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Rethinking the philosophy – literature distinction

Iris Vidmar
p. 156-170


Contemporary debates within analytic philosophy regarding the relation between literature and philosophy focus on the capacity of some literary works to engage with philosophical problems. While some philosophers see literature as a welcome contribution to philosophy, or as an alternative to pursuing philosophical questions, some are more sceptical with respect to its capacity to tackle philosophical concerns. As a contribution to this debate, in this paper I look at similarities and dissimilarities between the two practices, with the aim of mitigating some views which see them as too diverse to allow for literary treatment of philosophical issues. As points of contact, I focus on the shared thematic concerns of the two practices, i.e. on the fact that literature and philosophy both deal with issues that humans generally care for. I argue that both practices, despite the stylistic, linguistic and methodological differences in their approach, manage to fulfil ‘the recognition requirement’, namely, recognize and engage with those issues, situations and context of human predicament in the world which are in need of intellectual refinement. I then move on to dismiss arguments which purport to discredit literary treatments of philosophy on the basis of literature’s alleged subjectivity and emotional dimension, which are contrasted with philosophical objectivity and rationality. I end by emphasizing the impact of academic constraints on professional philosophy, in order to suggest that pursuing philosophical concerns is not an invention of the practice, but a natural inclination of reflective, inquisitive human mind.

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  • 1 Nussbaum 1990 argues for the necessity of insertion of certain literary works, such as Henry James’ (...)
  • 2 See Murdoch 1999; Olsen 1978; Lamarque, Olsen 1994; Lamarque 2009.
  • 3 It would be beyond the scope of this paper to try to define either philosophy or literature, as bot (...)

1Some philosophers are willing to recognize philosophical engagement of literature, some even to the point of deleting the boundaries between the two practices1. However, dominant view still has it that philosophy cannot really be done in/through literature and that any claim to the contrary harms the nature of both of these practices, as they are fundamentally diverse2. By analysing some prominent similarities and dissimilarities between the two, I argue that literature deserves recognition for its way of tackling philosophical issues3.

  • 4 Lamarque, Olsen, 1994: 265. Eldridge 2010 shares this idea with respect to poetry.
  • 5 As stated by Overgaard, Gilbert, Burwood, in philosophy, “there must be a desire to get things righ (...)
  • 6 As suggested by Abrams 1971.
  • 7 As argued by Murdoch 1999 and Olsen 1978.
  • 8 Gibson 2017 argues that there are no literary or philosophical questions, only approaches toward pr (...)

2Let me start by pointing out that literature and philosophy, the oldest human intellectual endeavours, both deal with issues that are of fundamental concern for human beings, delivering insights of significant relevance. It is often argued that literary themes are of perennial interest for humans, because “what literature presents or says concerns readers as human beings”4. With respect to philosophy, it is argued that good philosophy is serious, i.e. such that what it says matters for humans and is connected to things people actually care about5. Very often, the perennial themes of literature are the very themes that philosophers consider not only worthy of their consideration, but as particularly demanding of it. Among such ‘big philosophical questions’ are those regarding right and wrong, justice and fairness, issues concerning the connection between the world and our minds, determinism and free will, reliability of our knowledge, nature of our consciousness, other minds, and the like. The fact that literature and philosophy both deal with these issues and share thematic concerns is one of the strongest points of contact between them, but the one that raises a host of issues on how precisely to understand such mutual interest. While it is questionable whether these concerns are strictly philosophical6, “borrowed” by literature and adapted for their literary use which washes their philosophical aspect7, or whether they pertain to the common intellectual and cultural background and are then treated either philosophically or literary8, few would deny the thematic overlap of the two disciplines, and few would deny the relevance of this thematic framework for the overall project of making sense of our experience, the world around us and pretty much all there is.

  • 9 Green summarizes these possibilities in his 2010.

3More readily denied is a cognitivist’s view of literature, according to which literature has a capacity to deliver cognitive benefits to the readers. Differences in formulation aside, literary cognitivists stay united in arguing that literary fiction can be a source of knowledge. Nuances of the position relate to how precisely literature functions as a source of knowledge and to the kinds of knowledge available through literature9. On a more or less dominant account, literary fiction can deliver direct and indirect cognitive benefits. Direct benefits refer to the acquisition of knowledge– as when in reading Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, one learns historical facts about Chicago, the operation of its industry and development of show-business. Being presented with Carrie’s reflections about her and those of her partners’ life, success and failures, a reader is challenged to reconsider her own understanding of concepts such as faith, persistence, intention, responsibility, sexuality and the like, thus also gaining a fuller, better, more informed, more thought-through understanding of these notions, ultimately contributing to the increase of one’s conceptual framework. Indirect benefits include literature’s influence on one’s cognitive and emotional economy, which, the argument goes, expand in the process of engagements with literature. For instance, the encounter with Sister Carrie enables one to be more aware of the relation between one’s passions and one’s actions, to be more imaginative in finding ways to fulfill one’s goals or more appreciative of the powerful impulses that give one a strive for success. One is, the argument goes, better at discerning different aspects of situations in which people find themselves.

  • 10 This is, roughly, an argument offered by Lamarque, Olsen 1994, part 3.

4On my suggestion, literature and philosophy are both capable of inducing benefits along these lines. Both have a capacity to focus reader’s attention and reflective processes on themes expressed and thus to potentially inspire her to engage in a cognitively significant way with what is expressed. The outcome of such engagement can be cognitively cashed out, either as concrete propositional knowledge, as a deepened, more profound understanding of the thematic concepts that the philosopher/writer addresses, as an intensified awareness of the nuances of the concept at stake or as a more refined perception of what is involved in a given problem and/or its solutions. In one relevant sense, philosophy does this in a more straightforward manner; the point of philosophical treatment of a given topic is to connect it to reality, to present the truth about it and convince the reader to recognize it. Consequently, the reader should evaluate the theme by considering the way in which the text, on the whole – i.e. the arguments and evidence presented in support of the conclusion – supports the conclusion regarding the theme, and thus, ideally, confirms the truth of what is expressed. On the other hand, a literary treatment of a theme does not aim at establishing the truth about it, but has the function of organizing the subject matter of a work10. I do embrace such an understanding of the role of a work’s theme, but I do not agree with the claim that considering the theme as an organizational principle renders the cognitive capacity of a work impotent.

  • 11 Blackburn 1999.
  • 12 Fricker 2007.
  • 13 Attridge 2015.
  • 14 I am not embracing Attridge’s view as a proper account of what literature is or does, and I agree w (...)

5Once we accept that literature and philosophy deal with topics that hold a continual relevance for humanity, we can extend their points of contact so as to include what I will call the recognition requirement. Philosophers and artists are both sensitive to those situations, aspects and context of human predicament in the world which are in need of a certain intellectual refinement, and very often, practical modification. What I have in mind refers to the capacity to recognize first-hand that something is an issue in need of consideration. This recognition springs from the fact that human beings have the capacity for deep, abstract thinking aiming at entangling matters which, on a first glance, seem either too trivial to raise questions, or too complex to allow probing. Throughout the history of human intellectual and artistic traditions, philosophers and artists have marshalled precisely such sorts of considerations. They have been the ones who have, within the frameworks and via means created by their distinctive practices, brought to humanity’s attention those issues that are of significance for humanity generally, but where the full extent of such significance hasn’t been appreciated or has been excluded from the commonly shared background. Simon Blackburn has, as part of his defense of philosophy, stated how certain prejudices tend to resist conceptual and intellectual changes in the overall intellectual development precisely because there is no one to challenge them11. He then insists on the capacity of philosophers to issue such challenges, and to help eradicate such prejudices from society’s outlook. In a different discussion, Miranda Fricker credits feminist philosophers for coming up with hermeneutic resources that made it possible for the society to understand experiences we now recognize and label as sexual harassment12. Taking up on this idea, I suggest that a particular type of hermeneutic breakthrough is enabled when a recognition requirement is met, in that a certain novel, cognitively enriched conceptualization of a phenomenon is identified and brought into the referential framework of a community of knowers. Richer hermeneutic resources are provided, more efficient in addressing the layers of reality, natural and social world and human practices, which carry greater potential to explicate human experience and to improve the overall conditions in which humans live. With respect to literature, an account close to how I envisage its capacity to “recognize” was offered by Derek Attridge13. Though he employs different theoretical machinery than I do, his claim that literature makes the excluded included, that it transforms the unfamiliar other into something familiar, that it brings to the fore what was previously unrecognized within a culture, captures the essence of the process of revelation I see as ensuing from the fulfillment of the recognition requirement14. Such a description captures tellingly what philosophy and literature do, although it does not exhaust all that either of the two does.

  • 15 This is the strategy adopted by Dreiser, among others, whose characters often engage in philosophic (...)
  • 16 Consider Person’s comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Many of his best tales depend upon an existenti (...)
  • 17 See Vidmar 2016.

6Stylistic, methodological and linguistic particularities of the act of recognizing itself, and of approaching those issues once they are recognized, differ. A philosopher will define the problem by naming it, making sure she grounds it into a well defined general area (such as scepticism, materialism or some other “ism”) while also delineating it against similar positions by placing it into a more narrowly construed referential framework. She will advance arguments for her view on the solutions she is proposing, making sure her premises support the conclusion, and fending off potential counterexamples. On the other hand, a literary writer might name the problem and give her concerns a conceptual (even philosophical) framework, often integrating such philosophical bits with the actions and contemplations of the characters15. In most cases however, it takes a literary critic to name the problem and explain an author’s steps in addressing it16. It is for this reasons that the problem of identifying “philosophical literature” is particularly thorny, as issues are raised regarding the delineation of philosophical ideas developed in the work, as opposed to the ones implemented into the work by a critic17.

  • 18 For the intermingling patterns of influence of literature, philosophy and the sciences, look no fur (...)
  • 19 This is just a sketch of what might constitute the mind of great thinkers. Certainly a more refined (...)

7The recognition of where the problem lies does not come independently to philosophers and independently to the artists, but it will get us nowhere to try and trace patterns of influence among the two. Literature has turned to philosophy just as often as philosophy has borrowed from literature and neither has been blind to what the sciences had to say18. It would also get us nowhere to try to unveil all the capacities that enable philosophers and authors to deliver such profound insights into our nature, our world, and the connection of the two. I suspect though that such an explanation would include a reference to (to put it metaphorically) sharpened perceptual capacities to ‘see’ what is not immediately available; a profound reflective capacity to engage in abstract thinking, come up with novel solutions, recognize the potential problems with the accepted solutions; a specifically sharp imagination to contemplate the counterfactual possibilities and formulate scenarios, a particular kind of curiosity and persistence in pursuing questions that are felt and recognized as important and serious, those that we want to know the answers to, answers not immediately available; a rich creativity in formulating theories. One also needs to master the ’techne’ of each profession or discipline. In a nutshell then, the recognition requirement cannot explain all that it takes to do philosophy or write literature19. Rather, it works backwards, and, by observing the philosophical and literary achievements of the greatest philosophers and authors, it explains a distinctive kind of intellectual progress brought about by their work.


  • 20 Gilbert 2016.
  • 21 Thomasson 2015.
  • 22 Gilbert 2016 takes a normative attitude to this problem, stating that the views expressed in litera (...)
  • 23 See Lamarque, Olsen 1994.

8In light of the thematic similarities and intellectual achievements between the two practices, why claim their diversity? Some have suggested that emotional experience plays an important part in defining literature and understanding literary experience, but is significantly and intentionally absent in the case of philosophy20. In a similar vein, it is not unusual to argue that philosophy is objective and literature subjective, where the objectivity of philosophy ties in with its epistemic goal of searching for the objective, universal truth, and the subjectivity of literature relates either to the subjective perspective of an author expressed in a literary work, or to the subjective experience of a reader triggered by the work. Perhaps a crucial obstacle to acknowledging literature’s philosophical engagements concerns the lack of an organized, methodological approach to any given problem: when a philosopher tackles a certain issue, she (even if only explicitly) presupposes a long standing, methodologically well established tradition within which a particular problem is relevant and against which a solution is searched for and a consent of fellow philosophers expected. She knows, and so do her readers, which options with respect to the problem are available, and which solutions are offered by other philosophers. Her individual search for answers is thus one link in a dialectical chain of mutual influence, dialogue and discussion which relate to her view in a pro-or-contra manner. Consequently, her readers can easily recognize those aspects of her proposed solution which are novel, innovative and creative (with respect to the given tradition within which a debate is significant), aspects which add up to the particular intellectual framework within which a problem emerged. Quite often, when philosophical solutions are pushed forward, they come attached with a certain sense of normativity: the idea is, philosophy tells us not only how things are but how they ought to be or how we ought to think about them21. Neither such systematicity nor a sense of normativity are by default available in literature and it is a matter of empirical investigation into our literary practices to determine how often one literary author responds to the “philosophical” bits of another22. The argument can be formulated so as to suggest that with respect to philosophy in literary works, it remains unclear whether the philosophical problem should be evaluated with respect to its function within the fictional world of a novel23, or with respect to its relevance to the philosophical treatments of it outside of the fictional world. When a philosophical bit is inserted into a literary work, it is indeterminate who the intended audience is, what kind of response should be directed at such literary handling of a philosophical problem, and whether an author is offering her ideas with the intention that they stand in some relevant relation to the corpus of philosophical knowledge. For these reasons, it is hard to properly evaluate the capacity of any given work to truly engage with philosophy.

  • 24 I do not think literature and philosophy are to be distinguished primarily or solely on the basis o (...)
  • 25 Attridge 2015:144.

9The crux of the case against literature’s philosophical engagements comes down to the claim that philosophy, but not literature, is primarily dedicated to finding the truth and transmitting it to the others, primarily by enabling them to recognize the truth for themselves. It is commonly held that this goal is best carried out if certain methodological and stylistic strategies are employed, most importantly, aesthetically neutral language free of semantic density and lacking the capacity to inspire emotional engagement on the part of the reader24. On the other hand, literature should aim at inspiring aesthetic delight and/or at entertaining, more so than at delivering truth (even if it is not disconnected from it) and for these reasons, it has the freedom to twist the language as far as possible to achieve these effects. It can also manipulate readers’ emotions and play with their affective states. Given how dominant this conception of literature is, even those authors who recognize its cognitive capacities make an “aesthetic” turn and insist that “to learn a moral lesson... is to treat the novel as something other than a literary work”25. Literary works thus get to be valued for their author’s creativity and for the artistic novelty they deliver, rather than for the cognitive benefits they are imbued with.

  • 26 Gilbert 2016: 64.

10Most of these differences ring true with respect to some of the expectations we harbour towards our established ways of approaching literature and philosophy. However, I do not think they speak against literature’s capacity to engage with philosophy. Consider the point about the emotional aspect of literary experiences, allegedly absent in case of philosophy. It is easy to understand the appeal of this position and to agree with Paul Gilbert, who talks about “the possibility of being unmoved by philosophy and yet not missing something”26. But are we really unmoved by philosophy? Philosophy itself is a love of knowledge, and pursuing its many questions ties in with a certain kind of curiosity, despair and anger in face of what is yet unknown, and of love and excitement when the possibility of discovery is sensed. Plato’s thaumazein, Aristotle’s love of knowledge, Descartes and Hume’s celebration of curiosity, all have emotional base. The mere existence of epistemic emotions testifies to the extent to which emotions matter in philosophy, even if inspiring an emotional experience is not an aim in philosophy. Pursuing a particular philosophical problem is sometimes a matter of dealing with intense, often negative emotional experiences, brought about by recognition that some state of affairs cannot persist and needs to be changed. Feminist philosophy is one such example, and surely other issues discussed within the domain of practical philosophy – matters of justice, of public health care, of dealing with prostitution and rape – spring from philosophers’ desire to help those in need, to correct an unjust arrangement or to better the overall conditions of living. Emotions are no less present when it comes to the engagements with individual texts and systems, as reading philosophical essays often leave one with a sense of utter admiration for the intellectual power of human mind generally (and fellow philosophers), a thrill in having discovered a new perspective on the problem, a desire to add up to such intellectual engagements, or, on the opposite side of a spectrum, a sense of annoyance, even irritability at one’s failure to address what is really an issue, to draw the relevant conclusions, or to see the problem through.

  • 27 Consider Shusterman’s analysis of how philosophy, understood as self-introspection, brings about ce (...)

11Independently of the fact that inspiring emotional experience is not what professional philosophers aim at – the change, after all, brought about after reading a philosophical essay should be intellectual, manifested at the level of one’s cognitive economy, not at the level of emotional make up – philosophical issues inspire (and rightly so!) emotions and move readers. The harm that humans do to one another – succinctly captured in Bernard Williams’ question of “why can’t we just get along” and vividly portrayed in Hobbes’ account of the natural state – should inspire anger and bewilderment, perhaps even a kind of despair over man’s inability to fully embrace the moral law that only humans are capable of appreciating. Faced with the possibilities of scepticism and amoralism, we should feel discomfort and consequently, a desire to “fight back”, to prove that we have knowledge and that amoralism cannot be an acceptable position toward others. Perhaps the most radical way in which emotions and philosophy combine ties in with certain views according to which too much reflection – and reflection is what philosophy is all about – leaves one in a state of utter despair27.

  • 28 Appreciating this fact, Plantinga 2009 worked out a difference between emotional engagement with th (...)
  • 29 Walsh in particular has argued to this effect, see her 1969.

12However, to point to some of the ways in which philosophy relates to emotions does not silence Gilbert’s statement, and others like it, as it does not deal with the fact that there is a significant difference in emotional reactions triggered by literature, as opposed to those I identified as rising occasionally in case of philosophy. With respect to literature, we get engaged at a deeper emotional level, and this is where the analogy with emotional reactions to philosophy breaks. As every literary aficionado knows first-hand, being emotionally moved by the fate of fictional character is but one layer of literary experience; feeling powerful ‘aesthetic’ emotions, such as a thrill over artistic design something else28. A reader may be quite shaken by Emma’s misery or annoyed by it, even if she experiences a thrill and satisfaction in light of her aesthetic experience brought about by Flaubert’s overall artistic achievement. It is a matter of taking internal or external perspective on a particular work, and of being aware of all the aspects of one’s aesthetic delight, properly tracing them to those features of a work which give rise to them. No such division is applicable to philosophy, although it is not an exaggeration to say that one can marvel at one philosopher’s insightfulness and her style of writing, all the while strongly disagreeing with her theoretical position or practical solutions. But literature asks us to engage emotionally in ways in which philosophy does not because literature describes, puts to view, concrete, particular situations that readers can more easily recognize as their own, as deeply personal. Philosophy is removed from such closeness because it takes a much broader view and focuses on the more general, approaching it from the safe distance of abstract, objective perspective. We are not expected to emotionally engage with the “characters” in the survival lottery thought experiment described by John Harris or with those who might be hit by the trolley in the “trolley problem” introduced to philosophy by Judith J. Thomson in order to properly engage with the philosophical problems discussed via the use of these scenario, or to evaluate the solutions implied by these examples. But we are expected to emotionally engage with Ruth, in Kazua Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, for otherwise we fail to truly capture the novel in one segment at least that matters in literary experience: its capacity to vividly and authentically convey what it feels like to be in a certain state, to undergo certain experiences and endure in certain circumstances29.

  • 30 See Robinson’ theory, particularly her notion of cognitive monitoring, as one account of how engage (...)

13Gilbert has a point in insisting on the relevance between emotional aspect of literature and philosophy, given the structural and phenomenological differences in the nature of emotions which philosophy and literature aim at and habitually trigger. However, acknowledging such differences in emotional response to literature as opposed to philosophy does not disprove conclusively literature’s capacity to engage in philosophical considerations. The argument, according to which literature cannot be philosophical because it elicits an emotional response, wrongly presupposes that emotions are an obstacle to philosophical contemplations. It also wrongly presupposes that philosophy should be pursued in a cold, distanced manner lacking affective attachment to whatever it is that one is writing about. And finally, it wrongly presupposes that nothing can be learnt, or that there is no relevant knowledge, about the emotions and emotional experiences from being emotionally touched by a work of literature. Emotions make up an important aspect of human nature and play one of the most dominant roles in our social interactions, all of which are deeply ethical. Our everyday moral choices and actions are emotionally coloured. Therefore, it is questionable what benefits are available if we contemplate ethical issues in emotions-off mode, as any consideration we reach in that state (provided such a state is possible) is unlikely to hold sway on us once we are in the emotionally charged real life situations. Emotional experiences that people undergo are often casually related to their actions. In that way, reading about them in fiction has a very important educational role for a reader, one which is often absent in philosophical take on ethics30.

  • 31 See Bastian 2013; Nussbaum 2000.

14What about the objective/subjective distinction? Again, caution is needed and generalizations are to be avoided, but it is an exaggeration to claim that philosophy is objective in all of its dimensions. Philosophers might be after objective truth, but often they begin from subjective positions. Descartes’ autobiographical lamentation scattered throughout Discourse on the Method are just as important premise in his overall argument for the real, secure foundations of knowledge as are the sceptical scenarios he describes with the aim of shuttering empiricist’ faith in the senses. Recall the role of John Stuart Mill’s personal experience – a deeply troubling one, and above all emotionally intense – for his take on utilitarianism. Such subjective aspects of philosophical theories are often connected to emotional experiences of those who created them – think of Martha Nussbaum’s manifesto dedicated to empowering women. It is hard to read her work, identify the relevant arguments, trace them to the empirical data, and yet fail to recognize that these are the issues that Nussbaum deeply and passionately cares about, easily because she has experienced or witnessed some of them first-hand31.

15This leaves us with the question of literature’s relation to the truth. Here is not the place to offer a bulletproof account of why literature and truth go hand in hand, since our focus is more narrowly defined: we care to know about literary treatments of philosophical concerns, and the argument we are now considering denies this possibility because, apparently, literature lacks the capacity to influence one’s thoughts and beliefs in a rational manner. But is that really the case? Consider Dreiser’s way of raising questions regarding the nature of human sexuality by having multiple characters struggle with their sexual impulses in his masterpiece The Genius. Different views given by different characters enable Dreiser to probe the problem from various perspectives, thus giving the reader the opportunity to (i) recognize multiple dimensions of a problem, (ii) test them against one another and her own views, (iii) deepen her awareness of all the aspects of a problem and (iv) by doing so, revise her own understanding of it, either by acknowledging the justifiability of her previous perspective or by recognizing the need to change it. What makes such works particularly engaging is the fact that their authors do not insert philosophical bits as a sort of aside to the fictional world itself; rather, they integrate the characters’ actions, perspectives and overall development of the story with the philosophical ideas. When Eugene acts upon his sexual desires, he feels subsequent shame and guilt, and taking these emotions as a base, questions the morality of sexual activities in different circumstances – outside the wedlock, in the wedlock but, as he fears, in excess, with respect to his artistic talent… His actions are guided by his beliefs, and these beliefs are subsequently changed, once the consequences of his actions become obvious. For readers who actively engage with the story, and with the characters, such engagement can take the form of attending to a philosophical argument – provided the reader cares enough for a given topic to engage with it at the level of abstraction and with the appropriate reflectivity. It might seem that Dreiser is not tackling a particularly relevant question – with the sexual liberation, availability of birth control, better understanding of the workings of hormones on one’s psychological states, including one’s talents… most of Eugene’s questions are rendered irrelevant by the attitudes toward sexuality dominant today. However, given the perspective of the 19th century reader, questions regarding premarital sex, adultery and the consequences of sexual activities on one’s character were much more intriguing. This shows the extent to which literature has been keeping track of the shifts of ideas, opinions and attitudes towards different matters, and has find new ways of challenging them and subjecting them to critical reflection. Can it be said that in doing so, it has engaged in philosophy? I see no reason not to, particularly given the highly abstract level of reasoning and contemplation that Dreiser presents us via Eugene and other characters. Considerations about one’s sexual impulses are further developed into considerations regarding one’s character, one’s accountability, one’s will power and on the whole, one’s ethical, epistemic and aesthetic agency. Does it matter then that Dreiser is debating all these issues independently of philosophical community, lacking awareness of methodological structure of philosophy? I think not.


  • 32 This paper is part of the research project entitled Literature as domain of ethics. The author expr (...)

16Most of the features identified as crucial to philosophy relate to institutionalized, academic philosophy and the rules which professional philosophers have to follow in order to ‘play the game’. But there’s no reason to suppose that philosophical issues can only be pursued in such professional way. It is not implausible to suggest that philosophical concerns come naturally to people’s mind, for the simple fact that we are part of the world, embedded into the natural surroundings and social structures which pose numerous puzzles to reflective beings. It is our reflective nature that gives rise to our need to ask questions, our desire to know things. How profound, structured or motivating such intellectual need will be depends on numerous factors – one’s sensitivity, perceptual capacities, educational background, imagination, kinds of prejudice dominant in one’s surroundings and the like – but it is not an exclusive property of philosopher’s mind. We can suggest then, that a drive to do philosophy is not an invention of the discipline of philosophy but should, as suggested above, be explained via the recognition requirement. A difference then between philosophers and non-philosophers, such as literary writers, relates to how the pursuit of these concerns is channeled and conducted, and the extent to which it takes one. Professional philosophers are under specific academic constraints – disciplinary methodology, adherence to the standards of what it takes to do philosophy, acceptance of the particular stylistic aspects, systematicity and normativity in approaching a certain problem and the like – that do not apply to philosophical consideration outside of theoretical, academic field of philosophy. Adhering to those standards however is not the only way in which philosophical concerns can be pursued, and that gives us reasons to appreciate the extent to which literature is suited for the job32.

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1 Nussbaum 1990 argues for the necessity of insertion of certain literary works, such as Henry James’ novels, into moral philosophy; Goldman 2013, Diamond 2010 and John 2010 each argued that literature is often better than philosophy at addressing and dealing with ethical issues; Simecek 2013 analyzes poetry’s philosophical engagements to show that it satisfies demands of rational enquiry. Kitcher 2013 takes a more radical stand and points to the ‘‘permeable” boundaries between literature and philosophy.

2 See Murdoch 1999; Olsen 1978; Lamarque, Olsen 1994; Lamarque 2009.

3 It would be beyond the scope of this paper to try to define either philosophy or literature, as both of these practices have repeatedly proven resistant to any universally acceptable, bulletproof definition. Rather, I hope that the examples I rely on, randomly chosen from the works widely recognized as belonging to the classics of literary fiction, will give my reader a proper sense of the problems I deal with. I presuppose that my reader has a sufficient experience with literary and philosophical works to appreciate the problem of how similar or diverse these two practices are. I should note though that by “philosophy”, I primarily have in mind its analytic tradition, and the arguments I consider have been put forward mostly by philosophers working within this tradition. Unlike in continental philosophy, where it is common to appreciate the thematic, methodological and stylistic similarities between the two practices, analytic philosophy is still predominantly hostile to the idea that literature is cognitively valuable and equipped to shed light on some relevant human concerns. It is with the aim of mitigating this hostility that I focus so narrowly on arguments that strike me as most destructive for the recognition of literature’s philosophical capacities. In doing so, I leave aside the question of literature’s artistic value, i.e. my aim is only to show that literature can successfully deal with philosophical concerns, not that in light of such success it is of greater artistic value. I also leave aside the question of how best to define (analytic) philosophy, though my analysis is focused primarily on those of its forms in which it is concerned with the ‘big philosophical questions’, of which I will say more throughout the paper. See Chalmers 2015 for the list of big philosophical questions and Vidmar 2018 for a discussion of their relevance in society and persistence in philosophy.

4 Lamarque, Olsen, 1994: 265. Eldridge 2010 shares this idea with respect to poetry.

5 As stated by Overgaard, Gilbert, Burwood, in philosophy, “there must be a desire to get things right because it matters – because it is the sort of thing one should take seriously” (2013: 168).

6 As suggested by Abrams 1971.

7 As argued by Murdoch 1999 and Olsen 1978.

8 Gibson 2017 argues that there are no literary or philosophical questions, only approaches toward problems which belong to the common intellectual property. I am suspicious of this statement, as it potentially leads to dismissal of philosophy as an intellectual practice dealing with, among other things, a particular, core set of issues. While this core is changeable, the history of philosophy teaches us that certain questions – the nature of the mind, goodness, virtue, justice, beauty and the like – are primarily the objects of philosophical inquiry, even if lately numerous other sciences, natural, social and humanities, have taken up an interest in them. On the other hand, the massive body of interpretation of literary works of all sorts reveals that literary critics readily recognize philosophical – in addition to sociological, psychological, political… – engagements of works they discuss, thus acknowledging the fact that literature engages in philosophical debates. It is predominantly within analytic philosophy that such literary engagements with philosophical concerns are ill-received and dismissed, for the reasons I tackle in the second part of the paper.

9 Green summarizes these possibilities in his 2010.

10 This is, roughly, an argument offered by Lamarque, Olsen 1994, part 3.

11 Blackburn 1999.

12 Fricker 2007.

13 Attridge 2015.

14 I am not embracing Attridge’s view as a proper account of what literature is or does, and I agree with some of the criticism coming his way (see for example Vidmar 2017); but I find his account illuminating for my understanding of the recognition requirement. However, whereas Attridge sees the “excluded” as a result of a culture’s deliberate maintenance of the status quo, I do not argue that what philosophers or literary writers reveal is necessarily kept in dark deliberately (although, feminist philosophy might be a counterclaim here, given their argument about the intentional subordination of women). Rather, on my account, the “status quo” is a consequence of the overall epistemic blindness within an epistemic community regarding the state of affairs that a philosopher or a literary writer illuminates with their work.

15 This is the strategy adopted by Dreiser, among others, whose characters often engage in philosophical contemplations. Since each character holds a particular point of view with respect to an issue, a reader is given different perspectives on it.

16 Consider Person’s comments on Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Many of his best tales depend upon an existential premise – a premise whose elaboration uncovers some fundamental truth about the inner life, or identity, of an individual or an individual’s most basic relationship to other people or the physical world. Like Franz Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’, ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’ explores the idea of what happens when a man drastically changes his appearance. Does he become someone else, or does some fundamental core of identity remain, transcending changes in outward appearance and personal circumstance?” (Person 2007: 47).

17 See Vidmar 2016.

18 For the intermingling patterns of influence of literature, philosophy and the sciences, look no further than to the poetic opus of Robert Frost, whose poems repeatedly clash Darwinian biology and religious metaphysics, or to the science fiction which time and time again pushes the known scientific discoveries to their limits. On the other hand, philosophical thought experiments are often designed as self-sufficient narratives, lacking in artistic qualities but highly imaginative and fictional.

19 This is just a sketch of what might constitute the mind of great thinkers. Certainly a more refined account, if at all possible, would include a reference to artistic and philosophical integrity, at least a robust account of ethical and epistemological virtues, insights from the renowned thinkers, intellectuals and artists.

20 Gilbert 2016.

21 Thomasson 2015.

22 Gilbert 2016 takes a normative attitude to this problem, stating that the views expressed in literature are not in competition, whereas such competition is distinctive of philosophy. Reasons to doubt Gilbert’s view comes from literary critic Greg Crane, whose analyses of the 19th century American literature hints at precisely such a possibility, as Crane sees major novelists of the period as responding to one another’s philosophical considerations (see Crane 2007).

23 See Lamarque, Olsen 1994.

24 I do not think literature and philosophy are to be distinguished primarily or solely on the basis of their use of language – even if it is quite plausible to think of philosophy in terms of rigid arguments devoid of literariness and to think of literature via the belles lettres conception. I can’t go into details here for reasons of space, but I urge a reader to consider the numerous ways in which literature and philosophy share linguistic features – whether via formulations in the same genre (discourses, meditations) or in light of the fact that both practices are repeatedly subject to interpretations, arguably because of difficulties in deciphering the meaning of the linguistic formulations.

25 Attridge 2015:144.

26 Gilbert 2016: 64.

27 Consider Shusterman’s analysis of how philosophy, understood as self-introspection, brings about certain emotional uneasiness, in his 2010.

28 Appreciating this fact, Plantinga 2009 worked out a difference between emotional engagement with the work of art (so called artifact emotions) and emotional engagements with the story, i.e. fictional world and its characters, generated by the artwork.

29 Walsh in particular has argued to this effect, see her 1969.

30 See Robinson’ theory, particularly her notion of cognitive monitoring, as one account of how engagements with literature matter for one’s cognitive growth. A lot of philosophical work has recently gone to explicating the role of empathy in literary experience; Gibson 2016 is but one who ties it further with cognitive potential of a work.

31 See Bastian 2013; Nussbaum 2000.

32 This paper is part of the research project entitled Literature as domain of ethics. The author expresses her gratitude to the research grant received by the University of Rijeka, to the audience at the Perspectives of Art Conference (Rijeka, 2018) and to the anonymous referees of the Journal for their valuable comments.

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Iris Vidmar, «Rethinking the philosophy – literature distinction»Rivista di estetica, 70 | 2019, 156-170.

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Iris Vidmar, «Rethinking the philosophy – literature distinction»Rivista di estetica [Online], 70 | 2019, online dal 01 février 2020, consultato il 19 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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