Reading fiction is like riding a bike with training wheels

 Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

Julia Langkau is a research fellow (Swiss National Science Foundation) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Her main research areas are epistemology, philosophical methodology, aesthetics and philosophy of mind.

A Post by Julia Langkau

If only we could just sit in our cozy sofa, read an enthralling novel and, without having to go through any real-world trouble, become better people. How great would it be if all we needed to do in order to raise a good person was raise a fiction lover. Of course this is not how it works. But some philosophers, most famously Martha Nussbaum[1] have argued that engaging with certain kinds of fiction can change our outlook on the world, our values, and our personality. In empathizing with fictional characters, we practice our empathic skills for real life: we practice feeling with other people, we practice understanding people that differ from us. And we thereby practice what motivates altruistic behavior in real life.

Gregory Currie[2] has recently mentioned some ways in which empathy with fictional characters could have no significant effect or even a negative effect on helping behavior. I think we should keep three theses apart, and each of them might be false: one is that reading fiction can train our empathic skills, i.e., our ability to correctly simulate other people’s mental states, another is that empathizing with fictional characters makes it more likely that we empathize with real people, and a third is that we become better people through empathizing with real or fictional others. I’ll give some reasons to believe that the first is false.

We have learned to distinguish between two kinds of perspective taking that are often both called empathy. One is to imagine what it is like for the respective person you’re empathizing with, the other is to imagine what it would be like for you to be in the other person’s situation. The aim in both cases is to feel with the other person, to simulate the other person’s mental state. Now apparently, we’re generally less successful in getting it right when we engage in the second kind of perspective taking, because thinking about what it would be like for us in somebody else’s situation gets us to think about our own life. But luckily, we’re also more likely to engage in the first kind of perspective taking, provided we have enough information about the situation and about the other we’re aiming to understand.[3]

Certain fiction should be ideal to practice perspective taking of the first kind. The context often gives us enough information about the situation and the character we are aiming to understand, so there should be no need to fill any gaps, and we shouldn’t be tempted to engage in thoughts about ourselves. Certain novels are made for us to empathize, and that’s why we enjoy engaging with them. But the kind of information we get, I take it, is the problem when it comes to our learning for real life.

Internal monologue, for instance, directly presents a character's thoughts and intentions, as in this quote from Virginia Woolf, The Waves:

“Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone. I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but let me sit on and on, silent, alone.”

Or we get a detailed description of the emotional states of a character, as in this quote from Jane Austen’s Emma:

“She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, so mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!”

Take the following comparison. Kids who practice biking on a bike with training wheels certainly get to places on their bike, and they kind of get an idea of what it is like to ride a bike. However, they have a hard time biking once we take the training wheels off. The reason is that the most difficult skill involved in biking is balancing, which is exactly what they don’t practice with training wheels.

Concerning our empathic skills, reading a novel may be like riding a bike with training wheels: the information we are given about the fictional character enables our empathizing with them. And empathizing with a fictional character may be pretty similar to empathizing with a real person. However, when empathizing with a fictional character, we don’t practice the most important skill involved in empathizing with a real person: reading the evidence available in real life.

What we get in real life is of a complex interplay of different kinds of evidence: the person’s body language, their facial expressions, the sound of their voice, what they say, etc. In the case of fiction, all the information we get is propositional. If we learn about the sound of a fictional character’s voice or their body language, we get explicit propositional access to it. Other things typical for certain fiction help as well: metaphors, pictures associated with the person’s inner life, the beauty of the presentation. Fiction, in some sense, makes it too easy to take the perspective of another person. In real life, things are generally much more complex, and there is more noise. (Or at least for some of us it is easier – for others, it might just be different.)

So it seems that in order to practice reading the evidence we have in real life, we have to get off the sofa and live. But maybe there are other ways in which empathizing with fictional characters can be useful for real life. Because riding a bike with training wheels gives you a very close idea of what it is like to ride a real bike. And maybe you enjoy it. So when your training wheels have been taken off, you are motivated to practice the missing skill. Maybe in that sense fiction can be useful: we don’t practice every aspect of empathy in real life, and not even the most difficult aspect, but because we get the taste of it, we are willing to practice the real thing.

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Thanks to the participants of the workshop The Aesthetic Mind: First Workshop, University of Fribourg.


[1] Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, Oxford, 1990.

[2] Gregory Currie, Does Fiction Make Us Less Empathic? Teorema, Vol. XXXV/3, 2016.

[3] C. Daniel Batson, Two Forms of Perspective Taking: Imagining how another feels and imagining how you would feel, in: Keith D. Markman, William M. P. Klein, and Julie A. Suhr (ed.): Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation, Psychology Press, 2009.