Michelle Saint

Michelle Saint lends us her thoughts on applied philosophy while talking about her academic career and pursuits in philosophy and cross-disciplinary studies. She gives her input on a unique approach by exploring fiction through the lens of applied philosophy. While this may sound like a paradox to some it is essential to recognize the impact storytelling has on us. Professor Saint explains how fiction can be used to examine human life and its implications while raising some thought-provoking questions. 

What is your understanding of ‘Applied Philosophy’?

I’m inclined towards the view that philosophy is an activity more than a subject. In particular, I think it makes the most sense to see philosophy as the activity of exploring what questions are worth asking. We develop philosophic theories, and we explore arguments to support these theories, with the ultimate goal of determining which questions we can answer and, thus, which further questions are worth asking next. With this sort of view, we can understand applied philosophy as the application of the philosophic process of developing questions to specific topics. We apply philosophy when we take the process of philosophy and apply it to subjects that generally aren’t taken to be central to the sorts of questions that philosophy explores.

How does your research relate to Applied Philosophy? Tell us a little more about some of your work.

My research has been headed in unusual directions lately! Let me note, I’ve spent a few years studying counseling psychology–in fact, I earned a Masters in counseling in August 2020. So, I’ve had some opportunity to explore the points of connection between philosophy and psychotherapy. Psychotherapy also involves the work of exploring what questions are worth asking, just within a specific context organized around the particular psychological needs of an individual. So, there are many ways in which the nature and process of psychotherapy can be informed by philosophy. Additionally, I think there are many ways in which psychotherapy can inform the nature and process of philosophy. I’d say, right now, I am particularly interested in the role of interpersonal relationships in philosophic work: what is the value of community and interpersonal interactions to philosophy?

Thinking back to your early academic career, what made you realize philosophy was the right choice for you? 

I first decided I wanted to pursue philosophy when I was a freshman in college and I took an introductory logic course. This course was pretty much the equivalent of Phi 103 (Principles of Sound Reasoning), here at ASU. I remember when I first learned about validity proofs, and I remember feeling such a deeply satisfying curiosity about it: “Yes, this is for me.”

As an undergraduate, I majored in both English and philosophy. I specialize in the philosophy of fiction, and I have a narrative approach to psychotherapy. In every way, my central interest is stories. My professional interests all circle around one central concern: the role of stories in human life.

Any philosopher or school of thought that inspires you the most or stands out? Recommended readings for our readers

There are a number of philosophers that I really love, but can I instead recommend reading some fiction? ASU is really lucky now to have Nnedi Okorafor as a professor of practice, and Okorafor’s Africanfuturistic speculative fiction is amazing. I’m a big fan of her Binti novellas. These are fantastic reads with great characters, and they are also great explorations of the role of culture in human life, as well as what it means to form connections with those other than ourselves. 

What kind of opportunities and careers exist out there for students pursuing philosophy? 

One option I don’t see discussed much: the mental health field! If you like the process of doing philosophy, and you like psychology, mental health counseling and social work are two options to consider. It is very meaningful work, and the analytic skills you develop as a philosophy student will be quite useful.

You primarily specialize in philosophy of fiction. How can that be interpreted as applied philosophy? 

Let’s expand the topic to the broader “philosophy and literature.” Philosophy and Literature is the study of how literary fiction relates to philosophy. We can see this as applied philosophy because we are applying the process of philosophic analysis to narrative artworks. We are exploring pieces that were designed for aesthetic purposes, in order to see what meaning or significance they have philosophically. Whenever we notice that a story has affected us significantly, it is worthwhile to ask: why

Do people allow fictional narrative to influence their life? If so then should art be censored or made with certain ethical guidelines? 

I don’t think people can avoid having fictional narrative influence their lives! In fact, I’m inclined towards the view that what we are, as selves, are fictional narratives. The telling and listening of stories is a deeply human activity, and there is a lot of important work we do–as individuals, as caregivers for others, and as communities–by sharing stories with one another.

Whenever we talk about ‘censorship,’ we’re considering what legal guidelines should govern the production and dissemination of stories. I’m not too interested in that; this is a matter about the freedom of speech, and there are good justifications for having a robust legal right to free speech that are independent from considerations about the nature of storytelling.

What I think is more interesting are the questions we should ask, as individuals, about the narrative art that we consume. There are questions we can ask about the enjoyment we get from stories that depict terrible immoral actions. But I think there are also very interesting and important questions to ask about the stories we consume that we don’t readily think are morally problematic. What assumptions are embedded, for instance, in big summer Blockbuster action movies? What, for instance, are the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies assuming about the value of persons with different ability levels? What do they take for granted about the power of individuals versus collective action? What sorts of narratives are we primed to take as obvious or rote, and what does this tell us about who we, ourselves, are? What does it mean to be comfortable with certain narrative tropes, rather than others?

In the first chapter of your book manuscript, you touch upon the suspension of belief. What does that reveal about human nature especially when engaging with particularly disturbing and dark storylines? 

I’m skeptical about the value of the phrase ‘the suspension of disbelief.’ I think that this misrepresents the psychological processes by which we engage with stories and find them meaningful. We believe things about stories, no doubt about it, and we can care about fiction with as much vibrancy and personal significance as we care about real things. I tend to think, to the extent that ‘the suspension of disbelief’ is a meaningful term, it describes a way in which our care is structured: to say we suspend disbelief about some unrealistic aspect of a story is just a way of saying that we aren’t concerned about it, that it doesn’t matter to us, that there are other aspects to the story that we think are better worth our attention.

When it comes to disturbing and dark stories, I think it is worth asking: why do we care about those dark elements? This is not a rhetorical question! There are most definitely good answers to be provided! But, it is worthwhile to explore what the answer is for you, as an individual: why does this story appeal to me? What needs do I have that are met by this story? What role does watching/reading/listening to this story, given its components, have in my life?

Additionally, let’s not forget, there are similar questions to ask about “non-dark” stories as well! Why do we like happy endings? What role do sit-coms with low stakes and easy outcomes play in our lives? What needs do we have, and how are those needs met like stories like these?

If stories matter to us (and they most certainly do), then it is worthwhile to explore, broadly as a society and a species, but also individually as the distinct persons we are: why and how do they matter to us?

Professor Saint specializes in the philosophy of fiction. Her work covers the metaphysics of fiction, the moral value of fiction, and the philosophy of mind. Her recent endeavours have included obtaining a Masters in counselling allowing her to explore the point between philosophy and psychotherapy. Some of her works include “The Paradox of Onstage Emotion”.  Here is the first Chapter of her book manuscript that explores the nature of our emotional responses to fictional stories. Professor Saint is also scheduled to teach a seminar in spring called “Diversified Philosophy,” and it’s focused on exploring philosophic work from marginalized voices within academic philosophy. 

Interview conducted by Areesha Hassan.

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