April 11, 2012

Can Literature do Philosophy and if so how?

Can novels do ideas? It seems like an odd question. There are plenty of novels which do purport to 'do' ideas- whatever that means. Yet think about it for a second and it becomes slightly less strange. Literature and philosophy are by their very nature different. Iris Murdoch in a conversation she had with Bryan Magee- the first part of which is below:

Murdoch argues that literature and philosophy are distinct activities. Philosophy tries to do one thing- to seek truth- and literature many which include some ressemblance to truth but also other things like fun. Philosophy she says seeks to clarify, literature to mystify. Despite Murdoch's arguments, this week in the FT Jennie Erdal makes the opposite argument- she suggests that philosophy and literature can be wedded and that there is such a thing as the sophisticated novel of ideas.

These positions are not absolute. I have no doubt that Erdal would agree that novelists can often be bad philosophers- can even be social theorists or political theorists or makers of ideas (to use Murdoch's phrase)- and have no doubt that Murdoch would agree that there is philosophical work in novels- indeed she identifies one, Sarte's Nausee. There is a great burden here though in terms of the distinction that's being made. One can feel in the article that Erdal really wants to list philosophical novels, whereas in the interview one can feel Murdoch's reluctance, indeed she protests, about naming philosophical novels. Part of this I suspect is down to Murdoch's proffessionalism as a philosopher and her wish to keep philosophy as a hard subject, as opposed to one exposed to art. But there may be more at the root of the distinction.

I think added to it is the idea that literature does something which is separate from philosophy. Erdal talks about the way in which literature enables her to live her philosophy or realise how a theory can be lived. What I find very interesting about that is both that it is tempting and that it is in some sense deceitful- there is an aspect to presenting people with a lived example which is both extraordinary as an education but propagandistic as an argument. Art cannot ultimately- and I think Murdoch is right here- make arguments easily- she argues that often in Sartre the argument itself becomes aesthetically unpleasing. For me this happens in War and Peace with the long tracts on the meaning of history. Possibly in that sense, novelists need to be aware and beware of philosophy in their writing.