Why A Modern Fiction Writer Should Read Philosophical Dialogues

It's not likely that many of us spend much time reading Plato. But if you are serious about writing quality fiction, you should take the time to learn from great writers of philosophical dialogue. Here are three ways reading philosophical dialogue can improve your writing.

60 Second Philosophy

While it has gone out of vogue in recent centuries, philosophical dialogue was once a very popular genre within the realm of philosophy. Some famous examples of philosophical dialogues include The Republic by Plato and Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous by George Berkeley- you should read them! If you have little experience with this genre, you might be surprised to learn that they are almost all entirely fictional. As works of fiction, philosophical dialogues are replete with useful examples for modern day writers to incorporate into their own fiction.

What is a philosophical dialogue?


At its core, a philosophical dialogue is a written discussion between two or more individuals on matters of philosophy (philo- love / sophia- wisdom). These discussions can range in topics from love to politics to whether one should take pleasure in scratching an itch. But rather than just writing a long essay on these matters, authors of philosophical dialogues present them as an interplay between personalities. In Plato’s dialogues especially, the characters have their own personalities, objectives and backstories that influence the stance they take in the discussion.

Dialogues are unique in fiction in that the ideas take center stage. There is a plot in philosophical dialogue, but that plot is advanced though the development of ideas rather than the actions of the characters. Even so, philosophical dialogues are far from boring. Just to take a sampling from Plato’s work, they contain jokes, death threats, seductions, executions, jailbreaks and more.

Three Reasons to Study Philosophical Dialogue


First, the genre offers great insights into crafting a narrative with limited resources. The writer of dialogue cannot spend much page space expositing character, setting or movement. Still, these elements are critical and are interwoven winsomely in the speeches of the characters. Plato’s dialogues capture this phenomenon well. We learn about the person through the words they speak, and we interpret the words they speak through what we know about the person. This cycle of interpretation and character development is a worthy study for those seeking to improve their own writing.

Second, philosophical dialogue can help us understand plot in a new way. Most dialogues have a primary aim, much like the main arc of a novel. For Plato’s Republic, that aim is to define Justice. Throughout the dialogue, however, there are many other topics that arise for discussion. Take these as sub-plot points. The way a master writer like Plato weaves these sub-points into the dominant theme is something that we can emulate in our own writing. Each sub-plot arises naturally from discussion, as it would any of us have a conversation and get sidetracked. Each of these “distractions” inevitably makes its way back to the main idea and contributes to it in some helpful way.

Seeing the plot of a novel like a discussion can help us see the “off-ramps” and “on-ramps” of our main story arc more clearly.

Third, philosophical dialogues (or the good ones at least) have real-world implications; they are saying something important. The best fiction will always be that which is making an accurate statement about life. Studying philosophical dialogue is helpful because all fiction has an element of philosophy. All fiction is seeking to teach us something about life. We ought to learn as much as we can before we attempt to teach others. Engaging with philosophical dialogues is a great place to start.

My advice is to read (or better yet, listen to) a philosophical dialogue. Perhaps doing so will inspire you as you craft your next novel or short story. Even better, perhaps you will find yourself wanting to write a dialogue of your own! If you would like some recommendations, shoot me a message; I love talking about this sort of thing.

For more information, check out another article I wrote on this topic.

19+ Comments

Szabot

I love this!

I’d recommend every dialogue by Plato, but especially Apology and Crito for writers. I cannot read them without being moved.

Another great one is Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

May-10 at 00:56

1910orange

Such philosophical dialogues are not unique to European or Greco-Roman traditions.

I usually read philosophical exchanges of classic Zen Buddhist or Mahayana traditions. Some of these can be found in sutras too.

May-10 at 00:58

Clintone

I suspect I’ll have a rather unpopular opinion of this topic…but I hate reading philosophical dialogues. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more unpleasant, inefficient way of learning. 95% of the time when I read these things, I already know everything stated.

I like writing my own philosophical dialogues. I think that how philosophy works best is as informally as possible - just reckless, foolish individuals talking to each other as honestly and shamelessly as possible. The most important thing is to get everything out of your head, especially the controversial stuff you feel hesitant about stating. Have some vague stream of thoughts that you’re not even sure is coherent? Wonderful! Belch forth your ignorance on an intelligent discussion forum and people will tell you whether or not it makes sense.

I think that’s so much more efficient and a better way to get feedback than reading. During the time I could spend reading Plato, I could spend reading the views of some modern sociologist or psychologist, who, probably, almost no one else has looked at the views of before, and I’ll learn new things in every paragraph.

Now, I love thinking about philosophy at talking about it. I don’t think philosophers hardly ever talk about anything significant though. There are tons of science fiction concepts, on the other hand, that aren’t discussed by philosophers because nobody even thought about them before about fifty years ago. I think it’s the modern thinkers, and the forward thinkers who are most important to add to the vies of…or I would think that, if they even existed. They nearly don’t. The only exceptions I know of is content like Isaac Asimov’s views and some of the thought experiments in Star Trek. There are a ton of philosophical conundrums people could tap into that they never do.

May-10 at 09:59

1910orange

I don’t think that’s an unpopular opinion. That is very much how we converse. recklessly, bluntly, yet there is something philosophical about it. Making the esoteric easy to understand is a sign that we are learning to apply its concepts.

As for views of modern psychologist or sociologist, comparing their views with philosophers from the past often yield fascinating epiphanies. Some of them are talking about similar things, but the difference in time and culture shows in how they express these concepts. In others, they may disagree fundamentally due in part to how times have changed,

To me thinkers of both the old and new are both sources of wisdom. I don’t think one is more important than the other.

May-10 at 10:27

Giglio

Excellent post, Bob, and loaded with wisdom. The naysayers probably have not spent time with the ancients. Much of what we believe to be original or read as original is owed to the Greek philosophers. Reading them can be a challenge, but credit should be misplaced.

Plato, Socrates, and Aristophanes were primary sources for me on the subject of love, the fruit of which became a contemporary story involving at least one actor who neglected his lessons and paid a price.

The application to storytelling is dead-on. Kudos.

Thanks for the blog!

G

May-13 at 19:14

Timark

will they help write the dialogue of a Khmer crack ho?

Somehow I doubt it.

Maybe i should chore through Ulysses also?

May-13 at 19:27

Jimvread

95% of the time when I read these things, I already know everything stated.

Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.
-Vizzini (when death was on the line)

May-13 at 23:35

1910orange

Just to expand your repertoire, you can take a look at the relation between destiny and affinity when it comes to love and relationships. This is central to Chinese culture who view bonds between people as transcending lifetimes.

May-14 at 02:04

1910orange

Yes it will.

Many a times people stick close to their belief system and philosophies. Their drivel or soliloquy, while crude, can sometimes be traced back to some philosophical values passed down through generations.

If the Khmer is a Buddhist, he may rant about how there may be comeuppance for what he did, but until then, he wants to enjoy life first. However, while doing so, he may curse his fate and hope the young ones in the group don’t follow in his footsteps.

May-14 at 02:17

Timark

and do i need to read philosphical dialogues for this? or do i absorb this information by osmosis from the society of the characater?

i suggest its the latter. and that these philosphical dialogues have been repeated so many times through society and literature that i do not need to read them directly. They are all around me.

have a nice weekend!

May-14 at 02:18

1910orange

Philosophy is the study of human nature and life. How you best learn it and gain wisdom differs. Some like to study the theories and perceive the world through its lenses, others prefer to experience the world themselves and perceive the world through their subjective experiences.

There is no right or wrong, but as the saying in Chinese goes: there is no end to learning. Reading up is never a bad thing. For instance, How societies view hedonism has changed over the years, and to know its roots, it may be wise to take a peek on how different philosophers think about it 2500 years ago.

For me, I read both philosophical dialogues, study religions, and observe and experience the world. I don’t want to form judgements yet.

May-14 at 02:24

Clintone

I don’t think they’re morons. I think they were brilliant people for their time. I just think I have the internet, and a lot of curiosity about philosophy-related issues that I think about on my own, and talk to people about, and research, and in my experience that’s been the better way to learn than reading anything by Plato or Aristotle.

That said…I’m not saying it won’t improve writing skill, necessarily. I think I may have been too impulsive in posting when the theme was reading their works improving writing skill. It may. I’m not sure. In my experience, however, I’ve seen little to no correlation between reading philosophy and having much in the way of strong logical thinking skill, and most of the best abstract thinkers I’ve talked to cared little to nothing about reading philosophy.

May-22 at 00:39

Jimvread

Haha! I was just messing around. Your post just popped that scene in my head.

Since you bring it up though, studying philosophy without studying the likes of Plato and Aristotle is like trying to study physics without studying Newton. Yes, physics as a field has moved on from the Newtonian model and you aren’t likely to study Newton’s actual work (except calculous) directly. But much of what he developed is still at the heart of physics and must necessarily be understood in order to move to the more accurate and precise models we have now.

May-22 at 01:38

Jacksonwb

Isn’t the discussion in this series a philosophical discussion? I find it interesting.

May-31 at 16:47

Clintone

I…sort of agree…in that I agree that your analogy works. I also am quite certain that you don’t need to know anything about Newton to know everything you need to know about physics…and the same can be said of philosophy.

I don’t need to study vocabulary terms and historical ideas to think up ideas myself. I don’t need to be able to reference other people’s works or ideas to think of ideas myself…and in my experience I’ve pretty much already thought of just about everything philosophers I’ve read about have thought of before reading their views…so I’ll save time by not reading their views.

Plus…I don’t especially care about knowing any terms or references that most people don’t know, because knowing those terms and references won’t help me better communicate my ideas to the laypeople who I care about communicating my ideas to.

I’d rather be the Neil De Grasse Tyson of philosophy than someone who has an impressive vocabulary. Neil De Grasse Tyson knows how to be entertaining and get across the approximate gist of things.

In my experience, in addition to the above, knowing those complex terms often gives a path to make foolish ideas seem more impressive because words are used to describe those ideas that nobody knows the meaning of.

I’ve been very disappointed with the majority of thought processes of people who describe themselves as loving the study of philosophy.

I don’t think philosophy works like either math or physics. In physics, there are previously researched aspects of reality that you just can’t know about without reading that research.

In math, seemingly, if someone were brilliant enough he or she could think up every math formula themselves…but you’d have to be pretty clever to do so.

I think the average layperson can think up the views of just about every single published philosopher most people read in early level philosophy course on their own…if those ideas make sense.

I no doubt could better communicate with or read the ideas of philosophers if I studied works of famous philosophers…or I could just skip over them entirely and talk to, primarily, laypeople…which is what I prefer doing.

I’ve seen so many people who’ve professed a love of philosophy who have no more sensible of thought processes than that of a typical layperson that I don’t think modern philosophy is helping people to get better at logical thought. I think there’s a good chance it’s often the reverse…that the complex vocabulary and endless studies are, rather, giving people with irrational thought processes a means of making their irrational views sound more impressive than they are, while also making it more likely they’ll confuse themselves, through overcomplicating their actually simple, illogical views, into more easily tricking themselves into believing those views.


So…I like the idea of moving society away from the study of philosophy in the sense of reading past ideas, and pushing society more towards a study of philosophy in the sense of competitively talking with modern people about their own ideas.

Jun-16 at 23:29

Jimvread

Being able to communicate with “the laypeople” (really?) is all fine and good, but to really hone your ideas they have to be challenged by other experts in the field. Small minded people use big words to impress people, but those words do have real use–especially at master/expert level discussions of topics. Every field has their jargon. If you want to get at really interesting discussions, you use the jargon to quickly encapsulate the ideas that you expect everyone around you to fully understand so you’re not wasting time on them. You’re effectively abstracting away well understood concepts so they can be utilized or combined to communicate novel and interesting concepts. Poopooing the “terms or references that most people don’t know” is going to leave you swirling in the tidepools of a given field rather than diving in and exploring and making real discoveries and contributions.

Neil de Grass Tyson has a BA in physics from Harvard, a MA in Astronomy from UT, and a MPhil and PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia. He studied Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Hawking, and I’ll be his MPhil had him study Socrates, Locke, Aquinas, and others I’ve never heard of. He doesn’t have some passing knowledge of astrophysics and didn’t arrive at his ideas sitting in a room thinking hard. He studied the work done before and where that work was lacking and how it was filled in by others and where that was lacking and from there made his own contributions. That’s how he can communicate complicated ideas to those who aren’t already steeped in the knowledge he has.

A thorough understanding of what was done before is critical to progress. Otherwise, you’re wasting a lot of time and effort finding a a worn trail to retread rather that finding where that trail needs work or where the trail ends and new trail needs to be blazed. There are millions of lifetimes of effort and toil and determination put in to getting where we are today. Believing you can just work all that out yourself in your lifetime says you either don’t appreciate how much you were taught or don’t appreciate how far along we are. I’d guess there’s a healthy dose of both.

Philosophy is every bit as rigorous as physics and math. The concepts build on each other, they fill in gaps that previous work couldn’t, they attempt to define concepts that were previously unheard of because people were busy trying to define lower level concepts. Descartes tried to define “self”, Freud broke that into pieces and others have further defined and teased out what makes “self” and “sentience.”

I think you would agree that an idea or theory is only as strong as the amount of scrutiny it withstands. Once you work out an idea, you have to put it out in front of people, ideally people who also study these things. Let them ask questions and poke at the theory. In order for them to do that, you have establish a framework for them. A list of terms and references that you have either adopted from accepted works or clearly and thoroughly defined in your own work. As people ask questions or pick at deductions or assertions made, your theory will be strengthened or you’ll find that it fails at some fundamental level before you waste a lifetime running down a fruitless path. If you just think about what it means to be conscious and don’t define any framework for that discussion, you will at best answer all the questions you have about it to your own satisfaction. That’s one person’s scrutiny biased in favor of accepting the idea. A strong theory withstands the scrutiny of millions who are biased against it. Like Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein.

But I totally agree that when most people say they “like philosophy” they really like bullshitting with their buddies while high and congratulating each other on their “deep” insights.

Well, damn, that got long.

Jun-17 at 17:19

Bobhammers

That’s exactly what philosophical dialogue is. Most ancient philosophy is actually pretty simple as far as terminology goes.

Maybe you’re not reading the right philosophers then. The ones worth reading are among the greatest minds ever to exist.

Jun-17 at 17:20

Clintone

Bobhammers, thanks for your replies.

In your first statement you say: “That’s exactly what philosophical dialogue is. Most ancient philosophy is actually pretty simple as far as terminology goes.”

Except what I said is that I wanted to move society towards a study of philosophy in the sense of competitively talking with modern people about our own ideas. Plato cannot question my ideas he did not write about. Nor can I critique Plato’s to him. Therefore, unlike in conversations, it’s a roll of the dice whether or not the writings of Plato will be useful to me. If I’ve already thought of everything he’s thought of, he just won’t be. On the other hand, every second I spend trying to convince modern people about my views I get a little better at communicating my views.

Next you say “Maybe you’re not reading the right philosophers then. The ones worth reading are among the greatest minds ever to exist.”

Then it appears to be a roll of the dice whether or not I’ll be reading the right philosophers or not…so that seems like it could be a misuse of a lot of time trying to find the right ones.

With that in mind…why should I have a respect for a field without a strong filtration system for the philosophers who aren’t the “right ones?”

Geology, for example, has a strong filtration system that filters flat-earthers entirely out of the discussion, so I don’t have to misuse time reading both the arguments of flat-earthers and non-flat earthers.

Now, if people find it entertaining to study philosophy…by all means do so. I don’t find it entertaining though, so given that I don’t know who these “right ones” that I should be reading are, I’m not sure why I should spend time trying to read their works.

Jun-18 at 23:50

Clintone

In my experience, the honing of my ideas depends exclusively on 2 things: how much I belch forth my ignorance to other random people to receive simple criticisms regarding it, especially regarding how coherent or clear my views are…and how much I think about my ideas myself.

Next…there are a lot more laypersons around than professional philosophers. Therefore, why would I want to learn a system of communication that’s only useful when speaking to a minority, when I can find ways, using simpler language, to describe my views to the majority of people?

Your answer to that will no doubt in part be that those laypersons won’t be as skilled at pointing out the holes in my thought processes, as the more dedicated philosophers will be. I disagree with that…because I think the whole field of philosophy is tainted.

For example, I’ll compare the field of philosophy to the field of geology. In geology, the views of flat-Earthers are basically ignored. I know if I’m talking to a geologist, I’m very likely only going to be hearing about views that are likely to be true according to the commonly respected views of the bulk of geologists…and flat-Earther geologist views will have been filtered out of what they view as respectable geology-related views. I therefore won’t waste time hearing about views that have been debunked.

In the field of philosophy though…I can name some views that just don’t make any sense that seem to be believed by respected philosophers. For example, a philosophy professor at a community college I attend talked about arguments for the existence of God. She listed 3: The ontological, teleological, and cosmological argument.

The ontological argument is totally incoherent. The teleological and cosmological arguments are better. That said, the cosmological argument is not an argument for the existence of a God, so much as an original source of all things…given that God is almost always described as some intelligent being, and the cosmological argument says nothing about any original source for all things needing to be intelligent…nor does it include arguments for why it would be likely to be intelligent. The Teleological argument is a potential starting point for an argument for the existence of God…or aliens that created our universe…noting that it still leaves the question hanging regarding what created the aliens or god that created our universe…so it’s pretty useless if one’s goal is to argue that a God exists.

Given that philosophy is, basically, a field focused on logical thinking…why should I respect a field dedicated to supposed logical thought…if it hasn’t even placed those three aforementioned supposed arguments for the existence of God into a similar “ignore me” box as geologists typically place flat-Earther views? Why are those views being taught as anything other than bad reasoning in philosophy classes? My proposed answer is that the field of philosophy has an unsatisfactory filtration system to keep out bad ideas…unlike the field of geology, and psychology, and physics, and astronomy. I see philosophy as closer to sociology…but without as much emphasis on statistical data, and containing more views that are clearly wrong, yet widely respected…and also less research…and I’d also definitely argue that I’ve probably got a much higher chance of learning new ways of looking at the world when reading sociology-related writings, because those sociologists will often gain their ideas through studying the world around them, whereas many respected philosophers don’t seem to.

Why should I spend immense amounts of time learning the vocabulary to speak to this supposedly better-than-average-educated group…if I know, and can pretty easily explain why, many of the commonly respected views in this field are wrong? Especially given how much more common laypersons are, and how many more occasions I have to talk to the laypersons? Also…that’s keeping in mind that if my ideas are going to impact much…I’m going to need to find a way to get the average person to understand them anyway. I can save a step by just never learning any vocabulary terms the average person is unlikely to know, and thinking exclusively using simple language.


Neil de Grasse Tyson didn’t need to learn anything about Isaac Newton to learn the science Isaac Newton learned. He probably didn’t need to learn anything about Socrates either. Tyson didn’t have some passing knowledge of astrophysics because his field demands that he be more knowledgeable than that. Astrophysics requires a knowledge of prior research that can’t be obtained through mere reasoning, no matter how intelligent you are. You noted that Tyson used his extensive studies to clearly communicate his views to the public. I noticed that you didn’t specifically mention that he used his study of philosophers or philosophy to better communicate his scientific knowledge to the public. I don’t know how any studies of philosophy or philosophy he’s done would have assisted him in that, at all.

I am routinely baffled at this tendency people have to compare the field of philosophy to fields that progress in depends on actual research. Philosophy is different than physics or chemistry in that regard.

You say a thorough understanding of what was done before is critical to progress…but my response is…that doesn’t apply to philosophy the way it does to most sciences…because in the field of philosophy, it appears to me to me that so much of what has been done before is just basically trash, that I don’t see why it’s worth it to dig through that…unless a person finds it entertaining to do so. Furthermore, philosophy is a field that focuses on personal benefits in ways most fields don’t. Good philosophical thought exercises the mind, provides better insight into ethics, and a more solid understanding of the world around oneself in ways much more likely to impact our daily lives for us personally than most sciences. We gain something from thinking about philosophy by ourselves in a way that we don’t when thinking about math ourselves, or physics. I don’t see it as any more of a waste of time than jogging while thinking about ethics would be. It’s the sciences like mathematics and physics and astronomy that dwindle into little of value if you don’t spread world of your discoveries and read the discoveries of others…also…keeping in mind, that there’s a much better filtration system in math and physics filtering out bad discoveries, making it much more worth your time to look into those past mathematical or physics-based discoveries than discoveries in the field of philosophy.


I have no doubt that philosophy is every bit as rigorous as physics and math. I just don’t see that rigor as being as useful to society. You talked about Freud and Descartes. I have not read either of their views on pretty much anything. I know that many of the views of Freud have been debunked by modern psychologists, and Descartes was quite an old philosopher, so I see no reason to research the views of either. Modern psychologists and thinkers will no doubt have better access to information, so I’ll just read their views instead when I want to learn things.


Actually…I don’t think I do have to bother with setting up a framework with references to put my ideas in front of people. Two of the deepest thinkers I know of were the science fiction author Isaac Asimov and a youtube channel owner who delves into potential answers to the Fermi Paradox, and prospective future technologies, named Isaac Arthur. Both of them just became popular with the public through being entertaining. That sounds quicker to me.

Now…if there were a group of elite intellectuals who could, reliably, test my views for logicalness…I might go to them instead for approval, to spread my views. I don’t think they exist though. I think the field of philosophy is too tainted for me to be able to trust them to approve of my views if they are intelligent. The field of philosophy needs to begin showing considerably less respect to ideas that are clearly wrong, and then I’ll view them as trustworthy enough to devote time to trying to gain their favor.

I can never trust a field that does not clearly and loudly denounce the ontological argument for the existence of God though…and yet my philosophy teacher…with a doctorate in philosophy…treated the concept as if it’s worthy of respect in a manner in which no geology professor in a public college would likely treat flat Earther theories.

Thanks for the discussion though.

I do want the field of philosophy to be basically discarded and replaced with a more informal, competitive, personal system of everybody just talking about their ideas more though…for the reasons I’ve previously mentioned.

Jun-19 at 01:41
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