Fiction and Philosophy

I so thoroughly enjoyed the last novel I read--Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, that I got to thinking about what makes fiction so enjoyable. Or more precisely, I got to thinking what makes it so appealing compared to philosophy.

Ferris's novel is about a seemingly shallow gang of workers at an ad agency. Their shallowness is amply demonstrated by anecdotes that fill up many pages of the book. After they play a shocking prank on a coworker whose 9-year-old daughter was murdered, you especially wonder if they're really all just rotten, or there's more to them. The answer gradually comes into view, but it's shown, not stated. The reader thus gets the pleasure of gathering clues and gradually "getting it."

In philosophy, on the other hand, there's no oblique showing, there's just saying. Any thought you hope to transmit to a reader is supposed to be written down as clearly as possible. This explicitness is taken to the furthest extreme in academic journals. Not only are you to make every point explicitly, but you are to do so in the first couple of paragraphs: "In this paper, I will show x, y, and z." Thus, for the reader there is no gradual pleasure of "getting it." There's no unfolding, no journey to some unexpected place. You know where you're going from the very beginning.

The philosopher who means that p says that p. In fact, in novels there's often no real p. If you read Ferris's book (and you should!) and then try to write down what he "said" in it, you'll find that a hopeless task. What did he say? That the group mentality in a work place has plusses and minusses. That the trivial concerns of daily life are intermingled with the most serious life and death concerns. Anybody who reads the book will find these attempts at "p" pretty pitiful. The truth is, I think, that there is no "p." Ferris talks about group mentality, and the way trviliaties mingle with serious issues. He explores ideas about these things, but he doesn't make claims you could really write down.

In philosophy, on the other hand, there is always an expectation of a clearcut "p." Well, sure. If you're going to write philosophy, you need to have something to say. You're expected to not only say "p" but make an argument for it. The problem is that there are times when a topic is really better explored than resolved. For example, a terribly important issue in ethics is whether morality must always be our first priority. Must we go through life always taking the morally better path at every fork in the road? To really think deeply about this, you really might be better off just exploring it , and not trying to make an explicit, clear-cut claim. This dawned on me when I was trying to write the 8th chapter of my book on the good life, which is about exactly this question. As I was writing it, I was reading Nick Hornby's novel How to be Good. Hornby's main character is a middle aged man who suddenly decides to be as good as can be, with intriguing consquences for everyone around him. So what's the answer: should we do that? Should we not do that? The book explores these questions--fruitfully, deeply, and not without making some progress on them--but says nothing that can reduced to...p.

Truth is, I'm not cut out to write fiction myself. Not only do I lack the skills, but I feel at home with straightforward debate, problem-solving, claim-making, and figuring things out. How appealing, though, to show and not say, to talk about something, without always having to make an explicit claim that's immediately up for debate. To let a reader take a journey into the unknown, and figure something out! I do think there's such a thing as writing philosophy with a bit of the appeal of fiction, but it's tough. There's always the pressure to be more clear, more explicit, more argumentative.

A really good philosophy book with the feel of fiction is The Philosopher and the Wolf, by Mark Rowlands. It is evocative and allusive in a very lovely way. There are also some interesting claims in there--some "ps" to be batted around. Let's hear it for philosophy that's written just a bit in the key of fiction.