The Novelist as Philsopher?

Should a novelist also be a philosopher?  Just to be clear about the point, Wikipedia defines philosophy as “the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language.”  It goes on to say that ‘philosophy’ is derived from a Greek word meaning ‘love of knowledge’.  Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were among the first Western philosophers.  More recent  philosophers have included Sarte, Camus and Malraux, and all three were also novelists.   Most living philosophers today teach at large universities, and I can think of no one who is both a well-known author and a prominent philosopher.  Interestingly, Ernest Hemingway wrote a number of novels and short stories in which deeply philosophical issues are addressed, but Hemingway certainly would not have considered himself a philosopher.  Rather, he was a writer who had tremendous skill in presenting the fundamental issues surrounding what it is to be human.

Clearly, most novels which are published today have little, if any philosophical content.  This is largely true of  romances, detective stories, science fiction, spy stories, thrillers, and books for children and teen-agers.  Biographical fiction, war stories, political fiction, and historical novels may only touch on philosophical issues.  Does it matter?

I think we have to  ask ourselves why there appears to be a convergence of these two trends.  One of these trends is the absence of a modern philosopher of stature – a man or woman who regularlycaptures the  interest and attention of educated people.  The second trend is the apparent reluctance of philosophers to venture outside the university or outside the professional society meeting to write interesting novels with real philosophical content.  Neither trend, it seems to me, is caused be a shortage of professional philosophers.  While the American Philosophical Association does not publish information on the number of its members, I have the impression that there are at least 25,000 members.   Has the ‘market’ for philosophical discussion dried up (except among college students who are pursuing a liberal education)?  This, I think, may be the answer, and the key word is ‘discussion’.  It has become unfashionable (except, again, among college students) to discuss the key philosophical questions, such as:

  • what is the nature of man in the universe?
  • in the context of the universe and eternity, why is man’s existence so short and his power so small?
  • ultimately, what is the purpose of man’s existence?
  • what is the nature of faith?  of reason?
  • what is the nature of the relationship between man and God (if He exists)?
  • what is the relationship between good and evil?
  • what is more important: knowing or doing?

Various commentators have suggested that our culture of mass understanding of technological, social and psychological issues has insulated us from the assault of these questions.  We are deluged with information of all kinds by the media, much of the information is presented as ‘true’ or as ‘most people believe that . . .”  Our values have become propped up by commonly held assumptions which define our comfort zones.  We have become reluctant to consider, thoughtfully, questions like these because we are afraid of losing our comfortable props, and having to confront what may seem like (and which may in fact be) a terrifying void.

Art, it seems to me, is somewhat ahead of literature is dealing with philosophical issues.  On 3 May 2012, Edvard Munch’s pastel The Scream was sold by Sothebys for just under $120 million to a private buyer.

 The Scream

This pastel cries out with philosophical significance.  It expresses man’s anxiety about his existence in the universe.  The artist said this about the inspiration to do the work: “I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.  My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”  In fact, much of modern art represents a commentary on philosophical issues, representing in various ways, the broken world, lost or shattered man, curious values, jumbled communications, and so on.

While the artist may be very good at raising philosophical questions (as The Scream does); it is much more difficult for the artist to provide answers to these questions (as Sarte, Camus and Malraux did in the existential philosophies they presented in their writings).  It is relatively easy for the writer to ask (or to raise) philosophical questions in a novel, as Dickens did and as John Irving does currently.

Of course, it is difficult to paint or to sculpt – to depict – the answer to a philosophical question.  And to an extent, it is difficult to a writer to present his or her answers to philosophical questions in a novel.  The difficulty for the artist is how to communicate, visually, an answer to an abstract question: the viewer may be moved in some way by the depiction, but he may have difficulty understanding.  The problem for the writer is different.  He can set forth his answer quite clearly.  But having the reader take an interest in the answer depends on whether the reader feels any real urgency about the question.  Or is s/he oblivious to the question and insulated from it?

The fact that a simple, but colourful and expressive, pastel commanded a price of $120 million suggests to me that, on at least a subconscious level, people are attuned to philosophical questions.  The challenge is to use one’s artistic skill to raise philosophical issues to the conscious level, and to do so in a way that the reader (or viewer) is intellectually and emotionally captivated.

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