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Can Novels be Philosophical? Part 1 January 26, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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A fabulously interesting piece by James Ryerson in the New York Times Book Review section! My comments to his piece will have to wait a few days–for now I just want to share excerpts from this thought-provoking essay with you:

Can a novelist write philosophically? Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world.

Philosophy has historically viewed literature with suspicion, or at least a vague unease. Plato was openly hostile to art, fearful of its ability to produce emotionally beguiling falsehoods that would disrupt the quest for what is real and true. Plato’s view was extreme (he proposed banning dramatists from his model state), but he wasn’t crazy to suggest that the two enterprises have incompatible agendas. Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many. Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them. Most philosophers are wary of the aesthetic urge in themselves. It says something about philosophy that two of its greatest practitioners, Aristotle and Kant, were pretty terrible writers.

In Part 2 I’ll post more excerpts from Ryerson’s essay, and post some comments. For one thing, the bridge-building between philosophy and literature has been going on for a few decades now, and these arguments are rather outdated. Novels, and the occasional movie, can indeed not just “feel” philosophical, but present philosophical points. You just have to dig for them. But interestingly, literature professors have been just as suspicious of philosophers messing with their literature. Are those days coming to an end? Stay tuned.


Happiness is a “Moment of Grace”? January 23, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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The Philosophy of Happiness is a hot topic these days; what St. Augustine said about time, I think we can safely say about happiness, too: When you don’t ask me, I know what it is—when you ask me, I don’t. Here, in The Guardian, is an interesting interview with French philosopher and novelist Pascal Bruckner who focused on happiness before happiness was cool.

Now, 10 years after its French publication, Bruckner’s treatise on the nature of happiness has finally received an English translation under the title Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. As Bruckner acknowledges, happiness is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down. We can take it to mean wellbeing, contentment, joy and pleasure, as well as several other definitions, but whatever it entails, it’s a philosophical topic that dates back to the very beginnings of the discipline.

For the ancient Greeks, happiness was synonymous with the good life. To be happy was to fulfil a harmonious role in an ordered society. Christianity replaced happiness with salvation, a life of denial for the promise of eternal bliss after death. It was the Enlightenment that returned happiness to earth. Most famously, the American Declaration of Independence guaranteed the right “to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”.

Today, however, says Bruckner, people feel an obligation to be happy, and if they can’t live up to it, their lives collapse:

Bruckner suggests that with nothing standing between ourselves and happiness, other than our willingness to grasp it, there is a moral compulsion weighing on us to be happy – and it’s precisely this social pressure that makes so many people unhappy. “We should wonder why depression has become a disease. It is a disease of a society that is looking desperately for happiness, which we cannot catch. And so people collapse into themselves.”

 Bruckner’s book is a rich mixture of philosophy, literary learning and social observation; a cultured diagnosis rather than a populist cure. He does not believe that happiness can be reliably identified, much less measured. “Wellbeing is the object of statistics,” he says. “Happiness is not.” But he is not above issuing advice. “You can’t summon happiness like you summon a dog. We cannot master happiness, it cannot be the fruit of our decisions. We have to be more humble. Not because we should praise frailty or humility but because people are very unhappy when they try hard and fail. We have a lot of power in our lives but not the power to be happy. Happiness is more like a moment of grace.”

Bruckner is at pains to emphasise that happiness has more in common with an accident than a self-conscious choice. Interestingly, the origin of the word lies in the Old Norse word for chance: happ. But leaving happiness to chance, warns Bruckner, is not the same as ignoring it. “It’s said that if you don’t look for happiness, it will come. In fact, it’s not so easy. If you turn your back on happiness, you might miss it. It’s a catch-22 and I don’t think there’s any way out, except perhaps that real happiness doesn’t care about happiness. You can reach it only indirectly.”

But how similar are we in our experience of happiness? As much as I am skeptical of the merits of relativism, it is obvious that different cultures have different views of the achievement and experience of happiness;  the sense of happiness achieved by a Frenchman may be ontologically and morally different than that of a Dane (and of course the Danes, my ancestral people, are supposed to be the happiest people on Earth).  Here we have a good example of a field of research that needs input from psychology, neuroscience, and anthropology, with a dash of literature and poetry, and a philosopher’s touch to tie it all together. Looking forward to reading Bruckner’s text.