Philosophical Novels

In this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, James Ryerson wonders about the relationship between philosophy and literature:

Both disciplines seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world. But are they competitors — the imaginative intellect pitted against the logical mind — or teammates, tackling the same problems from different angles?

Interesting question! You could write a whole book about it–indeed, it could probably generate enough discussion to sustain an entire scholarly journal! Or, I guess, you could rattle off a few paragraphs in the Times.

Ryerson’s is a pretty typical piece in that it focuses on philosophy as a set of ideas and on literature as an aesthetic practice rather than considering the way form itself might have philosophical implications or be used to carry out or exemplify ideas. He also makes, but then fortunately backs away from, some of the silly broad generalizations that get bandied about when this topic comes up, such as “Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them.” When people say things like this, I just want to mutter “Pope!” at them until they stop talking.

Ryerson touches on a number of the usual suspects for a discussion of this topic, including Aristotle, Sartre, Henry James, and Iris Murdoch, along with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (author of the fairly tedious 36 Arguments for the Existence of God–a novel written by, for, and about philosophers if there ever was one!) but never mentions the one novelist to have been included in a dictionary of philosophers as well as to have been discussed in the eminent philosophy journal Mind–George Eliot. Martha Nussbaum’s indifference to Eliot in Love’s Knowledge prompted my own foray into this territory, “Martha Nussbaum and the Moral Life of Middlemarch.” This essay focused primarily on arguing with Nussbaum about her fixation on Henry James in general and The Golden Bowl in particular:

In this essay, I examine Martha Nussbaum’s fundamental claim about fiction, which I will call her “formal claim”: her argument that the philosophical significance of novels is to be found not in whatever theories or principles they might overtly discuss or dramatize but in their literary form and in their style.  Drawing on my analysis of this formal claim, I critique the Jamesian-Aristotelian model she develops as profoundly anti-philosophical in its commitment to indeterminacy, mystery, and complexity.  I argue that the Jamesian consciousness Nussbaum would have us emulate, far from being, as she believes, egalitarian, humane, and morally responsible, is elitist, exclusionary, and morally inert.[1] I propose, instead, George Eliot’s Middlemarch as exemplary of fiction’s potential as moral philosophy, for its approach and its answer to the question “How should one live?” and for its integration of novelistic perception and philosophic reflection.

[1] As Catherine Gardner describes it, the traditional philosophical approach or “philosophical model” is “the search for cogent and consistent arguments, the evaluation of the correctness of conclusions, and the construction of a systematic theory from these conclusions and arguments.”  Moral Philosophy and the Novels of George Eliot.  Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation (Philosophy), University of Virginia, 1996, p. 3.  Gardner suggests that George Eliot’s novels are “too ‘philosophical’ (in the traditional sense)” to satisfy Nussbaum’s desire for fiction that, like James’s, emphasizes perception, inquiry, and uncertainty.

Nussbaum’s method, ironically, is philosophical insofar as she considers her textual examples ahistorically, investigating their arguments or theories as a contemporary analytic philosopher approaches Descartes or Aquinas—that is, with little regard for historical or contextual placing or significance.  Alisdair MacIntyre notes “the persistently unhistorical treatment of moral philosophy by contemporary philosophers . . . [who] all too often treat the moral philosophers of the past as contributors to a single debate with a relatively unvarying subject-matter, treating Plato and Hume and Mill as contemporaries both of ourselves and of each other.”  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  2nd edition.  (U Notre Dame P, 1984), p. 11.

Aren’t you glad I don’t write this way in my blog posts? In retrospect, I am very aware that I was actually trying to write ‘philosophically’ myself. I’m not actually a fan of ‘metadiscourse’–talking about the essay and its argument instead of just, you know, writing the essay and making the argument–but I was suffering a certain boundary-crossing anxiety. I had more fun later on in the essay when I got to turn away from Nussbuam (and The Golden Bowl–whew!) and write about Middlemarch:

Readers of Middlemarch will be well aware of how many passages in the novel insist on this need to replace the “flattering illusion” of our own centrality with the realization that others have an “equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference” (135).  My own interest here is to point out how the narrative itself, in its form, adheres to this principle and thus becomes, as Nussbaum argues James’s novels become, not just an account of but an example of the moral imperative—the ethical approach—it advocates.  Catherine Gardner notes that most philosophical approaches to literature leave us wondering “why we would want to read [these theories] in a novel rather than a philosophical treatise,” while discussions of Eliot and philosophy leave it “unclear why Eliot would choose to express her ideas in the form of a novel.”[1] . . . Fictional form of the sort Eliot creates is essential to the adequate presentation of this philosophical outlook: while the novel’s morality can be summarized or paraphrased, such a reduced account cannot reproduce the movement from self to other.  George Eliot’s moral philosophy, to put it another way, requires fictional form precisely because its basis is that movement from our own limited perspectives to the point of view of others and an awareness of relationships and connections across a wide range of individual experiences—the intellectual and imaginative movement that is the basis of sympathy.  While Middlemarch often, through its characters and events, tells us the value of this movement, and dramatizes the need for it as well as its difficulties, costs, and rewards, its greatest contribution as philosophical fiction is that it moves its readers in just this way.  Unlike readers of The Golden Bowl, readers of Middlemarch participate while they are reading the novel in an active, engaged ethical program.

. . .

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?  Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?” (175).  Over and over . . . Middlemarch challenges the assumption that a single point of view suffices for understanding.  Just as individual characters learn by revisiting, rethinking, what they have seen or done, the novel and its implied author enact the moral obligation to see things from a different angle and disrupt our own desire—egotistical or readerly—to think, as [Geoffrey] Harpham puts it, “only through the ‘I.’”  And, as in the example from Chapter 29 just quoted, the overt artifice, the intrusiveness, of this method induces self-consciousness about it and so reflection on its implications: philosophical deliberation is both modeled and prompted by these novelistic techniques.  Not only does Eliot’s implied author demonstrate an ethos much more congenial to community as well as individual flourishing than James’s, but she also practices a form of fiction that works with her readers towards an answer to the question, not “How should one live?” but “How should we live?”

[1] Moral Philosophy and the Novels of George Eliot, p. 19.  Her chief example of such a conventional approach to philosophy in Eliot’s fiction is George Levine’s discussion of Eliot’s determinism.

OK, it’s not deathless prose, but it made it past the gatekeepers at Philosophy & Literature (home, of course, of the Bad Writing Contest). And I did make my best effort to get in the game Nussbaum proposed, which was to stop looking at literary texts as examples of philosophical problems or considering them philosophically significant only insofar as they overtly parrot or dramatize specific philosophical theorems, and instead to think about how their actual literary qualities get certain kinds of ethical work done. Much of the work I’ve read in this suposedly interdisciplinary zone moves very quickly towards plot summary, but if the important work of a novel is done at that reductive level, what an inefficient process!*

*My essay is behind a paywall, unfortunately, but if you’re actually interested in reading the whole thing and can’t get at it, let me know.

13 thoughts on “Philosophical Novels

  1. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein January 24, 2011 / 9:48 pm

    I like your comments about George Eliot. I, too, think she is among the greatest philosophical novelists in the English language. Like Spinoza, whose translator she was, (as I’m sure you know), she intends to reform people morally through her writings, to provide them with a transformative experience that will expand them outward into the world. She’s not just discussing moral ideas but trying to do moral work. She’s always been my inspiration.

    I’m sorry that you find my own work tedious, but at least we agree about Eliot.

  2. Rohan Maitzen January 25, 2011 / 12:13 am

    Rebecca, thank you for your comment, and for taking my rather snippy remark about your novel so well. My husband (an analytic philosopher) enjoyed it! I’m quite willing to believe that my own deficiencies of one kind or another got in my way, and I certainly appreciate your choosing to write a genuine novel of ideas–so many novels today seem to be written with no ideas behind them at all. We probably agree about more than Eliot, really, but yes, she’s an inspiration.

  3. Dorian Stuber January 25, 2011 / 12:14 am

    Hmm… tough to follow *that* comment. But I’d put a plug in for Lawrence’s essay “Surgery for the Novel–or a Bomb” in which he laments the separation of philosophy and fiction in a way that has nothing to do with “the novel of ideas.” (FWIW, Lawrence liked Eliot, too.)

  4. Rohan Maitzen January 25, 2011 / 3:23 pm

    I’ll have to look up that essay, Dorian. Another earlier writer to comment explicitly on the relationship between fiction and philosophy is Victorian critic David Masson, who writes in British Novelists and Their Styles that “the desirable arrangement might be either that our novelists were philosophers, or that philosophers were our novelists.” (I wrote a bit more about him over here, and longer excerpts from his very engaging treatise are in my Broadview anthology–but I didn’t go as far forward as Lawrence there.)

  5. Dorothea23 January 25, 2011 / 9:14 pm

    May I please (pretty please?) read the full text of your essay on Martha Nussbaum, moral philosophy and Middlemarch? The excerpts you’ve quoted in your blog post sound fascinating, even though they’re a long way off from my own discipline (the life sciences).

    I should probably add that Middlemarch has been my favourite novel ever since I read it in a college English course a few years ago, for some of the same reasons you cite, such as the concept of imaginative sympathy, and many more besides. The parts of chapter 15 that describe Lydgate’s aspirations as a physician-scientist are brilliantly insightful and inspiring, even over a hundred later, for any student of biology or medicine. And the figure of Casaubon is immensely tragic from the perspective of an aspiring academic. What could be sadder than so much effort all in vain, asks Dorothea at one point (paraphrase). I have to agree.

  6. Rohan January 26, 2011 / 12:32 am

    Dorothea23: Thanks for your interest! If you have access to a university library, you can get the full text through Project Muse. If not, email me (rmaitzen at gmail dot com) with an email address I can use to send you a PDF!

    I agree about Chapter 15: I have always been very moved by the description of Lydgate’s discovery of his vocation and especially by the passage about our fascination with romantic love stories and (foolish) disregard for stories about this kind of very different love affair.

  7. Amateur Reader January 26, 2011 / 2:34 am

    Rohan, who else do you think of as a successful 19th century philosophical novelist?

    I may misunderstand the terms. Sartor Resartus, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Notes from the Underground – I’d call those philosophical novels. But you’re talk about something broader.

  8. Dorothea23 January 26, 2011 / 2:53 am

    Thank you for the tip re: Project Muse. I was able to access the full text and am looking forward to reading it. At first glance, I see that you begin it with a quote from one of my favourite passages in Middlemarch. I especially love the end of that passage, with Dorothea’s realization that Casaubon “had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” The first time I read it, I was 19 years old and sitting in a bus full of people. I had to stop reading for a moment, look at all those people around me, and register that they, too had their equivalent centres of self, around which the world seemed to revolve quite independently of my own. I think I grew up a little that day. How does George Eliot DO that?

  9. Rohan Maitzen January 26, 2011 / 2:26 pm

    Dorothea23: That’s uncanny. In a (very good) ‘special features’ documentary included with the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch, Kate Flint tells almost exactly the same story, about being on a bus and looking around at all those other people with their own ‘equivalent centres of self.’

    AR, I think a lot does depend on how you define the terms. In my P&L essay, I was specifically arguing (following Nussbaum) about fiction that makes a contribution to moral philosophy, the central question of which is usually taken to be, ‘How should one live?’ Another 19thC writer who is not always credited with being a novelist of ideas but whose style surely reflects very passionate ideas about ‘how one should live’ is Dickens, I think. If you start abstracting philosophical principles from his novels, they deflate quite spectacularly, partly because his vision of the good life is precisely not abstract. If you start from Nussbaum’s more general idea that literary form always, implicitly, expresses ideas, then I certainly think Sartor Resartus would be a very good example of a philosophical novel–because there’s no way the ideas of that really strange book can be neatly separated from the way that it is written or from the disorienting effect of reading it. In fact, the same might be even more so of The French Revolution, though in that case we might be stretching the idea of the “novel.”

  10. Amateur Reader January 26, 2011 / 6:38 pm

    Well, that helps. Tolstoy, then would be an eminent philosophical novelist. Flaubert, not so much, or at least his ideas are off in some realm other than moral philosophy.

    Should I read Nussbaum’s book? It sounds like it goes right at one of my weak spots.

  11. Dorothea23 January 26, 2011 / 7:58 pm

    Rohan: That is uncanny – I will have to check this documentary out. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  12. Bookboxed January 27, 2011 / 6:51 am

    I have long been aware of Dickens’ constant portrayal of warm loving families, groups and individuals against cold despicable ones, without ever thinking of it in terms of moral philosophy. I guess that is possibly because of the concrete nature of his presentation as you mention. It does seem , with obvious exceptions, that he finds more of the ‘good’ people among the poorer groups and the ‘bad’ among the better off, usually as part of keeping their wealth intact. I could be wrong. What do you think? And if that is the case, do you think this was sentimentalisation on his part? Do you think his position played a part in his immense popularity? As a sort of ‘ordinary’ reader I wonder how my views are seen in more academic terms.

  13. Rohan Maitzen January 27, 2011 / 1:20 pm

    Those are really interesting questions, Bookboxed. I do think that Dickens sees wealth as (usually) corrupting–think of how Pip changes, in Great Expectations, and how Joe is the moral touchstone throughout that novel. Not only is this sentimental, but it is possibly conservative in a way he didn’t mean: he hoped to stimulate sympathy (and thus help) for the poor, but as George Eliot argued, representing them in this rosy way might end up discouraging reformers–partly because they might be disinclined to help poor people who turned out to be not as goodhearted as Joe, but also because really, if poverty preserves virtue, why would you want to eliminate it? It’s also striking that part of Joe’s virtue is his contentment staying in his place. I think it was G. B. Shaw who criticized Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times by comparing him to Uncle Tom.

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