Jan 6, 2010

What if other philosophers had been novelists too?

To a novice student of Objectivism, who had read two nonfiction works by Ayn Rand and wanted to know more, I suggested reading her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. They show Ayn Rand's philosophy in action.

Intentionally or not, a work of fiction demonstrates a fiction writer's philosophy in its fundamental branches (metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics). As Ayn Rand has noted, all art is a "selective recreation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments."[1] The idea of metaphysical value-judgments means personal evaluations of philosophically fundamental facts of reality -- such as the lawfulness of nature, man's need to think and act, and the necessity of loyalty to one's highest values.[2] But why should there be a need to see a philosopher's ideas in action?

All philosophies are hard to study. First is the problem of content. A philosophy is a vast system of abstractions that individually and collectively are difficult to learn. Second is the problem of the medium for transmitting the philosophy from the philosopher to others. The most accomplished philosophers have developed new philosophical ideas and in their own minds systematized those ideas; unfortunately in their writings (which they published over a period of decades) their systemizations -- for example, connecting metaphysics and epistemology to ethics -- have either been only implicit or explicit but scattered in brief comments throughout the philosopher's body of writings. In either case, the student of a particular philosopher must invest a lot of time either in explicating the implicit connections or in collecting and connecting scattered comments. Not even one of the primary philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand -- has written a concise, systematized, one-volume view of his whole philosophy, even for scholars, much less for philosophical novices. Nor, with very few exceptions in the history of philosophy, have even the philosophers' most advanced followers written such a book.[3]

Because of such problems, studying a philosophy as a whole is often a project requiring years of reading a variety of texts, wrestling with puzzles, and discussing issues with other students of the same philosophy. Seeing a philosopher's philosophy in action -- as in a novel -- might help grasp his philosophy as a whole, including the integration of its main elements.

What would their novels (or other fiction) be like if the three earliest primary philosophers -- Plato, Aristotle, and Kant -- had written fiction as well as philosophical treatises? Who would the characters be? What sort of plot would the characters follow? What themes might the philosopher convey? What would be the main elements of his style? [4]

As usual, I have more questions than answers.

If formulating literary principles that would represent the first three primary philosophers' philosophical system is too difficult or time-consuming for now, then consider this question: Which novels (or other works of fiction) already written by non-philosophers would best represent each of those three philosophers? And why?

(If you do comment, please note this weblog's strict etiquette -- especially using a recognizable form of your real name, at least in the body of the comment.)

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, p. 22 (hb), "Art is a . . ." and so forth. [2] I have listed my own examples of metaphysical elements subject to evaluation. These fundamental value judgments serve as a foundation for ethics (the study of what man should do about living in the world). For Ayn Rand's examples of metaphysical elements subject to fundamental evaluation: TRM, pp. 21-22 hb, "Is the universe intelligible . . ." and so forth. [3] A sterling exception is: Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. There have been compilers, digest writers, and popularizers, but their works were not single-volume tutorials on a philosopher's philosophical system, which would include not only the basic principles in every branch of the philosophy but the main logical connections among those principles. In a similar, though narrower vein, two Objectivist scholars have shown that one element of a philosophy, a philosopher's theory of concepts, integrates his metaphysics, epistemology, and other branches through cause and effect. Dr. Gary Hull's single lecture, "The Two False Theories of Concepts" (covering intrinsicism and subjectivism in Plato, Aristotle, and post-Renaissance philosophers, versus Ayn Rand), and Dr. Andrew Bernstein's four lectures, "Four Giants of Philosophy" (Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Rand), are available as audio CDs from The Ayn Rand Bookstore, online. [4] For the essential characteristics of a novel or other work of fiction: Rand, TRM, Ch. 4 ("The Basic Principles of Literature").


Burgess Laughlin said...

After completing the post and after receiving a general comment from an Objectivist in another venue, I came up with several brief examples.

First consider Plato. His philosophical works, in a sense, are already semi-fictional in form (as dialogues that provide intellectual action, with a tiny bit of physical action too, thrown in for the early dialogues. E.g., in one of the dialogues, if I remember correctly, several characters walked to a marketplace. Very Platonic to not be vibrantly physical. So, perhaps Plato's novels might be mostly long conversations that have a plot, of sorts, definite characters, and a (Platonic or Socratic) theme.

For Aristotle, I can imagine an intellectual adventure story formed around a philosophizer seeking the puzzle of life-forms in a tide pool -- and being accused of witchcraft by the townsmen in a nearby democracy. (Remember Aristotle's decision to leave Athens.) Aristotle's novel might be something like a fictionalized account of Darwin's life.

For Kant, who was conventional in many of his manners, the story could be a tragedy, a proper young man -- perhaps a "scientist" who only speculated but never did any experiments -- doing his duty even to the point of his untimely death. All along the way he would be guided by his feelings -- for the starry skies above (awe at nature as a manifestation of God) and for his inner voice (the voice of conscience, which is the voice of God).

BTW, many of Kant's writings were fairly clear. He was obscure where he needed to be obscure -- the same as a magician would. His novel need not be obscurely written. In fact, to the contrary. Kant pretended to be a man of the Enlightenment. He might very well have written in the style of Elsworth Toohey, the antagonist in The Fountainhead.

If I were doing further research on this subject, I would invest time into seeing what sorts of fictional art Plato, Aristotle, and Kant actually read (or watched) and enjoyed most. That might be a clue to what they would write.

C.W. said...

Burgess, this is a little off the subject. In "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, there are discriptions of people with various disorders. The interesting thing is that several report experiences that match up with what certain philosophers wrote was standard human experience. The first one is definately Hume. Sacks didn't make these connections, but I think it is clear eonough.

pomponazzi said...

Mr Laughlin -- How about Kafka? He seems to be the reductio ad absurdum of Kant. I think that malevolence and nihilism would be the essence of any Kantian novel. To bring to light the monstrous metaphysical value-judgments implicit in Kant's system, I think, would require a novelist with a Kafkaesque sense of life. Thank you
Ali Imdad

Wayne said...

Plato's thought experiment of the shadows on cave wall makes me think he'd write horror.
Aristotle would write adventure or thriller, drawing conclusions from his observations in many areas. Aristotle would have a bright uplifting sense of life like Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Kant would write some literary novel that I'd look at for 10 minutes, shake my hand and go "I don't get what anybody sees in this guy."
Wayne K

avi said...

IMHO, the life of Alexander the Great depicts the way Aristotle would write a novell.
I am afraid that the entire literature and cinema of the 20th century looks as Kant wanted it to look.