Is there such a thing as a philosophical novel?

The philosophical novel could, and probably does, constitute a genre in itself.  From Voltaire’s Candide to Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being or Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, these are all writers who have used the novel as a vehicle to carry considerable philosophical themes.  The phrase ‘philosophical’ is, itself, often used as a (sometimes lazy) shorthand to describe a novel which is deeply contemplative, raises fundamental questions or themes, or even, on occasion, merely a work with a glacial pace. Yet, is this representative of what philosophy is, especially as an academic discipline?  For even if a novel does touch on profound philosophical questions, does this merit the label of Philosophy?

It is with this thought that James Ryerson, writing in the New York Times, raises the interesting question as to whether a novelist can, in fact, actually write ‘philosophically’.  As Ryerson asks:

‘both disciplines seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world.  But are they competitors – the imaginative intellect pitted against the logical mind – or teammates, tackling the same problems from different angles?’

Beginning with Plato (as so much with philosophy), there is a small, but significant, tradition which casts a particularly disparaging view on the cognitive authority of art and literature.  As Plato stated in The Republic: ‘Then may we lay down that, beginning with Homer, all the poets are imitators of images of virtue and of all the other subjects on which they write, and do not lay hold of truth’ (Book X 600e).  This is particularly ironic as Plato was not only a brilliant writer, but the Platonic dialogues, despite their intense philosophical content, border on works of literature themselves.

Similarly, Ryerson notes that the Oxford philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch – widely considered to be a philosophical novelist – did not think it was possible for the novel to present academically rigorous philosophy.  Ryerson cites Bryan Magee’s 1978 BBC interview of Murdoch (which can be watched here: parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5), in which she argued that whilst, “philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an ‘austere, unselfish, candid’ prose…literature looks to the imagination to show us something ‘mysterious, ambiguous, particular’ about the world”.  This is quite astonishing from a writer, whose entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that she, “introduced a new moral seriousness to the English novel…[to] test her own high-minded ideas.”  Indeed, Murdoch’s novels cover, amongst other things, a range of political, social and moral themes.

Part of the problem may stem from the fact that there is no one single philosophical method.  Rather, philosophic style is highly idiosyncratic – from the clinical precision of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to the highly developed literary prose of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard.  Yet, anyone who has attempted to read Kant, for instance, will appreciate that not all great philosophy, is great literature.

However, if we put questions of written style and philosophical method to one side, many would still argue, contrary to Murdoch and Plato before her, that the philosophical novel can nontrivially teach us, and this epistemic capacity partly determines its aesthetic value.  Moreover, this capacity constitutes one of the main reasons why we enjoy and value the philosophical novel in the first place.

Related Articles:

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Jacques Rancière: Literature and Equality

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