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Can Novels Be Philosophical? Part 2 February 6, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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In his NY Times article from Jan.20 James Ryerson brought up arguments supporting the view that there is a world 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, paradoxically, was himself a brilliant literary artist. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard were all writers of immense literary as well as philosophical power. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana have written novels, while novelists like Thomas Mann and Robert Musil have created fiction dense with philosophical allusion. Some have even suggested, only half in jest, that of the brothers William and Henry James, the philosopher, William, was the more natural novelist, while the novelist, Henry, was the more natural philosopher.

David Foster Wallace, who briefly attended the Ph.D. program in philosophy at Harvard after writing a first-rate undergraduate philosophy thesis (published in December by Columbia University Press as “Fate, Time, and Language”), believed that fiction offered a way to capture the emotional mood of a philosophical work. The goal, as he explained in a 1990 essay in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, wasn’t to make “abstract philosophy ‘accessible’ ” by simplifying ideas for a lay audience, but to figure out how to recreate a reader’s more subjective reactions to a philosophical text.

Unlike Murdoch, Gass and Wallace, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel is “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” treats philosophical questions with unabashed directness in her fiction, often featuring debates or dialogues among characters who are themselves philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Still, she says that part of her empathizes with Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth. It’s a “huge source of inner conflict,” she told me. “I come from a hard-core analytic background: philosophy of science, mathematical logic. I believe in the ideal of objectivity.” But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: “You feel the problem.”

So according to Ryerson there are indeed authors whose work straddle the two fields—but I’m curious about his approach, because it seems to be exclusively from the viewpoint of analytic philosophy that a gap exists: Continental philosophers have traditionally felt far closer to fictional literature, and continental authors have blended philosophical thoughts into their works, as Ryerson himself mentions. Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, spent decades teaching his readers about the value of narrative philosophy. Here in this country similar lessons have been taught since the 1980s by literature people such as Wayne Booth and Hayden White. But even in contemporary American philosophy there is an increasing rapprochement between literature and philosophy; I’m surprised that Ryerson doesn’t even mention the one contemporary American philosopher who, perhaps more than anybody else, has seen the philosophical value in fiction without getting hung up on whether fiction displays formal arguments and “hard truths”: Martha Nussbaum. And if we want to look for an American novelist who has excelled in writing fictional works of moral philosophy where the reader doesn’t choke on formal arguments, but instead sees moral deliberations come alive through his characters, John Steinbeck is probably the best example of a writer who fuses literature and ethics—to the profound irritation of literary critics, because he broke with the standard rules of literature. From Of Mice and Men to East of Eden, and in particular The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck weaves philosophical arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, into his storylines. And if you read Stephen K. George’s collections of essays, John Steinbeck and Moral Philosophy, and John Steinbeck and His Contemporaries, as well as Ethics, Literature, and Theory, you’ll find that a new generation of literature critics and moral philosophers have no problem recognizing philosophical fiction as simultaneously  representative of good philosophy and good fiction.



1. Diwght Furrow - February 6, 2011

Thank you, Nina, for the thought-provoking posts on this topic. I’m still sorting out what I think about this but for now I just want to point out that philosophers who think they do not deploy narratives in their work are self-deceptive. Analytic philosophers are attempting to solve problems. And those problems have a history which is a kind of narrative. Most introductory chapters in good monographs in philosophy recount that history to the reader in order to understand the author’s current problem. The author’s current intervention is meaningful because of the way it fits into that narrative. Some philosophers are more explicit about this than others. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature or MacIntyre’s After Virtue highlight the narrative elements. Rawl’s did not, but there is in Rawls and others like him an implicit narrative that is crucial to understanding their work.

The issue that Ryerson is raising seems to have more to do with whether philosophy is closely related to the novel or short story–a different kind of narrative.

I have doubts about whether there is a close connection between novels and philosophy but it is too late to think about it.

2. Alex Mero - February 18, 2011

Philofiction is a genre that apparently merges philosophy and literature. Let us start by clarifying both names: A philosophical text should be an unbiased reflection on the totality of everything that is. The text should not contain imagination and fictitious elements. This means that no characters may be created and no events may be imagined. Contrary to that, the literary text should only apply as a product of the imagination and of feelings. This means that fictitious elements, events and imagined characters may be created here. Let us know pay attention to the difference the public makes between philosophers and writers. Philosophers are known for their usually unintelligible jargon and for reasoning that most people cannot follow. Writers of literature are seen more as artists, creative souls who do not really belong in the academic world. But what is now actually the difference between philosophy and literature? Is that the difference between a philosopher and a writer? A writer can have more things in common with a philosopher than with another writer. Isn’t it then the case that the individual differences are greater than the differences between those two categories? And, what is philofiction actually? A literary genre that brings together philosophy and literature by making all areas between intelligence and feeling fade away with the objective to make the reader know no boundaries. Philofiction dialogues describe events and meetings between part real, part literary created characters, who reason and interpret but also clarify or contradict all kinds of thoughts and statements and in this way enable the reader to deepen his knowledge. Philofiction does indeed appeal to the intellect and the imagination simultaneously and therefore is no different from the manner in which each of us experiences life.

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