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  • Writer's pictureAlan Dale

Where Fiction & Philosophy Meet - Mind The Gap

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Fiction and philosophy could be said to “meet” in several senses, approaching the border between the two from either side.

Tolstoy compares the interpretation of history to the integral calculus, in War & Peace. I found this fascinating, having read mechanical engineering and developed a lifelong interest in philosophy. It was as though the author compared all theoretical disciplines’ demands on analytical reasoning, whether scientific or humanitarian. This suggests openings for characters’ back stories, lifetime’s work, obsession etc., in an academic, technical or dysfunctional intellectual family setting, to name but three.

Philosophical definitions of fiction might involve analysing stories with regard to definitions of truth, perception, sense data, or any other area of philosophical enquiry. This is simply one possible range of such subjects; any number of additional comparisons could be made, using other philosophical definitions.

Another example of the two subjects’ meeting points arises in Plato’s Protagoras. Socrates and Protagoras discuss whether virtue can be taught. Protagoras tells a story to show that teaching virtue is possible.

Analyses of custom, legend, superstition, etc., whether from an anthropological, literary or philosophical viewpoint can inform historical, academic or investigative story lines. Thus another area of mutual interest is the philosophical examination of different literary genres.

Authors’ use of philosophical concepts and subjects varies widely, as one might expect. Iris Murdoch was also an accomplished philosopher, whose characters are frequently given to long, detailed, plot-developing philosophical ruminations. Numerous other authors have emulated this technique, albeit, in my opinion, with far less literary skill, or philosophical erudition.

This always leaves me in two minds. I’m an enthusiastic student of philosophy, (a rank amateur, not a qualified, or aspiring professional). This interest naturally entices me to include references, scenes and plots wholly or partially dependent on this borderland between the two subjects. My hand is often stayed by the conflicting requirements of narrative pace and depth.

Despite this, myriad possibilities appear to exist, in terms of character development, scene setting, mood and atmosphere. Even the term philosopher itself is open to various authorial interpretations. Do I want a character to be a tormented, conscientious professional philosopher, endlessly agonising over the logical validity of some obscure fundamental principle? Should they perhaps be more concerned with the practical application or implications of some new tenet of their own making? Are they teetering on the verge of unveiling some radical or heterodox interpretation, almost certain to result in their ridicule, vilification or dismissal? Most of these ideas might appear more suitable for a more reflective style and scene, as opposed to action packed drama. That said, they also offer opportunities to lead into a transition from the contemplative to the active.

Or are all these examples far too rarefied and academic? Do I, instead, require the quotidian musings of an exasperated housewife, a disillusioned electrician, or a melancholic estimator? In short, should I call on Professor Heinz Wolff or Topol? Such is the rich, varied continuum of literary, historical and philosophical tradition from which to choose, when plotting stories or novels.


Stephen T. Ahearn Tolstoy's Integration Metaphor from War and Peace

Paul M. B. VitányiTolstoy’s Mathematics in War and Peace The Mathematical IntelligencerISSN 0343-6993Volume 35Number 1

ANDERSON, SUSAN L. “PHILOSOPHY AND FICTION.” Metaphilosophy, vol. 23, no. 3, 1992, pp. 203–213. JSTOR, . Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.

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