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?

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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").