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Philosophy of Literature

Can Fiction be Philosophy?

Margaret G. Holland
University of Northern Iowa

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ABSTRACT: This paper examines the relation between philosophy and literature through an analysis of claims made by Martha Nussbaum regarding the contribution novels can make to moral philosophy. Perhaps her most controversial assertion is that some novels are themselves works of moral philosophy. I contrast Nussbaum’s view with that of Iris Murdoch. I discuss three claims which are fundamental to Nussbaum’s position: the relation between writing style and content; philosophy’s inadequacy in preparing agents for moral life because of its reliance on rules; and the usefulness of the moral work engaged in by readers of novels. The evaluation of these claims requires a discussion of the nature of philosophy. I find that Murdoch and Nussbaum agree on the ability of literature to contribute to moral understanding, but disagree on the issue of what philosophy is. Therefore, they disagree on the question of whether certain works of fiction are also works of philosophy. I argue that the task Nussbaum assigns philosophy is too broad. Through the use of critical and reflective methods, philosophy should examine and sort moral claims. Literary, philosophical and religious texts contribute to moral eduction; keeping them separate helps us appreciate their distinct contributions, as well as respect their distinct aims and methods. Therefore, I conclude that Nussbaum’s inclusion of certain novels in philosophy cannot be sustained.

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In a recent article, Richard Posner examines the notion, advanced by scholars in the law and literature movement, that "...immersion in literature ... make[s] us better citizens or better people." (1) The focus of his discussion is a set of assertions, including a number made by Martha Nussbaum, concerning the moral influence of certain literary works. Early in his article he refers to one of Nussbaum's most controversial proposals regarding the contribution literature, particularly certain novels, can make to moral philosophy; Nussbaum writes, "...certain novels are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy". (2) My purpose here is to examine this assertion. In the process I will compare Nussbaum's view with that of Iris Murdoch.

I have selected for discussion three central claims from Love's Knowledge, Nussbaum's essays on philosophy and literature. The first claim pertains to the relation of writing style to content. (3) On this topic Nussbaum suggests that writing style is not neutral; the form of writing influences the content conveyed; certain aspects of life cannot be conveyed adequately in argumentative writing; and literary artists can "state...truths" about human life which escape philosophical prose. (4)

The second claim concerns Nussbaum's view that philosophy's concentration on rules has obscured the need for perception of particular (possibly unique) features of concrete situations. Nussbaum finds that moral philosophers' usual reliance on rules, when addressing questions concerning proper conduct, underrates the significance of the concrete details of moral life. Therefore, philosophy does a poor job of preparing persons for moral life. (5)

The third claim is that literature has the potential to engage the reader in a form of moral work which is not summoned by philosophical texts. Nussbaum points out that certain novels engage the reader in the work of thinking through the moral possibilities of the portrayed lives. The attentive reader construes the moral significance of the circumstances described, and develops a view of how the characters ought to conduct themselves. Philosophical writing, even when it uses examples, does not require the same moral work involved in good literary reading. (6)

As I mentioned earlier, Nussbaum concludes that "...certain novels are irreplaceably works of moral philosophy" (p. 148). To support this claim, she suggests that philosophy be viewed as the pursuit of understanding, and that ethics be seen as "...the search for a specification of the good life for a human being". (7) Texts which deepen and expand comprehension of the good life ought, Nussbaum claims, to be included in moral philosophy (pp. 138-9, 142).

I turn now to Murdoch's philosophical position. Murdoch is best known among philosophers for her discussion of moral attention. She uses the term to designate the mental activity involved in striving to see others both as they actually are and with compassion. (8) Attentiveness, or the lack thereof, manifests itself in descriptions of persons and situations. These descriptions convey the quality of discernment and are formed, in part, by one's conceptual resources and vocabulary. Moreover, discernment is itself a moral activity. Murdoch writes in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals:

How we see our situation is itself, already, a moral activity, and one which is, for better as well as worse, 'made' by linguistic process. (9)

Description is not simply given; the poverty or richness of the language which one has at one's disposal contributes to how one sees and understands. Moreover, public conduct develops out of the quality of perception and description.

In The Fire and the Sun, Murdoch suggests that literature can show the attentive reader areas of moral life which philosophy, at best, merely alludes to in its systematic explanations. Moral understanding can be enhanced through appreciation of the artistic portrayal of the interaction of character and circumstance, through reflection on the representation of the muddle of avoidance and response that constitutes moral life. In the concluding pages she asserts that, "[a]rt is far and away the most educational thing we have...". (10)

There can be no doubt, then, that there is substantial agreement between Murdoch and Nussbaum on the question of literature's ability to enhance moral understanding. Also, Murdoch's focus on moral attention shows the importance she places on accurate perception of concrete features of persons and circumstances, features which cannot be captured in rules or theories. There is further agreement between Murdoch and Nussbaum on other aspects of moral life and thought. Murdoch and Nussbaum are both critical of philosophical theories which have, in Murdoch's words, "...sought for a single principle upon which morality may be seen to depend". (11) They are critical of philosophers who view moral life as being entirely a matter of choice and public conduct. Murdoch and Nussbaum have responded to such philosophical positions by drawing attention to the role of contingency and particulars in moral life. Perhaps more significantly, they both discuss the mental activity that precedes conduct, pointing out that prior to public action one construes a situation as having a certain moral nature. (12)

This broad agreement does not carry over, however, to the view that certain works of literature ought to be considered works of moral philosophy. Though Murdoch considers art to be educationally superior to philosophy, and though she is a prolific novelist, she shows no signs of being sympathetic to this aspect of Nussbaum's position. (13)

In an interview on the topic of philosophy and literature Murdoch agrees with the assertion that philosophy and literature are "two radically different kinds of writing". (14) On the subject of philosophical style Murdoch writes:

...I am tempted to say that there is an ideal philosophical style which has a special unambiguous plainness and hardness about it...when the philosopher is as it were in the front line in relation to his problem I think he speaks with a certain cold clear recognizable voice (p. 231).

Murdoch defines the task of philosophy as both "an attempt to perceive and to tease out of thought our deepest and most general concepts," and "the critical analysis of beliefs" (p. 233). As she understands it, philosophy is abstract, discursive, and direct (p. 236).

It is, then, on the task of philosophy that Murdoch and Nussbaum disagree. Murdoch views philosophy as the critical examination of concepts and systematic reflection on presuppositions, whereas Nussbaum sees it as the search for understanding. Murdoch's description of philosophy's ideal style and aim implies that works of literature, however well they portray moral life and also enhance the reader's understanding, are not works of philosophy. Nussbaum's view of philosophy is broad enough, I believe, to admit not only certain novels but also other written works (e. g. histories, biographies, religious texts) which portray moral life and have the capacity to provoke reflection in the thoughtful reader.

I move now to an evaluation of Nussbaum's claims. The first claim concerns the relation between the style of writing and the content conveyed. As part of this claim, Nussbaum says that a narrative artist can state truths which cannot be conveyed through philosophical argument (LK p. 6). There are certain aspects of this claim with which I agree. For example, I believe that genre and style are not neutral. On the contrary, both the cognitive and emotional content conveyed is partly determined by genre and style. One reason that genre and style are not neutral in terms of the content conveyed is that some content is best shown whereas other content is best stated. The standard style of philosophical writing does not show all morally significant aspects of life.

The absence of a distinction between showing and saying weakens Nussbaum's position. Narrative literature does not state truths. Rather, the narrative artist (or poet) shows, portrays, or represents what certain experiences are like. An abstract theoretical treatise does not evoke particular life-like experiences. (15) Furthermore, from the claim that the standard philosophical style of writing is not a suitable vehicle for all content, one cannot infer that an inadequacy in philosophy has been identified. One would need first to establish that it is part of the goal of philosophy to convey this content.

Nussbaum's second claim concerns the inadequacy of general rules and principles to prepare agents for acting well in actual life. Certainly it is the case that responding well to the circumstances of actual life requires more than understanding the philosophical grounding for moral rules. The ability to discern particulars, to read situations, is essential. Moreover, literature can portray how complicated this aspect of moral life is. The underlying question is whether philosophy alone can be expected to prepare persons for moral life. As soon as the question is asked, it is apparent that the answer must be in the negative. To answer in the affirmative would be to pre-empt the entire domain of moral education. Philosophy is an intellectual activity; moral philosophy should include an account of the conditions which allow for the possibility of moral life, as well as an explanation of the structure of moral thought and action, and of moral value and moral understanding. Individuals can put this account to use in their lives. However, to fault philosophy for insufficiently preparing agents for moral life misses the mark by assigning philosophy an inappropriate task.

The third claim pertains to literature's ability to engage the reader in the moral work of thinking through the problems which confront the fictional characters. Philosophical writing may occasionally do this through the use of dialogue or examples, but Nussbaum is correct that fictional writing is more likely to engage the reader in reflection on specific circumstances and characters. The manner in which philosophy educates the reader is more general and systematic. Literature may convey aspects of moral life which fall outside the limits of most argumentative writing, and thereby provoke a different type of moral reflection.

Should every text which expresses insight into moral life and has educational potential be considered a work of philosophy? In order to formulate a response to this question one must examine precisely what is being asserted about philosophy, and ethics in particular. As cited earlier, Nussbaum states that, "...ethics is the search for a specification of the good life for a human being." This description is problematic. If 'specification' means 'definitive description', this may not be what philosophers have sought traditionally. For example, if one thinks of the practical nature of ethics (Aristotle), or of imperfect duties (Kant), much of what is involved in a good life is determined by contextual features which do not lend themselves to definitive description in advance. So it is difficult to agree that this is an accurate description of the enterprise of ethics.

Even if ethics does search for a specification of the good life, it is difficult to see how it could be the case that works of literature search for the same sort of specification (if, indeed, literature searches for a specification). So there are at least two problems: a problem with the description of ethics, as well as a problem with the ambiguous use of the term 'specification' when applied to both philosophy and literature.

The ambiguity is compounded by Nussbaum's use of the term 'scrutiny.' In discussing moral philosophy and literature, Nussbaum states:

Insofar as the goal of moral philosophy is to give us understanding of the human good through a scrutiny of alternative conceptions of the good, this text [The Golden Bowl] and others like it would then appear to be important parts of this philosophy (p. 142).

Philosophy's "scrutiny of alternative conceptions of the good" refers, I assume, to the philosophical analysis of concepts of the good. Certainly this is part of the proper task of moral philosophy. When one says that philosophy 'scrutinizes' one means 'analyzes.' What does it mean to use the term 'scrutiny' when speaking of a novel? Rather than analysis it refers to something like showing, portraying, or presenting, imaginatively and in detail, the complexity of moral character, motives, choices, actions and problems: to convey the richness and intricacy of the moral aspects of fictional lives. If it is the case that a scrutiny (analysis) of conceptions of the good is part of moral philosophy, it does not follow that a literary scrutiny (portrayal) of how fictional lives succeed or fail to embody conceptions of the good is part of philosophy.

Another area of difficulty concerns the procedure of selecting literary works as morally exemplary. Nussbaum argues that certain novels are works of moral philosophy. She favors James's The Golden Bowl as exemplary in this regard. Posner indicates a number of problems which arise from the endeavor of selecting morally exemplary literary works. For example, as Posner puts it, "[t]he classics are full of moral atrocities" and "[t]he world of literature is a moral anarchy" (p. 5). Great works of literature do not consistently contain morally exemplary messages. By basing one's selection of works on an evaluation of their moral message one is inevitably going to by-pass works of greater literary value.

Posner is correct, and a variety of problems follow from this selection procedure. My concern, however, is with a related issue. It is not Nussbaum's view that all novels are works of great moral insight. She uses ethical principles to guide her choices, i.e. Aristotelian principles concerning, for example, the significance of the discernment of particulars. Therefore, the distinction between philosophy and literature is implicit in her work. As long as there is a thoughtful selection of novels, then it is possible to discuss the reasons for selection. Such a discussion of criteria makes it difficult to avoid acknowledging something of the difference between philosophy and literature.

Works of philosophy often combine discursive writing with examples, rhetoric, and narrative. It would be foolish to think that a description of philosophical styles and methods could be formulated in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. It is, however, possible to think in terms of distinctive methods and goals which for the most part characterize philosophy. Philosophy typically seeks to clarify broad abstract questions and basic concepts through the use of rigorous methods. These methods are systematic, involve critically examining assumptions, and often require justifying claims either through argument or systematic presentation. Philosophy commonly involves proposing definitions, drawing distinctions, raising reflective questions, analyzing what would be required in order to support a claim, identifying and criticizing conceptual and factual assumptions, considering a variety of views, and formulating principles. In the course of doing this, philosophers often use examples to illustrate distinctions which are central to arguments. (16)

Moral philosophy is properly concerned with distinguishing moral from non-moral concerns, examining the structure of moral life, sorting and classifying fundamental moral issues, examining what constitutes a good life, discussing how one ought to act and what principles should guide one, and the relative merits of virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology as theoretical accounts of moral life. By taking a broad, thorough, and critical approach to basic questions, philosophy makes an irreplaceable contribution to human understanding.

It may be helpful to compare the relation between novels and ethics to the relation between science and philosophy of science, as well as to the relation between art and aesthetics. I do not want to suggest that the relation between certain novels and moral philosophy is parallel to these other two relations; the activities and accomplishments of science and art are more crucial to philosophy of science and aesthetics than literature is to moral philosophy. Yet, despite the role science plays in providing material for philosophical reflection, one does not hear that certain scientific experiments or methods are themselves examples of philosophy of science. Likewise, the works of art discussed in aesthetics are not themselves taken to be works of philosophy.

Literature can help philosophers look at moral life and improve their systematic accounts. Viewing philosophy and literature as distinct endeavors with different goals and methods, and therefore being disinclined to consider novels such as The Golden Bowl works of philosophy, does not entail the view that works of literature should be excluded from philosophy courses or from philosophical writing.

Conversely, philosophical discipline can provide one with the skill to examine critically what is portrayed in literature, and to evaluate fictional lives. One can both recognize the value of philosophical reflection on literary texts, and maintain that the two activities are distinct.

There are at least two different advantages to the approach I have outlined. One advantage is that it safeguards an appreciation for the aesthetic value of literature. If one grants that certain works of literature provide the opportunity for moral reflection about particular characters and circumstances, then one needs to avoid viewing these works as of solely instrumental value and thereby failing to acknowledge aesthetic qualities which are unrelated to matters of ethical significance. Posner not only warns against this danger, but states that, "[e]thical readings of works of literature tend to be reductive — and digressive" (p. 12). In order to appreciate literary works one must look beyond what they can contribute to moral and philosophical reflection. Treating them as works of philosophy could diminish recognition of their purely artistic value.

The second advantage concerns what I take to be the fact that much writing which has actually had moral influence lies outside both philosophy and literature. I refer to the Talmud, New Testament, and Koran. One need not deny that these religious works have been taken as repositories of moral insight and guidance in order to hold that their moral usefulness does not provide grounds for considering them works of philosophy.

The advantage of viewing philosophy as a distinct enterprise which does not encapsulate all texts that impart an understanding of the human good is that one thereby overtly maintains the philosophical task of evaluating and sorting moral claims. The unique contribution philosophy makes to moral thinking is that it demands that one reflect upon what one finds morally compelling, and not accept it simply because of its artistic presentation or religious authority. Literary, religious, and philosophical texts contribute to moral education, and keeping them separate helps appreciate their distinct contributions, as well as respect their distinct aims and methods.

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(1) Richard A. Posner, "Against Ethical Criticism," Philosophy and Literature, April 1997, vol. 21, no. 1, p. 2.

(2) Martha Nussbaum, Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (LK) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 148.

(3) The following passages from Love's Knowledge are representative:

...there may be some views of the world and how one should live in it — views, especially, that emphasize the world's surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty — that cannot be fully and adequately stated in the language of conventional philosophical prose...(p. 3).

The claim is that only the style of a certain sort of narrative artist (and not, for example, the style associated with the abstract theoretical treatise) can adequately state certain important truths about the world, embodying them in its shape and setting up in the reader the activities that are appropriate for grasping them (p. 6).

(4) See also, Nussbaum, LK, pp. 4-5, 8, 142.

(5) So, for example, she suggests that:

...general principles designed to cover a wide range of cases seen in the past will prove insufficient to prepare an agent to respond well to new circumstances. Insofar as we train agents to think of ethical judgments as consisting simply in the application of such antecedently formulated rules...we prepare them badly for the actual flow of life, and for the necessary resourcefulness in confronting its surprises. LK, p. 38.

Nussbaum argues that rules are insufficient, not useless. See LK, p. 73.

(6) Nussbaum writes:

What I now want to suggest is that the adventure of the reader of this novel [The Golden Bowl], like the adventure of the intelligent characters inside it, involves valuable aspects of human moral experience that are not tapped by traditional books of moral philosophy...(p. 143).

Nussbaum's point is that certain works of fiction possess features which are lacking in the arguments, examples, and thought-experiments found in philosophical writing. These features include: the portrayal of the emotional lives of characters, the appeal for the emotional engagement of the reader, the development of complex background circumstances which convey some of the intricacy of actual life.

See also, LK, pp. 46, 142-4, 148, 162.

(7) She writes:

Insofar as the goal of moral philosophy is to give us understanding of the human good through a scrutiny of alternative conceptions of the good, this text [The Golden Bowl] and others like it would then appear to be important parts of this philosophy (p. 142).

See also LK, pp. 3, 139, 142.

(8) Explaining her use of the term in The Sovereignty of Good Murdoch writes:

I have used the word 'attention'...to express the idea of a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good (SG) (New York: Schoken Books, 1971), p. 34.

(9) Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (New York, Penguin Press, 1992), p. 315.

(10) Iris Murdoch, The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (FS) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 86.

(11) Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, p. 492.

(12) Nussbaum, LK, pp. 37, 84, 151. Murdoch, SG, p. 19.

(13) Murdoch, FS, p. 86.

(14) Iris Murdoch, "Philosophy and Literature," in Men of Ideas ed. Bryan Magee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 230.

In her discussion of the differences, Murdoch draws the following distinctions: literature does many things, philosophy does one thing (has one aim); literature is natural, philosophy is counter-natural; literature arouses emotion, philosophy tries to eliminate emotional appeal; literature is indirect, philosophy is direct; literature has no problem to solve, philosophy seeks to solve a few technical and abstract problems; literature is concerned with aesthetic form, philosophy does not aim at formal perfection. Murdoch says that she sees "no 'general role' of philosophy in literature" (p. 242).

(15) See Frank Palmer, Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), chapter 8.

(16) In considering what is characteristic of philosophy, I was helped by reading Derrida and Wittgenstein, by Newton Garver and Seung-Chong Lee, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), chapter 6.

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