Can a Philosopher Be a Novelist?

“Spinoza”
Samuel Hirszenberg, 1907

Can a Philosopher Be a Novelist?

These days I’ve been working on a paper to be delivered (in no more than 15 minutes) at the September (virtual) Meetings of the Eric Voegelin Society.  Cutting it down while still retaining meaningful content is hard enough, but in the meantime, I’ve come to think that it needs to be entirely reconceived.

At first, I just wanted to cull 15 minutes’ worth of dramatic episode from Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  It would be entertaining, show off a measure of literary power, and be a teaser for my book when it comes out.

But after all, what’s the point of doing that?  It would make sense if my ambition had been to build a career.  But on the contrary.  My actual ambition – real and unvarnished is —

not to be noticed! 

In my own case, I think of literary gifts the way physicists used to think of mathematics: as instruments for identifying and describing the behavior of real entities.  The point of literary gifts, for me at least, is to draw readers, by their means, to see what real life is like.  So for me the literary point is not that different from the point of philosophy.  The two endeavors have to do with truth.

In a previous column, I described Bryan Magee’s interview with Iris Murdoch, the philosopher/novelist.  Though she could do both kinds of writing, she thought they were widely different.  Philosophic writing, she said, needs to be clear, direct and unambiguous.  It’s like courtroom testimony, though pertaining to abstract matters.  Whereas novels, on the other hand, depict experience in all its unresolved ambiguity, in the half-light and partial shadows where human beings actually live and move.

What Murdoch said struck me as capturing something true about our lives.  Unless one is very depressed, there is a kind of exciting suspense animating ordinary days.  What occurs will not conform to one’s expectations – no matter what one was expecting!

At the same time, while I was writing about Murdoch’s views of the two opposing kinds of writing, privately I thought, no wonder she lost her marbles at the end!  How can one person actually perform two such contrary-tending projects?

In fact, however, I do something both novelistic and philosophic in Confessions.

You might say, “So what?  And big deal!”  The French existentialists – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus – did precisely that.  Fiction with the left hand, philosophy with the right, and vice versa.  In fact, Murdoch singles out Sartre’s La Nausée for her particular praise.

Well maybe.  But I’ve never read a French existentialist novel with the aim of finding out how life really goes, or how people really are.  For my money, those philosophers’ novels are propaganda for their ideas.  Their characters are never set free to live their own lives – as the great novelists allow their characters to do.

Confessions is not a novel, of course.  It’s nonfiction.  But its characters are shown in the freedom of the choices they made.  So they are alive – not mere theoretical entities.  And yet, when from time to time I write qua philosophe, it’s pretty direct, clear and unambiguous.  So, for cryin’ out loud and whaddya know?  I do believe that, in Confessions, I’m writing both philosophically and novelistically!

Spinoza, seventeenth-century philosopher, lens-grinder of Amsterdam, and excommunicated Jew, was asked long ago if he thought his was the best philosophy.  He gave his usual straight answer, not one that fooled around:

I do not know if mine is the best philosophy. 

But I know I think the true one.

Well, that’s how I actually feel about my own work!  In the case of Confessions of a Young Philosopher — the entity for which I’m acting in the role of midwife – the novelistic sound and color and the conceptual straight talk are not at odds.

They coincide. 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father, the "Genius" Among the Giants. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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