Even with limited options, nevertheless, we can change

Charlie Jane Anders’ writing craft book Never Say You Can’t Survive isn’t a philosophy book, except that, well, take a look at this. Here, she talks about how characters can change. As writers and readers, we view their fictional world from the outside, and we also see that they have free will. Maybe we see things about the characters that they aren’t aware of about themselves. When the character has fewer options, they — and we — might perceive their situation as worsening. Still, despite their limited options, the character can change. Almost always, a breakthough is possible.

Here are three brief passages from the book:

“Fiction can work all kinds of magic during horrendous times: inspire us to resist evil, expose the reality of the world, create empathy, and help us to understand complex systems from a vantage point that could be hard to reach in nonfiction. But the most powerful thing that fiction can do is show that people can change, and that we all have the potential to be different. That’s where I get a lot of my hope when everything around me feels hopeless.

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Almost every story is some mix of character stuff and plot stuff, and the mix can vary from page to page and chapter to chapter. Character is action: people aren’t just a collection of feeling and opinions and habits, but rather the sum total of all the choices they take. Meanwhile, even the plottiest plotfest needs to have characters who we root for, or else none of the secret codes and countdowns will matter worth a damn.

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I increasingly find it helpful to think in terms of ‘options become constrained,’ rather than ‘things get worse.’ It’s not so much that the situation deteriorates — it’s more like doors are slamming shut, and the protagonists have fewer and fewer courses of action open to them.”

— Charlie Jane Anders, Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories, Tordotcom (2021), Chapters 8, 9, 10

I appreciate philosophy wherever and in whatever format it appears.

Moll Flanders and the Gettier problem

Moll Flanders is an early 18th-century novel written by Daniel Defoe. Moll is a fictional character whose famous conundrum is her discovery that she has accidentally married her own biological brother.

The “Gettier problem” is an epistemological question raised by Edmund Gettier in a 1963 paper, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?”, in which he questioned a traditional definition of knowledge—a justified true belief—as insufficient. Gettier died earlier this year in 2021. I have described the philosophical problem in a separate article. To present it generally: Gettier pointed out that, when we have reason to believe a certain proposition, sometimes we formulate a vague statement about it, and the vague statement may well turn out to be true, but for a different reason than we originally assumed. For example, if I say, “Don’t worry about the utility bill on the table; it’ll be affordable, and it isn’t due until the end of the month,” and I say this because I am thinking about the electric bill, whereas the utility bill on the table is actually the phone bill, then arguably my statement about the utility bill on the table is not an example of my own “knowledge.” My statement, which was justified for the electric bill, might also be true for the phone bill: that bill, too, is affordable and isn’t due until the end of the month, and therefore we don’t need to worry about the bill. But I was “correct” only due to a happy coincidence. Although I presented a justified true belief, something went awry in my justification, and therefore I didn’t know what I was talking about. This distinction between knowledge and non-knowledge feels intuitive. But why? By what definition of knowledge can I be described as not having known? This is the Gettier problem. It is a problem for the definition of knowledge.

In this blog post, I propose that Moll Flanders suffers the Gettier problem.

Moll’s problem

In Defoe’s 1722 novel, the narrator, Moll, is born to an inmate of London’s Newgate Prison. Moll grows up not knowing her biological mother. Raised by someone else, she is poor and becomes a household servant. Eventually, Moll begins to enjoy a fairly happy life with her third husband. She is pregnant with her third child by him when she realizes that her husband’s mother is her own long-lost biological mother. Moll has, therefore, married her own brother.

This is how Moll tells her story. For emphasis, I have put the family terms mother-in-law, mother, daughter, husband, brother in bold type. At the end, I have also emphasized Moll’s insistence that this is a new discovery for her: she had “known nothing” of her husband’s preexisting family relationship to her.

“We lived here all together, my mother-in-law, at my entreaty, continuing in the house, for she was too kind a mother to be parted with; my husband likewise continued the same as at first, and I thought myself the happiest creature alive, when an odd and surprising event put an end to all that felicity in a moment, and rendered my condition the most uncomfortable, if not the most miserable, in the world.

My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman—I may call her old woman, for her son was above thirty…

…with a great deal of good-humoured confidence she told me she was one of the second sort of inhabitants [of Newgate] herself.

my mother, smiling, said, ‘You need not think a thing strange, daughter…’

Here she went on with her own story so long, and in so particular a manner, that I began to be very uneasy; but coming to one particular that required telling her name, I thought I should have sunk down in the place.

…this was certainly no more or less than my own mother, and I had now had two children, and was big with another by my own brother, and lay with him still every night.

I was now the most unhappy of all women in the world. Oh! had the story never been told me, all had been well; it had been no crime to have lain with my husband, since as to his being my relation I had known nothing of it.

—Daniel Defoe, ‘Moll Flanders’

It seems that Moll frets that her marriage may be invalid. Her marriage is, she says, a “crime.” She acknowledges that she is committing “open avowed incest and whoredom” despite maintaining “the appearance of an honest wife.” In Moll’s estimation, it isn’t possible for the same woman to have biologically mothered both Moll and Moll’s husband; the same woman can’t be her “mother” and “mother-in-law.” She means this at least legally, as she eventually tells her husband that she is “not your lawful wife” and their children are “not legal children.” If this woman indeed gave birth to a girl and a boy, a subsequent “marriage” between those two siblings would be invalid and no marriage at all. She may mean it religiously and in a broader ontological way, too.

Here is the situation, quite simply:

Before the big revelation, Moll and her mother-in-law sometimes call each other “mother” and “daughter.” These are terms of endearment, and they are also, in a sense, true, since to be a mother-in-law or a daughter-in-law is to be a specific type of mother or daughter. Thus, for Moll to say “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman” is a justified true belief.

After the revelation that her mother-in-law is the same person who gave birth to her, Moll reflects that “this was certainly no more or less than my own mother.” This relationship of “mother” takes on new meaning. Though it did not bother her before, it bothers her now. She insists: “I had known nothing of it.”

In other words, when Moll says, “My mother was a mighty cheerful, good-humoured old woman,” implying but crucially omitting the detail of “mother-in-law,” she did not know what she was talking about. The woman is not Moll’s mother-in-law, because Moll’s marriage is invalid. The woman is only Moll’s mother. Moll’s original statement remains true only if we shift the meaning of the phrase “my mother” and alter the reasoning behind its use.

Moll’s justified true belief wasn’t knowledge. This is the Gettier problem.

Island NO. 2

Years ago now Malaspina College created a literary magazine called simply “ISLAND”. The early ones were edited by two poets, John Marshall and Stephen Guppy. Over time several more Canadian writers offered poems and short stories for publication.

Because Bob was the Managing Editor I have chosen one of his poems from the second issue to share with you here. (with his permission)

No longer in print, copies are available at VIU’s library and at UBC’s library.

The team spent many hours working on the magazine – often at the Occidental.

 

Eric Schwitzgebel has a pleasingly liberal view of what constitutes philosophy. A philosopher is anyone wrestling with the “biggest picture framing issues” of… well, anything.

In a keynote session at the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop that was held at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Schwitzgebel, Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, shared his advice–which he stated would be both practical and impractical.

Check it out here.

Philosophy and fiction

Short Story Competition: Philosophy Through Fiction

We are inviting submissions for the short story competition “Philosophy Through Fiction”, organized by Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes University), with editorial board members Eric Schwitzgebel (UC Riverside), Meghan Sullivan (University of Notre Dame), and Mark Silcox (University of Central Oklahoma). The winner of the competition will receive a cash prize of US$500 (funded by the Berry Fund of the APA) and their story will be published in Sci Phi Journal.

Rationale

As philosophers, we frequently tell stories in the form of brief thought experiments. In the past and today, philosophers have also written longer, richer stories. Famous examples include Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Fiction allows us to explore ideas that cannot be easily dealt with in the format of a journal article or monograph, and helps us to reach a broader audience, as the enduring popularity of philosophical novels shows. The aim of this competition is to encourage philosophers to use fiction to explore philosophical ideas, thereby broadening our scope and toolkit.

Eligibility

Short stories that are eligible for this competition must be some form of speculative fiction (this includes, but is not limited to, science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternative history, or magical realism), and must explore one or more philosophical ideas. These can be implicit; there is no restriction on which philosophical ideas you explore.

The story should be unpublished, which means it should not have appeared in a magazine, edited collection, or other venue. It should not be published on an author’s personal website or similar online venue either, at least from the time of submission until the editorial board’s decision, or – if it is published – at least six months after its publication in Sci Phi Journal. (This is a common publishing norm in speculative fiction.)

The competition is open to everyone, regardless of geographic location, career stage, age, or specialization. In other words, it is also open to, e.g., (graduate) students and philosophers outside of academia. We encourage philosophers who are new at writing fiction. Submissions should be at least 1,000 words and no longer than 7,500 words.

The submission should be accompanied by a brief “Food for Thought” section (maximum word count: 500, not part of the overall word count), where the author explains the philosophical ideas behind the piece. Examples of such Food for Thought sections appear at the end of these stories: Unalienable Right by Leenna Naidoo and Immortality Serum by Michaele Jordan.  Evaluation of the quality of the Food for Thought sections will be an important part of the process.  There’s a 500 word cap on this section, so please feel free to write something more substantive than what you see in the two examples.

Dates

The deadline for this competition is February 1, 2017. The winner will be announced by March 31, 2017. The winning story will appear in the following issue of Sci Phi Journal.

Submission requirements

Please submit your story to philosophythroughfiction@gmail.com. You can use the same e-mail address for queries.

Your story should be anonymized, i.e.,contain no name or other form of identification. It should have a distinct title (not “philosophy story submission” but e.g., “The Icy Labyrinth”), and it should be at least in a 12-point clearly legible font. The file format should be doc, docx or rtf. Please use the subject line “submission for short story competition” for your e-mail. Attach the story (the filename should be an abbreviated form of your story title, e.g. “labyrinth.rtf”) to the e-mail. The Food for Thought section should be at the bottom of the same document, with a separate header “Food for Thought”. Please include word counts for both the story and the Food for Thought at the top of the document.

Place your full name, institutional affiliation or home address and the full title of your story in the body of the e-mail. We cannot accept submissions past the deadline of 1 February 2017.

We are planning to publish an edited volume of invited speculative fiction philosophy stories. Strong pieces entered into the competition may be considered for this volume. If you do not want your submission to be considered for this volume, please state this explicitly in the body of your e-mail. In the absence of this, we will assume you agree that your story is simultaneously considered for the competition and the volume.

Review process

All stories will first be vetted for basic quality by a team of readers at Sci Phi Journal. Stories that pass this first stage will be sent in anonymized format to a board of reviewers who will select the winning story. The reviewers will examine how effectively the stories explore philosophical ideas. By entering the competition you agree that their decision is final.

Funding

This story competition is supported by a grant from the American Philosophical Association’s Berry Fund for Public Philosophy, and is hosted at Oxford Brookes University.

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Story – Part 3

Tell Me a Story (about how Strawson gets it wrong about stories)

By Mitchell Aboulafia on September 12, 2015 • ( 2 ) Source
Once upon a time I was having dinner at the home of a colleague, a professional philosopher. The conversation took an intriguing turn when my colleague revealed that he had virtually no visual memory. Of course I had known that people remember things and events with varying degrees of vivacity and in different ways. Some folks remember conversations by hearing the voices of the participants. Others focus on the ideas, moods, or visual images. Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear that my colleague could not recollect common objects, except in an almost abstract form. So, for example, if he tried to recall a Coca Cola bottle, the best he could do is see an outline of the shape, a sort of stick figure version of a bottle. My colleague had no trouble remembering ideas, events, dates, places, etc. He just couldn’t visualize (very well).

Read this response here.