Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Philosophical Fictions

"The primitive forms of our language: noun, adjective and verb, show the simple picture into whose forms language tries to force everything." Wittgenstein

"to language, then - to language alone - it is, that fictitious entities owe their existence, their impossible, yet indispensible existence." Jeremy Bentham.

Because language is the cause and underwriter of embedded fictions, because it has clamped reality into its shapes without us really noticing, the imperative for the philosopher is to create counter-fictions. Wittgenstein:
Nothing is more important than the construction of fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.

We need to look at the problem afresh, as it were from a different angle. In fact, this is all that we need in philosophy; we do not need a new discovery...a new explanation...[or] a new theory; what we need is a new perspective, a new metaphor, a new picture.

This is not so far removed from literature’s starting point, as Proust defines it:
“If God the Father created things by naming them, it is by taking away their names or giving them others that the artist recreates them.”

The task is to make the world available in a new way, to take what is recognizable and disgorge from within it something radically unfamiliar, counter-intuitive, problematic.. but truer.

The writer, in creating something new, necessarily reinvents language. And to create is also to pervert or destroy the old forms. The philosopher, in thinking something new, must brush against the available linguistic forms in order to show the sleeping concepts folded inside them. Hence, in twentieth century philosophy, the proliferation of philosophical neologisms, the experimentation with aphoristic and parabolic means of expression. Or Wittgenstein’s insistence on the production of ‘fictional concepts’ that will also make visible those older concepts that have so saturated our thinking that they appear to be merely the map which the world has drawn of itself. More recently Daniel Dennett has tried to drag into the open the embedded figures - of the homunculus, the Cartesian Theatre etc which so profoundly steer our thinking about consciousness. 
This project of defamiliarisation, linguistic innovation and the production of fictions is perhaps a rather modern image not only of what literature is about but also of what philosophical activity is about. Plato wouldn’t have thought of himself doing this. And yet Plato’s Forms, from our point of view, are precisely such fictions, able to empty reality of its plenitude and create a frame through which certain problems can be seen as if for the first time – in Plato’s case, the problem of the particular and the universal, repetition, simulation etc. And contemporary philosophers still use the Platonic frame to gain first vantage on these problems.

Eventually, philosophical systems or ideas are emptied of their truth and their urgency. For nobody today is there a debate on whether there are Forms or Monads. Yet we can still marvel at the force of such fictions – they remain, precisely, fictional concepts, which will teach us at last to understand our own.


  1. The world out there is a messy place. Fictional models with circumscribed parameters (simple variables, coherent set of combinatory principles, most elegant rule structure, etc.) make it easier for us to understand. But the perennial question for philosophy is whether we are understanding our fictional models of the world or the world(s) they are supposed to be modeling.

    At the risk of being self-serving, I invite you here (where piccolo is assiduously followed):

  2. Thank you. What you say also reminded me of Wittgenstein's oft quoted: "“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Unless we've identified the fictional frame and its limits we just end up redrawing it when we think we're examining the actual landscape.