Posted in Book Stuff

the philosophical novel – NYT

Can a novelist write philosophically? Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits.

I’d say they are complementary rather than contrary. Let’s take the definitions of philosophy:

1. Love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline.

Here substitute “by imaginative means and literary self-discipline.”

2. Investigation of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning rather than empirical methods.

And here substitute “based on literary imagination rather than empirical methods.”

I think that works. Do you?



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

3 thoughts on “the philosophical novel – NYT

  1. I read this article as well, and it struck me that the writers were working with a narrow definition of the novel. Perhaps a highly or even moderately commercial novel can’t manage genuine philosophical inquiry without seeming contrived, but it seems to me that any novel worthy of discussion does this on some level, even if it wasn’t one of the novelist’s explicit goals.

    1. Michelle, that was my reaction as well.

      Litlove, thanks for clarifying the different definitions and approaches in philosophy. I have found that confusing ever since my first philosophy course. I thought it would answer the big questions I wondered about–but I should have been reading literature for that!

  2. It depends on the model of philosophy used. For many centuries, the pursuit of philosophy was empirical – it was concerned with what we could know, for sure and definite (Kant being the founding father of this understanding of philosophy). In this scenario, philosophy and literature are at odds because literature prefers ambiguity. However, when philosophy shifted ground in the early 20th century to become an ontological study, the study of what it is to BE, then it coincided productively with literature – hence phenomenology was a big influence on modernism, and Existentialism was played out by Sartre and Beauvoir in both philosophical tracts and novels.

    But then again there are some philosophy professors who wouldn’t recognise either of these fields of thought as philosophy – they’d be the ones working with logic, who produce pages and pages of what look like mathematical equations and think that philosophers who use words are soft! Not a bit like literature then, in that particular case.

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