Philosophy and Literature: An Investigation

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

I’ve had a bit of feedback, off the blog, on yesterday’s post, ‘Philosophical Beginnings of Early Modern Literature’. A few clarificatory remarks in response to that.

I’ve certainly no intention of suggesting that French or British literature should be given a starting point that is primarily contained in early modern philosophy. The literature emerged from various sources, including a history of canonical literary works, as well as philosophical texts. The history of French literature certainly requires reference to Rabelais and Ronsard, as well as Montaigne and Pascal.

The point about the remarks on philosophy and literature in Britain is not simply to refer the emergence of the ‘realist’ novel, the novel of psychological and social plausibility, to the empiricist (experience based) nature of British philosophy. Ian Watt’s 1957 classic, Rise of the Novel addressed that issue. Of course there is plenty that could be changed, or added to in Watt, but more than that i am concerned with how philosophical texts from Bacon to Hume are to be read as literary in a number of senses: their stylistic qualities, the narrative elements of their philosophical investigations, the concern with the tension between humans as part of nature and the natural development of human society. The last item refers to a tension where literature, and thought about literature, looks particularly relevant.

I think what I was saying yesterday is really addressed more against philosophers than against literary critics, if it is against anyone, Literary historians are aware of the links between ‘pure’ literary texts and other forms of literature, and are very aware of how recent current categories of literature and forms of writing were developed. Philosophers tend to look at texts as non-literary. Where philosophers or literary critics look at philosophy texts as literature, I think there is a tendency for this to be become philosophy as rhetoric and persuasion, or the collapse of philosophy into literature in general. I want to look at how philosophical texts develop arguments through literary means, and how literary texts use philosophical argument, and I want to look at the texts where both are clearly present. While there is no complete originality in looking at philosophical texts and literary texts together, I see a need to further the enterprise of looking at a unity of literary construction with philosophical claims about morality. identity, knowledge, and so on. Particularly with regard to taking literature into the philosophical texts, and reflecting back on the literature. It looks to me as if most relevant publications come from the literary side.

Roughly speaking I would say that in France there were very obvious ways in which philosophical texts were literary texts, and major contributions to literary writing. I don’t think this is so apparent in British literature, though there is some comparison to be made. Bacon does not have the status of Montaigne as a literary figure. I think it is noteworthy that Hume and Smith had difficulty with La Rochefoucauld, referring to him as an immoralist. There is something about the paradoxical and ironic approach in the French writers that cannot be easily absorbed by the British writers. Hume and Burke have many things to say which connect with the complexity of sentiments and passions in literature, but there is system, or at least a drive towards system, not matched in the French writers I have been referring to. Even Descartes explores the possibility of fiction, delusion, and insanity, entering philosophy in a way absent in a any direct way from the 17th and 18th Century British philosophers.

It is important that Montesqueiu and Rousseau wrote literary fictions while Hume, Smith and Burke did not. Descartes wrote an autobiographical account of how he came across truth, not something to be found in Bacon or Hobbes.


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