Philosophy in Fiction

19 January 2012

Some famous and not-so-famous pieces of philosophy are, strictly speaking, fiction: the Dialogues of Plato, Hume and Berkeley and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, for example.  And Rousseau’s Emile has some novel-like elements.  Among the less famous are my own Dialogues.   (In case you are interested, the are Dialogues on Personal Identity and Immortality, and Dialogue on Good, Evil and the Existence of God.  Both published by Hackett publishing.  Small and inexpensive, they make great gifts.)

My dialogues have three characters, which give me three voices to play with, each of whom can get wrapped up in their own point of view in a way that’s difficult in the normal way of writing philosophy.  But my dialogues, and the others I mentioned, are really pretty marginal cases of fiction.  There’s not much plot, and limited character development.

With all due respect to us dialogue writers,  something like Moby Dick is a more interesting example of philosophy in fiction.  The three main mates -- Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask -- seem to represent Platonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.  The philosophies are developed not just in what they say but what they do.  And the novel as a whole explores what gives a life meaning.  It’s a very philosophical novel, but clearly a novel, written by a great novelist.

Just as an aside, since we're supposed to enjoy their coffee, it seems like Starbuck’s should have called themselves "Stubb’s."  Epicurean coffee sounds more promising than Platonistic coffee.

Be that as it may, let’s ask the question whether philosophical truths, or any kind of truths, can be conveyed better in fiction than in straightforward prose of the sort that most philosophers favor?

An important part of fiction is to get across what it’s like to be a certain kind of person; a good novelist or playwright can get you into the fictional person’s way of thinking and feeling and reasoning and deciding.  I have no doubt that certain truths can be more effectively conveyed in this way.  But are there truths than can be conveyed only in this way?  How could that be?

Think of that moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck agonizes because his conscience tells him he should turn Jim in, but some deeper grasp of humanity prevents him from doing it.  There's a philosophical lesson there, and the novel is a superb way of getting it across.  But the only way?

Let’s see if we can make sense of that. You can tell someone what it’s like to feel pain, or hear a trumpet, but arguably there's a way of knowing what pain or a trumpet blast is like that comes only with the experience of feeling pain, or hearing a trumpet.  Maybe what a gifted novelist can do is something like that.  She can get us to vividly imagine being this way or that --- being a theist or an atheist, a courageous person or a coward, a woman in a man’s world, that otherwise --- unless we happen to be one of those creatures, we couldn’t manage to do.

Of course, a good novelist can also convey falsehoods in this special way, too.  Teenagers read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and get a completely distorted idea of what it’s like to be creative, at least in my humble opinion.

In Sunday’s broadcast, well be joined by Rebecca Goldstein, author of the brilliant new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A work of fiction. 

Comments (8)


Guest's picture

Guest

Friday, January 20, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Without belaboring any point,

Without belaboring any point, why would anyone of faith be worried over thirty-six (more or less) arguments for (or against) the existence of God? It is a cute approach, that may well sell a few books. The gullible public will buy anything---and regret spending the $12.95 on the trade paperback. I'll wait bit. And get it from my local library. Unless I see it first at my favorite halr-price, for, oh, say four dollars. In which case, I'll know I have missed nothing...and can safely save my four dollarrs. There are many books to read, and so little time.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 21, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Got to thinking about your

Got to thinking about your theme:Philosophy in Fiction. Upon meditative reflection, I thought I'd offer some thoughts. Or observations. Or opinions...experiences, for me, are private. No one ever quite interprets similar experiences the same way(s) anyhow, so why share these with strangers? Precisely my point. So here it is, take or leave---I'm not worried:
1. Philosophy shows up in both fictive and non-fictive works. Authors always have an underlying philosophy of one sort or another. Ayn Rand's (I know how some hate her---a pity, that...) philosophy was well-documented in her best works. And, to a degree, it evolved, for better or worse.
2. We all make philosophical decisions everyday. Some of those are based on fact (non-fictive inputs); some are based upon lies (fictive inputs or worse). Some of us may get to write about this---most will not.
3. I happen to write some things that might be classified as philosophical. I do not think of them as fictional, but, see the first paragraph of this comment, fifth sentence, for clarification.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, January 21, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think some truths and

I think some truths and insights are conveyed best in fiction; good fiction contains a great deal of truth and thought-provocation. For example, a significantly deeper understanding of the tragic story of Cain and Abel might come from reading Steinbeck's, East of Eden.
Or consider the profundity in Tolkien's, The Lord of the Rings, in which a despairing Frodo says, " I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened." To which Gandalf replies, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."
James Michener's novel, The Source, beats any straightforward history of the Middle East I've ever seen because it seems reasonably accurate and facilitates different interpretations of historical events by key characters (a Roman Catholic archeologist and his Jewish and Arab colleagues) as well as by the narrator.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, January 22, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

I think as usual...

I think as usual...
A good example of philosophy and fiction is Plato's use of a fictitious character name Socrates to tell the truth he was working so hard to find and share without the threat of prosecution or even the sentence of death.
Now granted no One is entirely certain that Socrates was real or not, but if he was only a fictitious person and voice for Plato, I think of Plato then and probably only then to be the wiser of most and also of the two.
And in that case also also, fiction works nicely for me.
I wish I was so smart,
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 23, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

As I thought more about your

As I thought more about your blog post and its title, something crossed my mind, twice. According to certain opinions, philosophy IS fiction. Science is fiction which BECOMES fact, with the methods of repetition, replication and so on. The more we try to get hold of philosophy, the more it screams: no, you won't!----now, then: there are pretty smart commenters contributing to this blog. I challenge you this: think about the beginnings of a thought experiment I have suggested in this comment. Then, take it into your own OEOs, mush it around a bit---and tell us where your thoughts take you.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, January 26, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Dear Harold,

Dear Harold,
Rather than trying to get hold of truth, why not simply let go,
Let go of everything you know.
Freedom IS this Way.
Just be true, free,
You,
=

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, January 30, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Namaste, Michael. Namaste. I

Namaste, Michael. Namaste. I said nothing about getting hold of truth. Philosophy might invlove truthful elements, but it ain't necessarily so. Look---I'm not crazy about complexity either. But it is here amongst us whether we like it or no. Try to understand it or hope it will go away---everyone's choice. I doubt that it will be going away. Who knows, though. Mankind is slowly chipping away at reality, so...

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, February 8, 2012 -- 4:00 PM

Namaste

Namaste
"I honour the place in you that
Is the same in me.
I honour the place in you where
The whole universe resides.
I hounor the place in you
Of love, of light, of peace and of truth.
I honour the place in you
that is the same in me.
There is but One
Namaste"
=

 
 
 

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