The Sunday Salon, Whatnot
Comments 8

Can a novel be both fictional and philosophical?

The Sunday Salon

The Sunday Salon

I do not even want to dip my finger regarding this matter because I am not huge on philosophy. I only have 3 units of philosophy in my college transcript and Sophie’s World to back me up (and oh, let’s add the first four chapters of the audiobook The Great Ideas of Philosophy).

So why I am asking this? What’s the point of this post? Well, I’d just like to share a thread that went over at the Facebook group of Summer of Jest. Yes, I joined this reading event (Summer of Jest) to help me get through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest with … flying colors?

Aside from wanting to share the conversation and keep it here for future reference, in case the thread gets lost in the unnavigable trenches of Facebook, I’d also like to hear your thoughts on it. Can a novelist write philosophically? The preceding link is actually what started the thread without me knowing while I was rereading the thread. And yeah, here it is. I’ve changed the names of the members into their respective initials, and I hope that this would not constitute a case of plagiarism (hey, I’m one of them). Think of it as a sort of promotion, as something to lure you into the group and make you read Infinite Jest.

J.H.1: I am currently wading through a copy of Jest that came from the Library in Lyons. While reading I discovered several newspaper articles pertaining to Wallace that somebody had cut out and left in the book. I do not know when it was published, but an article from the New York Times asks the question: Can a novelist write philosophically? Wallace is credited at making an attempt to do so but fails according to the article. So how ’bout folks: Can a novel be both fiction and philosophical and if so, does that apply to Infinite Jest?

C.C.: I think so. Proust’s Days of Reading for example. Or Alain de Botton’s Essays in Love is excellent and got me interested in this type of interrogative writing. His ‘School of Life’ in London is designed to help you apply philosophy to your everyday life with talks and courses.

Actually In Search of Lost Time by Proust prob a better example of a novel rather than collection of essays. Essays in Love is a novel, despite the confusing title.

M.J.: Of course it can – that’s just flat-out wrong. The author of the article must have had a different definition of philosophy than most. The tennis discussions btwn Mario & Schtitt (p.84) What is that if not philosophy? The whole book … Attempts?

M.M.: I agree with the NY times on this. But not because Wallace’s fiction doesn’t somehow live up to the standards of thought pertaining to philosophy (whatever those standards are, which is a question), but because, from what I can tell so far, it exceeds them. Or rather, it’s doing something different. I feel the same way about a number of other writers, for example, DeLillo, who clearly are *thinkers* and whose thinking influences their work—yet whose fiction simply doesn’t do what philosophy does, which is to delineate concepts, make distinctions, critique assumptions, build arguments, and somehow approach or disclose *reality* as such, in thought. I don’t think good fiction does quite this. The primary concern of fiction is not reality — it’s humanity. I don’t read fiction to clarify my thinking about the Real. I read it to more deeply and intimately understand what it means to be Human, to actually *be* in this world—to live and die, love and lose. I’m not saying that philosophy and fiction are totally separate and unmixable. There is often philosophy in fiction, and vice versa. It’s like a conversation. But I think these two forms of writing generally operate within different ‘bands’ of the spectrum of consciousness, different ranges of frequencies. And a lot of times when a writer tries to mix the the two (write fiction about ideas, or philosophy about life and death, love and loss), it can be interesting, but it often falls somewhat flat. On the other hand, a fiction writer who has read a lot of philosophy, and yet still full-bore delves into writing fiction as fiction, is a lot more credible than (doesn’t say as much stupid stuff as) one who hasn’t examined the underlying logic of their thought processes in the way that philosophy trains you to do. Likewise, a philosopher who’s conversant with fiction or poetry (e.g., Nietzsche), will tend to write much more existentially relevant prose than one who mainly operates in the realm of abstract thought (e.g., Kant).

If I had to sum up the difference, I’d say: Fictionists create illusions to get at truth; philosophers deconstruct them. Fictionists tell stories; philosophers make arguments.

Feel free to tell me I’m full of it, btw.

A.C.: I would assume that the article was referring to his earlier work: Broom of the System, which was written when DFW was doing undergrad in Philosophy. Even he admits that it wasn’t his most successful work, but I still find it highly readible. As for philosophy mixing with fiction, well it happens quite often as the others have mentioned, cause when it comes down to it, fiction attempts to answer some of the same big questions of philosophy: meaning of life, relationship w/ god (or absence of god), human condition, etc.

J.H.2: Great post, M.M.

DFW said that he wanted to write ‘morally passionate, and passionately moral fiction’ + that his concern was ‘what it is to be a fucking human being’ (exact wording to be checked when I’m using my laptop later). I think IJ achieved that, and did so in a way that affected me more than any other fiction I have read.

I think M.M. is really on to something with the idea that fiction creates illusions to get at truth, but I think that technique can be classed as philosophy too, rather than just informed by it. I think Kierkegaard’s ideas on indirect communication (roughly: to really know something, to appropriate it, one must come to realise and feel its truth themselves, and directly explaining something is not always the most effective way of doing this) and his pseudonymous authorship (writing under different names so it was clear the text was not simply a presentation of his own arguments, ideas etc) are basically this, and that there are some interesting comparisons to be drawn out between him and Wallace.

(I can expand on that later, when I’m not typing on a phone during my morning commute, and with a lot more detail once the group is further through the book)

J.H.3: Hey M.M., yes a very interesting post, and John an interesting question, and one I’ll come back to when I’m more awake- one cup of tea just isn’t enough! However, you write “I don’t read fiction to clarify my thinking about the Real. I read it to more deeply and intimately understand what it means to be Human”, and my question is how are those two things different?

In any given time or place an experience of being human is going to be (usually) unquestioningly informed by what is then/there philosophically paradigmatic. Maybe any fiction writer who doesn’t use his contemporary conditions as an axiomatic basis for his story, but questions the very ground itself is writing philosophically? (make any sense?)

T.S.: Yes M.M. you are full of it – as are the rest of us! Stephen King divided literature as thus: Extraordinary people in ordinary situations and ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I suppose that if we must, and I must, that second scenario would give rise more often for the reader to glean deeper philosophical insights than they previously held …

M.J.: Well, that was fun.

J.H.1: I am enjoying all the feedback from this post. You guys are great. I would like to revisit this question once we have gotten further into the book and have more evidence of whether or not we have here a case of “philosophical-fiction” which I do believe is entirely possible, however one needs to recognize a difference between philosophy and morality before labeling a fiction as philosophical. As for the article, I do question their definition of philosophy as it is not very well presented but the premise is that imagination and logic do not mix. Oh and I did find out that the article was written in January of 2011 if that makes any difference at all.

PS: A.C. the article does quote Wallace in stating that “The Broom System” was a failure when it came to incorporating philosophy from Wittgenstein but then goes on to say that Wallace has been unable to do so successfully for any of his other work.

K.R.: i think i am truly a child of the post-modern age. i eschew philosophy, as a formal discipline. every time i read a philosophical text i feel like, “stop telling me your ([typically] privileged [often heteronormative] male) version of what you believe Truth is! there is no Truth!! there are only a myriad of truthS whose ultimate unknowability rivals the proverbial ten thousand things!!”

something about DFW’s work tickles that post-modern unknowability-of-any-one-truth funny bone inside of me. so, whether or not it is considered philosophical in a [typically] privileged [often heteronormative] male dominated intellectual discipline, i care not. haha! this experience-loving feeling-ful queer lady likes the mind-fuck of whatever it actually happens to be

A.C.: Nicely put K.R., dfw had a great mind for philosophy, he even wrote that dissertation which later turned into a book but to say he failed on philosophical lit is too easy because it depends on what the person considers philosophy to be. I’m as passionate as you are about post modernism and to accept that maybe their isn’t an answer to all the big questions, that the complex system driving itself may be enough.

J.H.2: I think there’s a divide here, with ‘philosophy’ connoting both a rigorous academic discipline where something like a theory of consciousness is hammered out, and something looser by which people explore what it means to be a human being, what’s important in life, and how to live. I think common usage often tends toward the latter – “my philosophy is…” etc.

I don’t really see the point of using a novel as the primary way to explicate the former kind of philosophy. It’s just not the ideal medium, just as a poem is not the ideal means of putting something forward within the field of quantum physics, or a piece of music for geology. You can write a novel about those themes (Richard Powers ‘Galatea 2.2’ (which I would recommend) contains lots of relatively detailed philosophy of mind centred around questions of consciousness and artificial intelligence) or use it as a frame to introduce people to philosophical ideas (Jostein Gaarder’s ‘Sophie’s World’ (which I would also recommend) is basically an ‘introduction to philosophy’ textbook with a narrative).

Infinite Jest is not ‘philosophical’ in that sense though, despite throwing in plenty of names and terminology and jargon and ideas (but hey, what subject matter doesn’t it throw all those things in for?) It’s ‘philosophical’ in that it tries to convey something about what it feels like to live – “what it is to be a fucking human being”.

I think what DFW means by ‘morally passionate and passionately moral’ fiction is a part of that idea, and is completely different to ‘moralising’ fiction. He’s not concerned with pointing out right from wrong or arguing any particular moral cause of issue, nor of outlining some kind of theory of morality. He wants to engage our moral sense – to make it wide eyed. He wants us aware.

I think ‘This is Water’ (the commencement speech he gave which was later published – you can listen to a recording of the speech itself on YouTube) is a simple summary of an attitude which informed Infinite Jest. When I think about the book, the word ‘empathy’ has a huge overarching presence in my mind.

K.R.: you can also download the speech on itunes! or you could a few years ago. i’ve had it on my ipod ever since and whenever my commute starts getting me down, i play it

J.H.2: I got lost in parentheses somewhere up there, and didn’t finish a sentence: You can write a novel about those themes (extravagant bracketing), but it will not embody them. They are flavour.

To use Sophie’s World as an example again, as I think it works well illustrate the distinction: it’s philosophical in the sense that it’s about the history of philosophy and contains explanations of philosophical ideas (the content of the book), and philosophical in that (to hypothesise) it hopes to encourage inquisitiveness and reflection upon the world we live in (the intention, or ‘spirit’ of sorts, if we want to get fluffy).

A.M.: The book that comes to mind that is both fictional and philosophical is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I remember that arguments are presented at the start of each segment and then fiction follows. I like it a lot; it didn’t strike me as flat or lacking (although it’s not intensely philosophical like academic books).

M.M.: Firstly, I want to thank T.S. for calling it like it is. I am indeed full of it. That felt good, to hear that. What is the difference between the Real and the Human? I have no idea. I think I was just making that up. (Thank you, J.H.3, for pointing that out, and also for your point about certain fiction writers questioning the paradigmatic assumptions of their times; I think this gives such writers a critical perspective that makes their work a lot more penetrating.) Clearly there is both philosophical literature and literary philosophy; these hybrid genres definitely exist. ( J.H.2 and A.M., your examples, the ones I know, seem spot on to me; I just don’t think one is the *ideal* genre for the kinds of things the other is trying to say, as you also point out nicely, J.H.2).

In college my two main passions were philosophy and literature. Since that time, I’ve gone back and forth between the two, sometimes my life taking on a rational and orderly quality, other times more free-spirited and poetic. I’ve always felt much happier and freer as a ‘poet’ but also less in control of my life, more susceptible to chaos and fear. I think there is a different quality of consciousness that pertains to philosophy vs. literature. I’ve come to realize that ultimately I need them both, but where I feel most fully alive is on the literature side of the street. I think DFW came to the same conclusion—writing stories used much more of his mind and soul than writing philosophy did. But there was definitely philosophy IN his fiction. I just wouldn’t look to it mainly FOR the philosophy of it, only because there is so much *more* there than just the ideas. So I think it’s misguided to say that it “failed” at achieving philosophy, as if this is what it should have been trying to do. (This is what seemed so wrong to me about the NY times article—which, btw, I’ve never read and don’t even know the name of… which makes my comments here pretty absurd.)

But whatever. We’re just talking. I’m imagining the ghost of DFW looking at these little facebook comment boxes with a sense of despair. How can we possibly say what needs to be said in these little boxes?! For one thing, we would need to define our terms so much better, which would take, probably, a loooong book in itself.

And just to conclude: I still love philosophy. I don’t mean to set up some kind of irreconcilable opposition. I love post-modern philosophy. I also love post-postmodern philosophy. I’m a major proponent of post-phallologotheocentric thinking in all its forms. I also love Zen, which is just, as they say, a shit-stick.

M.J.: I can’t wait for next Friday night.



  1. I’ve done quite a bit of philosophy in my time. Not as a compulsion; I can control it. It just happens sometimes. Anyway, in philosophy, we talk extensively about the power of metaphor and analogy. Philosophy cannot operate without metaphor. Philosophy’s realm is that which escapes simple perception–e.g. thoughts, God, emotions, etc. By necessity, talking about that sort of stuff requires metaphorical language. To even say, for instance–regardless of your religious persuasion–“God thinks,” you must necessarily mean “think” in a metaphorical way, because, after analysis, we find that God would not think in the same way as people. Just an example.

    The conclusion: as an exercise in the extension of metaphor in order to explicate by metaphor certain abstract human issues, all fiction operates as uniquely useful philosophical exploration. That is to say, because fiction tells of the world by using monsters as a large picture of a small thing fiction ought to permit a perfect fleshing of all that dull philosophy.


    • Great post, olivershiny. I particularly like the last line, although I am still not sure what to think about the importance of metaphor in philosophy (because until now, I mostly consider metaphor as a figure of speech).


  2. Monique says

    I had 6 units of Philo in college (and yes, Sophie’s World, too) but I am no better than you. Haha. Philosophy taxes my mind much too much than I would want it too so I don’t usually bother. JL should join the Infinite Jest group, though!


    • It’s actually what I’d call “practical philosophy” so I think it wouldn’t have a lot of appeal for JL (hello there!). It’s a really fun book, and I think it helps that I am taking a slow, measured pace in reading it.


  3. Yes, it can. Whether it will work or not depends on the reader. Like me, I can grasp a little of analogism, cynicism, ethics, and humanitarianism. In your term, it would be practical philosophy. Anything beyond that will make my brain bleed. For me, it’s like – Aren’t we thinking too much already? Do we really need more to add to that? Besides, I believe that looking closely at philosophy clouds our view of other people. So, it’s safer if it is approached through fiction. We have the option to believe it or not.


    • Nice one, Mommy L. I think that looking too closely at philosophy is a manifestation of over-intellectualizing stuff that makes one fail to see the immediate realities before him or her.


  4. Hi!
    You might want to check out Harry Mulisch or Connie Palmen… both dutch authors who write very philosophical fiction. I used to love them, although it was not always easy. Guess its time to read them again :-)


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