Thursday 27 January 2011


One of my favourite blogs, where I can always find something fascinating, thought-provoking – is that of Norman Geras. (linked on the right – if you don’t know this one, go and see... it’s the best). Earlier this week, he drew our attention to a fascinating question. The relationship, if any, between philosophy and the novel - let's extend that here to fiction in general, shall we?.
A précis then, here – Gera’s article is much better.

James Ryerson, writing here, in the New York Times,
raises the question, “Can a novelist write philosophically?’ and quotes Iris Murdoch as saying absolutely not. In her view,
philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world. Any appearance of philosophical ideas in her own novels was an inconsequential reflection of what she happened to know.

I have to say, this fascinates me, and I’m not sure what to think. Here are eminently clever people arguing that fiction and philosophy are polar opposites. The more I do think about it, I come to the conclusion that someone’s wrong.

What is philosophy? I guess we can trust Wikipedia here: "Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language."
Couldn’t it be argued that if a novel or indeed any fiction, does not touch on issues connected with existence (or otherwise), knowledge (or otherwise), values, reason, mind and language – it’s fairly inconsequential? And actually, even ‘inconsequential’ reads, what are they dealing with if not one of these at some level?

Maybe the issue is one of ‘study’? That philosophers seek to give us the answers themselves. Whereas creators of good fiction seek to open our minds to possibilities we’ve not thought of perhaps, and draw us into the debate?
And anyway – there is an argument that says (re: the Murdoch quote above) that fiction written in unselfish, candid prose works better in many ways than deliberate obfuscation.

Edited to add: Thanks Tim Love for this link, to an article today (oddly..) in Times Higher Ed Supp, Here.. Fictive Narrative Philosophy... well, hey chaps,, isnt that what strong lit. writers have been doing for ever...?
To quote:"Fiction that only imitates nature or seeks to provide entertainment without making a claim about facts or values in the world is not fictive narrative philosophy. It is just a story."


  1. Philosophy, like any writing, has its genres. Murdoch's comments might apply to a Roman like Seneca: his letters were certainly “austere, unselfish, candid”. He had clear views on how his readers should live, how they should respond to moral and ethical challenges, and he wanted to convey that as clearly as possible.

    A novellist, by contrast, (or a good one) could explore the same territory through characters, setting etc and let us readers find our own conclusions.

    But Murdoch is talking in 1978. Having struggled through endless amounts of more recent philosophy - Foucault, Derrida, etc - I can assure you their writings are in no way "austere, unselfish, candid”!

    As an aside, how can something be "mysterious" and "ambiguous" but also "particular"?

    Surely the point of fiction is that you can do whatever you like?

  2. See also "Novel forms of thought" in the current Times Higher Education, which is more about what narrative can do for philosophy ("In philosophy, logic is too often considered the only appropriate analytical instrument. Adding fiction to the toolkit can, Michael Boylan argues, offer new and illuminating ways to contemplate human existence and its dilemmas")

  3. @ Neil - you pick up the thing that made me smile - 'particular' versus 'ambiguous'. At face value they look opposites. But then maybe Murdoch was being ambiguous about particulars? (!)

    I read Derrida's extended essay 'Counterfeit Money' last year. Fascinating stuff (I'm over-using that word today...)

    But then I also just read this (Wiki again) : that Derrida

    ".....uses previously definable words in contexts diverse enough to make understanding impossible, so that the reader will never be able to contextualize Derrida's literary self. Rorty, however, argues that this intentional obfuscation is philosophically grounded."


  4. @ Tim - thanks for that. I shall peruse. Strikes me that all 'logic' might mean in the context of literature, is emotional coherence? Without which nothing is believable, and the fiction fails.

  5. Yes I double took at that linking of the particular and the ambiguous. But I decided that she meant that novels aren't explicit about ideas in the way philosophy is, but imply them via 'concrete' things such as images, character etc. Not that, as Norm points out, she doesn't make ideas explicit in her novels!

  6. I did wonder, on reflection, whether she was taking umbrage at the thought that she was being too obvious, beating the reader about the head with what she 'had to say'.

  7. Yes, fascinating! I think you summed it up though, for me at least, when you said: "philosophers seek to give us the answers themselves. Whereas creators of good fiction seek to open our minds to possibilities we’ve not thought of perhaps, and draw us into the debate?"
    I believe novelists create alternate realities, realities that could exist although actually don't. And in a portrayal and creation of such a reality, philosophical questions must emerge. I also think that characters that have a voice can't help but give their own answers to philosophical questions, whether they mean to or not. Whether those answers are the same as the writer's is a different question and, for me, not as interesting a one.

  8. Indeed - and it is a question which is obliquely addressed on Claire King's blog

    she put herself through a psychometric test briefly - then did the same for her character...
    very interesting!
    I'd personally be a bit worried about creating a new character thusaway though. Still - what works for you, works for you, as they say!

  9. "philosophers seek to give us the answers themselves. Whereas creators of good fiction seek to open our minds to possibilities we’ve not thought of perhaps, and draw us into the debate?" - in general, yes, but in their short stories Borges and SF writers like Chris Beckett do rather more than open minds.

  10. Hi Tim -
    Of course, it is a dangerous assertion, and wrong, for me to say that good fic writers actively 'seek' to do anything - who am I to say that!? But I think what I was trying cackhandedly to say is that when you've read a good piece of fiction (as opposed to not-good - and that begs all sorts of questions...) your view of things is changed. The author's intent is something totally different.
    I'm not familiar enough with the work of Borges to be able to have a debate - but what would you say his work does for the reader over and above opening the mind?

  11. "what would you say Borges' work does for the reader over and above opening the mind?" - it creates a what-if scenario (sometimes by taking a philosopher's "thought experiment" literally), then lets characters try to solve the problems that are set. The characters often don't have much of a personality; Borges is pulling all the strings. Chris Beckett's characters have more awareness (a bit of a moral curse when you're cloned). Plato's dialogs sometimes take an idea for a walk, but less well than Borges does. Searle's developed variations on his Chinese Room that aren't a mile away from a Borges plot.

  12. I was just now looking at the synopsis of his story about the firing squad - and his manipulation of time... fabulous idea!

    but I'd argue that most writers of fiction create a what-if scenario and set characters to solve the problems - (whether its an 'Annie wants Greg but Greg wants Daphne' set-up - or whether it is somewhat more challenging - for example, Treslove in 'The Finkler Question' wanting to be a Jew when he isn't, or the boy Jack in 'Room' feeling his way in the outside world when his world has been Room all his life). . ... are you talking craft, when you say his characters are 'puppets' (my word, from your description above)?

  13. Agreed: writers and philosophers both use "what-ifs". I think the nature of the what-if and the type/quantity of development determines whether the result is treated as SF, philosophy or literature.
    Borges' what-if scenarios are things like "what if someone remembered everything and had trouble with generalisations like 'chair'?"; "what if the value/meaning of a text depended on how the author produced it?". Because these have a philosophical feel to them, and because the texts often have detached 3rd person narrators, the results sometime lack the literary craft we're used to, they're sometimes more like essays. Plato's what-ifs are things like "what if we were only seeing shadows", but I don't think he developed the idea the way a story writer might. Einstein's what-ifs involved sitting on a sunbeam and led to Special Relativity (rather than writing "Torchy Torchy the Battery Boy"). One of H.G.Wells' what-ifs started from the saying "In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king", which wasn't philosophical.

  14. I see - they are engaging the reader (the fiction, now) in a way that is over and above the possibilies open to the 'norm' of reality maybe? Is it the surreal, the uber-real and genre fiction that can do that more than reality based stuff, then?
    Is that use of third person with puppet characters closer to the fable perhaps?

  15. William H. Gass, who is mentioned in Randerson's article, wrote:

    "Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds. Worlds? But the worlds of the novelist, I hear you say, do not exist. Indeed. As for that – they exist more often than the philosophers’. Then, too – how seldom does it seem to matter. Who honestly cares? They are divine games. Both play at gods as others play at bowls; for there is frequently more reality in fairy tales than in those magical constructions of the mind, works equally of thought and energy and will, which raise up into sense and feeling, as to life, acts of pure abstraction, passes illogical, and intuitions both securely empty and as fitted for passage as time.
    "Games – yet different games. Fiction and philosophy often make most acrimonious companions. To be so close in blood, so brotherly and like in body, can inspire a subtle hate; for their rivalry is sometimes less than open in its damage. They wound with advice. They smother with love. And they impersonate one another. Then, while in the other’s guise and gait and oratory, while their brother’s smiling ape and double, they do his suicide. Each expires in a welter of its own surprise."

    It's a problem that affected my writing a couple of years back and I haven't resolved it yet. As I got more interested in philosophical ideas they began, inevitably to inveigle themselves into my writing. But not in any subtle way. Rather, they were dominating the story, instead of being allowed to flow from the story. And so the stories started becoming too expository, didn't sound natural.

    I think there is a definite link, but it must be allowed to flow in an organic way. A story that's designed specifically to explore a philosophical concept will probably fail. One that approaches it along the way of the characters' development will possibly succeed.

  16. Hello Tom

    Whereas I dont follow much of the grammar in the excerpt - (who was obsessed with language??!) I agree absolutely with the point you make - that designing a story to explore something - plotting carefully, and making a character playact in order to illustrate one of MY preoccupations, will be dire.
    But then we come from the same stable, where, ' Theme is all, but has to be handled with the lightest of touches' was a mantra. Thank heavens!