Philosophers think a lot about fiction. But do novelists think about philosophy? Do philosophers make good fictional characters? Can good stories be built around philosophical problems?
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.