Monday, May 18, 2020

Dispute Concerning Science Fiction, Philosophy, and the Nutritional Content of Maraschino Cherries

Helen De Cruz, Johan De Smedt, and Eric Schwitzgebel

forthcoming introduction to Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories

“—this dialogue, for example,” said Johan, folding his arms, gazing across the table in the hotel bar at the meeting of the American Philosophical Association. “It didn’t even happen. Fictional philosophical dialogue is out of fashion for excellent reason.”

“But that’s the beauty of it!” replied Eric, looking slightly hurt. His imaginary cocktail was bright pink, with three cherries and an umbrella.

“No one will believe it. What’s the point? It’s a waste of time. If you’re doing philosophy, just lay it out straight. Say what you want to say. Don’t decorate it with fiction.” Johan pointed accusingly at Eric’s cocktail. “I mean, why an umbrella? It’s silly froufrou.”

“It’s cute!” said Helen, who you didn’t picture until just now, but who had been sitting at the imaginary table all along. “It enhances the mood. It adds color. Even if strictly speaking it has no nutritional content, its vivid turquoise complements the pink and red of drink and cherry. Fiction dresses an idea, invites you to engage with that idea, makes it attractive in a certain sort of way.”

“The wrong sort of way!” said Johan.

“Fiction is the very flesh on the bones, not decoration,” said Eric.

“Imagine a man who is explicitly sexist,” said Helen. “He is committed to patriarchy, thinks that women should only have certain roles. They should only be mothers and homemakers. Now give him a story to read. Tell it from a woman’s point of view. Make it some future dystopia where women are oppressed in a way that even he would say is bad. Get him to sympathize with those fictional women, really feeling their plight. Tell the story vividly, emotionally, with depth and detail over three hundred pages.[1] When he pokes his head back up out of the story, maybe he’ll see the world a little differently. Maybe he’ll have a little more sympathy for women in oppressive systems. Maybe he’ll see similarities between the exaggerated situation in the fiction and the experiences of women in his own society, and maybe he’ll be a tiny bit more open to change. He’ll have shifted a little, philosophically, in his view of the world. That’s the kind of work philosophical fiction can do.”

Johan looked around the bar. For a long time, academic philosophy in Europe and North America had been almost exclusively the province of white men, and—since what is not made explicit in fiction conforms to the reader’s beliefs about the actual world[2]—it still showed in the demographics of the discipline[3] in this imaginary hotel. Aristotle, Kant, and Locke could probably have benefited from imaginative exercises like the one Helen was describing.[4] And yet … “that’s not really philosophy, exactly, I’d say.” Johan paused, seeming to gauge Helen. “Philosophy is about rational argumentation. Of course, things other than rational argumentation can change your worldview. Even listening to a great piece of music, such as Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony[5], can be emotionally profound. It can fill you with awe just by its very sound, with no rational content at all. And maybe, in the right circumstances, it could color your future perspective. But that wouldn’t make Beethoven a philosopher or his symphonies philosophical works.”

“If the work explores or promotes a worldview,” said Eric, “I don’t see why we shouldn’t call it philosophical.” He pierced a maraschino cherry with the stem of the umbrella, then lifted it to eye level. “Now suppose that the intent of this cocktail,[6] in its pink and turquoise flamboyance, is to celebrate life’s capacity to delight us with sweet, luxurious, unapologetic indulgence. The manager highlights this drink on the cocktail list with that very intent, and knowing that intention, the bartender mixes and presents it. This cocktail , then, is itself an act of philosophy, even if certain dowdy no-funners are unable to appreciate it.” With one finger, Eric flicked the cherry off the umbrella, high into the air, aiming to catch it in his mouth on its downward arc. The cherry struck him on the chin, then bounced to the floor. The bartender, who in mixing the cocktail had no such intentions as Eric described, glanced critically in their direction.

Helen stooped to retrieve the cherry, then set it on a napkin in front of her. “So, we can drink philosophy as well as read it, Eric? Should we invite the bartender to give a colloquium talk?”

Eric lifted his cocktail. “That would be awesome! But of course she will need to perform in her accustomed liquid medium.”[7]

“Argument by cocktail? I wouldn’t go as far as that,” Helen said, gazing absently at the hotel’s logo on the crumpled napkin. “But maybe a great painting can express a philosophical idea more vividly and effectively than an expository essay. Take Picasso’s Guernica—such an austere, quasi-monochrome study in the horrors of war.[8] A few days ago, I was in a museum and saw a painting by, I think, a French painter, of glossy horses standing in the shade and bedraggled donkeys standing in the glaring sun.[9] It showed how they kept those animals for hire, but clearly it was also a social commentary. Its basic content was kind of obvious and simple—but it was political philosophy. And maybe it would reach people better than an essay. I imagine some aristocrat contemplating the painting, pitying the donkeys. Maybe later, as he’s rolling along in a lovely carriage, he sees someone selling apples in the bleaching sun and thinks “What are we doing? We’re treating people as badly as those donkeys!” It’s not like he couldn’t get similar ideas from prose and think the same thing non-metaphorically, but the vividness of the metaphor hooks him in, leads him along, makes the idea salient and emotional and memorable in a way it wouldn’t otherwise be.”

“But, Helen,” groaned Johan, “now everything will become philosophy. You can’t sustain the compromise position you want. Every work of fiction, implicitly or explicitly, critiques or celebrates a worldview. The main characters have ideals and values, they make life choices, and by portraying these sympathetically or unsympathetically, and by showing us how those values and choices play out in the story, the fiction nudges us toward a worldview. But surely, we don’t want to say that all fiction is philosophy. And it isn’t just fiction. All movies and TV shows, all lyrical songs, and maybe all songs of any sort—maybe even architecture and fashion and product design. If you say that painting is philosophy, lots of things risk becoming philosophy, until you end in the inanity of turquoise-umbrella cocktail philosophy. Eric’s ability to appreciate the cocktail in phenomenological terms does not turn the bartender into a phenomenologist. Where do you stop?”

“Why stop?” said Eric. “I rather like the idea that everything you do is implicit philosophy. Every choice you make manifests your worldview. Every public act is a kind of advertisement for a way of being. We are all always philosophers. Why does philosophy need to be some rarified, privileged activity?”

... the dialogue continues here.



[1] Atwood, M. (1985). The handmaid’s tale. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

[2] Lewis, D. (1978). Truth in fiction. American Philosophical Quarterly, 15(1), 37-46.

[3] See e.g., Wilhelm, I., Conklin, S. L., & Hassoun, N. (2018). New data on the representation of women in philosophy journals: 2004–2015. Philosophical Studies, 175(6), 1441-1464; Schwitzgebel, E., & Jennings, C. D. (2017). Women in philosophy: Quantitative analyses of specialization, prevalence, visibility, and generational change. Public Affairs Quarterly, 31(2), 83-106; Botts, T. F., Bright, L. K., Cherry, M., Mallarangeng, G., & Spencer, Q. (2014). What is the state of blacks in philosophy? Critical Philosophy of Race, 2(2), 224-242.

[4] Van Norden, B.W. (2017). Taking back philosophy. A multicultural manifesto. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5] van Beethoven, L. (1812). Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93. The work can be heard here:

[6] On the philosophy of cocktails, see e.g., Bakewell, S. (2016). At the existentialist café. Freedom, being, and apricot cocktails. London: Vintage.

[7] Schwitzgebel, E. (2020). A theory of jerks and other philosophical misadventures. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, chapter 50, The philosopher of hair.

[8] Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. s.v. "Guernica (Picasso)" (accessed August 10, 2019).

[9] Actually, Joseph Stevens is a Belgian painter. We apologize for embarrassing fictional Helen in this way. The work is linked here:

[image source]


  1. "When he pokes his head back up out of the story, maybe he’ll see the world a little differently." we've run this experiment many times in public schools here in the US and there is no evidence that reading has this kind of impact, and why should it? the skills to deal with flesh and blood people aren't the same skills required to read on the page characters, we don't don't confuse the too any more then we jump out of the way of trains coming 'at us' on a movie screen...

  2. Anon: I could see the empirical evidence going either way on this, but I don't know the K-12 literature. What do you think is the best work showing that this sort of thing has no impact?

  3. The full version comes to a disagreement over which of general principles or particular cases are the real thing of importance and which is a crutch for sorting out the other. That seems like a false dichotomy to me. Our commitments include both general principles and judgments about particular cases, and the insight of reflective equilibrium is that philosophy often involves reconciling the two.

  4. Anonymous: I would also be interested in the evidence that this has no impact. But taking what you're saying at face value, it seems like you're saying that fiction can't have any impact on the way people think, because they know that it's fiction, and that can't possibly be right. Books like "The Jungle" or "Uncle Tom's Cabin" were works of fiction, but they certainly drew attention to certain issues, and influenced the way people thought about things.

    I'm not familiar with the K-12 literature, but I've seen results in college physics education literature showing that even for objective physics problems, the "irrelevant" details of how the problem is presented can affect how students answer the question. e.g. "Dropping two basketballs, without air resistance. . ." and "Dropping two dolls, without air resistance. . ." get different answers from students. (And impact different genders of students differently.)

  5. Magnus, with you permission I extend your comment '...the insight of reflective equilibrium is that philosophy often involves reconciling the two'..."or three or more"...

    Is philosophy mediation...part of our brains used by our minds...

    That mediation is a value to our lives akin to evolution is a value of our planet ...

  6. Check out this article by Esther Jones (Associate Professor of English): “Science fiction builds mental resiliency in young readers” at:

    From the article:

    Young people who are “hooked” on watching fantasy or reading science fiction may be on to something. Contrary to a common misperception that reading this genre is an unworthy practice, reading science fiction and fantasy may help young people cope, especially with the stress and anxiety of living through the COVID-19 pandemic.


    But the critical thinking and agile habits of mind prompted by this type of literature may actually produce resilience and creativity that everyday life and reality typically do not.

  7. This is a kind of summary of the dialogue? H is Helen, J is John, E is Eric.

    I have no idea what this really is, or why I did it, or whether this will be useful to anyone (even me). I decided to post it anyway. Cheers!

    a. value-generating efficiency of philosophers is high in the market of discussions
    b. philosophers have stopped discussions via fiction
    c. J1a and J1b implies value requires reality

    a. no to J1b

    a. efficient is better
    b. decorations are inefficient

    a. no to J2b
    b. fiction is decoration
    c. decorations are attractive
    d. attraction is important

    a. no to H1d
    b. all attraction is distraction

    a. no to H1b
    b. fiction is contentful

    a. no to J3b
    b. refutation of forall with example

    a. persuasion is not necc philosophy
    b. existence proof with example

    a. no to J4a,b
    b. promotion of a worldview is philosophy

    a. no to E3b
    b. philosophers must be able to give a talk?

    a. no to H3b
    b. philosopher must be able to communicate in some medium

    a. no to E4b
    b. in some mediums, philosophers must be able to communicate

    a. H4b = E4b ?
    b. everything is philosophy
    c. absurd

    a. no to J5c

    a. no to E5a
    b. empty set is as informative as full set
    c. philosophy requires argument

    a. no to J6c
    b. refutation by example (Wittgenstein, Confucius, Thales)

    a. no to H5b

    a. no to J3b [lolwat?!]
    b. refutation by example (trolley problem)

    a. no to H6b
    b. refutation by example (it's comical; comical is distracting)

    a. humans need stories

    a. yes to H7a
    b. don't rely on stories
    c. ...because framing effects

    a. abstractions come from concrete
    b. comedy comes from too little concretization

    a. no to E6

    a. J is a fiction

    a. J is contentful

    a. fiction can mess with J's content

    a. yes to H9a
    b. strawmanning is bad

    a. uncertainty can be useful

  8. S -- I love it! I do think this gets at a lot of basic structure of the exchange. Of course, it's still an abstraction, so "Eric" might not entirely approve. ;-)

  9. Eric: Yes, I wanted to say exactly that: It's how John might have written this paper! I'm really glad you didn't hate it.