In the novel Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Peart, there is a small but subtly significant part about a bookshop called Underworld Books. In the story, the protagonist, a young man named Owen Hardy, comes upon the shop in the midst of his adventures far from home. In the window, he sees a copy of a book that had belonged to his deceased mother. Back home, he read this book over and over. The specialness of the book was that it gave a meaningful connection to the memory of his mother. The book told of many lands that existed far beyond his small hometown of Barrell Arbor. Until his recent adventures, young Owen could only imagine any reality beyond his simple existence.
Owen goes into the bookshop and asks if he can look at the book in the window. In an exceedingly difficult time in his life in the story, when he was disconnected to everything that meant something to him, the book represented a connection to his mother and to his home. Upon reading it, though, he becomes confused. It is the same book, but all the stories are different. Places that are described one way in his mother’s copy are described entirely otherwise in this copy. What Owen learns from the proprietor of Underworld Books is that many other worlds exist in which the same people and places have “different fortunes and fates” than in the world of his existence. Likewise, a book in one world also exists in the others but is particular to the reality of that world. What we learn is that Underworld Books has a way of passage between all these “possible worlds” and the proprietor has managed many volumes from many different worlds.
As far as I know, no such parallel worlds exist. I am certainly not opposed to the idea. Yet, there is a poetic representation of a truth in this portion of the story calls for some elucidation.
The late philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, wrote about what is represented in the fictional story in Clockwork Angels, but with a slightly different twist. In the novel, there are innumerable worlds that exist simultaneously. The idea of possible worlds in Clockwork Angels refers to worlds that one can pass into (if one knows how) and experience. In Ricoeur’s philosophy, he refers to what I will call “worlds that may be” that open up in front of the world that is. The world to come can be, within the realm of the possible, anything that we can imagine it to be. The connection that I am making between the fictional Clockwork Angels and the work of Paul Ricoeur is this: what the fictional story creates as several possible worlds existing simultaneously speaks to the reality in the non-fictional world in which we dwell. What it says is that there truly are many possible worlds; but only ones that might be if we can imagine and create them.
To lay some more groundwork for what I want to say, I will ask a couple of questions. Have you ever written something (such as an email) in which you intended one meaning, but the reader of your text understood something entirely different? Moreover, have you been able to see that what your reader understood was a reasonable way to read your text even though what they understood was not what you meant? This is a character and quality of language that, in philosophy, we refer to as “polysemic.” That is, language has the capacity to contain multiple meanings, such that when an author chooses certain words to express an intended meaning, the language can contain other meanings not even conceived by the author but may be picked up by a reader.
But wait?! How can we ever meaningfully communicate to one another?! I like the way Dr. David Kaplan says it: “Polysemy is not only the source of misunderstanding and miscommunication, but also of the richness and fullness of language” (Kaplan, Ricoeur’s Critical Theory). Sure, misunderstanding and miscommunication happens. That cannot be avoided and is why dialogue is so important. As the famous hermeneutic philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, articulated, every misunderstanding presupposes the possibility of a mutual understanding that can be reached through continued dialogue. Yet, language has a real richness to it precisely because of the plurality of meanings it can contain. If you think about it, you know this is true in your own experience. For example, you and your best friend read the same book. It is the same words and same passages and pages; yet when you discuss it, your friend got things out of it that you did not see and vice versa. Your ensuing conversation about the book enriches both of you as you share multiple perspectives. You might even disagree with each other, but that is okay, too. Through dialogue, you learn from one another and have your own world enlarged with perspectives you might not have seen yourself and become the better for it.
The same thing is true for things like works of art or perhaps a movie. Whether you and a friend discuss a painting or a film, you learn that there is more than one way to understand what it might mean. And the artist or filmmaker might have had a particular message different from other ones you might take away from it. This reveals another truth. Once a work, such as a text or work of art, leaves the author or artist, it takes on a life of its own beyond the control of the individual from which it originated. Returning to Paul Ricoeur, he wrote that understanding a text is not so much about attempting to get into the mind of the author, but to “explicate the type of being-in-the-world that [unfolds] in front of the text” (Ricoeur, From Text to Action). This applies to more than texts. But the point is this: once you encounter anything such as a text or a culture or anything that requires understanding, that understanding is aimed at something to the effect of a “where do we go from here?” reflection.
As we look at the world around us and try to make sense of it, we must ask ourselves “what kind of world do we want to live in?” and then how we get there.
One of the tools in our toolbox of creating a better world is the power of imagination. One of the things that Ricoeur talked about regarding imagination is how imagining sometimes gets a bad rap. We need to get real! Quit imagining things! Imagination is thought by some to be opposed to what is real. Ricoeur disagreed. One of the things he said about imagination is that it is an “instrument of the critique of the real.” For example, sometimes when we are trying to solve a problem, someone might say “use your imagination!” Learning to think creatively with imagination can open our minds to see the heart of the problem and then allow us to discover possibilities to, as Ricoeur said, explicate how to be in the world in front of our present situation.
What role does fiction play? Fiction is, of course, an exercise in imagination. When a writer of fiction, like Kevin J. Anderson, conceives of a story with its plot, characters, landscapes, cultures, and so on, the writer must imagine all of these things. Fiction, like imagination, might be mistakenly thought of as disconnected to the real. But again, Ricoeur points out that fiction has the power to “redescribe reality” such that we can, as with imagination, critique the present reality and conceive of one we would rather live in. Consequently, we can be moved to action to bring that world about.
I read a lot of books. I am a philosopher, after all, and reading is a significant part of my job. But I do not read just philosophy. Among other things, I like to read a lot of fiction. When we read, we are transported to many possible worlds. To be clear, the possible worlds of a lot of fiction (I am thinking here of fantasy and science fiction) do not lie in the exact duplication of these worlds where we might find dragons and magic. We have to use our imagination a little. The possible worlds contained in these books are not a literal rendering of the world of the story, but a translation of what is good in those worlds into the reality of our own.
This is one reason I read books. We often read just because we like to. Reading is satisfying. Sometimes it is an escape for a little while from the pressures of our realities. Reading does not need any reason other than it is just good to do. But reading also has the power to help us think of better realities and might just motivate us to do whatever part we can to bring about a world that may be. The hope is that it can be one that is more just and good than the one we have. I do not want to leave the world as I found it. I think I would like to leave it a little better. Excuse me while I go read a book.