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Philosophy of Humanities: Philosophy of Fiction


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Humanities

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Modern European Philosophy


In this seminar we will explore how the philosophical and literary notion ‘point of view’ can be developed into a perspectival philosophy of fiction, incorporating insights from ontology (Leibniz), literary theory (Uspensky, Bakhtin), and anthropology (Viveiros de Castro). We will do so in order to investigate the relationship between fiction and truth, with special attention to fiction’s ability to express the truth and to the resources it offers for addressing the perceived ‘crisis of truth’ that comes to the fore in notions like post-truth. This will be developed in four steps.

  1. First, we will derive an ontology of expression from the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. At the end of his Theodicy, Leibniz introduces a multi-layered tale that starts as a paraphrase of a 15th century dialogue of free will and culminates in one of Leibniz’s own inventions: the pyramid of all possible worlds. At the top of this pyramid, one finds the best of all possible worlds, chosen by God, the only one that is actualized. In his Monadology, Leibniz develops a conception of monads as particular points of view, each of which expresses the whole universe. Leibniz famously stated that a monad (as point of view) has “no windows through which anything could come in or go out.” We will interpret this as a principle of immanence: a particular point of view that cannot reach beyond itself to something outside that is no longer marked by it. In Leibniz there is a tension between the terminology of ‘point of view’ and the terminology of ‘worlds’. Leibniz resolved this tension by presupposing the omniscient point of view of a divine author, on which the separation between the different types of worlds could be grounded. In our analysis we will radicalize the principle of immanence, removing the omniscient point of view of a divine author. This results in a proliferation of points of view that do no longer constitute a singular world in any coherent way. This reading of Leibniz ‘without god’ offers a rich and nuanced language to understand the relation between these various points of view, each of which only expresses a small segment of the universe in a clear way while expressing everything else in a hopelessly obscured manner.

  2. The notion ‘point of view’ that figures so prominently in Leibniz’s ontology, also plays an important role in literary theory. This allows us to expand the Leibnizian ontology with the critical apparatus that is developed by literary theorists. The Russian linguist Boris Uspensky, for instance, offers a vocabulary for distinguishing between phraseological, spatio-temporal, psychological, and ideological points of view. Despite the heuristic value of Uspensky’s categories, such an external analysis of points of view seems to be at odds with the principle of immanence mentioned earlier. This is remedied by the Russian philosopher and philologist Mikhail Bakhtin in his important Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Partly inspired by Uspensky, Bakhtin develops an immanent analysis of the dialogic and polyphonic nature of Dostoevsky’s fiction. As Bakhtin remarks, most of the traditional genres of fiction are defined by a “complex system of ways and means of apprehending reality in order to complete it while understanding it.” In his oeuvre, Bakhtin focusses on fictional works like those of Dostoevsky that cannot be reduced to these complex systems of completion, but that are marked by heteroglossia, an irreducible variety of points of view, each of which remains incomplete. This analysis of the role of point of view in literary theory, will give us a better grasp on how Leibniz’s ontology of expression can enrich a philosophy of fiction.

  3. For all its heuristic promise, Bakthin’s conception of poetics is still marked by certain blind spots: (a) a lack of attention for the role of the body; (b) a largely anthropocentric approach that excludes non-human points of view. To remedy this, we will turn to the perspectival Anthropology of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. In his book Cannibal Metaphysics, the Brazilian anthropologist and ethnologist highlights the importance of ‘point of view’ and perspectivism in Amerindian mythology and cosmology. As he shows, for Amazonian and other Amerindian peoples “personhood and perspectiveness—the capacity to occupy a point of view—is a question of degree, context, and position rather than a property distinct to specific species.” They believe that animals and other nonhumans “‘see themselves as persons’ and therefore ‘are persons’.” Such nonhuman ‘persons’ do not differ from human beings because they lack consciousness or culture, but because their bodies are different and provide them with a different point of view. This implies that to know is “to ‘personify,’ to take the point of view of what should be known or, rather, the one whom should be known.” Although this anthropology is not without problems, it will allow us to tease out some of the aspects of point of view that remained in the background in the theories of Uspensky and Bakhtin (because of their anthropocentric focus). It will also show us to what extent a philosophy of fiction can become part of what Viveiros de Castro calls “a permanent decolonization of thought.”

  4. Given the proliferation of points of view, there is no ahistorical measure to distinguish fiction from reality. We will explore this issue, through an analysis of the complicated relation between fiction and truth. Bakhtin’s distinction between monological, dialogical, and polyphonic discourses offers us a first entry into this subject, allowing us to challenge monological perspectives on truth. To expand this, we will zoom in on what Michael Riffaterre calls the truth-in-fiction paradox: although fictional discourses deliberately present themselves as artificial constructions, they can only operate on the basis of a suspension of disbelief that will convince the audience something true and relevant is expressed. This truth-in-fiction paradox offers a counter-perspective on what one could call ‘the contemporary crisis of truth’. In everyday language, this crisis is articulated in the imprecise and somewhat problematic term ‘post truth’. We will explore this issue on the hypothesis that post-truth discourses constitute a full reversal of the truth-in-fiction paradox: even though these discourses present themselves as fundamentally genuine and truthful, they are marked by a complete indifference for establishing any kind of truth procedure. To test the validity of this hypothesis, we will rely on the four characteristics of the ‘game of veridiction’, as articulated by Michel Foucault.

Course objectives

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • the history of the concept of point of view in philosophy and literary theory;

  • some of the key concepts of Leibniz’s philosophy, Bakthin’s poetics, and Viveiros de Castro’s anthropology;

  • the interrelations between the truth-in-fiction paradox and the problem that comes to the fore in the notion ‘post-truth’.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • critically understand, comment and interconnect specialized texts and theories relative to ‘point of view’ in philosophy, literary theory, and fiction;

  • present a consistent and comprehensive understanding of ‘point of view’ in its various guises and explore possible avenues of research;

  • integrate insights from philosophy, literary theory, and anthropology to get a better understanding of the nature of fiction;

  • critically engage with the question of truth by relating the truth-in-fiction paradox and contemporary debates about the ‘crisis of truth’.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method

  • Individual research project tied to the themes of the course: 30%

  • Final paper on a question agreed in advance based on a proposal: 70%

  • Class preparation and attendance are required and are conditions for submission of the final paper.

In addition, there will be several ungraded assignments:

  • Proposal for the final paper

  • Oral presentation


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of several subtests (see above).


Class participation is a mandatory requirement for taking the resit.
Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

Primary material:

  • Selections from Leibniz’s Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de dieu, la liberte de l'homme et l'origine du mal (Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil).

  • Selections from Leibniz’s The Yale Leibniz: The Leibniz-Arnauld Correspondence (dual language edition).

  • Selections from Leibniz’s Philosophical Texts.

  • Selections from Uspensky’s A Poetics of Composition.

  • Selections from Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.

  • Selections from Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination.

  • Selections from Viveiros de Castro’s Métaphysiques cannibales: Lignes d’anthropologie post-structurale (Cannibal Metaphysics: For a Post-Structural Anthropology).

    • Selections from Viveiros de Castro’s The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul - The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in Sixteenth-Century Brazil.
  • Selections from Riffaterre’s Fictional Truth.

  • Selections from Foucault’s Subjectivité et vérité. Cours au Collège de France, 1980-1981 (Subjectivity and Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1980-1981).

Selected secondary material

In the seminars we will use the English translations of these sources. Students are allowed to use the texts in their original language or in any translation they prefer, but during the discussion we will refer to the English edition. The relevant selections of these texts will be distributed or can be found online through the library.

Background material

  • Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics: Riddles, nightlife, Substance.

  • Simon Palfrey’s Shakespeare’s Possible Worlds.

  • Peter Fenves’s Arresting Language: From Leibniz to Benjamin.

  • Bakhtin/Medvedev, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics.

  • Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds.

  • Marisol de la Cadena et al.’s A World of Many Worlds (edited volume).
    Gilles Deleuze’s *Le Pli. Leibniz et le Baroque (The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque).

  • Michel Foucault’s Language, Madness, and Desire: On Literature.

  • Ann Banfield’s Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction.

  • Roger Fowler’s Linguistics and the Novel.

  • Paul Simpson’s Language, Ideology and Point of View.

  • Calin-Andrei Mihailescu et al.’s Fiction Updated Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics (edited volume).


Enrolment through MyStudymap is mandatory.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga


Not applicable.