Mobilising Philosophical Insight (Rationale)

‘Artists use lies to tell the truth. Yes, I created a lie. But because you believed it, you found something true about yourself.’ – Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Twenty-first century philosophers, especially those in the English-speaking world and Scandinavia, mostly respect the analytic tradition when doing philosophical research. In particular, they aim to decompose, as clearly as possible, every philosophical argument into its premises and conclusion. The central task of analytic philosophers is to critically examine the credibility of premises and the validity of the argument using formal logic and everyday language. Emphasising argumentative clarity and precision, analytic philosophy can be understood both as a concrete, standardised methodology and a historical movement in response to the dominance of scientific empiricism in the nineteenth and twentieth century (Glock 3-4). Analytic philosophers often pride themselves for providing a common ground for discussing and evaluating vastly different philosophical views. Owing to the dominance of English in the contemporary world, analytic philosophy is very often treated as the default mode of doing philosophy in most philosophy programmes. Common philosophical topics where the analytic methodology shines the brightest include philosophy of science and language, logic, metaethics and epistemology.

Yet, analytic philosophy is far from being the only way of doing philosophical research. The analytic tradition is used in contrast to the continental tradition which has sometimes been overshadowed by the former since the last century. Continental philosophy is often associated with French and German philosophers between the sixteenth and the nineteenth century. Before the dominance of analytic philosophy, philosophers following the continental tradition engage in philosophical discussions via relatively more obscure essays that are free in the style of writing and open to interpretations. Many philosophical insight in the continental tradition has been published in terms of dialogues, fictions, and even poems. In contrast to analytic philosophy, philosophical theories in the continental tradition are more systematic and doctrinisitc while being less evaluative using formal logic or everyday language. Some areas where the continental methodology excels include existentialism, phenomenology, Marxism and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School (Critchley, Table of Contents).

Analytic and continental traditions are the two most practiced methodologies in contemporary western philosophy. The question remains is which methodology should be preferred when doing philosophical research. There has been no consensus as both have their strengths. However, for the purpose of mobilising philosophical research for the general public, I believe that the continental method should be preferred. Analytic philosophy is incredibly precise, but it can also be narrow-minded at times. According to Raymond William, analytic philosophy has been ‘largely limited to logic and the theory of knowledge, and there is a tendency to confine philosophy to this sense and regard its traditional association with general moral and intellectual systems as an error’ (Critchley 2). Raymond’s stand somehow resonates with Stephen Hawking’s famous remark that analytic philosophy is dead due to its narrow focus and lack of progress (Zabala and Davis). In my very humble opinion, I think that analytic philosophy, due to its emphasis on formal logic and sometimes technical expressions, excludes non-philosophers from engaging in philosophical debates or even associating analytic philosophy with their conventional perception of philosophy. Analytical methodology narrows the views of philosophy, as it is often less adequate for seeing the big picture or answering questions involving human condition and society, questions that the general public find most accessible intellectually. On the other hand, continental tradition coincides with people’s perception of philosophy. Essays published in the continental tradition often feature vivid characters and engaging storylines, propelling readers to think of the moral of the story. Even non-philosophers will likely find topics such as existence, happiness, social structure and ethics relatable.

In my opinion, philosophy should not be an exclusive subject to be studied only in universities. In fact, people are all capable of doing philosophy; human minds are just mysteriously capable of transcending limits of repetitive daily lives and asking foundational questions related to existence, purpose, morality and knowledge. I hope to mobilise philosophical insight among people regardless of their education or social backgrounds. I hope that my stories can engage them and guide them in future decision-makings. Above all, philosophy should be accessible to every curious mind, not just philosophers. As such, the continental tradition of doing philosophy research, fiction, literature, or just lies in general, are crucial for mobilising philosophical insight among the general public. These media are not at all new or unfamiliar to the public; their pioneers can be traced back to Plato who records philosophical insight using dialogues, and ancient Chinese philosophers like Confucius and Zhuangzi narrate their philosophical thoughts using stories. Recent examples include, to just name a few, Joscelin Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Milan Kundera’s philosophical fiction The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Terrence Malick’s experimental film The Tree of Life.

Abyss is my first attempt to write a philosophical fiction. In fact, it is also my first short story written in English. The title is inspired by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s words ‘if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee’ (Aphorism 146). I choose Nietzsche’s insight about morality because Nietzsche is one of the most misunderstood philosophers in the history of western philosophy. The Nazi authority has taken advantaged of his ideas on the death of god and morality as well as the need for a superhuman to rule the rest. In fact, Nietzsche is against the Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, his ideas still remain highly controversial today, but I do find his insight still, if not more, relevant to today’s increasingly secular and pragmatic world. Nietzsche spends his entire life overcoming moral nihilism, the belief that people’s conception of morality is not real. His insight into nihilism is that the conception of morality is based on Jewish-Christian traditions that are gradually losing their appeal. As a result, such conception of morality is shaky. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche challenges people’s dichotomous conception of good and evil by arguing that good and evil can be one and the same by using the metaphors such as monster and abyss (Seung 112). The longer one fights with the monster in the abyss, the more likely the one will become a violent monster himself. Nietzsche reveals that there is no clear, or pure, good or evil in this world, and good and evil are interchangeable. People’s dichotomous conception of morality is too simplified and groundless.

Furthering Nietzsche’s idea on the shaky foundation of the dichotomous morality, I find that many more human conceptions are dichotomous; perhaps people are psychologically accustomed to understanding the world as opposing forces. People are also reluctant to accept the combination of the two extremes, although it creates new insight, much like how people feel weird about paradoxes that often contain wisdom, or truth. In my story Abyss, I explore several common dichotomous concepts and contradictions while combing those pairs into one protagonist. I explore not just good and evil, but also life and death, happiness and solitude, sanity and schizophrenia as well as bisexuality. The protagonist of my story had an unpleasant childhood with divorced parents and lonely feelings. He imagined that his dead twin brother was still alive and accompanying him through many difficult moments of his childhood. I also include some homosexual behaviours of two teenage boys the protagonist imagined involving his twin brother. As the protagonist grew up and was about to propose to his thirteenth girlfriend, he revealed the secret of constantly meeting his twin brother to his girlfriend. His girlfriend ended up cheating on him after suspecting him to be homosexual. The protagonist, filled with anger and grievance, ‘killed’ his Brother before realising his brother was also part of him.

I adopt the first-person viewpoint to make the story more intimate. Since much of the story is about a schizophrenic and illusive man, the first-person viewpoint enables me to incorporate more inner voice of the protagonist. Readers can peek into the world of a schizophrenic man, a world that does not feel very distinct from the world they know. I purposely avoid mentioning the name of the protagonist; he can be anyone. The first-person viewpoint also proliferates biased information which gives readers a sense of mystery. Some readers may think that the twin brother does not exist, while others may see the existence of the protagonist and his consciousness as an affirmation of the twin brother’s existence, just in a different form. The boundary of life and death is blurred. Moreover, the protagonist struggles to find his true identity and desires. He confirms to social conventions and seeks socially-accepted relationships. He has so many girlfriends while being unclear about what he wants in a relationship. He wants to see his brother while also doubting the existence of his brother. It is impossible to use homosexuality or heterosexuality to label the protagonist, and it is hard to know whether the he is happy, lonely, or both. Most importantly, speculating the existence of his twin brother throughout his life, he ends up being a ‘murderer’ himself, just like how he unconsciously ‘killed’ his brother in the womb. The fighter of the monster eventually becomes a monster; the speculator of an abyss eventually becomes a part of the abyss.

The story is completely fictional, and yet, I find every detail utterly relatable and some even personal. Perhaps it is the feeling of writing a fiction. The story, in other words, is just a lie, but this lie reveals truth not just related to Nietzsche’s insight, but also about me, my experiences, feelings and struggles. I learn that to mobilise philosophical insight, philosophers do not just need formal logic and clear, precise language, they also need a heart. They need a heart to engage the general public, impress them with relatable stories and inspire them with authenticity. Abyss is my very first non-argumentative English essay, my first attempt to mobilise philosophical insight, and it must contain many technical imperfections or violations. The completion of Mobilising Research does not necessarily mark an end; it marks a new beginning for me. To proceed after this ‘summer’ course in ANU, I will work towards finishing my degree in Philosophy and perhaps writing more stories that mobilise philosophical insight for the public.

I would like to first thank Ms Gita for inspiring me that every story is a story of pain as well as for looking over my first draft and teaching me the beauty of brevity. I also remember reading T.S. Eliot’s Traditions and Individual Talent. While crafting this story, I also learn something about myself, about my individual talent. I believe that my work is nothing but an accumulation of all my sources of inspiration. To just name a few, the piece is inspired by David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club (desire and rebellion), Chan Lishan’s autobiography A Philosopher’s Madness (inner voice of someone highly intellectual but schizophrenic), Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the interpretation of Nietzsche’s eternal return), and Di An’s short story Universe (the framing of the dtory). Without any of these work, my story would look completely different.

Works Cited

Burnham, Douglas. Reading Nietzsche: An Analysis of” Beyond Good and Evil”. Routledge, 2014.
Critchley, Simon. Continental philosophy: A very short introduction. OUP Oxford, 2001.
Glock, Hans-Johann. Rise of Analytic Philosophy. 1999.
McDonough, Richard. “Plato on the Art of Moral Education.” Moral Perspectives, Chong, Kim Chong (ed.), Singapore University Press, National University of Singapore (1992): 27-41.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. Beyond good and evil. Prabhat Prakashan, 1885.
Seung, Thomas K. Nietzsche’s Epic of the Soul: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Lexington Books, 2005.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Zabala, Santiago and Davis, Creston. Which Philosophy is Dead? URL:, 2013.

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