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Sculpting Ideas:
Can Philosophy Be an Art Form?

Philosophy has been examining art for millennia. But can philosophy be an art form? An affirmative answer would raise interesting questions about philosophical self-reflexivity. In his Philosophical Explanations Robert Nozick raises this question, not for the above reason, but to suggest that such an answer would enhance both the methodology and the aim of philosophy, which is to show that human beings are valuable. I argue that to the extent that it satisfies Nozick’s and Arthur Danto’s conceptions of art, Plato’s Phaedo is an example of philosophy-as-art. But does philosophy need narrative in order to be art?

The question of the possibility of philosophy being an art form concludes Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations.1 He seems to be of the view that an affirmative answer would augur well for further inquiry into the kinds of core philosophical questions, those that “make us tremble,” he writes, which he has just examined: the identity of the self; why is there something rather than nothing; knowledge and skepticism; free will; the foundation of ethics; and the meaning of life.2 These explorations aim at answering the question: “how are we valuable and precious?” (PE, p. 1). Although he does not spell it out, it is clear that he seems to think that showing that philosophy can be an art form would reveal how it can add efficacy to these kinds of investigations, and add support to the big claim he wants to make, that we are precious and valuable.

It seems to me that a good place to start is with the history of Western philosophy. Are there any works in this tradition about which we can state confidently that they are both philosophy and art? A number of [End Page 34] possible candidates came to my mind, and I decided to stick with Plato’s Phaedo, which also happens to be one of my favorite books.3 I decided that my strategy would be to examine the traditional view of it as both a philosophical and literary work, and then move on from there to examine it through two artistic lenses: first, Nozick’s own preliminary ideas on what philosophy-as-art would look like, and second, Arthur Danto’s influential conception of what art is.4 I shall conclude with a Caribbean perspective on this issue.

But first, a few remarks about the Phaedo. Plato, who was a young man of about twenty-eight years old at the time, was shocked when his teacher Socrates was charged with not believing in the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens, tried, found guilty, and executed. He wrote a trilogy chronicling the last days of his teacher. The first, the Apology, is the speech made by Socrates at his trial. The second, Crito, is an account of a visit by Crito, one of Socrates’s followers, to the prison where Socrates was being held, who tells Socrates of his plan to bribe the jailers so that Socrates can escape and go into exile. Socrates refuses his offer on the grounds that as a citizen who has benefited from the parental protection of the laws all of his life, he therefore still has an obligation to continue to obey them even if they do not now seem to be in his interest. He is a law-abiding citizen, so if the law says he should die then he will die.

The Phaedo, the third, is an account of the last day in the life of Socrates as told to the absent Echecrates by Phaedo, a former slave and student of Socrates, who witnessed the event. Plato himself was absent due to illness. We can only speculate about Plato’s reason for writing these accounts, but he was probably motivated by a sense that the trial and execution of the famous teacher was an event of historical importance, and that he had a duty to put an account of it on record.

The book is a narrative of the day’s events, from early in the morning when the followers of Socrates arrive at the prison, to evening when “the sun is still upon the mountains” (P, p. 96), and the executioner, an old slave, arrives in the cell with poison in a cup. But before Socrates drinks the hemlock, he spends most of the day leading a discussion on philosophy and death, and assuring his students that “the true philosophers make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is least alarming” (P, p. 50). They also discuss the alleged immortality of the soul, clearly one of the most important and relevant philosophical questions to someone who is about to face execution. Socrates takes his listeners through a number of arguments in support of the [End Page 35] doctrine, including what would become Plato’s famous Argument from Recollection (we are able to recognize ideas like equality, justice, and beauty only because we experienced them in a previous life); and the Argument from Opposites (all opposites like light and dark, big and small generate each other, therefore life and death as opposites must keep on generating each other).

The arguments are critiqued and amended as the discussion proceeds until they arrive at one that they feel they can accept. The details of these arguments, and an evaluation of them, need not concern us here. Socrates himself seems to have some doubt about them and he urges his listeners to continue their inquiry, although he remains convinced that some argument similar to theirs must be true. They proceed to other speculations and folkloric beliefs about the afterlife, after which Socrates announces that he is ready for his bath, for he wants to avoid giving the women the trouble of bathing him after he is dead.

The Phaedo has been studied in philosophy courses for more than two thousand years. I was introduced to it in a course on Plato. If asked what makes it a work of philosophy most readers would probably respond that it was written by one of the world’s greatest philosophers, and that it deals with obvious philosophical issues such as the body-mind relation, death, the immortality of the soul, care of the soul, and so on. It also contains a good deal of conceptual analysis, logic, critical thinking, and argumentation.

But it is also regarded as a great work of literature. I have seen it described and discussed in books on world literature. If asked what makes it a work of literature, most readers would probably say it tells a very moving story, and most people associate stories and narratives primarily, but of course not exclusively, with literature. Its greatness, they may add, may have something to do with its extraordinary, famous, and influential protagonist, as well as with Plato’s own gifts as a literary artist. The result is the story of an execution that is nearly as famous as that of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross.

The sum of this is that the Phaedo may be described as a work of philosophy-in-literature. The literary narrative provides an occasion, or a container, or a nesting, or a justification for the philosophizing that accompanies it. The philosophical mangoes are set in a literary basket. To philosophize, as the characters do in the Phaedo, is a part of human nature, one might say, and they do so when the occasion demands it, or in those situations conducive to it (bars or barber shops, for example). In this case Plato sets his philosophizing in the cell of a prison, a location [End Page 36] that historically has been a place of much influential thinking and writing. We get philosophy in literature when writers present us with characters, real or imagined, who are philosophizing in some circumstance or the other. There are other ways of doing philosophy in literature, I believe, but the Phaedo seems to me to be one of the earliest and still one of the most successful examples of this approach.

So the Phaedo seems to be part philosophy and part literature, and since literature is an art form, it is therefore partly a work of philosophy and partly a work of art. But there is so much organic unity between the two, some may object to this way of dividing it as a kind of sophistry, or as an example of the kind of artificiality associated with university administrators and booksellers. But Nozick’s question is not whether philosophy can be in art or be conjoined with it, however organically. He probably wants something stronger: a work of philosophy that is predominantly also a work of art.

Could he be, without saying so, part of the philosophy-as-literature movement? Those philosophers who see their discipline as more akin to science than to art (historically most of the sciences emerged out of philosophy) were alarmed by the suggestion, which for a while enjoyed some currency, that philosophy be viewed as a branch of literature. Arthur Danto, for example, seems quite disturbed by the prospect of what deconstructionists (who regard bus tickets and medical prescriptions the same way they do the poems of Milton) might do to a subject to which many of us are inclined to attach some nobility.5 Similarly, one wonders what they might do if they were let loose on the Phaedo.

While I think it is easy to make sense of the notion of philosophy-in-literature, it is not at all clear to me what the notion of philosophy-as-literature might mean. Certainly not philosophical prose embellished with literary devices. And I think it should mean more than simply philosophy that is well written. Some philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell and Henri Bergson, were such good writers they were awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. As Danto points out, the works of some of these philosophers may well be held up as models in writing courses, but few would be willing to dub them as literature for this reason. And philosophical methodology, with its many forms of reasoning and critical analysis, seems to me to be much more than what literary critics mean by style.

I think that if the Phaedo is to be regarded as an example of philosophy-as-literature, the distinction between argument and narrative would have to be removed or a new relation between them established. If flattened [End Page 37] out to be one kind of object, it would be a work of a very different kind. I am thinking, for example, of an essay in which the incidents that constitute the plot of a story are simplified and systematized to resemble the premises in a syllogism or some other form of argument. I do not think this would work, since the incidents in a story usually rely on literary devices of various kinds to assist them in having an aesthetic effect on the reader. Literary incidents and logical premises are very different from each other.

It is true that some philosophers have pointed to a similarity between argument and narrative. The former offers premises in support of a conclusion. The second offers a sequence of events in support of some kind of resolution or climax. People use both arguments and stories as ways of convincing others. It seems to me that whatever philosophy-as-literature might turn out to be like, it will have to find a place for narrative. And this would have to be something different from the very common practice of philosophers using stories as examples in their arguments.

A broader and more informal relation between the two disciplines is the philosophy-and-literature relation. This academic journal, Philosophy and Literature, engages this perspective. A host of issues may be brought together under the philosophy-and-literature heading, including countless academic papers on the Phaedo. But I think this relation is too broad to shed much light on our question. The journal states only that philosophy may be usefully conjoined with an art form, not that they may be one and the same thing.

I turn now to the question: Is the Phaedo a work of art? In other words, is there a way of showing that, regardless of whether it is literature or not, it is an example of philosophy-as-art? Nozick has some ideas on what philosophy-as-art might look like, and I shall first look at the Phaedo through the lens that he offers us. Then I shall look at it through Arthur Danto’s influential concept of what art is.

The key condition to be satisfied, according to Nozick, is that the work must be shaped and molded. The philosopher-artist must make self-conscious choices about the nature of the work and the details with which it is created. I think the Phaedo satisfies this condition. Although based on a historical event, it is not what we would now call life writing, since Plato did not witness the event. It is an imaginative reconstruction based on the reports given to him by Phaedo and perhaps others. He no doubt drew from his own memory of the appearance, speech habits, and mannerisms of his teacher. He brought his considerable literary gifts to bear on creating this account. [End Page 38]

In Nozick’s view, while novelists work with words, characters, plots, themes, and actions; and musicians work with meter, harmonic structures, and musical themes; and painters with colors, forms, perimeters, and represented things; the material of the philosopher-artist is, or would be, questions, ideas, concepts, and tensions. “In the medium of ideas he sculptures a view,” writes Nozick (PE, p. 645), in a felicitous expression that inspired my title. Here, too, the Phaedo satisfies Nozick’s condition. Metaphorically speaking, it is sculpted from ideas about philosophy, death, the immortality of the soul, and a reported sequence of events, human actions, and interactions that constituted the execution of Socrates. They are shaped into a sequence of narrative and arguments, giving us an unforgettable view of an extraordinary act of courage and self-sacrifice and a great deal to think about.

To be worthy of the name, the philosopher-artist must be aiming at truth, writes Nozick. He must present a possible truth about the world, even if it is a shaped truth, and even if he has designs about transcending the world he describes. Few historians would deny the truth of the claim that Socrates was executed in Athens in 399 B.C.E. Yet, as indicated earlier, we may never know how much literal truth exists in the account of his death that Plato gives to his spokesman Phaedo. This is, of course, part of the big question concerning truth in art. Plato himself notoriously denied that art can be a source of truth and knowledge. Would he therefore deny that the Phaedo is art? It seems to me that he would. On this point I am certainly not a Platonist, since I believe that the desire to discover truths about human life drives artists as much as it drives scientists. I think it would be a rash scientist, philosopher, or artist who would deny that there are any truths in Shakespeare or Beethoven.

Nozick has a grand view of the possibilities of philosophy-as-art: “We can envision a humanistic philosophy, a self-consciously artistic philosophy, sculpting ideas, value and meaning into new constellations reverberative with mythic power, lifting and ennobling us by its content and by its creation, leading us to understand and to respond to value and meaning—to experience them and attain them anew” (PE, p. 647). It is clear that he aligns himself with those who regard philosophy as a humanistic discipline rather than as a scientific one. He takes value and meaning to be among its key concerns. There is even a place for the influence of myth, that precursor or mother of “rational” philosophy, according to many historians of the subject, yet also the mother of the arts, according to Joseph Campbell.6 Nozick is very likely leaning toward [End Page 39] Campbell’s view here. Philosophy-as-art, he thinks, is one of the ways by which human life could renew itself.

I would say there is something mythic about the Phaedo, not in the sense that it is an ancient religious story but closer to Northrop Frye’s secondary use of the word to mean stories that “have a peculiar significance”7 in that they tell their society things that are important for it to know (GC, pp. 32–33). So, for more than two thousand years, this story has been telling the West about the price individuals might have to pay for criticizing their societies, and for seeking truth and advancing virtue. Over that period, countless writers, artists, philosophers, and journalists have, like Socrates, been imprisoned and executed for doing just that. Today we use banners such as “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” to assert what the Athenian government denied Socrates. He is arguably the world’s most famous intellectual martyr.

On a deeper metaphysical level, the story also offers a lesson about facing death, something we all must do at some time or other. Nozick thinks philosophy-as-art should be centrally concerned with questions about meaning and value. Socrates clearly sees the act of drinking the hemlock as a very meaningful one for him personally, first as proof that by willingly obeying its law he was not a seditionist who is against his country, but rather one who loves it and is trying to improve it by stirring it toward greater virtue. (His last words are a request that Crito sacrifice a cock to Asclepius, the god of medicine and a god of the state.) Second, as a philosopher, he sees it as a way of teaching the world a lesson on how to die serenely. The story is about the meaning of death and the value of what Socrates himself called the examined life. In sum, it seems to me that the Phaedo satisfies virtually all of Nozick’s conditions for a work being philosophy-as-art.

I turn now to Arthur Danto’s theory of art. After spending a large part of his professional life reflecting on the question of what art is, Danto concludes that throughout the ages a work of art has always been seen as an object that embodies meaning and is therefore open to interpretation. What does the Phaedo look like when examined under a lens such as this?

At the lowest level, embodiment could mean materials, such as words, paints, marble, sounds, body movements, and so on. At a higher level it could mean forms of expression, and as Danto notes elsewhere, philosophy has been extremely fertile in generating these forms and using them as the embodiments of its meanings. They include dialogues, essays, discourses, pensées, aphorisms, genealogies, phenomenologies, and unscientific postscripts, as well as more familiar literary forms such [End Page 40] as poems, novels, and plays employed by persons with both philosophical and literary abilities.8

The Phaedo may be classified as a report, one the plainest of genres, but it is converted by Plato’s intellectual brilliance and artistry into a candidate for what I say is a work of art. It will be noted that the Phaedo is also a dialogue, an art form known as the Socratic dialogue, which was invented by Socrates himself, the protagonist of our story. A word should be said about Socrates as artist. According to one tradition he might have been a sculptor or stonemason. According to the Phaedo, while he was awaiting execution he spent his time writing poetry, an art that he previously held in low regard. When asked why he was now writing poetry, he explained that all his life he had had a recurring dream urging him to practice the arts, but since he regarded philosophy as the greatest art form, he had concluded that by pursuing it he had been doing exactly what the dreams had been urging him to do. But now, facing death, he was trying his hand at poetry just in case he had misinterpreted his dreams.

For Socrates the choice was, it seems, philosophy or poetry. But facing execution, he was having doubts about philosophy’s status as an art form, and so he turned to poetry, which he apparently thought was a surer candidate. It was not yet a question of a oneness between the two, since he regards philosophy and poetry as different things. Yet, probably without even thinking of it as an art form, he had created the Socratic dialogue. And Plato, himself a conflicted artist-philosopher, used this dialogue form to embody the meanings he saw in his teacher’s death.

I have already touched on meaning while examining Nozick’s view of philosophy-as-art. The meaning of “meaning” is too contentious an issue to go into here. Suffice it to say that the history of Western philosophy has shown that the Phaedo is a work that is capable of yielding many meanings. It is appropriate at this point to bring in the concept of interpretation, the third of the triad of Danto’s conditions to be met before an object can be said to be a work of art. The act of interpretation is the giving of meaning. Hegel, for example, in arguing for more unity between the individual and his society, interprets Socrates as an example of someone who, like Jesus, broke with the ethics of his people and went his own way (and paid a similar price).9 Nietzsche blames the rationalism of Socrates for the death of Greek tragedy.10

It is worth pointing out that there have also been artistic interpretations of the events narrated by Plato in the Phaedo. Jacques-Louis David, the French neoclassical artist, did a well-known painting titled The Death [End Page 41] of Socrates, which has generated diverse interpretations and criticisms. The philosopher Andrew Irvine published a play, based on the Phaedo and other sources, titled Socrates on Trial.11 When I taught the Apology to West Indian students, I was shocked to find that virtually all of them demanded the death penalty for Socrates. Not a single one saw the guilty verdict as a miscarriage of justice. “Death is too good for this man!” one young woman declared. Some months ago the Jamaican government voted to retain the death penalty. So, should Socrates be tried in Jamaica today, I suspect his fate would be the same as it was in ancient Athens.

I believe I have shown that the Phaedo is a created object that embodies meaning and which can therefore be interpreted. It therefore qualifies as a work of art according to both Nozick’s and Danto’s conditions. It would be interesting to see how it fares when considered in the light of other theories of art, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. Danto argues that the plain, unadorned academic paper is the main tool of the contemporary professional philosopher.12 It isn’t clear to me if Nozick has a specific kind of prose in mind, or even preferred prose forms, but the important question does arise whether a form of artistic philosophical prose that is also nonnarrative dependent is possible.

It is a question that I think should be of interest to emerging Caribbean philosophers. I am not aware that in its relatively short literary history, the Caribbean has produced any works that resemble the Phaedo. But some West Indian novels wrestle with philosophical issues.13 The question of the meaning of life, a very important issue for both Socrates and Nozick, is approached by Roger Mais in his Black Lightning. The question of the identity of the self, a core issue for Nozick, is portrayed in Wilson Harris’s Palace of the Peacock. Tragedy as a form of literature, of great interest to Aristotle and Nietzsche, receives a modern, feminist treatment in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

These narratives are not conjoined with the kind of argumentation found in the Phaedo, even if arguments sometimes appear in a preliminary form, and are very dependent on enthymemes (hidden premises). An example of such an argument, one in favor of reparation, is found in Earl Lovelace’s Salt.14 Some philosophers see logic as the soul of philosophy, and I am sure there are logicians, like some mathematicians, who see poetry and beauty in logic. Philosophy-as-art cannot be narrow in its conceptions of where beauty can be found. To be worthy of the name, the philosopher-as-artist has to produce work that is true, perhaps true “for all the worlds that are possible,” as Danto puts it.15 It has to be beautiful, perhaps with some of the “subtlety, richness and beautiful logical coherence” that Peter Van Inwagen attributes to Saul [End Page 42] Kripke’s Reference and Existence; and at the same time be as moving as Plato’s Phaedo.16

Nozick sees his philosophical work, including his claim that philosophy can be an art form, as aiming to show that we are valuable and precious beings. The history of the Caribbean has caused its people to think otherwise of themselves. In the Caribbean context, I share Nozick’s conviction that the doing of philosophy can and should help to overcome these negative perceptions.

St. Hope Earl McKenzie
University of the West Indies, Mona


1. Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1981); hereafter abbreviated PE.

2. These topics are from the table of contents.

3. Plato, Phaedo, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 40–98; hereafter abbreviated P.

4. Arthur C. Danto, What Art Is (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

5. Arthur C. Danto, “Philosophy as/and/of Literature,” Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 58, no. 1 (1984): 5–20.

6. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988).

7. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981); hereafter abbreviated GC.

8. Danto, “Philosophy as/and/of Literature,” p. 8.

9. Charles Taylor, Hegel (London: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

10. Arthur C. Danto, Nietzsche as Philosopher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1965).

11. Andrew D. Irvine, Socrates on Trial (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008).

12. Danto, “Philosophy as/and/of Literature,” p. 7.

13. St. Hope Earl McKenzie, Philosophy in the West Indian Novel (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2009).

14. Earl Lovelace, Salt (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 168–69.

15. Danto, “Philosophy as/and/of Literature,” p. 15.

16. See Peter Van Inwagen’s review of Saul Kripke’s Reference and Existence in The Times Literary Supplement, March 14, 2014, p. 25. [End Page 43]