A Belated Rant Against Literature as Philosophy (Featuring Murakami’s “IQ84”)

There's a long history of philosophers bashing poets, back to Socrates bashing rhetoriticians (poetry being a species of rhetoric, to him) for pursuing felicity of expression over an actual search for the truth. Though in the McCarthy episode, we were very upbeat about the utility of literature for conveying philosophical ideas, today I'm in a grumpy mood about it and feel the need to vent the other side of the matter.

Per my name drop near the end of the episode, I just finished a book (actually a three-volume book) by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, called 1Q84. In this book, some characters have slipped into another world (the novel takes place in 1984, so one character names this new world 1Q84) that is nearly exactly like the ordinary world, but with a few differences that take a while to notice, which make the characters then question their own sanity and basically not understand what's going on. Like many of Murakami's books, it's a trippy metaphysical jaunt, and many of his characters talk about great literary figures and philosophical ideas while reflecting on their trippy, metaphysical circumstances. However, as I argued back in ep54 in our little discussion about what makes for good fantasy, the metaphysics never ends up getting explained: it's magic, and though it has certain internal laws that seem like they make sense, the forcefulness of these laws is merely a matter of how fervently the author makes you feel about them. It has less to do with the coherence of the laws than with the overall skill of the illusion. Much less detail is given for the magic in IQ84 than in Harry Potter; the story in fact stops at a point where, if you just got to find out what life was then subsequently like for the characters, you'd have some better idea of how this parallel worlds business really works. But that's not the point: the focus is the characters, and the apparently psychic and/or fate-based connection between them. It's a love story with a very drawn out build-up. Despite my tone here, I had a great time reading it, and would highly recommend it (and I've not spoiled much for you here, really).

As I was getting into this, though, I started at first noting all the philosophical references, and thinking that Murakami, like McCarthy, sure is an educated guy, and has thought a lot about these issues. But by the conclusion, I felt like it was all a dramatic device. I didn't learn anything about the possible nature of reality from this book. I didn't actually learn anything about destiny, or each of us only having one true love out there, or moral conflict (one of the characters is a hit man of sorts), or religion (the book is in part about cults). I did learn about the process of revising a poorly written book (this is an activity one of the characters engages in for a good chunk of the first 100 pages), and how weird things were in 1980s Japan (this is one of the joys of reading Murakami, who writes in Japanese but is translated into very consistently nice-sounding English). So literature, of course, has numerous merits of its own, in terms of drawing you into its world, laying moods on you, hooking you up to different or even impossible scenes and scenarios to soak in, but this is a much different thing than what philosophy does, which is not just supposed to be a good show, but getting at truth. Now, you can stretch the notion of truth to include the benefits of literature, e.g. showing you a true-to-life emotion or character or scene, and these are relevant to, e.g. making vivid a picture of a political or ethical outcome to some situation as we discussed on the McCarthy episode, but the fact is that literature does not require that these true pictures be actually explained, and in fact if it does, then the literature is typically bad, and may as well have been written as a treatise (see Brave New World).

I maintain that in No Country for Old Men, and in Blood Meridian, there is a suggestion of a philosophy in the antagonist, but not a philosophy as such. If there is a philosophical point that McCarthy is making, it's something like "look, in the real, harsh world, someone like Chigurh seems rational. Damn, that must mean the world sucks." Maybe it's a challenge for us to rebut that grim assertion. It's certainly an effective Rorschach test for us to make up theories like we did to fill out Chigurh's view and speculate about McCarthy's. But I'm guessing that people who came into the episode wanting to learn about existentialism didn't come away with any particularly clear ideas about it. We conveyed a couple of philosophical positions about life, e.g. Moss's claim that (from p. 227 in my paperback):

Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I don't know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?

But really, if this claim were made outside of a literary context, would we really have even thought it noteworthy? How could one argue for, or against, such a claim? It's pretty much self-explanatory. I think philosophy is often brought in as a literary tool, but ultimately what makes it good literature is not the quality of the philosophy in it. The better the book is, in fact, the less likely we are to notice when its uses of philosophy are fatuous. It's as if we as philosophers are so tickled when someone outside of a the context of an academic philosophy paper name-drops Nietzsche, or even reflects about God or freedom or whatever that we get all glowy inside, as if the work has given us the secret handshake for our geeky philosophers' club. If a fiction writer, like Sartre or maybe Camus (and keep in mind that even those guys are often considered lightweights when compared to a dude like Husserl), really has the philosophical goods, then chances are, you're going to see it spelled out in actual treatises. If you don't see this, then you've most likely got a philosophical debutante, a dabbler, someone who may be a great observer of human nature but can't actually concoct a coherent theory or two to express these insights.

I'm more than happy to admit of some exceptions, and have no wish to wrestle with Eric over McCarthy in particular, but I think you've got to be pretty down on the pretensions of philosophical theorizing to think that literature could really stand in for philosophical exposition. I'm not saying literature is useless to philosophers, but I think it's very easy to get sucked into discussing literature as literature, and never emerging to explicitly reflect on whether there are good arguments to be made or not for the positions that you've dredged out of (or read into) literary works. Beware that trap!

-Mark Linsenmayer


      • dmf says

        perhaps, but it seems to put a great deal of value on a kind/genre of speech-act, one which I think is tied to a historical shift towards a certain take on rationality/scientific-reason/abstraction. Perhaps there is instead, or at least in addition, a more open-ended move to be made into immersion, in media res at it were…

  1. mk says

    As you say, literature that merely makes an argument (or argues too explicitly) is probably bad literature, or barely literature at all. It’s sort of a puzzling exercise, actually, to constrain discussion of a novel to its philosophy.

    Re: 1Q84 —

    Murakami always walks the line between interestingly mysterious and laugh-out-loud silly, and unfortunately 1Q84 crosses that line irrevocably around page 500, when (spoiler!) one of the two protagonists, frozen to his bed by unearthly forces but nevertheless sporting a giant boner, is semi-consentually raped by a not-yet-menstruating 17 year-old girl and upon climaxing remotely impregnates the other protagonist, who at the time is across town and immersed in a ham-handed faux-philosophical exchange concerning yin, yang, and supernatural “Little People” with a cult leader who lifts alarm clocks with his mind.

    The cat town and the two moons and so forth gesture at deeper truths and grander schema, but there isn’t actually anything behind the curtain. And there doesn’t need to be, necessarily; they’re useful devices, insofar as they preserve or heighten tension, undermine our bearings, etc. The problem with 1Q84 is that 400+ pages remain after most of the mysteries and plot mechanics are made plain, and the “trippy metaphysics” doesn’t have much to do other than reinforce its own banality. Luckily for the reader, there’s plenty of middle school pining and destiny-talk to fall back on once the trippiness peters out. Oh Tengo! Oh Aomame! My heart is filled with longing!

  2. CONNOR says

    Interesting article. Being a literature major in college and having an interesting in the philosohpy of language and literary theory, I have always found that Julia Kristeva’s work on ‘poetic language’ (see her essay ‘The Ethics of Linguistics’ or The Revolution in Poetic Language) to be some of the most compelling work on the place of literature (though ‘poetic language’ has much further reaching implications than ‘literature’) in pursuits such as linguistics and philosophy.

    A large part of the issue with the line of thinking that this article pursues is that “what philosophy does…is not just supposed to be a good show, but getting at truth”. Kristeva points out that linguistics (and I would very much accuse logic of this same critique, as I believe kristeva would as well) finds as its object, the interal workings of an utterance whose relationship with truth is pre-determined based in the coherence of whatever ‘meta-linguistic’ theory is being employed. Her point is that poetic language shoud be the object of linguistics insofar as poetic language’s object, rather than language appropriated for communication or logic (i.e. communicating truth), is not simply the logic of the utterance but the ‘pre- and trans- logic’ of the ‘externality’ of language (which, being post-Lacanian, she heavily conflates with the unconscious).
    When tackling these questions, I am consistently brought back to post-Tractus Wittgenstein and Henri Bergson. The former for pointing out that there are no philosophical problems, only language problems and the latter for pointing out that objectivity may only ever be achieved in regards to inert matter and that life will always be a subjective category. He furthers this thesis by reminding us that due to our ‘comfortability’ (i.e. objectivity) with inert matter, we attempt to force the subjective categories of life through the same narrow channels that are readily available for inert matter.

    My point here is that the ‘good show’ of language that literature is representing here may not have a logic but that does not mean that it does not have a truth, only that this truth is far too subjective to ever fit the rigid objectivity of life, formed by our ability to ‘think matter’ (Bergson, Creative Evolution and Matter and Mind)

    • Wayne Schroeder says

      Well done Connor. Many philosophers could be summoned to reiterate what “getting at truth” above means. In fact the best battle philosophy has going for it is speaking what is possible (more objective) and passing on the impossible (more subjective). Ultimately on this subject, literature is poor philosophy and philosophy is poor literature.

      • CONNOR says

        Thanks! While I agree with your last sentiment generally, I would point towards (and the list here could go on and on, I am only listing two examples) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophy (thinking specifically of Anti-Oedipus) as fantastic literary reading and, on the other side, Sam Beckett’s work will always make for great philosophy. I would maybe add that there is a lot more philosophy that could be read as literature than there is literature that could be read as philosophy.

          • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

            To me, Deleuze is the quintessential combination of both, not unlike Merleau-Ponty.

            Connor– well stated:
            ” there is a lot more philosophy that could be read as literature than there is literature that could be read as philosophy.”

  3. Daniel Horne says

    “…keep in mind that even those guys are often considered lightweights when compared to a dude like Husserl…”

    Whoa…Sartre and Camus were considered lightweights by whom, exactly? I’m assuming you mean by tenured philosophy professors? How many Nobel Prizes did Husserl receive? How many philosophy professors deemed Husserl a “lightweight”? (I’ll suggest two: Frege and Meinong.)

    How does this little aside help advance your argument, and what are its implications for your whole “philosophy within literature” project?

    • Wayne Schroeder says

      Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidiger: the German intelligentsia are hard core. Sartre and Camus are now mainly unknown while the influence of the Germans (especially on Sartre and Camus) is the gift that keeps on giving. Regarding the philosophy within literature project, Mark said above “today I’m in a grumpy mood about it and feel the need to vent the other side of the matter.”

      • Daniel Horne says

        A quick Google query would seem to contradict the idea that Sartre and Camus “are now mainly unknown.” Quite the opposite.

        And if the value of discussing philosophy within literature is only a good idea when you’re in the mood for it, but a waste of time when you’re not, then what does that say about the value of discussing philosophy at all?

        If one doesn’t agree with a particular philosophical text, or like a particular “philosopher,” that doesn’t make philosophy-qua-discipline a waste of time. And, let’s be frank, many if not most academics in scientific disciplines do find philosophy-qua-discipline to be a waste of time. At the very least, many of them would deem its leading lights to be lightweights compared with, say, dudes like Newton, Leibniz, Gauss, Euler, Mendeleev, Einstein, Bohr, Gödel, Schrödinger, Mandelbrot, etc.

        By the same token: the fact that (say) Murakami or McCarthy make for unsatisfying philosophical discourse does not support the argument that one should feel less “upbeat about the utility of literature for conveying philosophical ideas.” Just pick better literature.

      • L. says

        Honestly, is this a joke post? Camus and Sartre are “unknown”? They are still among the most famous French writers and history and regularly taught in high school and college. I”d wager any amount of money they are more widely known and read than, say, Husserl. Or does “widely unknown” mean “not read in philosophy departments by grad students’ in this context?

        • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

          Yes, “not read in philosophy departments by grad students.”
          My most formative philosopher has been Camus, and Sartre was stellar for many years. My comment is not how I view Camus and Sartre, but more a realization that there is a new generation who is largely uninformed of existentialism (=not good).

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      I had in mind here I believe it was Foucault saying that Sartre was a bad philosopher, and Heidegger (according to Seth’s story) saying that B & N was unreadable crap. Camus in particular did not have the kind of philosophical training as the rest of them. I have no problem with Sartre myself, and find him equally useful/impenetrable as Heidegger, Hegel, and the rest.

      • Daniel Horne says

        Sure, but you seemed to be claiming that we should therefore consider Sartre and Camus “lightweights” because “someone else” said they were. I’m not sure why we should adopt the opinions of Foucault and Heidegger over others (say, the Swedish Nobel Academy). Particularly when Foucault, Heidegger and Husserl were themselves accused of hiding their own lack of intellectual heft behind obfuscatory prose.

        My point isn’t that Foucault’s and Heidegger’s critics are right, and Camus’ and Sartre’s critics are wrong. I just resist the kind of “appeal to authority” you appeared to make when asserting who has something profound to say, and who doesn’t.

        Yes, Camus was more “public intellectual” than professional philosopher, much like George Orwell. But the idea that Camus (or Orwell) were more “lightweight” than Husserl (and first see Frege on Husserl!) demands some agreement on how we are to define “light” and “heavy”.

        It’s perfectly understandable that one might prefer treatise-style structured argument over narrative, of course. But it doesn’t follow that one is intellectually “heavier,” “deeper,” “more profound,” etc., than the other. That’s simply privileges engineering over design.

  4. Jake says

    I know you’ve made a whole post about why you dont want to discuss anything to do with Ayn Rand, BUT I think her books would be great to examine in a “Literature as Philosophy” episode, seeing as they lay their philosophy out bare moreso than any other literature I’ve read. The “John Galt” speech at the end of “Atlas Shrugged” is just about the opposite approach of the rhetoriticians that Socrates was complaining about.

    Also as a listener of yours, I’d still love to hear a Rand episode, or better yet an episode on better philisophical thinkers than her in the same vein (Rothbard, Mises, Hoppe, etc.). An episode on Mises and praxeology would make me very happy.

  5. Bill says

    I recommend Gene Wolfe if you have not read him. Specifically the Urth of the New Sun series. Here is very good (and entertaining) fantasy literature which is a meditation on how one acquires and relates to one’s identity in which the protagonist is essentially insane but highly functional. It also has many other philosophical themes while at the same time getting the highest praise, from writers in the field, as literature rather then just another great sci fi story.

    One can see the influences of Melville and Jorge Luis Borges in Wolfe, both of whom do philosophy in literature very well. I don’t see how anyone could see Moby Dick as anything other then philosophical literature–chapter after chapter.

    • Dave says

      This was my main concern when I saw the PEL crew doing a McCarthy novel. I feel it’s a missed opportunity, tackling someone that many are on the fence about. Why not approach a work that is acknowledged as a better merger of storytelling and philosophy: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Homer, etc. First analyze the writers who are universally accepted as doing it well.

      These pod-casts started with Plato, not a fringe philosopher. The same approach should have been taken with literature. (You could argue that you actually did Candide first). But, if you wanted to do a contemporary writer, Bill made some great suggestions with Borges and Melville. Even Umberto Eco or Jose Saramago would have been a better bet. Samuel Beckett was a great suggestion as well.

      I think the concept of the episode was great, but I’m still not won over by the source material. I prefer to stick with traditional Artists / Writers and avoid this post-modern stuff. (It might not hold up).

      If you want to do a Japanese writer, do Yukio Mishima. : )

  6. Paul Paolini says

    Mark – I appreciate your belated rant on fiction as philosophy as I find the topic fascinating. It would be fantastic if the PEL guys did a whole episode on this.

    Getting to the point, I think your outlook on fiction as philosophy is obscured by an overly narrow view of philosophy. If philosophy as fiction were limited to being a sort of commentary on academic-type philosophy then I would agree that it is a dubious affair. With a broader conception of philosophy, however, things look different. If we think of philosophy as most generally an attempt to make sense of life or the world, then fiction as philosophy would be simply fiction that deeply engages the reader in making sense of some aspect of life or the world. This need not be, and I think is best not, accomplished through characters that discuss academic-type philosophy or inhabit worlds that instantiate academic-type philosophical thought experiments. It can be accomplished simply though showing aspects of reality that engage the reader’s faculty for making sense of the world. Because fiction in this sense is philosophical in virtue of showing, it transcends differences in philosophical schools, terminology, and perhaps even philosophical experience. This may be one advantage that fiction as philosophy has over academic-type philosophy.

    Personally I think fiction at its best is a mode of philosophy (for the writer as well as the reader) that operates in the broader conception of philosophy. What makes any good fiction good, I think, is in large part its ability to fascinate the reader with the world and to lead them to new insights (i.e., philosophy in the broader sense). (The other parts, on my view, concern beauty and emotion, which are not entirely unrelated to the philosophical.) In sum I think fiction as philosophy properly conceived is not about defending philosophical theses via arguments embedded in soap operas but rather leading readers to philosophical epiphanies through the ways of showing the world that fiction has the power to do.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Nicely said, Paul. I agree that literature can work well as phenomenology. However, just “showing” only accomplishes half of philosophy’s job, the rest of which is to draw conclusions, come up with theories, etc. about what has been shown, and then subject these to scrutiny. Literature can certainly accomplish this, too, e.g. by having different characters come to certain conclusions and then get cross-examined by each other about it, but like you say, that’s not really what literature is about. So I think, e.g. Sartre does a good job by presenting “Nausea” as a novel but then theorizing it through “Being & Nothingness” and other works. For an author that doesn’t do that, well, then you end up relying on other authors to do that, as with all the existentialist authors who talked about Dostoevsky. Voltaire screws around with philosophical ideas in Candide, but it requires a treatise, then, to really make sense of them. Our McCarthy episode was as informative as it was because Eric Petrie had written an expository philosophy paper that we were then in part recounting and arguing about. So I agree that literature can be a useful stimulus to philosophy, as can other art forms, but it seldom does the actual job that I at least want philosophy to do (and I think I can claim that without being overly specific or narrow re. what that job is).

  7. Bear Mathun says


    I think I understand the essence of you objection – there is a fundamental difference between works of literary fiction and a Philosophy text. There are some novels which attempt to be in both camps – one could say that the dialogues of Plato and later writers are in this camp.

    However, I would argue that there is a sub-genre of literature which could be described as Philosophical novels. And these have different aims – whether to propose a Philosophical point of view, illustrate a Philosophical world view or to criticise a Philosophical world view. I would agree with you about Murakami: fundamentally he is a storyteller.

    Narrative is a very powerful way to propose Philosophy and to support believe systems. Consider that all major religious traditions have a set of stories as part of the tradition, be it Zen Buddhism, or the Torah or the Hadiith, or the hagiographical stories of the “Founding Fathers” of the United States (the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.

    If one considers Aesop’s fables – these are a set of stories that have been handed down over millennia, and have even been rewritten (think of Jean de la Fontaine). Each one has an observation or comment on human nature or society: but taken together, there is an extensive account of human nature and society. And this account has been successfully transmitted across the world: we all understand the expression “the boy who cried wolf”.

    I would, however, argue that there is a role for literature in Philosophical discourse – since narrative often provides insight. Also, a way to test a Philosophical theory is to see it played out it a narrative. Compare Camus and Ayn Rand: we will have to overcome the obvious deficiencies in Rand’s writing and look at the underlying characterisations and narrative.

    The characters in Camus are in some sense real – we have met people with these particular traits, and the narrative is compelling. Yes, many of the characters are not pleasant. I remember when I first read “La Chute”, I had to do it over several days, just to be able to continue with the central character.

    Thus, the narrative in Camus’ fiction support the claims of Existentialism.

    The characters in Rand, on the other hand, are absurd. They are childish caracatures of bowdlerised and infantalised fairy tales. The “good” characters are all geniuses and beautiful, and the other characters are snivelling thieves. Consider in “The Fountainhead”, Roark rapes the beautiful Dominique Francon. It seems that what she really needed, because she then falls in love with him, not relying on Stockholm syndrome. This narrative does not usually occur outside the fantasies of some men who are often serving time.

    Rand is also unable to keep a consistent Philosophical view in her novels. In “Atlas Shrugged”, governments are evil “looters”, except when the heroine, Dagny’s brother Jim manipulates the government into destroying Dagny’s competition.

    Again, the narrative in “Atlas Shrugged” is absurd, and could not be taken anything other than a plutocrat’s fantasy. However, any narrative that fits with “Objectivism” will be absurd.

    Thus, literature can be used to critique Philosophical views – as the Iliad certain does; and can show certain Philosophical claims to absurd.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Yep, I think you’ve given good examples of what makes for “truth” in literary portrayal, which would be necessary for accurate phenomenology. Certainly speculative philosophical systems can be utterly fantastic as well, such that connecting them up with a simulated-real-world portrayal can dash that fantasy more vividly than an expository argument.

  8. says


    Unlike Paul, I actually think your post suffers from an overly narrow view of what literature is. Or more to the point, how it can be analyzed.

    I haven’t gotten a chance to listen to the McCarthy episode is, but at least from the above it looks like your focus is on the reductive philosophic propositions contained in the a story’s content. But there’s a lot more going on than just content, at least in a fair amount of more “heavy weight” literature.

    Indeed, less content heavy works (emotions/thoughts/actions/events) might be more conducive to a philosophical approach.

    What are your thoughts on Infinite Jest or Notable American Women?

    I also think that, even with regard to content, part of philosophically analyzing literature requires not only formulating the propositions based on an interpretive framework, but also then grappling with them through the logic internal to (or created by) the work itselt, rather than one imposed from outside.

  9. connor says

    Since (as could be expected) Sartre and Camus are coming up a lot in this conversation, I would LOVE to point to Donald Barthelme’s ‘Showers of Gold’ which has a lot to directly say about (Sartrean) Existentialism and is also a fantastic short story.


    I saw Rand come up a few times and though her philosophy is abhorently flawed, one of her lovelier sentiments was her view of fiction as a kind of ‘testing ground’ for philosophy (Introduction to Atlas Shrugged if I am remembering correctly).

    This last point, however, shows one major problem with this excersise: whether or not artistic pursuits should be arguing for or against anything. Rand somewhat undermines her own point with such a slanted view of the world (I think that similar claims could be made about Sartre and Camus whereas Barthelme’s short story allowed existential concepts a kind of popular consideration that is not usually afforded them. Barthelme’s work doesn’t argue for or against anything (though it could be read as a critique of the pragmatics of existentialism) and makes great art insofar as it does not argue against existentialism persay, but rather tests existentialism within a ficticious premise. I think a question still results: What do we say of existentialism when absurdity reveals its own absurdity? But the question is left unanswered, given the creedance to continue to play.

    With a nod back to Wayne’s reply to my last comment, as a general rule, artistis generally make lousy rhetoricians and rhetoricians usually make lousy artists.

  10. Matthew Graham says

    At one point in the podcast, and then again here, the conversation turns to a kind of utilitarian thing where the question becomes, “What coherent philosophical positions can we walk away from this with?” Such a question is understandable, even inevitable, in a forum of this sort, but what this type of question ignores is the essential difference between the two, which lies in the actual experience of reading literature as compared with the actual experience of reading philosophy.

    Literature, as with any good art, is a kind of ultimate protest against utilitarianism. As much as philosophy is decried for being useless, all philosophy (even that which is not strictly “Utilitarian”) is a kind of begging you, “Think about this, please, as you go about your life, for this is the truth of it.” I’m not alone, I think, in enjoying thinking about Kant after the fact much more than I enjoy reading Kant. Once you learn to operate his concepts, there are all sorts of games you can play, meditating on the forms of space and time, the difference between Reason and the Understanding, contemplating the thing itself. It’s a blast, a fantastic reward for having slogged through the Critiques.

    Contrariwise, literature only desires to hold you captive. Even in something as difficult as Beckett, there is a joy in simply caressing the syllables, feeling the way they interlock with each other. Good literature plays with ideas, certainly, just as it plays with psychology and narrative; but these are all side effects of its playing with language. Hell, even that playing with language is itself the side effect of a deeper truth: Play, as such. Art must be play. Thinking is play as well, but the writing of it, the putting it into language, seems something that most philosophers would like to dispense with if they could, so they get it done as quickly as possible, like pulling a tooth. But that playing with language is itself the truth of literature. It’s not about some kind of truth. It is truth.

    (I suppose one could site Derrida as a person who tried to make playing with language into philosophy, to make the philosophical text into something itself the way literary text is something itself. I would argue that that is why he fails as literature and as philosophy. I know others feel differently; we’ll just agree to disagree.)

    Because art is its own truth, we can give it numerous readings: psychological, linguistic, political, religious, historicist, and, yes, philosophical. But these exhaust it no more than the analysis of a person’s psyche, language, politics, religions, historical/biographical context and ideas exhaust the reality of that person, inscrutable, unique, singular.

    (On the topic of language, literature, and ideas, I can’t believe nobody’s brought up Shakespeare. What literary writer juggles better a panoply of psyches and worldviews? Certainly “Hamlet” would be a much easier text to center a podcast on than a hundreds-of-pages-long Great Novel.)

  11. David Clark says

    Hi Mark. I have good news, and bad news. On the good-news side, this article has been linked from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, which is sort of a “firehose” of eyeballs as far as web page hits go (and is frequently read by the American president, to boot!) So expect fame and server loads and all that.

    On the bad news side, they mis-spelled your name – which means that any fame that results from all this may only strike you a glancing blow. Tragic!

    Truth-Telling and Story-Telling

  12. TW says

    So Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Sophocles are dabblers and debutants in the game of offering coherent insights rather than mere observation? To me this speaks of philosophical narcissism. “Philosophy” here reinforces our view of it as an academic subculture dangerously out of touch with its disconnection from broader intellectual culture. Professional analytic philosophers are almost by definition people without the time or inclination to read Dante et al., yet we get this precious idea of it as the only coherent approach to the universal questions. You know, other disciplines may have this queen-of-sciences idea about themselves but manage not to take it to such embarrassing lengths.

    • Profile photo of Mark Linsenmayer says

      Again, just venting my spleen in light of some particular circumstances of reading some particular things and having our McCarthy conversation. I think we on that episode (which I’m expecting you didn’t listen to, if you’re following the link from Andrew Sullivan’s blog) expressed the positive role of literature in philosophy in plenty, but had not given the other side. My main caution here is that it’s easy, even when trying to get at the philosophical upshot of literature, to get lost in strictly literary questions (why did the author say this or use this stylistic affect instead of some other…).

      That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with literature as literature, or that it doesn’t have oodles of non-philosophical value, as do music and visual art, but seldom are the latter arts alleged to be a sufficient substitute for whatever it is philosophy is supposed to do.

      I still feel like a good test for whether literature is transmitting something useful philosophically is whether the same point can be translated into expository prose (which may still have to point back to the literature for the full detail of the illustration). So Sophocles, for instance, gives a great picture of a tragic view of ethics (as discussed a bit on our MacIntyre episode), which aptly demonstrates that doing some calculation and choosing what seems to be the lesser of two evils does not absolve you from that lesser evil… it’s still evil, and may still wreck you. So that’s an interesting point, put compellingly through literature so as to be perhaps more convincing than a mere description of the theory. To fully test that insight, though, requires backing off to consider the nature of ethical judgments, and the relation between the rightness of an action and the psychology of those performing it… many of those individual tests too could be couched in literature, but it sure is at that point more efficient and effective to simply lay out the arguments. I fail to see anything narcissistic in that claim.

      • Wayne Schroeder says


        I just finished Cormack McCarthy’s SUTTREE, a brilliant novel which resolves around the explicit need to become aware that you are responsible for your life, and only you, in this existential world–but conveyed 99% implicitly. (This novel seems to be very biographical, in addition to the setting being Knoxville, McCarthy’s home town.) This novel is a very implicit chapter out of Sartre’s explicit/expository existential philosophy based on the necessity of individual responsibility (versus bad faith)–refer to the very explicit BEING AND NOTHINGNESS.

        So who is better at expressing existential philosophical meaning, McCormack or Sartre? Of course this is not an either/or but both/and condition. Each is best in their own domain, even though Sartre is adequate using literature, and McCormack shows no interest in philosophy yet. Sartre’s philosophy is hardly the failure that Foucalt or others claim, and seems to best express explicitly what McCarthy, Camus and most in the existential camp encompass, especially regarding responsibility.

        To come full circle, perhaps the best challenge that existentialism has brought to philosophy is the importance of focusing on meaning and implicit understanding rather than on truth and explicit understanding.

        One of my personal curiosities is why ethics come up so often in the context of meaning and philosophy. Suttree hardly ever makes ethical judgments throughout the novel, which I find to be perhaps the most redeeming value of existentialism generally–giving a level playing field to everyone, with charity. However, the ending of the novel places an ultimate ethic of being responsible for our own lives–which seems to be valid, since it is not so much judgmental as relational/meaningful–and then the novel wisely ends. There just seems to be a consistent false divide between explicit/implicit, analytic/synthetic(continental philosophy), philosophical/literary.

        Perhaps the better effort is toward what bridges these divides.

      • TW says

        Fair enough. That literature doesn’t substitute for philosophical treatises is clear enough. My beef isn’t with this but with the further claim that philosophical treatises have proven their unique status as satisfactory responses to “the big questions.”

        Disciplinary humility is healthy. Economists & psycholoigists think they have answers in areas untouched by their models and experiments, and there are an awful lot of approaches to truth and meaning against which the Academic Philosophy Article makes a pretty weak approach.

        Yeah I came from the Dish, but I did come back to check in on the continuing discussion!

  13. NL says

    Obviously this was a discussion from some time ago. I did want to recommend the books of John Gardner, in particular Freddy’s Book, Grendel, Jason and Medea, and some of his short stories–or maybe even Mickelson’s Ghost, whose protagonist is a philosophy professor. I don’t think Gardner introduces anything new into the world of ideas that is characterized as philosophy, but he does provide an interesting and accessible entry point into some philosophical issues–particularly issues of existentialism and ethics.


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