Spoiler Alert! Unveiling the Plot in Thought Experiments and other Fictional Works

Argumenta 11 (11):81-97 (2020)
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Abstract
According to a recent philosophical claim, “works of fiction are thought experiments” (Elgin 2007: 47), though there are relevant differences, as the role of spoilers shows—they can ruin a novel but improve the understanding we can gain through a thought experiment. In the present article I will analyze the role of spoilers and argue for a more differentiated perspective on the relation between literature and thought experiments. I will start with a short discussion of different perspectives on thought experiments and argue that the mental-model view and the conception of games of make-believe are most promising for developing the present analogy. Then I will assess the similarities and differences between thought experiments and other works of fiction. I will focus on the role of spoilers and, more generally, on the foretaste context, of which they are part. This context guides readers of literary works of art to draw their attention to the literary and aesthetic quality of the text. In the case of thought experiments, on the other hand, it (i) prompts them to accept the presence of fictional elements in worldly-cognitive works and (ii) draws their attention towards cognitively relevant elements of the story. A discussion of Borges’ Pierre Menard in the last part will show that literary works of art become thought experiments if they are embedded in an appropriate foretaste context. Spoilers, thus, unveil that even works which—due to their length or plenty of detail—usually are not considered thought experiments, can perform similar cognitive functions.
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