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. 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.
 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.” . . . 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?”
 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.