Philosophy and literature

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Philosophy and literature involves the literary treatment of philosophers and philosophical themes (the literature of philosophy), and the philosophical treatment of issues raised by literature (the philosophy of literature).

Literature Written work of art

Literature, most generically, is any body of written works. More restrictively, literature refers to writing considered to be an art form or any single writing deemed to have artistic or intellectual value, often due to deploying language in ways that differ from ordinary usage.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.

Philosophy Study of general and fundamental questions

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental questions about existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras. Philosophical methods include questioning, critical discussion, rational argument, and systematic presentation. Classic philosophical questions include: Is it possible to know anything and to prove it? What is most real? Philosophers also pose more practical and concrete questions such as: Is there a best way to live? Is it better to be just or unjust? Do humans have free will?


The Clouds by Aristophanes presented Socrates as a comic figure. Socrates Louvre.jpg
The Clouds by Aristophanes presented Socrates as a comic figure.

The philosophy of literature

Strictly speaking, the philosophy of literature is a branch of aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that deals with the question, "what is art"? Much of aesthetic philosophy has traditionally focused on the plastic arts or music, however, at the expense of the verbal arts. In fact, much traditional discussion of aesthetic philosophy seeks to establish criteria of artistic quality that are indifferent to the subject matter being depicted. Since all literary works, almost by definition, contain notional content, aesthetic theories that rely on purely formal qualities tend to overlook literature.

Aesthetics Branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of art, beauty, and taste

Aesthetics, or esthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of art, beauty and taste and with the creation or appreciation of beauty.

Art Creative work to evoke emotional response

Art is a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author's imaginative, conceptual ideas, or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power. In their most general form these activities include the production of works of art, the criticism of art, the study of the history of art, and the aesthetic dissemination of art.

Music form of art using sound

Music is an art form and cultural activity whose medium is sound organized in time. General definitions of music include common elements such as pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the sonic qualities of timbre and texture. Different styles or types of music may emphasize, de-emphasize or omit some of these elements. Music is performed with a vast range of instruments and vocal techniques ranging from singing to rapping; there are solely instrumental pieces, solely vocal pieces and pieces that combine singing and instruments. The word derives from Greek μουσική . See glossary of musical terminology.

The very existence of narrative raises philosophical issues. In narrative, a creator can embody, and readers be led to imagine, fictional characters, and even fantastic creatures or technologies. The ability of the human mind to imagine, and even to experience empathy with, these fictional characters is itself revealing about the nature of the human mind. Some fiction can be thought of as a sort of a thought experiment in ethics: it describes fictional characters, their motives, their actions, and the consequences of their actions. It is in this light that some philosophers have chosen various narrative forms to teach their philosophy (see below).

A narrative or story is an account of a series of related events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, which is derived from the adjective gnarus. Along with exposition, argumentation and description, narration, broadly defined, is one of four rhetorical modes of discourse. More narrowly defined, it is the fiction-writing mode in which the narrator communicates directly to the reader.

Fiction any story or setting that is derived from imagination, can be conveyed through any medium

Fiction broadly refers to any narrative that is derived from the imagination—in other words, not based strictly on history or fact. It can also refer, more narrowly, to narratives written only in prose, and is often used as a synonym for the novel. In cinema it corresponds to narrative film in opposition to documentary as far as novel to feature film and short story to short film.

Fantasy Genre of literature, film, television and other artforms

Fantasy is a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore. Its roots are in oral traditions, which then became literature and drama. From the twentieth century it has expanded further into various media, including film, television, graphic novels, manga and video games.

Literature and language

Plato, for instance, believed that literary culture and even the lyrics of popular music had a strong impact on the ethical outlook of its consumers. In The Republic , Plato displays a strong hostility to the contents of the literary culture of his period, and proposes a strong censorship of popular literature in his utopia.

Plato Classical Greek philosopher

Plato was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world.

Lyrics are words that make up a song usually consisting of verses and choruses. The writer of lyrics is a lyricist. The words to an extended musical composition such as an opera are, however, usually known as a "libretto" and their writer, as a "librettist". The meaning of lyrics can either be explicit or implicit. Some lyrics are abstract, almost unintelligible, and, in such cases, their explication emphasizes form, articulation, meter, and symmetry of expression. Rappers can also create lyrics that are meant to be spoken rhythmically rather than sung.

Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training. It stands in contrast to both art music and traditional or "folk" music. Art music was historically disseminated through the performances of written music, although since the beginning of the recording industry, it is also disseminated through recordings. Traditional music forms such as early blues songs or hymns were passed along orally, or to smaller, local audiences.

More recently, however, philosophers of various stripes have taken different and less hostile approaches to literature. Since the work of the British Empiricists and Immanuel Kant in the late eighteenth century, Western philosophy has been preoccupied with a fundamental question of epistemology: the question of the relationship between ideas in the human mind and the world existing outside the mind, if in fact such a world exists. In more recent years, these epistemological issues have turned instead to an extended discussion of words and meaning: can language in fact bridge the barrier between minds? This cluster of issues concerning the meaning of language and of "writings" sometimes goes by the name of the linguistic turn .

Immanuel Kant Prussian philosopher

Immanuel Kant was an influential German philosopher in the Age of Enlightenment. In his doctrine of transcendental idealism, he argued that space, time, and causation are mere sensibilities; "things-in-themselves" exist, but their nature is unknowable. In his view, the mind shapes and structures experience, with all human experience sharing certain structural features. He drew a parallel to the Copernican revolution in his proposition that worldly objects can be intuited a priori ('beforehand'), and that intuition is therefore independent from objective reality. Kant believed that reason is the source of morality, and that aesthetics arise from a faculty of disinterested judgment. Kant's views continue to have a major influence on contemporary philosophy, especially the fields of epistemology, ethics, political theory, and post-modern aesthetics.

Epistemology A branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge.

Idea Mental image or concept

In philosophy, ideas are usually taken as mental representational images of some object. Ideas can also be abstract concepts that do not present as mental images. Many philosophers have considered ideas to be a fundamental ontological category of being. The capacity to create and understand the meaning of ideas is considered to be an essential and defining feature of human beings. In a popular sense, an idea arises in a reflexive, spontaneous manner, even without thinking or serious reflection, for example, when we talk about the idea of a person or a place. A new or original idea can often lead to innovation.

As such, techniques and tools developed for literary criticism and literary theory rose to greater prominence in Western philosophy of the late twentieth century. Philosophers of various stripes paid more attention to literature than their predecessors did. Some sought to examine the question of whether it was in fact truly possible to communicate using words, whether it was possible for an author's intended meaning to be communicated to a reader. Others sought to use literary works as examples of contemporary culture, and sought to reveal unconscious attitudes they felt present in these works for the purpose of social criticism.

Literary criticism study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature

Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.

Literary theory systematic study of the nature of literature

Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes which are of relevance to the way humans interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of scholarship is an outgrowth of critical theory and is often called simply "theory". As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Many of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy and of sociology.

Culture Social behavior and norms found in society

Culture is the social behavior and norms found in human societies. Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies. Cultural universals are found in all human societies; these include expressive forms like art, music, dance, ritual, religion, and technologies like tool usage, cooking, shelter, and clothing. The concept of material culture covers the physical expressions of culture, such as technology, architecture and art, whereas the immaterial aspects of culture such as principles of social organization, mythology, philosophy, literature, and science comprise the intangible cultural heritage of a society.

The truth of fiction

Literary works also pose issues concerning truth and the philosophy of language. In educated opinion, at least, it is commonly reputed as true that Sherlock Holmes lived in London. (see David Lewis 'Truth in Fiction', American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 15. No. 1, January 1978) It is also considered true that Samuel Pepys lived in London. Yet Sherlock Holmes never lived anywhere at all; he is a fictional character. Samuel Pepys, contrarily, is judged to have been a real person. Contemporary interest in Holmes and in Pepys share strong similarities; the only reason why anyone knows either of their names is because of an abiding interest in reading about their alleged deeds and words. These two statements would appear to belong to two different orders of truth. Further problems arise concerning the truth value of statements about fictional worlds and characters that can be implied but are nowhere explicitly stated by the sources for our knowledge about them, such as Sherlock Holmes had only one head or Sherlock Holmes never travelled to the moon.

The literature of philosophy

Philosophical poems

A number of poets have written poems on philosophical themes, and some important philosophers have expressed their philosophy in verse. The cosmogony of Hesiod and the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius are important philosophical poems. The genre of epic poetry was also used to teach philosophy. Vyasa narrated the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata in order to teach Indian philosophy and Hindu philosophy. Homer also presented some philosophical teachings in his Odyssey .

Many of the Eastern philosophers worked out their thought in poetical fashion. Some of the important names include:

Notable Western philosophical poets include:

Philosophical fiction

Some philosophers have undertaken to write philosophy in the form of fiction, including novels and short stories (see separate article on philosophical fiction). This is apparent early on in the literature of philosophy, where philosophers such as Plato wrote dialogues in which fictional or fictionalized characters discuss philosophical subjects; Socrates frequently appears as a protagonist in Plato's dialogues, and the dialogues are one of the prime sources of knowledge about Socrates' teaching, though at this remove it is sometimes hard to distinguish Socrates' actual positions from Plato's own. Numerous early Christian writers, including Augustine, Boethius, and Peter Abelard produced dialogues; several early modern philosophers, such as George Berkeley and David Hume, wrote occasionally in this genre.

Other philosophers have resorted to narrative to get their teachings across. The classical 12th century Islamic philosopher, Abubacer (Ibn Tufail), wrote a fictional Arabic narrative Philosophus Autodidactus as a response to al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers , and then the 13th century Islamic theologian-philosopher Ibn al-Nafis also wrote a fictional narrative Theologus Autodidactus as a response to Abubacer's Philosophus Autodidactus. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche often articulated his ideas in literary modes, most notably in Thus Spoke Zarathustra , a re-imagined account of the teachings of Zoroaster. Marquis de Sade and Ayn Rand wrote novels in which characters served as mouthpieces for philosophical positions, and act in accordance with them in the plot. George Santayana was also a philosopher who wrote novels and poetry; the relationship between Santayana's characters and his beliefs is more complex. The existentialists include among their numbers important French authors who used fiction to convey their philosophical views; these include Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea and play No Exit , and Albert Camus's The Stranger . Maurice Blanchot's entire fictional production, whose titles include The Step Not Beyond , The madness of the Day , and The Writing of Disaster , among others, constitutes an indispensable corpus for the treatment of the relationship between philosophy and literature. So does Jacques Derrida's The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond .

A number of philosophers have had important influence on literature. Arthur Schopenhauer, largely as a result of his system of aesthetics, is perhaps the most influential recent philosopher in the history of literature; Thomas Hardy's later novels frequently allude to Schopenhauerian themes, particularly in Jude the Obscure . Schopenhauer also had an important influence on Joseph Conrad. Schopenhauer also had a less specific but more widely diffused influence on the Symbolist movement in European literature. Lionel Johnson also refers to Schopenhauer's aesthetics in his essay The Cultured Faun. Jacques Derrida's entire oeuvre has been hugely influential for so-called continental philosophy and the understanding of the role of literature in modernity.

Other works of fiction considered to have philosophical content include:

Philosophical writing as literature

A number of philosophers are still read for the literary merits of their works apart from their philosophical content. The philosophy in the Meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is unoriginal Stoicism, but the Meditations are still read for their literary merit and for the insight they give into the workings of the emperor's mind.

Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophy is noted for the quality and readability of its prose, as are some of the works of the British Empiricists, such as Locke and Hume. Søren Kierkegaard's style is frequently regarded as poetic artistry as well as philosophical, especially in Fear and Trembling and Either/Or . Friedrich Nietzsche's works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra frequently resemble prose poetry and contain imagery and allusion instead of argument.

Philosophy in literature

Philosophers in literature

Socrates appears in a highly fictionalized guise, as a comic figure and the object of mockery, in The Clouds by Aristophanes. In the play, Socrates appears hanging from a basket, where he delivers oracles such as:

I'd never come up with a single thing
about celestial phenomena,
if I did not suspend my mind up high,
to mix my subtle thoughts with what's like them—
the air. If I turned my mind to lofty things,
but stayed there on the ground, I'd never make
the least discovery. For the earth, you see,
draws moist thoughts down by force into itself—
the same process takes place with water cress.

Early Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zhou expressed his ideas primarily through short literary anecdotes and fables. The other major philosophers of the time appear as characters within these stories, allowing Zhuangzi to playfully explore their ideas and contrast them with his own, as he does with Laozi, Liezi, Hui Shi, and many others. Most prominently in his work is the presence of Confucius and his prominent disciples, who are sometimes used to undermine popular understandings of Confucian philosophy or to reinforce Zhuangzi's own understanding of how one lives in accordance with the Dao.

Jorge Luis Borges is perhaps the twentieth century's preeminent author of philosophical fiction. He wrote a short story in which the philosopher Averroes is the chief protagonist, Averroes's Search . Many plot points in his stories accurately paraphrase and epitomize the thought of major philosophers, including George Berkeley, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Bertrand Russell; he also attributes various opinions to figures including George Dalgarno.

A key plot point in Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose turns on the discovery of a mysterious book that turns out to contain a lost manuscript by Aristotle. Eco's later novel Foucault's Pendulum became the forerunner of a run of thrillers or detective fiction that toss around learned allusions and the names of historical thinkers; more recent examples include Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason.

Also, Philip K. Dick, who has often been compared to Borges, raises a significant number of philosophical issues in his novels, everything from the problem of solipsism to many questions of perception and reality.

Fictional philosophers

Jorge Luis Borges introduces many philosophical themes, and a number of fictional philosophers, in his short stories. A fictional philosophical movement is a part of the premise of his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius , and the unnamed narrator of his story The Library of Babel could also be called a fictional philosopher. A fictional theologian is the subject of his story Three Versions of Judas .

Fictional philosophers occasionally occur throughout the works of Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land contains long passages that could be considered as successors to the fictionalized philosophical dialogues of the ancient world, set within the plot.

See also

Related Research Articles

History of literature The development of writing within civilizations

The history of literature is the historical development of writings in prose or poetry that attempt to provide entertainment, enlightenment, or instruction to the reader/listener/observer, as well as the development of the literary techniques used in the communication of these pieces. Not all writings constitute literature. Some recorded materials, such as compilations of data are not considered literature, and this article relates only to the evolution of the works defined above.

Islamic philosophy

Islamic philosophy is a development in philosophy that is characterised by coming from an Islamic tradition. Two terms traditionally used in the Islamic world are sometimes translated as philosophy—falsafa, which refers to philosophy as well as logic, mathematics, and physics; and Kalam, which refers to a rationalist form of Islamic theology.

Early Islamic philosophy or classical Islamic philosophy is a period of intense philosophical development beginning in the 2nd century AH of the Islamic calendar and lasting until the 6th century AH. The period is known as the Islamic Golden Age, and the achievements of this period had a crucial influence in the development of modern philosophy and science. For Renaissance Europe, "Muslim maritime, agricultural, and technological innovations, as well as much East Asian technology via the Muslim world, made their way to western Europe in one of the largest technology transfers in world history.” This period starts with al-Kindi in the 9th century and ends with Averroes at the end of 12th century. The death of Averroes effectively marks the end of a particular discipline of Islamic philosophy usually called the Peripatetic Arabic School, and philosophical activity declined significantly in Western Islamic countries, namely in Islamic Spain and North Africa, though it persisted for much longer in the Eastern countries, in particular Persia and India where several schools of philosophy continued to flourish: Avicennism, Illuminationist philosophy, Mystical philosophy, and Transcendent theosophy.

"Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" is a short story by the 20th-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story was first published in the Argentine journal Sur, May 1940. The "postscript" dated 1947 is intended to be anachronistic, set seven years in the future. The first English-language translation of the story was published in 1961.

Plato describes the "Form of the Good", or more literally "the idea of the good", in his dialogue the Republic (508e2–3), speaking through the character of Socrates. Plato introduces several forms in his works, but identifies the Form of the Good as the superlative. This form is the one that allows a philosopher-in-training to advance to a philosopher-king. It cannot be clearly seen or explained, but once it is recognized, it is the form that allows one to realize all the other forms.

Socratic problem A term used to describe failure in reconstructing a historical and philosophical image of Socrates

The Socratic problem is a term used in historical scholarship concerning attempts at reconstructing a historical and philosophical image of Socrates based on the variable, and sometimes contradictory, nature of the existing sources on his life. Scholars rely upon the extant sources such as those of contemporaries like Aristophanes or disciples of Socrates like Plato and Xenophon for knowing anything about Socrates. However, these sources contain contradictory details of his life, words, and beliefs when taken together. This complicates the attempts at reconstructing the beliefs and philosophical views held by the historical Socrates. It is apparent to scholarship that this problem is now deemed a task seeming impossible to clarify and thus perhaps now classified as unsolvable.

Socratic dialogue A genre of literary prose

Socratic dialogue is a genre of literary prose developed in Greece at the turn of the fourth century BC. It is preserved in the works of Plato and Xenophon. The discussion of moral and philosophical problems between two or more characters in a dialogue is an illustration of one version of the Socratic method. The dialogues are either dramatic or narrative and Socrates is often the main participant.

Ibn Tufail was an Arab Andalusian Muslim polymath: a writer, novelist, Islamic philosopher, Islamic theologian, physician, astronomer, vizier, and court official.

Islamic literature the development of Arabic literature and meanings after the expansion of Islam

Islamic literature is literature written with an Islamic perspective, in any language.

Irwin Edman was an American philosopher and professor of philosophy.

Christopher Janaway is a philosopher and author. Before moving to Southampton in 2005, Janaway taught at the University of Sydney and Birkbeck, University of London. His recent research has been on Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and aesthetics. His 2007 book Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's Genealogy focuses on a critical examination of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. Janaway currently lectures at the University of Southampton, including a module focusing on Nietzsche.

Philosophical fiction refers to the class of works of fiction which devote a significant portion of their content to the sort of questions normally addressed in discursive philosophy. These might include the function and role of society, the purpose of life, ethics or morals, the role of art in human lives, and the role of experience or reason in the development of knowledge. Philosophical fiction works would include the so-called novel of ideas, including some science fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, and the Bildungsroman.

Diotima of Mantinea was an ancient Greek prophetess and philosopher thought to have lived circa 440 B.C.E., who plays an important role in Plato's Symposium. In the dialogue, her ideas are the origin of the concept of Platonic love.

Thomas Pavel is a literary theorist, critic, and novelist currently teaching at the University of Chicago.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to metaphysics:

Theologus Autodidactus, originally titled The Treatise of Kāmil on the Prophet's Biography, also known as Risālat Fādil ibn Nātiq, is a theological novel written by Ibn al-Nafis. This work is one of the first Arabic novels, may be considered a prototypical science fiction novel, of which it contained numerous elements, and an early example of a coming of age tale and a desert island story. This novel was written sometime between 1268 and 1277. It was partly a response to the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Andalusi writer Ibn Tufail.

Socrates classical Greek Athenian philosopher

Socrates was a classical Greek (Athenian) philosopher credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, and as being the first moral philosopher of the Western ethical tradition of thought. An enigmatic figure, he made no writings, and is known chiefly through the accounts of classical writers writing after his lifetime, particularly his students Plato and Xenophon. Other sources include the contemporaneous Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines of Sphettos. Aristophanes, a playwright, is the main contemporary author to have written plays mentioning Socrates during Socrates' lifetime, though a fragment of Ion of Chios' Travel Journal provides important information about Socrates' youth.

Victorino Tejera

Victorino Tejera was a writer, scholar, and professor of philosophy with specializations in ancient Greek thought, Metaphysics, Aesthetics, and American philosophy. He was born in Caracas, Venezuela. He is known especially for his writing on Plato's Dialogues. Many scholars believe Tejera's work in this area is his most valuable contribution to philosophy. He was editor and contributor with Thelma Lavine on History and Anti-History in Philosophy who's FromSocrates to Sartre (1984) was the basis for the PBS series of the same name.