Philosophical novels

Joshua asked:

I am a fan of what is known as philosophical novels; and have seen a lot of philosophical thinking in a lot of science fiction. I wonder: what is the relationship between literature and philosophy? Why are such novelists such as Fyordor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and such others regarded as philosophers, without real training in the craft?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

One could be cynical about this: When authentic philosophy begins to ebb and the shelves of academic exegesis outnumber them by ratios in the thousands, the hunt for new ideas might very well alight, here and there, on poets and novelists who have not previously been considered fit for discussions of ‘their’ philosophy. That’s one side of it. The other is, that the tradition of philosophical writing has never been averse to literary excellence. Plato’s dialogues and hundreds of imitations up to the days of Hume speak for it; and so do the literary masterpieces of such men as Francis Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others.

It is a ready-made invitation for novelists with this kind of inclination to produce dialogues infused with a philosophical spirit, even if the rigour of argumentation yields to the drama of their mise-en-scene. Consider the Grand Inquisitor episode and Ivan’s encounter with the devil in The Brothers Karamasov as well as the figure of Kirillov in The Demons: These sections thrive on philosophical ideas in that they bring issues of the utmost relevance to the human condition under the searchlight. Consider in the same light The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, which is in one of its aspects a theatre piece where two conflicting intellectual powers (Naphtha and Settembrini) struggle for the soul of the naive hero Castorp, which is also deeply philosophical in its social and ethical context.

However, let’s not shove the crucial issue under the carpet, which is that neither of these writers was expounding ‘his philosophy’ this way, as (per contrast) Plato did. So there is a difference between ‘a philosophy’ which a philosopher might publish in literary form, and a novel, poem or play in which the author engages himself with philosophical ideas that are rarely (if ever) his own. It stands to reason, I think, that if we continually smear out this difference, we are not honouring men of literature (or science) who did not regard themselves as philosophers.

As for sci-fi, which used to be a favourite genre of mine, I have grown skeptical about its fitness for philosophy. It is not the genre as such, but simply its store of ideas which on the whole are so far removed from life that I have come to doubt that these writers and film-makers actually know what it is. But without life, there is nothing to philosophise about. (Nevertheless I give you leave to contradict me wholeheartedly, if you are so inclined).

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