Philosophical Short Stories


Do you know of any particularly philosophical short stories?

[book sculpture by Kenjio]

Nabeel Hamid (Concordia) writes:

I’m wondering if it would be possible to crowd source short stories with philosophical content (broadly understood) on Daily Nous. A relative of mine is a high school English teacher in Pakistan and has asked me for some suggestions. I figured your readers would have plenty to share!

Readers?


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Ian Olasov
2 years ago

I taught a class on Philosophical Issues in Literature last semester that mostly revolved around short stories. Here are the stories we read:

Delany, “Aye, and Gomorrah”
Marias, “While the Women are Sleeping”
Le Guin, “The Flyers of Gy”
Shawl, “Black Betty”
Roanhorse, “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience”
Lawrence, “The Rocking-Horse Winner”
Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”
Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”
Robinson, “Melancholy Elephants”
Bisson, “They’re Made Out of Meat”
Dennett, “Where Am I?”
Borges, “The Library of Babel”
Mullany, “The Ashtray”
Nozick, “Fiction”Report

grad student
grad student
2 years ago

Borges – “The Immortal”Report

Chris Scambler
Reply to  grad student
2 years ago

every Borges story!

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” is another good one. it is cited in Burgess’ paper “being explained away” as a sort of fictional approximation to the no-objects approach to metaphysics Burgess is developing.Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery”Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
2 years ago

Le Guin “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (which always reminds me of the chapter “Rebellion” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov)
Dostoevsky “The Grand Insquisitor” (the chapter right after “Rebellion”)Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
Reply to  Furry Boots
2 years ago

It’s perhaps unfair to a work of literature to make a definitive claim as to what it is about, but roughly speaking Le Guin’s story is about the ethics of sacrificing one for the sake of the many. So it’s relevant to discussions of consequentialism. “Rebellion” is about the same thing, but with special reference to the problem of evil and the idea that God might allow, or require, some suffering as part of a divine plan that is good overall, albeit bad for some. “The Grand Inquisitor” is about people’s earthly needs versus their (alleged) spiritual needs. It refers to the biblical story of Jesus’ being tempted in Matthew 4:1-11, but I think the questions raised could still be interesting to a primarily Muslim class.Report

Rob Byer
Rob Byer
2 years ago

Neil Gaiman – “Changes”
Neil Gaiman – “Other People”
Both are very short but also quite interesting, and with very different philosophical implications in each.Report

Rob Byer
Rob Byer
Reply to  Rob Byer
2 years ago

To tack on a couple more pretty obvious ones.
Andy Weir – “The Egg”
Philip K. Dick – “The Eyes Have It” – This would be great to accompany some discussion of language use.
All four of these, with the exception of “Changes” are readily available for free online.Report

Rob Byer
Rob Byer
Reply to  Rob Byer
2 years ago

In light of Joe’s request.

“Changes” is about essential aspects of identity, and whether sex is an essential aspect of identity. It also has implications for causal-historical accounts of personal identity, ethics in sexual relationships, self-revelation, and other items.

“Other People” is an interesting take on Hell and retributive justice, and could lead to interesting discussions on the nature of Hell and the problem of Hell in Christianity.

“The Egg” along with Philip K. Dick’s “The Turning Wheel” (one I didn’t recommend but I would, despite its weird Orientalism) are both nominally about the self, identity after death, reincarnation, and (at least in “The Egg”) the relation of the self to others (I had a student present on “The Egg” as a way to access the atman is Brahman claim in certain strains of Hindu philosophy).

“The Eyes Have It” is a funny story about a man who takes certain descriptions (e.g. “I have no stomach for it” and “His eyes followed her”) too literally and believes that he has discovered aliens who can manipulate their body parts in strange ways. It is cleverly done and worth reading purely for fun, but can also be a fun way to introduce a discussion of metaphor or other non-literal ways of using language.Report

Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
Nicole K. Braden-Johnson
2 years ago

Tolstoy – “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
Doeblin – “The Murder of a Buttercup”
Chopin – “The Story of an Hour”
Gilman – “The Yellow Wallpaper”
Chekhov – “Rothschild’s Fiddle”
Anything really by Asimov, but especially maybe: “Evidence,” “The Last Question,” “The Dead Past,” and “Satisfaction Guaranteed”Report

Angel
Angel
2 years ago

Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif.” Dual female narrators are of different races, but their races are never named/are ambiguous due to class signifiers. Lots to discuss in terms of self v. other, social identities, etc.Report

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

Great suggestions. But it would be very helpful though if one can indicate not just the author and title but also the relevant philosophical theme/issue next to it.Report

James A DeHullu
James A DeHullu
2 years ago

Most readers have probably already read Ursula LeGuin’s story The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, which provides a way to introduce and discuss utilitarian ethical theory.

For those who have not, here’s a link:

https://www.google.com/search?rlz=1C1GGRV_enUS751US753 &ei=MJi0XMqaGKu2ggeT_5-YCw&q=ursula+leGuin+omelas+pdf&oq=ursula+leGuin+omelas+pdf&gs_l=psy-ab.3..0i22i30.20089.20760..21051…0.0..0.82.317.4……0….1..gws-wiz…….0i13.D3m_rn7EzKk

You can check out my website, Ariadne’s Thread, at http://www.CriticalThought.info

or at http://www.ariadne.x10.mx/

(The site was designed for a desktop or laptop, not a mobile phone.)Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
Reply to  James A DeHullu
2 years ago

Oh yeah I once assigned The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas for a section on utilitarianism. Ursula LeGuin, by the way, takes the position that science fictions stories are just elaborate thought experiments.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

A lot of the one’s I’d site are already here, but I can’t resist a couple by Gene Wolfe, “The Hero as Werewolf” (genetic engineering), “The Fifth Head of Cerberus” (personal identity). There’s a couple other ones by Philip K. Dick nobody’s brought up yet that bear mentioning too “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” (immortality and infinity) and “Beyond Lies the Wub” (personal identity again). Heck anything by Philip K. Dick when he’s good raises philosophical themes. Sadly though, Dick’s work is of wildly uneven quality.Report

Andrew Mills
Andrew Mills
2 years ago

Nothing fancy here:

The Death of Ivan Ilytch by Tolstoy. for discussions of how one lives in the knowledge of one’s death; how awareness of death affects one’s life.
Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr by Ortega y Gassett. For Existentialism classes. About a priest who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, but thinks his parishoners can’t handle that truth and need to be ministered to, so he persists as a priest despite his lack of belief.
(And it’s not a short story, but the recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is fantastic for discussions of death, acceptance of mortality, the perils of immortality, and grief.)Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
2 years ago

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” (probably some others too)Report

Brad
Brad
2 years ago

“Hell is the Absence of God” and “Liking What You See: A Documentary” by Ted Chiang
“The Infinite Assassin” by Greg EganReport

Gray
Gray
2 years ago

Nick Bostrom’s “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant” (https://nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html)
I remember finding it a pretty compelling read about the nature of death. The story itself is also followed by the author’s interpretation of its various components.Report

Curtis
2 years ago

Richard Wright, “The Man Who Lived Underground”: I just taught this over the course of a week as the first reading for a course focused on existential literature. It went quite well. It grapples with issues of identity, meaning, race, guilt, freedom. A few of his other short stories in Eight Men might be interesting too.

Beauvoir’s early short stories (collected in When Things of the Spirit Come First) are also interesting. I’ll be teaching two of them–“Lisa” and “Marguerite”–in a few weeks.

And of course, Sartre’s short stories are of interest. Most of the rest are actually more interesting than “The Wall”. “Childhood of a Leader” would be interesting to teach today. Kevin W. Sweeney’s book The Philosophical Contexts of Sartre’s The Wall and Other Stories: Stories of Bad Faith is pretty good for guiding those unfamiliar to Sartre.Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

I’m not sure where we draw the line between short story and novella so I’ll add one more:
Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” is fantastic on some issues related to freedom of the will and it offers very powerful evidence against some versions of the guise of the good thesis. It’s much better on that score than are works, which usually come up in those discussions, like “Paradise Lost.”Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
2 years ago

“The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster (1911) is particularly prescient with regard to the internet and its deleterious effects on culture.Report

Boram Lee
Boram Lee
2 years ago

Mark Twain – “What Is Man” (this is more a philosophical dialogue than a short story)
Themes: psychological egoism, free will/determinismReport

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
2 years ago

The Cold Equations by Tom Godwin illustrates a harsh utilitarian calculation and ‘dirty hands’
Ps I was going to say basically anything by Borges but everyone beat me to itReport

Vaughn
Vaughn
2 years ago

“We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Phillip K. Dick. I was a TA last year and used it to accompany Nozick’s Experience Machine. It’s about

a man with a false memory implant. He wants to go to mars, and goes to get a false memory implant because he can’t afford to really go, but discovers that actually he’s already been and had his memory erased.

It brings out the question whether what’s important is for your desire to actually be fulfilled or simply for you to believe that it has, so it’s an interesting compare/contrast with Nozick’s Experience Machine.Report

Brian Cutter
Brian Cutter
2 years ago

Eric Schwitzgebel has several great short pieces of science fiction. Two I especially like are “Reinstalling Eden” and “The Tyrant’s Headache.” (The latter can be read as a fun reductio of David Lewis’s functionalist theory of pain.)Report

Jim White
Jim White
2 years ago

Tobias Wolfe, “The Night in Question” (the problem of evil)Report

Michel
Michel
2 years ago

Peter Watts – The Things

It’s John Carpenter’s The Thing, reimagined from the thing’s perspective. It relates directly to the literature on background and carryover content in the philosophy of literature, but is also focused around some issues in the philosophy of mind, especially the sentience/sapience distinction, and the nature of consciousness.

And it’s free (in both audiobook and written formats) from Clarkesworld Magazine.Report

Jesse Kirkpatrick
Jesse Kirkpatrick
2 years ago

Hemingway, Soldier’s Home, which explores civilian—military relations and moral and psychological injury. Same for Sun Also Rises, which is obviously a novel, but a Special Forces colleague and Hemingway scholar noted that it’s so obvious the protagonist is suffering moral injury. It had never occurred to me before that.Report

Martin Lenz
2 years ago

Ingeborg Bachmann, “Everything” (“Alles”). A story that makes it unmistakabely clear why (thinking about) language matters. Here is an online version: https://www.theparisreview.org/fiction/4602/everything-ingeborg-bachmannReport

Jim White
Jim White
2 years ago

George Saunders, “Escape From Spiderhead” (philosophy of mind)
Robert Coover, “Going For a Beer” (mortality?)Report

Sara L. Uckelman
2 years ago

Are we allowed to self-promote? If so, my short story “Being Human” in FlameTree Press’s anthology _Robots & Artificial Intelligence_ (more info/link to purchase at http://community.dur.ac.uk/s.l.uckelman/fiction.html; my story “The Sum of Our Memories” listed there also deals with questions of memory and personal identity, though somewhat more obliquely).Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

“All at One Point”, by Italo Calvino. It’s a first person account of being part of the Big Bang. Mostly funny, somewhat thought-provoking.Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Assuming OP’s relative, a “high school English teacher in Pakistan”, might want a resource that is free, written in accessible English, short, and tested with independent learners and high school students around the world for over a generation (as part A of the Pathways to Philosophy online tutorial), I would recommend Geoffrey Klempner’s “The Possible World Machine: An Introduction to the Problems of Philosophy”

Contents:
1. The Possible World Machine: Philosophy and science fiction
2. The Black Box: Free will and determinism
3. Walkabout: Mind-body problem
4. A Case of Doubt: Can scepticism be refuted?
5. A Lesson in Biology: Other minds
6. The Insurance Policy: Personal identity
7. A Moral Tale: Are values subjective?
8. The Good Witness: Reality of the past
9. The Fatalists: ‘What will be, will be’
10. The Ministry of Perception: Appearance and reality
11. Dr Johnson’s Boots: ‘To be is to be perceived’
12. Space Hopper: Philosophy of space
13. The Window of Consciousness: Reality of ‘now’
14. Message from a Lonely Planet: ‘The world is my world’
15. Morgan’s Farewell: Is it rational to fear death?

PDF freely and legally available from https://philosophypathways.com/download.html

I’ve asked him to post my (or his) bookmarked version for easier navigability and usability for OP’s presumed use case.Report

Gary Bartlett
2 years ago

I think that saying “_every_ Borges story” is philosophical is a little bit of an exaggeration. But it is certainly true that very, very many of them are positively bursting with philosophical themes, and many more at least touch on one or two. I’ve used his stories in PHIL 101 classes for several years now. Here are some of my favorites:
Borges and I (self / identity)
Everything and Nothing (self / identity)
The Ethnographer (meaning in life)
The Rose of Paracelsus (belief, miracles, reality)
The Writing of the God (belief, theism, evidence)
August 25th, 1983 (self / identity)
Avelino Arredondo (free will & responsibility)
The Circular Ruins (self / identity)
Unworthy (friendship & ethical obligation)
The Lottery in Babylon (chance, freedom, determinism, indeterminism)
The Secret Miracle (metaphysics of time)
The South (self / identity, meaning in life)
The Library of Babel (so many possibilities here; a mind-blowing story)
Funes, His Memory (perception, memory, language, empiricism)
Pierre Menard, Author of the ‘Quixote’ (art and authorship)
Shakespeare’s Memory (self / identity)
The Garden of Forking Paths (freedom & possibility)
Blue Tigers (numbers and the a priori)
The Immortal (immortality and meaning)
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (reality, idealism)

There is one contemporary author of whom I think it really _is_ true that _every single_ story he’s written is philosophical. That’s Ted Chiang. Someone above already mentioned a couple of his stories, but honestly all of them will count. (I recently taught a Philosophy & Sci-Fi class where we basically read everything by him.) That’s partly because he hasn’t written all that many stories: 15 or 16, I think, at last count. Most of them are in the collection “Stories of Your Life and Others”, and those that aren’t are mostly readily available online. Many readers here will have seen the movie “Arrival” that came out a couple years ago, which was adapted from the title story of Chiang’s book, “Story of Your Life”.Report

Alan Tapper
Alan Tapper
2 years ago

If you want stories written by a philosopher-educator, I recommend the three Thinking Stories books by Philip Cam. Also his Sophia’s Questions.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

Andy Egan, “learning to be me”.Report

Gary Bartlett
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Aren’t you mixing your Egans here, David? 🙂Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Gary Bartlett
2 years ago

Yes!

Greg Egan, of course…Report

Martin Lenz
2 years ago

And a recent one by Evelina Miteva, “Suspicion”. A great story tackling psychological indeterminacy.
Here’s a link to the English translation from the Bulgarian: https://www.inkroci.com/culture_movie/towards-east/9009.htmlReport

Lukas
Lukas
2 years ago

Shakespeare’s Othello (epistemology & other minds: the poverty of “the ocular proof”)Report

Lukas
Lukas
Reply to  Lukas
2 years ago

Not a short story, but not a novel either, and definitely worth reading / seeing!Report

Irena Burton
Irena Burton
2 years ago

I recommend the blog Investigating Knowledge – https://investigatingknowledge.com/ – which offers weekly posts highlighting the relevance of theory of knowledge/philosophy in today’s research. The pieces are written with teachers and students in mind and offer engaging insights.Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
A young boy, torn between the imperatives of unquestioning loyalty to his vengeful father and his growing concern for justice and abiding by the law, muses:
“Maybe it will all add up and balance and vanish—corn, rug, fire; the terror and grief, the being pulled two ways like between two teams of horses—gone, done with for ever and ever. “Report

Sam Duncan
Sam Duncan
2 years ago

One more thought. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer have an awesome collection of sci fi short stories, “The Big Book of Science Fiction” and a lot of stories there raise philosophical themes. Off the top of my head:
Clifford D. Simak, “Desertion” (personal identity, transformative experience)
Ursula LeGuin, “Vaster then Empires and More Slow” (the problem of other minds, radically different conceptual schemes, the second person standpoint)
William Tenn, “The Ghost Standard” (other minds, the Turing test)
Ted Chiang, “The Story of Your Life” (free will, time travel, different conceptual schemes and language)Report

Nabeel
Nabeel
2 years ago

Thanks, everybody, for the wonderful suggestions!Report

Emily Thomas
Emily Thomas
2 years ago

British idealist May Sinclair wrote lots of philosophical fiction, including a short story “The Finding of the Absolute” (1923), where the ghost of Kant explains the true nature of reality.Report

Douglas Fishel
Douglas Fishel
2 years ago

I can’t imagine teaching utilitarianism with LeGuin’s wonderful “Those walking away from Omelas”Report

Douglas Fishel
Douglas Fishel
Reply to  Douglas Fishel
2 years ago

Make that without that wonderfully written piece.Report

Alyse
Alyse
2 years ago

Chapter 10 of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, “The Dream”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

Are there any good stories I could use to help with the nature of time, parts, causation, divided conciousness, moral realism, and the question of why there is something rather than nothing? I could also use more suggestions for stories dealing with free will.Report

Zsuzsanna
Zsuzsanna
1 year ago

Various stories in S. Lem’s The Cyberiad
Bloodchild by Octavia Butler, available for free onlineReport