Thought Experiments as a Kind of Genre

 Eric Peterson is Visiting Assistant Professor of Business Ethics and Society at the Heider College of Business, Creighton University. His research interests include imagination and related attitudes, philosophy of religion, and ethics.  He is currently serving as the philosophy program chair for the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and he serves as the managing editor for this blog.

Eric Peterson is Visiting Assistant Professor of Business Ethics and Society at the Heider College of Business, Creighton University. His research interests include imagination and related attitudes, philosophy of religion, and ethics.  He is currently serving as the philosophy program chair for the Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology, and he serves as the managing editor for this blog.

A post by Eric Peterson.

Often when we engage fiction, we feel affect.  And often when we engage in modal epistemology, we do not feel affect.  Both engaging fiction and modal epistemology seem to be paradigmatic imaginative activities.  As Kind (2013) argues, appealing to imagination to explain the role of affect in each case leaves us with two incompatible explanatory roles for imagination.  Because of this, it is not clear that we can appeal to imagination in order to account for the disparity of affect between the two imaginative activities.  The good news is we do not have to appeal to imagination per se; rather, we can account for the disparity of affect by realizing that philosophical thought experiments act as their own distinct genre.[1]

It is uncontroversial that we often feel affect while engaging with fiction.  A simple glance of the literature on the so called “Paradox of Fiction” reveals that the affect is pervasive. I feel pity towards Anna Karenina; I hope that Harry Potter defeats Lord Voldemort; and so on.  (For a recent discussion of this, see Michela Summa’s recent blog post) It is also uncontroversial that while reflecting on what is possible and how we know it, we often do not feel affect.  Nichols (2006) discusses what he calls absent affect, where we have no emotional reaction to an imagined event, though we often would toward a similar real event.  Related to this, Kind argues that we can imagine philosophical zombies without being afraid, and we can imagine Jackson’s color scientist, Mary, without feeling anger at her imprisonment (Kind 2013, 154). So what can we appeal to in order to explain the differences in affect between these two imaginative activities?

There is already a precedent for appealing to genre to account for affect from imaginative activities, especially what Nichols (2006) calls discrepant affect, i.e., cases where we have emotional reactions to imagined events that we would not normally have toward real events.  According to Nichols, many examples come from the black comedy genre.  His example is the film Dr. Strangelove, where many viewers react with amusement to the suggestion that all of human life is about to be destroyed (cf. 2006, 464). In this paper, Nichols is raising some problems for the single code hypothesis—that psychological mechanisms process imaginings and beliefs in the same way—, and offering some solutions to these problems.  The problems are the already mentioned discrepant affect and absent affect both of which reveal significant differences between believing and imagining and so put pressure on the idea of a single code. In general, Nichols explains the differences in affect between imagining and believing by appealing to what he calls the “differential effects of desire”—we have different desires towards real situations than we have towards imagined situations (469).  However, to account for discrepant affect, Nichols allows that genre considerations influence the sorts of desires we have towards those particular imagined situations (472).  Nichols does not develop how genre does this, but we can fill this gap with Liao (2016).

Liao defines ‘genre’ in a broad sense as “simply groupings of narratives that are recognized by the relevant community as special” (2016, 469). Genre is “special” for two reasons: (1) the role it plays in classifying works of art, and (2) the role it plays in the normativity and psychology of narrative engagement.  According to Liao, the normative role of genre is to establish conventions that constrain what can be made fictional; the psychological role of genre is to provide readers with expectations that govern their imaginings. Both the normative and psychological roles of genre are responsible for carrying the reader along to new places and new experiences, even places and experiences that the reader would not normally pursue. This, then, demonstrates that genre carries most of the workload in explaining affect in general and discrepant affect in particular. Given that Dr. Strangelove is black comedy, the relevant conventions permit the fictional truth “that all human life is about to be destroyed” and the relevant psychological expectations encourage readers to respond to that fictional truth with humor.

It is plausible to think that such an explanation can extend to cases of absent affect of the sort we find when engaging in thought experiments. Nichols does seem to leave room for this.  His explanation of absent affect, like discrepant affect, appeals to the “differential effects of desire” between imagining and believing.  And while he does not appeal to genre considerations, he does claim that “our desires about the imaginary scenario will depend on the context, the intent of the author, the tone of the work, the point of the thought experiment, and so on” (2006, 472).  These factors, however, are the sorts of things that fall out of genre.  I argue, then, that by thinking about philosophical thought experiments as constituting a distinctive genre (or weaker, as constituting a kind of classificatory scheme that functions analogously as genre), we get a good explanation of absent affect. Philosophical thought experiments carry their own distinctive conventions that constrain what can be made fictional/what ought to be imagined.  They also have their own distinctive psychological norms as to what counts as an appropriate response. Generally, what counts as an appropriate response will be circumscribed by the point of the thought experiment, i.e., pump intuitions about what is permissible or what is possible.  Finally, ignoring what is an appropriate response to a philosophical thought experiment is equivalent to giving up on the thought experiment.[2]  A person who has fear or is sad at the end of Dr. Strangelove, is missing the point of the film, given its particular genre, and essentially giving up on engaging with that work of art. In the same way, given the genre conventions associated with thought experiments, shedding tears over Mary’s imprisonment or being afraid of philosophical zombies are simply not apt responses to each respective thought experiment.  A person who has such a response is missing the point of the thought experiments and is engaging the thought experiment in an unintended manner.

This, then, provides us with a good explanation of the disparity of affect between different imaginative activities.  While engaging fiction, the many and varied genres circumscribe our various affective responses.  While engaging philosophical thought experiments as intended, the thought experiments constitute a distinct genre that limits or eliminates any affective response. The disparity of affect among different imaginative activities depends on factors external to imagination. For cases such as engaging fiction or modal epistemology, those factors are the distinct genres. This removes the burden of trying to ground an explanation of the disparity in imagination per se.

I think that this is a promising move to make; though, as always, I am interested in what the readers think.


[1] Weinberg (2008) suggests that if philosophical thought experiments constitute a genre, then one can account for the problem of the variability of intuitions concerning philosophical thought experiments, i.e., that the widely divergent intuitions that people have towards philosophical thought experiments renders appeal to 'intuitions' as unsuitable for providing evidence for philosophical positions.  Weinberg does not develop the idea--of philosophical thought experiments as constituting genre--in detail.  

[2] Another feature that thought experiments share with works of other distinct genres is that fluency of engaging in thought experiments does not always come naturally. Often we need to learn and practice the conventions of certain genres before we can fluently engage with them. Weinberg (2008) makes this point, which would seem to bare the workload of solving the problem of variability of intuitions about thought-experiments. (see note above).  For instance, I have often had to instruct undergraduates as to what is appropriate to imagine and to feel when engaging in thought experiments. 


References

Kind, A. (2013). The Heterogeneity of the Imagination. Erkenntnis, 78(1), 141–159.

Liao, S. (2016). Imaginative Resistance, Narrative Engagement, Genre. Res Philosophica, 93(2), 461–482.

Nichols, S. (2006). Just the Imagination: Why Imagining Doesn’t Behave Like Believing. Mind and Language, 21(4), 459–474.

Weinberg, J. M. (2008). Configuring the Cognitive Imagination. In K. Stock & K. Thomsen-Jones (Eds.), New Waves in Aesthetics (pp. 203–223). Palgrave-Macmillan.