Issues in Philosophy Plot as argument, argument as plot (Part 3)

Plot as argument, argument as plot (Part 3)

by Sara L. Uckelman

This is Part 3 of a 3-part series “Plot as argument, argument as plot”.  Part 1: How I Came to Write a Philosophical Novel is available here.  Part 2: What I Learned When I Wrote a Philosophical Novel is available here.

Structuring a Philosophical Novel

The things you need to know early on in a story are: who the protagonist is, why their story or their argument is important, and what their favored conclusion is. There are parallels here with your average philosophical paper, where you have the introduction which states the problem, something about why we should care, and the conclusion you are trying to go for. If you are like me, you have these sections in your philosophy paper, you write your paper, and then you go back and change the introduction because you ended up concluding something completely different from what you thought you were going to. But you always start off with an idea of what the problem is, why the reader should care, and what the conclusion is. In the context of a novel, this is transposed into who the main characters are, why you should care about them, and what they are trying to do. The difference with writing the philosophy paper as opposed to the novel is that you go back to your introduction in the paper and you make sure that this matches up with what you have actually done. In the novel, you don’t do that because you don’t want to give away the answer at the beginning. But you do need to give away some information as to what the characters are trying to do and where the story might be going, even if we don’t ultimately get there.

This difference between the philosophy paper, where you modify the introduction to match what you have done, and the novel, where you don’t, comes down, at least sometimes, to the presence of an unreliable narrator. In academic philosophy, you will see in many of the well-argued, strongly persuasive articles, that they are narrated from a 1st-person plural omniscient perspective, often containing the phrases: we know X, we do X, we prove X. The author and reader work in tandem with the argument. What is it that weakens a good argument in a philosophical paper? It is the presence of waffle words—“I suppose”, “It seems to me”, “It may be suggested”, “one might think”, “in my opinion”, all the things that we tell our students to strike out, because uncertainty undermines the argument. In fiction, though, often this uncertainty is crucial. When you have an omniscient narrator, truth with always win, given the definition of omniscience. But in fiction truth doesn’t always win, in part because we don’t necessarily always have this external perspective. If you are working with a very close point of view, you will only know what this character knows: what you have is always incomplete.

I want to say something about the questions, “why should I care (about this story or about these characters)?”. This is the parallel of the dreaded philosophical questions “why should I care about what you are doing in your conference talk?”, “why should I read this paper?”, “why does this matter?”. One of the most important things to do in your opening chapter is answer the questions: “why should I care about these characters and what they are doing?”, “why should I care about their conclusions?”, or “why is this a problem that needs to be solved?”. One of the most important aspects of structuring a philosophical paper is knowing what to give the reader when, knowing how to answer: “what can you assume that the reader already knows?”, “when do you give them motivation?”, “when do you give them argument?”, “when do you feed in pieces of information?” In my own work, I use contemporary modern logical techniques to look at medieval philosophical/logical treatises, and I try to take what is written in a semi-regimented Latin—but not as precise as you’d like—and construct a formal model which represents what the text says.  I always struggle. I always have to choose between the following: Do I give the formal model and then work through the medieval text, given that I will have all the techniques I need at hand, which will enable me to make all the distinctions that I need as I go and it is very clear? Or, do I introduce the medieval stuff informally, so that I have motivation for when I give the formal model, which will show why it makes sense that I have picked the formal model I have picked; however, I will have to go back and repeat myself, because I will be going over everything I said informally by saying it formally? This decision is a question of structure and a question of information that I face every time I am writing a paper. And, even when I am writing the same type of paper, there will always be the question anew as to which one of these structures will be the right one.

It is similar with novels: we need to convince the reader that we should care about these characters; we need to convince the reader that it is plausible to reach these conclusions. We do this by giving information about characters’ motivations and desires, but how do you do that? Do you info-dump in the first chapter, and give the entire life history of this person? In general, no. You need to figure out the right pacing, giving the readers the information they need to know about the characters, to understand why it is that they are reacting and interacting in the way that they do. I noticed when reading drafts of stories written by amateur writers, not yet published, is that you often get something like: heroine runs into a problem, and they happen to have this magic sword or skill that they need, and they get out of the problem. This is responding to an objection by twiddling with the parameters of your model, so that it now works against this objection. Someone would be quite right to come along and say: “that move is ad hoc, you just did that with your model so that you could counter this particular objection.” This is the same criticism you are getting in your story when someone says: “well, the only reason she can speak five languages is because she needs to speak to this particular stranger in her town.” There is a very easy way to get around that objection. Tell the reader three chapters earlier that the heroine speaks five languages because her parents had her educated in them, perhaps because this is the standard thing the heroines get in this town; or that this character happened to show linguistic aptitude. Have that piece, don’t get rid of it if this is what you need to counter an objection, keep it, but give it to the reader much earlier, so that when they come to it they can go: “oh yeah, I get it, that makes sense, I was told that earlier.” Introduce that piece earlier so that by the time that you need it, it’s not ad hoc. Any time that you are dropping a piece of information, ask: does the reader need to know this? A lot of the time they don’t. You need to know it as a writer, but you don’t need to tell it to the reader; rather, you need it to be reflected in the way the character acts. And if the reader does need to know it, do they need to know it now? Could they have known it earlier?

What else do you have to make clear, when you are writing a philosophical paper? You need to know which non-negotiable principles are in play. For example, the law of the excluded middle, the principle of non-contradiction, the existence of an external world. These are the things that you are not going to give arguments for. You are just going to take them for granted. You tell your reader: “if you reject the law of the excluded middle, this just isn’t the paper for you, go and read something else.” You need to know the following for the characters in your novel: what are the principles that your characters will never renege? Relationships with friends and family, their work, or their religious beliefs? When faced with an obstacle, that is, a counterargument, what will they be prepared to give up, and what will they hold on to even unto their destruction? Of course, these aren’t going to be shared by all the characters. Different characters are going to give up different principles in the face of a counterargument. This is how you can get an antagonist and a protagonist who start from the same point but end up with different conclusions. This is how you get the classical logicians and the paraconsistents. The paraconsistent is going to say “of these starting points, I am happy to give up the principle of non-contradiction—that doesn’t bother me.” The motivations and explications of what principles these people are going to give up when they are faced with essentially inconsistent beliefs need to be made clear as early on as possible. This is part of the motivation. This is part of the underpinning which will explain why and how a character will act.

What do you do when you get stuck? You have reached a point in your story and you don’t know what to do next. When I’m writing my philosophy papers and I have a bunch of ideas and thoughts and I’ve been reading these things and I don’t quite see where I want to go—I don’t quite know what my argument is, I know what my premises are but I don’t know what my conclusion is exactly—I stand in front of my whiteboard and I write down true things. I write down everything that I can think of that is relevant and true, facts that I have read, useful quotes. In the context of writing fantasy or speculative fiction you will have a bunch of world building that hasn’t made it into the story. Write it down. Don’t worry if they aren’t related. Just write down true things and leave that on your board for a couple of days. Look at it. Think about it. You will start to see some connections. You’ll see, to take one example, that because of this view about linguistics that I had, this manifests into a particular idea about naming, and this ties into this view of cartography that I have: because when we are making a map of something we are naming things. That is how linguistics and map-making come together.

The last thing that I want to say is: question everything. This is another philosophical skill that you should be utilizing in your philosophical writing which you can take wholesale into your fiction. Ask: “why does the character do this?”, “Is it in keeping with their goals and motivations?”, “Is it ad hoc?”, “Is it inconsistent?”, “Are they reacting in this way—anger, shock, disbelief, etc., simply to create drama?” These are internal questions, but you can also ask external questions about the choices you are making in writing a story: “why is this character male or female, cis, trans, gay, black, white?”

You are the author. You get to choose, so don’t just default to a male main character. I don’t want to read only about epic fantasies with male heroes any more. These choices are not meaningless and they are not harmless. The choices of representation in your stories and in your characters make a big difference. You have a lot of power as an author. Any time you fall back into a trope or a stereotype for reasons of expediency, you run into legitimate risks of harming. You always need to be asking yourself these sorts of questions. The presence of stereotypes in stories is a lot like the presence of intuitions in philosophy papers. They are—I hope I don’t offend too many people—the cheap way out. They are the lazy way: “I am just going to appeal to intuition.” Sometimes you need to have a starting point, such as: “I just have this gut feeling,” and then you follow up with “what if?”, but often our intuitions are very bad, or very misguided (even if sometimes they are good). Any time you rely on some sort of stereotype, for example, the damsel in distress, or defaulting to a particular type of western European character/setting, you are taking the easy way out. You are relying on intuition, in part because these stereotypes make it easier to write because they are so shared by your readers that you know that there are many things that they will bring to the story that they have taken from other stories. For example, when you are writing fantasy and you set it in a pseudo-medieval setting, everybody will bring with them the “knights in shining armor” mentality. It does allow you to make shortcuts and to make things easier, but we don’t want to write fiction because it is easy.

One of the best philosophical books I’ve read in recent years is Luca Castagnoli’s book Ancient Self-Refutation: The Logic and History of the Self-Refutation Argument from Democritus to Augustine. It is brilliant because it reads like a mystery. Instead of trying to figure out who the murderer is, we are trying to figure out what these arguments are. There are false trails and false leads, “maybe it is these,” but then it is not. By the time you get to the final chapters you are like: “I just want to know!” And when you finally get the answer, it is so satisfying. I think that more philosophy can be done like this. It is an adventure. Get your reader on board: “We are going to do this; we are going to start from this position.” “We are setting off into an uncharted, unknown.” “And in the end, we hope to have found pirate treasure.” This is what you want in a philosophical paper. It’s like: “hey come with me, we are going on this journey, and at the end, hopefully we will get something great. On the way, we will face obstacles and objections. People who are trying to prevent us from getting our goal. What is our goal? Why does it matter? What tools do we need? What are our weak suppositions? Who are we trying to co-opt?”

The first person you are trying to get on your side is your reader. They have to play their part in being receptive to your argument, but you must make every part of what you write sympathetic and believable. You need to believe in yourself. I often say to my students: I don’t care about reports of their mental states. I don’t want them to tell me what they think or what they feel or what seems to be the case. I want to know what is the case. And I want to know why they opine or think that this is the case. You get the reader on your side not only by persuading them that you care about the topic but also by persuading them that they should care about it too. You are convinced that you are in the right and you need to give all those reasons to the reader to convince them that you are in the right. Your readers are on the adventure with you, and so are people in the secondary literature: you can call upon the powers of the wizard David Lewis, and he is going to get you through the caves of Moria. He might die in the end, but you can take any of your weak spots and get other people in your adventure party to fill in those gaps. You need to start from the beginning with Gandalf along with you because you can’t just fly him in ad hoc at the last moment to get you through Moria. Pay attention to the bits you are going to need. Make sure you have fellow travelers at the beginning.  With every step, you take, be sure that every motivation feeds into a character’s actions, and that every action is directed at a goal. Then, any time that somebody acts you can ask “why did they do that?” and the answer will be “because these premises lead to this conclusion.”


At the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017, Dr. Sara L. Uckelman, the published speculative fiction writer and Lecturer in Logic and Philosophy of Language at Durham University, was invited to speak about “Plot as argument, argument as plot”.  Her presentation has been adapted into a three-part series, with permission, and was transcribed and edited by Nathan Davies.  This is Part 3.  Part 1: How I came to write a philosophical novel is available here. Part 2: What I Learned When I Wrote a Philosophical Novel is available here.


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