Literature and Philosophy

Philosophy has always had an odd place in the novel, and vice versa. So often will philosophers refer back to great writers just to make their points clearer, and so often will great writers refer back to philosophers just to add a basis for their ideas. It is even gotten into that habit that philosophers have written novels. This has been an immensely popular phenomenon. Philosophers like Voltaire, Nietzsche, Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard have all written novels and the like that help to better demonstrate their philosophy. In the same realm, writers like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Kafka, Byron, Goethe, and Proust are hailed for the influence on philosophic thought as well as literary value.

So first of all, what can be said that causes the relationship between philosophy and literature? The most obvious answer is that in literature everything down to the diction and structure of the novel can contribute to the point. Take Camus and his novel The Stranger. The main character,¬†Meursault, narrates the story in the stream of consciousness style that was so famously popularized during the modernist period. The sentence structures vary, mostly consisting of short concise statements strung together to display the total indifference, in even towards beauty found in words. The Stranger brings us those famous opening lines: “Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.” So from the very beginning it is apparent the philosophical standpoint of the narrator. That of nihilism. The story continually displays it, the total indifference towards his mother’s death, murder, imprisonment, injustice, and sex. Every part of this novel forms a cohesive philosophy used by Camus in his philosophical essays to further make his point about the destructive effects of nihilism.

Voltaire, 1694-1778, is often remembered today for his satirical novel Candide, published in 1759.

The novel influences philosophy in the same manner. Nietzsche once claimed about Dostoyevsky that he was “The only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn” and it shows. Dostoyevsky played a crucial role in developing the thought of many existentialists such as Nietzsche and Sartre, and coincidentally also helped develop their literary style.

Another reason why philosophers turn to novels is for their aesthetic appeal. For instance, one feature of Voltaire’s philosophy is the skepticism towards established truths, the absurdity, and humour in life. This is why in his famous novel Candide, Voltaire essentially satirizes all of philosophy and existence. Candide is a bumbling idiot who stumbles through life and allows Voltaire to make clever quips towards all cultures, customs, ideas, and peoples. It is even common for Voltaire to jab at himself in the novel, as nobody is too noble to be made fun of in the eyes of Voltaire. By making such a humorous novel, Voltaire aims to point out the absurdity in everyday things and push the limits of what can be mocked, and, like few other philosophical novels, Candide is truly meant to be enjoyed.

The history of philosophical literature has been a long and complex one. Originally philosophy had closer ties to poetry. The famous poem “The Clouds” by Aristophanes featured Socrates as a main character, and verse was more art of choice since prose had not become a developed art form. However, roots of prose can be seen even in ancient times. Take Plato’s dialogue of “The Symposium”. The opening paragraphs is not in the traditional dialogue fashion, and reads more like a common prose piece. Of course poetry was continued to be hailed by philosophers for its aesthetic value, but as the art of prose began to elevate, so did its philosophical value.

As the future of literature and philosophy, it’s hard to tell. It’s very easy to say that the relationship is dead. One looks around and thinks “I hardly see any equivalent to Candide or Thus Spoke Zarathustra in today’s society!” but I would claim one misses the point with that attitude. As of now the relationship is simply evolving. Many people like to claim that philosophy is dead, and whether or not that is true, it has great implications for the novel. Like novels can still display philosophical thought, such as the novels of Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy, but whether or not they are simple reflections of culture or aimed at developing a philosophical thought is another thing. In my view, which is a very modest one, I haven’t the slightest clue what will happen in the future.

So lastly my advice to any such writers wishing to visit the realm of philosophical literature is this: read the great works before you (written by both philosophers and philosophical writers), develop your own system of philosophy, or at the very least, your own skepticism or proposal of philosophy, and finally craft a narrative/ style that best fits the point you wish to make. This is much easier said than done. But just like with most things, if you work hard enough, in the end you might be able to convince yourself of your own success.


23 thoughts on “Literature and Philosophy

  1. Might I humbly say that you are missing the point as well? I might be a little impertinent in saying this, but Philosophy and Literature are not mutually exclusive nor are they so closely bound as you may assume. Sometimes it happens to be incidental too. But in most cases, philosophy uses literature as a tool to expand its reach and literature uses philosophy as a tool to give itself more weightage. Your point about L’etranger is well taken. However, it is our perception that a writer wishes to make it a philosophical work. Why Voltaire wrote the way he did is that he probably thought he could soften the blows, but alas, he always ended up rubbing people the wrong way in any case.
    As you can see from our modern world of literature and philosophy, the former is merely entertainment and the latter equates to boredom. Literature tends to make philosophy a little more palatable. However, even that is difficult in these modern times. And, while I cannot truly say that philosophy is dead, is there any field where unique thought processes are involved anymore? The thrust is to innovate, to modify, to combine or deduct from multiple ideas – and never to invent, never to create. Original thinking is limited to writing catchy slogans or copy for the commercials or for soap operas. Or, then, are we to simply to assume that whatever needed to be said has already been said in the past centuries and therefore, let us shut down our brains and enjoy the world for what it is?
    I am not taking a cynical view here. Not at all. All I am pointing out is that neither literature nor philosophy seems to be stirring from its sleep let alone walking hand in hand, these days. (Oh yes, Paulo Coelho, some great fans tell me, writes philosophy… well, ok, my sympathies are with you)..


  2. You should read Richard Rorty’s “Contingency, Irony & Solidarity”, in which he argues quite convincingly that philosophy is first and foremost a form of literature.


  3. As someone once deeply affected by Orwell’s ‘1984’, I think that at the very least I had forgotten the power books can have on altering or shaping a person’s beliefs. I feel a new urge to delve into this…

    Liked by 4 people

  4. In my opinion, there is not much interest by the majority of readers today in these two subjects That is why Tolstoy, for example intertwined romance into his novels to convey his meaningful philosophy.

    Your post is interesting and thought provoking for authors and I agree nothing is new under the sun in writing about these subjects.

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Modern philosophy can be a bit more subtle, as in the McCall Smith books. I would argue, though, that philosophy, or critical thinking, isn’t “literature.” It can’t be only a string of beautiful words. Sometimes it has to oppose that, to turn away from the poetic, and face the “terrible reality” without such defenses. I think Camus tried to do that in The Stranger.

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  6. I would suggest that philosophy and literature are two sides of the same coin. Neither philosophy nor literature live out in the wild to be hunted down and trapped as trophies to hang on our walls. They are human constructs, frameworks upon which to hang our thoughts. The one mirrors an attempt at being very logical while the other relies on unruly and illogical behavior. Both of these human endeavors attempt to make sense of the world in which we life. Certainly James Hilton in his novel was attempting that very intellectual work in Lost Horizons. Graham Greene makes his point in a number of novels, one of which was a screen play before it was turned into a novel. I speak of The Third Man. Camus, as a philosopher, has not the higher claim on literature. Even the true love stories in the old women’s romance magazines has a point to make about ethics even if the proscribed stories were formulaic.

    But the difference is by how we arrive at our various destinations. With philosophy we may start with a central idea and use a framework of logical analysis to prove our point. With literature, such an attempt will not work. Where philosophy attempts to rise up from the mud of messy human thinking, literature wallows in that mud. Why should this be so? Because living is about choices and most of us tend to make at least a few wrong choices according to the logic of philosophy. How else do you explain the main character in the novel, The Moon and Sixpence? Living for art’s sake has no logic save one, being the artist and creating art to the exclusion of all else. Individuals read fiction because the characters and situations create a story by which we can compare our lives. These stories invite us to become a part of the story, to put ourselves into the situations and thus gain some insight into human behavior. A novel does not need to question the begining of all knowledge or prove the existence of god. Keys To The Kingdom and The Left Hand Of God will give us hints on that score. And certainly A Walk In The Sun brings us up short to our sense of mortality as well as purpose. We must believe in the meme that nobody dies if we are to survive.

    In sum, great literature is wonderful but there exists a great deal of “lesser” novels that can give us bits and pieces of philosophy that feed our need to know and understand. We build our knowledge of philosophy one precept at a time.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. A great many interesting observations and comments stimulated by your blog. I could only wish to be so well learned as those who commented extensively. However, I especially agree with the one comment that says it makes one want to go back and read those works again. I don’t know that I ever read most of them, though I I did read some work by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. i guess I will be doing my homework.


  8. At the risk of opening up this argument (and lowering the niveau of the discussion a bit), the best pronouncement of philosophy’s death was made by the Wizard of Oz when he told the scarecrow he didn’t need a brain, only a university degree. In my years of teaching, I’ve made use of philosophy many times to make concepts and current events understandable to students. There were great discussions on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave applied to the current consolidation of media into ever fewer corporate hands. I used Umberto Eco’s description of fascism to talk about Far Right political parties (and the current US election). I’ve used the triple whammy of Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche to help them understand Modernism and Ayn Rand to explain the Ryan budget. Just last week in a blog post of my own, I used Socrates to explain why philosophers make terrible boyfriends. Philosophy for Philosophy’s Sake may be dead and decomposing, but bits and pieces of it can easily be dug up and still used to shine a light.


  9. The reported death of philosophy has been greatly exaggerated, it is still alive and well and used extensively in areas few of us understand. Of course we still reinvent the work of Socrates and others as if we never heard of Forms or logical positivism. But the average individual pays little attention to the eternal questions that have been asked so often in the past. What is beauty, what is truth, from whence did we come and where are we going? I am a believer that good literature should ask these questions and more. Good literature should give us pause to think and reflect.

    In his novel, A Single Pebble, John Hersey defines the worldly philosophy or reason for being by one of his characters as a man who lives for his work, is his work, and is most happy with his work. What more is there to life for a poor track man than pulling boats up the river? One need not use Kantian metaphysics to observe such beauty in such a personal philosophy. Does the character need to delve deep into the question of first cause? For him it is the great river that is the first cause, the great teacher of wisdom and knowledge and from whom he will learn as much as he can. One might call this an informal or working or even life philosophy, one that needs no ornament. We may admire such a character for his surety of being and contentment in life. But as we travel through the novel we find other characters defining themselves slowly in terms of some philosophical definition. Some of us need more complexity in our lives as we find the simple too confining. For some it is not enough to say:”I am a man.” Or “I am a woman.” We feel we need more ornamentation.

    The job of a writer is not to make explanations simplistic, for life is not a simplistic endeavor. The writer’s job is to expand our awareness by allowing us to experience through our own concepts the reasons of the world. Good philosophy couches its thesis in terms of our own knowledge and experiences when possible and expands our limits, challenges us to think beyond the comfort of what we know. And that is what good fiction does, only in a more entertaining way.

    I started my “education” in philosophy by reading the Greek plays and histories. Then I went on to compact encyclopedias of philosophies. That was 1964 and I hated high school with a passion. I read what interested me and finally dropped out of school. Since that time I have read a fair amount of books on the different schools, some of which were boring and others were exciting. I would believe that my acquired knowledge has allowed me to tell the difference between good, great, and not so good writers. What did Frank McCort have to say in his novel Angela’s Ashes? We were so poor Irish, how poor were we? Whiner. I believe that if you want to write fiction you must find some meaning in life otherwise your words are DOA.

    In deference to our host above, he has given us a topic that needs discussion, needs examination, and needs individual expression. I think this has been one of his best topics.


  10. Philosophy isn’t dead, nor could it ever be dead. The study of concepts, reactions, and how it fits into a larger picture will continue. However, the term may change as most other words do over time. Even so, today’s society isn’t concerned with this type of study as it used to be presented. It’s still lurking about though, waiting for the day when people get back to the real art of contemplation. Literature may have a part in this happening sooner instead of later.

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  11. I’m sure it is impossible that any writing is really good Literature without the author being profoundly philosophic, in the sense of approaching life’s inner meanings and questions, even though the philosophy isn’t the dry-as-dust cotton-candy type of philosophy one gets in academia.


  12. Very on point, but as you can read from most of the comments there, modern readers may not have the brain to comprehend literature with philosophy in it. All giant literary work have philosophical ideas within. Yet they might not be bestsellers in this contemporary world, for which I weep for humanity.


    • In response to Paulusofsinae:

      Many modern readers may not want or need to read superior literature, and the majority of readers probably don’t waste time by thinking too much either. Some of us have super qualifications in other disciplines and will specialize at a later date.


  13. The commentary has been as interesting as the post. My initial response was that there remains a marriage of philosophy and literature, as someone has suggested above, Eco and Kundera immediately came to mind.
    I agree with another point – that literature gives philosophy extended reach. It provides an accessible means for integrating complex ideas, at least implicitly for a while, but may give shape to more explicit later. For me, literature stimulates philosophical thought. I also don’t hold that any literature is devoid of philosophy. Embedded within every novel is an underpinning context of central assumptions that shapes the story.
    I have come to wondering if it is a question of definition. How are philosophy and literature delineated? Could the difference lie in the form of communication and not just in the form of thought exercised?


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