Philosophy and Literature

Sunday, August 9, 2009
First Aired: 
Saturday, October 27, 2007

What Is It

What can we learn from studying philosophy?  What can we learn from reading great (or not-so-great) literature?  Some philosophers and literary theorists believe that philosophy and literature converge in a number of places.  Great literature is often deeply philosophical, and great philosophy is often great literature, sometimes in the form of fictional narrative.  Perhaps we can learn many of the same lessons from philosophy and literature.  Can the methods of philosophy and literary criticism be combined?  Are the truths they shed light upon complementary?  John and Ken are joined by fellow Stanford philosophy professor Lanier Anderson to discuss the intersection of philosophy and literature.

Listening Notes

John and Ken join the show from the studios of KSCL at Centenary College in Shreveport, Louisiana, to discuss a puzzling situation: Philosophy and literature seem to be distinct. Philosophy revolves around truth, intellect, and literal use of language, whereas literature focuses on fiction, emotion, and metaphorical language. For this reason, philosophy never moves us to tears like some literature does. Nevertheless, some recent literary theorists and philosophers have argued that philosophy and literature aren't so different after all, and that both can be exemplified by the very same text. The show's guest, Lanier Anderson, is one of them. He is a professor at Stanford's Philosophy Department and cofounder of the University's Philosophical and Literary Thought program, which aims to collapse boundaries between academic disciplines whose investigations are relevant to the study of literature and philosophy.

The show has three segments. The first concerns how philosophy can be done through literature. Paradigms of this feat are Plato's dialogues, Borges's short story "Pierre Menard, Autór del Quixote" investigating the notion of authorship, and Camus's novel The Plague investigating the notion of freedom. Anderson thinks there are distinctively literary methods for pursuing philosophy, which these implement. Via such methods, sometimes one makes more progress in a philosophical investigation than one could by approaching the investigation "straightforwardly". (The hosts and guests agree that here the 'sometimes' is an important qualification; literary methods are not in general superior to standard philosophical ones when it comes to answering tough questions.) One such method involves eliciting emotional reactions from the reader in order to inspire new philosophical insights. Another exploits that no fictional character need be the "mouthpiece" of the author: In such situations, when characters express different views, readers must reckon for themselves who is right.

The second segment concerns what philosophers have said about literature. Some have wondered whether we can learn truths about the real world by reading fiction. Ken is skeptical about this: Since laws of nature can be broken at will in fictional worlds, they would seem an unreliable source of information about the real world, which always obeys those laws. Other philosophers have wondered whether investigating how literature conveys messages and morals can help us understand the pragmatics of natural language. Does literature show truths, rather than say them? Third, some philosophers have pondered the notion of narrativity. For example, Sartre's Nausea suggests that having narrative structure in one's life is essential for developing one's sense of self. This seems plausible to Anderson and Ken, though they disagree whether the "narrative impulse" is part of our biological programming or is rather a cultural norm that we try to live up to without having evolved to do so. Finally, for decades a topic of hot philosophical debate has been why readers react emotionally to stories they know to be fictional. Why do I cry for Anna Karenina, or despise Iago? Answering this question will help shape our philosophical theories of emotion, empathy, and imagination.

The third segment of the show concerns how philosophy can be literature. Some philosophers, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, write in a dramatic "aphoristic" style. Some great pieces of philosophy, like Plato's Symposium, are also great pieces of literature. Some great pieces of literature, like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, are also great pieces of philosophy. But, for the most part, contemporary Anglophone philosophers use dry, pedantic prose. (John, who sometimes writes dialogues, is a rare exception.) The precise quality of their prose is suited for building detailed theories, but Anderson thinks a vaguer style is better for teasing out the new philosophical problems to which such theories respond.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (seek to 4:30): Zoe Corneli attends a meeting of the forty-years-running great-books group hosted by San Francisco resident Nancy Wartman. Today they're in her living room, sipping wine and discussing Montaigne. The works they read are "great" because they relate both to today's world and to the issues of the ages, and because they can be read again and again without becoming uninteresting. The group's method of discussion is distinctive: Pretend the (usually deceased) author is in the room, ask him or her questions, and let answers come from the words of his or her book. Some group members think this is a way of doing philosophy, of getting to the bottom of very basic questions. For others, it's just a way to have unusual discussions in which everyone issues their opinion about what the author is trying to communicate. Either way, everyone finds it entertaining!
  • Conundrum (seek to 46:41): Jeff, who rides a commuter train every day, frequently gets told by fellow passengers not to talk on his cell phone on the train. They prefer a quiet ride, Jeff says, while he prefers make efficient use of his commute by getting some work done. Moreover, he observes, talking on his phone is no more disruptive than having a conversation with someone sitting next to him, but no one asks anyone to stop talking to their neighbors while on the train! His conundrum: Whose rights supersede in this situation---his or theirs?  Ken and John think Jeff's conundrum reflects an ambiguity about social rules in public space. Some places (like libraries) ought to be totally quiet. Others (like restaurants) ought to be lively and loud. Perhaps by historical accident, it's unclear whether trains are more like libraries or restaurants. Ultimately it becomes clear that Jeff's girlfriend has the sagest advice of all: Learn to control yourself.