Philosophy in Fiction

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What is it

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? When awarding its Genius prize to philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein, the MacArthur Foundation said "[her] writings emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.'' Ken and John explore philosophy in fiction with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin by pointing out that many philosophers choose to present philosophy through fiction. John himself has written dialogues as a philosophical medium, since it allows him to more easily present multiple sides of an argument. But such philosophical tools are not the subject of today’s show.  Instead, Rebecca Newberger-Goldstein, one of the most prominent current ‘philosophical novelists’ joins Ken and John in an exploration of the purpose and limits of philosophy in fiction. Is philosophy merely a tool for the exploration of literary themes? Or, does fiction provide a unique perspective on philosophical topics—a more direct knowledge than argumentation can provide?

Rebecca opens the conversation by discussing her transformation from “hardcore analytic philosopher” to award-winning novelist. Although she loved philosophy, she felt that fiction would allow her to engage with similar ideas, but from a different angle. Rebecca claims that fiction enlightens her own understanding of philosophy. She can really ‘step into the shoes’ of her philosophical opponents, since she is forced to represent them as real, believable characters.

Is fiction a good vehicle for philosophical writing? John, Ken, and Rebecca consider the example of atheism. In 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, the main character represents a new kind of atheist, one who neither holds hostility towards believers nor lacks what Rebecca terms ‘ontological awe,’ an appreciation for the beauty of the universe. So, a novel can help us explore how philosophical ideas impact characters from a more internal perspective.

How much power does an author have? Does a novelist ‘dictate a universe,’ or is she limited by what the reader is willing to accept? Ken thinks an author cannot force a reader to accept ideas which contradict their deeply held beliefs, such as a novel with the premise that the Holocaust improved the world. Rebecca is less sure, pointing out that Plato banned novelists from his utopian Republic, because of their incredible power to corrupt.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 5:50): Jill travels to Palo Alto and Menlo high school, where students are taught to engage philosophical questions through literature. Students read books such as Picture of Dorian Gray and Siddhartha, then discuss philosophical topics touched on in the novels. Apparently, high school students are ‘natural philosophers.’
  • 60-Second Philosopher (seek to 49:10): Ian Shoales critiques James Wood’s 2008 How Fiction Works, arguing that James Wood overlooks some of the best fiction, especially more writers of more philosophical fiction, such as Jorge Luis Borges.
 
 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Philosopher and Author

 
 
 

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