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Are We Stories? Do We Want to Be? November 26, 2014

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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Every student of mine will know that sooner or later I will be introducing them to some story which illustrates some philosophical idea to perfection. And I am indeed a firm believer in the ability of good stories–film as well as literature–to provide the “meat” for the “bones” of a dry or complicated philosophical theory, especially in moral philosophy. Just think of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critical expose of utilitarianism. The film Extreme Measures, same thing. Ethical relativism, look no further than Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And my latest addition to the moral universe of fiction: The television series Longmire, with Sheriff Walt Longmire being the most Kantian of heroes since Will Kane in High Noon. But rarely do we get into the core of narratology, the notion of personhood being inexorably linked with the ability of a person to tell his or her own story; it is really only in my Phil 111, Philosophy in Literature class that we have the luxury of getting into that corner of philosophy and storytelling. But this is where the field first saw the light of day, in the 1980s and 1990s, with philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, and a number of literature people such as Wayne Booth and David Carr. The idea that we become who we are because of our capacity to “connect the dots” in our lives into a narrative whole has caught on so that narratology today has two distinct areas, an epistemological/ontological side where the personal narrative becomes our human mode of being, and the ethical one where gathering one’s events into a story becomes a moral requirement in order to be a human being with care and direction.

But now there are voices, questioning the truth of “humans being storytelling animals,” at least as far as our own stories go. Because when we tell the story of our life, we are (like Ricoeur said) always in the middle, we don’t remember our beginning, and we won’t be able to tell the story of our end. In New Philosopher 11/25/2014 Patrick Stokes writes,

Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.

Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.

That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.

Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.

For one thing, Ricoeur solved that one, in his book Oneself as Another: He says to imagine one’s ending, and relate to the imaginary unity of one’s life that way. We can’t control our fate, but we can influence its direction through the story we tell. But there is another problem with seeing our lives as stories, and that is something that has made me a little more reluctant to embrace the theory of us being our stories. Because a good story, in order to have a point, invariably has to involve problems, problems that will then get resolved at the end. Maybe even horrific problems, tragedies, horror stories, tales of loss and grief, the depths of human misery. Because nobody wants their life to be a comedy, right? So if our story is supposed to be serious, we must embrace the drama, the tragedy. But perhaps most of us would rather just have a boring, safe life with predictable events, just some fun, some love, some sweetness, and then whatever problems that arise, get rid of them/get over them as fast as we can? But those lives don’t make great stories. In order to leave behind a worthy tale of our lives, we need to include the drama, the tragic, and then overcome it through a character arc.
Aside from the fact that most people’s lives will include tragedy whether we want it or not, it hardly seems like something to strive for, just so we can say that we improved on our character. Maybe most of us would prefer to read/watch fictional stories and biographies about other people’s tragedies and hope those things don’t happen to us…

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.