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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between philosophy and literature has been going on for a few decades now, and these arguments are rather outdated.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.



1. Asur - January 26, 2011

There seem to be quite a few philosophers across the Atlantic (especially in France, recently) who never go the memo that philosophy and literature are not identical pursuits.

Of course, we seem to have veered too far in the opposite direction; here, in the name of ‘sharpening’ an argument, we commit all manner of atrocities against clarity and intelligibility — ironically in the name of increasing those very qualities!

Here’s a poster-child example, an excerpt from David F. Wallace’s senior thesis in technical philosophy of language (could there even be a more ‘Analytic’ subject?):

“Let Φ (a physical possibility structure) be a set of distinct but intersecting paths ji – jn, each of which is a set of functions, L’s, on ordered pairs (), such that for any Ln, Lm in some ji, Ln R Lm, where R is a primitive accessibility relation corresponding to physical possibility understood in terms of diachronic physical compatibility.”

Wow. What a ridiculous way to say that ‘physical reality must be self-consistent’.

No wonder those crazy French guys are saying that the Anglo-American philosophical tradition has completely lost sight of the forest for the trees — that was a heck of a lot of tree-cataloging going on up there.

I think, though, that there’s some truth to both perspectives: Understanding the trees really does help with understanding the forest, but we have to remember that understanding the forest is the real goal, the only reason that it’s meaningful to study the trees.

And understanding the forest strikes me as a distinctly literary pursuit.

Asur - January 26, 2011

whoops, forgot that vector notation doesn’t paste very well — that’s “on ordered pairs (t, w) where t is ‘time’ and w is ‘world situation'”.

Now it should make sense.

2. Nina Rosenstand - January 27, 2011

Asur, you’re right on target. Continental philosophy has consistently maintained a connection with poesis, and the break between analytical and poetic language just isn’t something a thinker like Bruckner would be concerned with. I’ll elaborate in Part 2.

3. Paul J. Moloney - January 31, 2011

If one’s writing corresponds to their thinking, and, if one’s writing is terrible, their thinking must be terrible also. Aristotle is known to be a brilliant thinker and, therefore, his writing must also be brilliant. His writing is thought to be brilliant, at least among those who know the subject.

Even though each subject has its set of rules according to which one thinks and writes, I think the novelist can incorporate a philosophical theme to a story according to the rules of writing a novel. The philosophical theme is not philosophy proper. It also seems that even a part of philosophy, such as an actual philosophical argument, can also be incorporated. As a whole, though, it would seem that the writing remains a novel rather than philosophy.

The discussion, which school has the best philosophy department, has a philosophical theme to it, but it too is not philosophy proper. If philosophical themes did not have an interest to philosophers, Brian Leiter would be out of business.

4. Can Novels Be Philosophical? Part 2 « Philosophy On The Mesa - February 6, 2011

[…] of difference between the analytical arguments of philosophy and the murky feelings of literature (see blogpost below). But he also cites opposing views: Of course, such oppositions are never so simple. Plato, […]

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