Thursday, March 13, 2014

[PHI 3000] Can we learn from works of fiction?

Epistemologists generally agree that the objects of propositional knowledge are true propositions. That is, if one knows that p, then p is true. To put it another way, propositional knowledge (knowing that) is supposed to be factive.

Now consider how we sometimes say that we learn (i.e., gain propositional knowledge) from works of fiction, such as novels and films. For example, from reading or watching Requiem for a Dream, we can learn something about drug addiction.

In this review of the film, the reviewer seems to suggest that Requiem for a Dream teaches us facts about addiction. But how can that be? After all, Requiem for a Dream is entirely fictional. How can we learn facts about addiction from a fictional film or novel? If knowledge is factive, how can we learn facts from non-facts?


  1. I think we can learn lessons from works of fiction. An artist has a certain lesson, or message that he wishes to teach us. This lesson may be based in fact, from something that the artist or story-teller experienced. In order to better teach the lesson, the artist creates a scripted story to guide his audience to that lesson or message. So even though the story by which the lesson is taught may not be real, that in no way detracts from the truth of the message.

  2. For me, I think sometimes, I can learn a lot of true knowledge from works of fiction, but this is just a small part. In other words, It is depends. I know some fictions are totally bullshit and not real. We have to figure out what knowledge is good for us. One thing at least I can make sure, that is we can not believe every thing from works of fiction.

    Tori Dan Wu

  3. We learn something new every day. Whether it be a fact about something, about someone else, or about ourselves, we're always learning. That's because learning is not exclusive to acquiring new truths, but also perceptions and ideas (which differ among individuals.) For example, after watching the Harry Potter series, one may have learned that the story was about a brave young boy who always did what he thought was right. To another, they may have learned that the story was about friendship and teamwork and how those can overcome anything, etc. The audience picks up their own messages and ideas from a fictional story, whether it be true or not, and this idea has an impact on the viewer's perspective and thus he/she has learned something.

  4. We can learn from works of fiction because though the stories are portrayed by fictional characters, the true message is sent through these characters. The events in a work of fiction are scripted so that a message can be conveyed to readers or spectators. The story is meant to elicit a response through these fictional characters who are like puppets in a play, acting according to their true counterparts.

    Kanak Parmar

  5. Steve, Tori, Richard, and Kanak,

    Thanks very much for your comments. As I understand your comments, you guys want to say that we can learn facts from works of fiction. But I am still not sure how that's supposed to work exactly.

    Take Richard's example about Harry Potter. From the story of Harry Potter, which is entirely fictional, one learns that “friendship and teamwork can overcome anything.” In other words, after reading or watching Harry Potter, one could reason as follows:

    (P) Harry and his friends overcome great obstacles by working together.
    (C) Therefore, we can overcome great obstacles by working together with friends.

    Although there may be nothing wrong with this reasoning from a logical point of view (i.e., this argument is not fallacious), it’s not clear that (P) is true. After all, Harry and his friends are fictional characters; they don’t exist. If (P) is not true, then this argument cannot be sound (or cogent), which means that we cannot know that (C) is true (or probable). In other words, we cannot learn (C) from (P).

  6. Paul Gallagher PHI 3000CMarch 16, 2014 at 9:27 PM

    Although works of fiction are completely made up, they should be used with the idea that they have some value. Since the book Requiem for a Dream is entirely fictional, does that mean that we cannot relate to it in some way? Here is one of my examples. What if someone in your family is going through the same amount and type of problems that the character in the book is undergoing? If a person, possibly a friend or a relative is able to see similar characteristics between their loved one and a character in a book why should our thoughts be discredited? I feel that we should take some but not all of the information presented to us in the from of fiction and quite possibly, use it as a guide for our reasoning rather than a source.

  7. Although I want to believe one can gain true knowledge from fictional works I have concluded you can not in my attempt to prove the exact opposite. For example, say someone is brought up only on fictional works. They were only shown cartoons and read fictional books (and lead to believe all of this is true). Although they would believe it to be true it would, their beliefs would not be sensitive to the facts. Although they may state some points that could be true, it would simply be a coincidence (just like the clock example we spoke of). They would not truly know what they stated was correct because the other ideas they also believe to be true are taken from fiction. With all of their knowledge being directly from fiction but believe fiction to be true they are not sensitive to the actual facts.

  8. I believe we can learn from works of fiction, yet this statement is dependent upon a vast array of factors. For example, we can learn from works of fiction based on fact. This may seem confusing but there are such things as fiction based on true stories.
    On the other hand, one must be adept at identifying what is purely fictional; therefore some prior knowledge on the subject matter at hand must be already possessed. For example, if I knew nothing about the illegal drug heroin and decided to learn all there is about the subject matter from the movie “Trainspotting”, this would not be classed as knowledge, per se, but I did learn something.
    Therefore, in conclusion, learning can occur as a result of fiction, but in order for it to be knowledgeable it must be based in fact and the person must already possess prior knowledge of the subject matter.

  9. I believe we can learn from works of fiction. Works of fiction even though they are not real they are built on prior facts of the author. The facts that the author brings up can be created and formed in many different ways to be portrayed to a wider audience allowing them to better understand and get a better a feel of what is trying to be taught, Fiction can be taken in many different ways which is why I think it is great way to better understand knowledge of certain things. It is creativeness and fact put together to form a message that can be personal or seen in differently from more perspectives that only a person himself/herself can determine from it.

  10. Amarachi Nnadi Phi 3000CMarch 18, 2014 at 10:51 AM

    I think that we can learn from fiction because these stories have a meaning behind it. I know that fictional stories are not true, however the meanings behind it seem to be true and useful. Author's have somehow found a way to incorporate a meaning behind a fictional story that may appeal to one person and not another. I believe that we can learn from these fictional stories because the authors came about the idea from somewhere. His or her ideas/ experiences relate to others and that's how fictional stories teach people.

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone. I like John’s hypothetical case of the person brought up on fiction alone. John’s point is that, even if some of this person’s beliefs turn out to be true, it would simply be a lucky accident or coincidence, and thus this person does not really know. So, to use Richard’s example, suppose that, based on his/her reading of Harry Potter, this person believes that people can overcome challenges by working together with friends. If that were false, this person would still believe it, since that is what s/he has read in Harry Potter.

  12. If knowledge is factive than we can not learn facts through fiction. This is a very tough debate to comprehend but I think that from works of fictions we can read about realistic scenarios that come together with fictional lessons that are supposed to impact the reader as if it were real. In Requiem for a Dream you don't LEARN what happens when your addiction deludes you, you read about a fictional story about what could happen to somebody. There are no facts presented but rather realistic scenarios.


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