Writing Tools: Philosophy

This will be a bit of an odd post.  I’m here to talk about how to use philosophy in your writing.  Now, I’m one of those odd types who values classical education (even if you had to do it yourself).  Knowledge of philosophy and humanity’s efforts to come to grips with fundamental problems is something I think everyone should spend some time considering.

Because at its root, most of our interpersonal and societal problems come down to differences in overall philosophies.  Understanding these, being able to work these differences into your writing can add depth that a reader may not overtly see, but they can feel in character motivations and in the cultures and societies you create.

At the lowest level, philosophy is about finding answers.  Whether it is Plato’s Values or Kant’s Moral Imperative, most philosophers try to find answers to not just the big questions, but to find answers about how people should live their lives.  They struggled to find what is “right” and some of them have left indelible marks upon our society centuries or even millennia later.

Now, this isn’t to say that you need to read and study philosophy to make use of it in your writing.  Most societies you design, however, will have struggled with the same truths and the same questions.  It is human nature to look for meaning, even where there is none.

Understanding the basic concepts, the ideas of individual versus community, of lesser and greater evils, and of fundamental truths, gives you some leverage to build a society that feels real.  Writing a society where firstborn boys are sacrificed to their dark goddess will strike many people as horrific.  Working into your writing that they do it to prevent the culmination of an ancient prophesy where a firstborn will bring about the end of the world establishes a conflict between the value of individual rights versus those of the general good (and also establishes why a firstborn who survives might well want to destroy that society).  Oh, hey, and throw in a pair of twins where the eldest is mistakenly allowed to live, but that the ghost of his brother haunts him.  There’s a great story hook for anyone who needs it.

In all, I very much recommend reading some of the classic philosophers as well as some of the more recent ones, particularly John Stuart Mill and John Locke.  Not only will that add some ability to develop morality into your worlds, but it provides you with a look at how we, as humans, reason.

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