Friday, June 20, 2014

Are philosophy and literature continuous?

Bence Nanay's answer to this question is "yes."  "Philosophy versus Literature?  Against the Discontinuity Thesis."  The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:3 (2013): 349-360.  I agree.  Partly Nanay is simply claiming that philosophers would gain (as philosophers) from reading literature.  He also suggests both that literature can do what philosophy is taken to do and that philosophy is not simply a matter of presenting logically valid arguments for precisely formulated conclusions.  Both of these claims seem obvious to me.  Another is that "literary works can count as real philosophy."  I am not so sure about that, maybe just because I see philosophy as a distinctive genre of writing.  But Nanay thinks that holding that the barrier between philosophy and literature is permeable is consistent with holding that there are important differences.  I also find that acceptable.

It is interesting that although several moral philosophers, including notably Martha Nussbaum, have argued for the continuity thesis (she says that "moral philosophy requires such literary texts, and the experience of loving and attentive novel-reading for its completion." 353) aestheticians hardly ever go to literary works to learn about aesthetics.  This is especially surprising given how often literary works deal with aesthetic matters, for example novels exploring the nature of art.  Nanay says that "it is far from clear how [Nussbaum's thesis] could be generalized to other branches of philosophy" (354) and he speaks specifically of philosophy of science and metaphysics.  I find metaphysical speculation to be a regular feature of literary works. But again, what about aesthetics?

I rather like Philip Kitcher's idea that literary works are philosophy when they (Nanay quoting Kitcher) "lead listeners and readers to improved perspectives on a...central philosophical question." (354)  This is by way of providing "a rich delineation of possibilities - accompanied by a tacit injunction:  Consider this."  I would go a bit further since the possibilities are weighted:  the novelist, for example, clearly favors some characters, actions and speeches (with their theoretical formulations) over others.   For example George Bernanos'  The Diary of a Country Priest has the country priest deliver a speech early in the novel which is then critiqued by his mentor.  Although Bernanos is not clearly advocating the mentor's position it is clear that he himself is raising questions about the value of the country priest's position, i.e. as being naive.  For one thing, this speech appears early in the novel, and the author's considered position is rightly associated with what how things turn out in the end, i.e. when the country priest in his dying moments finds God's grace to be everywhere.  Although I am an atheist, I believe that Bernanos' book gives us a kind of knowledge, and knowledge that is different in kind from philosophical knowledge, although continuous with and related to it.  It is not just knowledge of a possibility.  Rather, Bernanos' book presents us with a vision of how things are, one that can be used as a tool, perspective or lens even by an atheist in the pursuit of wisdom.  One way to do this is to put certain metaphysical concepts, for example "God" in brackets or under translation.  In short, the claim that "grace is everywhere" can have deep significance even for the atheist when taken within the context of the development of the novel as a whole (the meaning of the phrase is not found in itself alone) and when taken under translation (allowing for what Gadamer called a fusion of horizons.) 

Interested in learning more?  See my book:  Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life.  Broadview Press, 2012.  Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents.  You can also buy it fro  Broadview.  

No comments: