter of philo-fiction another way, because I find myself ever less satisfied with the way we delineate "philosophy." After all, all intellectual investigation was known by that name, once. However, what happened was that proponents of a particular philosophical approach--old-fashioned induction and deduction, applied in a materialist, empirical way--was formalized by figures like Francis Bacon into the scientific method, after which it was known not as "philosophy" anymore, but a separate enterprise. This has in fact gone so far that many, maybe even most, of today's scientists actually have little intellectual grasp of the premises of their life's work.

So has it also gone with investigation of the social world. Studying International Relations in college we were exposed to a considerable amount of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Hegel, St.-Simon, Marx. In time the IR student (especially if they go past the B.A. level) is expected to read at least some of the actual texts deemed more important, which amount to a healthy chunk of the philosophical canon. Yet one is unlikely to read anyone labeled a "philosopher" from after the mid-nineteenth century, not because people stopped doing philosophy relevant to the subject, but because the labeling of those philosophers of obvious and direct relevance to the field changed to "economist" or "sociologist," "political scientist" or "social scientist," because of their use of a particular epistemological approach now labeled not "philosophy," but the science held to be a very different thing.

Now we use "philosophy" to denote inquiry into epistemology and ethics and little else, just those things that "we haven't learned to treat scientifically yet," with the invidious comparison between the rigorous applier of the scientific method and the fuzzy, verbal, non-quantitative folks with the ever-smaller turf not at all subtle.1 I remember, for instance, a scene in Robert Sawyer's book Flashforward where his protagonist Lloyd Simcoe reacts contemptuously to a philosophy professor's remark on the titular event, which seems worth citing here.
Lloyd . . . found himself crumpling up the newspaper page and throwing it across his office. A philosophy professor! . . . Lloyd sighed. Couldn't they have gotten a scientist to address this issue? Someone who understands what really constitutes evidence? A philosophy professor. Give me a fucking break.
While I won't claim infallibility on this point, to my knowledge no one has remarked the scene in a significant and public way--and it does not strain credulity that they have not, because this attitude seems so commonplace. But perhaps that is one reason why it seems to me all the more important to argue that despite the relabeling, science did not stop being philosophy--perhaps the more so because of how invidious the comparisons between philosophy and science can get. Accordingly we may regard speculative fiction depicting or extrapolating from or simply playing with the theories, practice, knowledge gained by the sciences as "philo-fiction." Even if in deference to the irrationality of prevailing usages we only regard fiction which is more narrowly interested in epistemology or ethics as philo-fiction, then science fiction has been doing that too, concerned with what we can know and how, and what we ought to do about it, can go by that name as well, at times more recognizable than others, but by any plausible measure never rare or marginal, and by this point quite prolific. (I certainly would not deny that Isaac Asimov, in those early Robot stories, was dealing with philosophy, in "philo-fiction," even as he was producing some of what we think of as the hardest of hard Campbellian science fiction.) In fact, I will go further and say that, in this sense at least, science fiction has simply been philo-fiction all along.

1. I find myself thinking of other eighteenth century terms similarly narrowed--and impoverished. Take, for example, "manners," which has been reduced from culture to etiquette, or "education," which rather than a whole upbringing seems to mean formal academic training and that alone.

Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry


Terence Blake said...

Hello Nader. I agree with you that the philosophical dimension of sf was there from the beginning, and that it is present even in the seemingly exclusively "hard" sf works. Last year I read a book by Jean-Clet Martin that goes even further, and finds that the speculative element of sf can best be described in terms of the categories of Hegel's logic. The title is LOGIQUE DE LA SCIENCE FICTION: De Hegel à Philip K. Dick. He argues that Asimov was influenced by Hegel's philosophy of history and that many sf authors were influenced by Hegel's logic either directly or indirectly via Korzybski's non-Aristotelian logic and its explicit sf use by A.E. van Vogt. Independently of the specific reference to Hegel, Martin does a good job of showing how an exploration of very general concepts such as Being and Nothing, Contingence and Necessity, Difference and Repetition, etc. has always been a fundamental part of sf and of its appeal.

Nader said...

Hi Terence. Thank you for your comment. Not having seen Martin's book yet I can't speak to its argument, but it does seem worth checking out.

Nader said...

In the meantime, however, I would guess that the Hegelian element in Asimov is to be found in the Robot tales (rather than, for example, the Foundation novels).

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