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Philosophy of Fiction

Module Code: PI3016

Module Name: Philosophy of Fiction

  • ECTS Weighting: 10
  • Semester/Term Taught: Michaelmas Term
  • Contact Hours: 22 hours of lecture
  • Module Personnel: Lecturer - Dr. Paal Antonsen

Module Content

Reflecting on our ordinary practice of engaging with fictions quickly leads to conundrums. In this course we will tackle three issues that emerge, drawing on examples from literature, comics, video games, movies, and theatre plays. Here are the main questions we will pursue:

Part I Semantics
'Kaiden is on Mars,' Clara says to her little brother. Of course Kaiden isn's actually. In fact he is nowhere in the whole universe, Mars or otherwise. Kaiden is a fictional character from the video game series Mass Effect. But, given that Clara made her utterance in a discourse about that fiction, she may intuitively have said something true. Can we make sense of the idea that sentences can be true because of how things are with respect to some fiction? How should we provide the semantics for sentences uttered in fiction discourse?

Part II Emotions
Legend has it that Aeschylus' tragedies were so horrific that women in the audience would spontaneously miscarry. It is doubtful that this has happened to you, but fictions do affect our emotions. We are frightened by the murderer hiding in the dark; we cry when our favourite characters suffer hardships; we rejoice when things go their way. Thousands, maybe millions, have crushes on various fictional characters from films and video games - many of them even have their own fan clubs. How can fiction move us to tears, frighten us, or make us happy, when we know that the events occuring in the fiction didn't actually happen?

Part III Epistemology
In an interview Noam Chomsky speculated that maybe the sciences will never develop to the point that we can learn more about human psychology from them than from literature. It's obvious enough that fictions can affect us emotionally, but how can we learn anything from them? How can fictions be a source, or transmitter, of knowledge? If they can at all, it's not straightforward. We don't acquire any knowledge by reading that a young boy named Pip was born of a smith, helped a fugitive, and in the end melted the heart of a girl bent on humiliating male suitors. None of that happened, so trivially we cannot know that it happened. What kind of knowledge, then, could we possibly gain by reading Dickens' Great Expectations?

Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module, students will be able to:

  • provide different analyses of the semantics of sentences uttered in discussions about fiction;
  • assess the philosophical significance of the psychological literature on fiction;
  • discuss fictions from a philosophical point of view, in particular the epistemological and metaphysical status of fictions.