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between philosophy and literature has been going on for a few decades now, and these arguments are rather outdated.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

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