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  • Philosophy and Literature: Problems of a Philosophical Subdiscipline
  • Melvin Chen

But the full-strength causal hypothesis may be more than a fantasy of English teachers. The ordering of events is in the right direction: technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century. . . . In the past century Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Alex Haley’s Roots, Anchee Min’s Red Azalea, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (a novel that features female genital mutilation) all raised public awareness of the suffering of people who might otherwise have been ignored.

—Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined1

What is philosophy and literature? It is (or at least ought to be) a truth universally acknowledged that this is a question to which there are no easy answers. Does philosophy and literature constitute a subdiscipline of philosophy, as logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy of science, and even philosophy of religion do? Alternatively: [End Page 471] ought it constitute a subdiscipline of philosophy if it does not already do so? What is the nature of the relationship between philosophy and literature and literary and philosophical studies? Where might its limits be located? These are some of the important questions that intellectuals who have worked in this field from its inception have sought to address. The answers yielded thus far by their combined efforts, however, have been unsatisfying. The purpose of this essay therefore is to attempt to shed further light on the nature of the field of philosophy and literature and its limits, with the accompanying hope that, as philosophy and literature gains in coherence, rigor, and organization, its credibility as a field will be raised in some modest measure among my philosophical colleagues.

In “Philosophy of Technology: Problems of a Philosophical Discipline,” Elisabeth Ströker identifies the “paradox of its continual beginning” as a condition from which the philosophy of technology, a relative newcomer among the philosophical subdisciplines, suffers.2 This paradox of its continual beginning consists in how each of the studies in the philosophy of technology appears to be best characterized as a sketch or an attempt. Philosophical debate is closer to a set of skirmishes than a sustained dialogue: there is no move toward a greater coherence, critical discussions on the same subject are hard to come by, and systematic elaborations and assessments remain conspicuous by their absence. Philosophy and literature, another late starter, would appear to suffer from the same paradox: the field lacks coherence and appears fragmented, each of its studies is best characterized as a sketch or an attempt, and critical discussions are at a premium.

How might philosophy and literature benefit from recognizing the condition from which it suffers? One hopes that purveyors of the field will leave off the sketches, attempts, and skirmishes, delineate the field and its limits, identify the common ground for discussion, and resolve the paradox of its continual beginning, with the further consequence that philosophy and literature will be taken more seriously as a philosophical subdiscipline (if it is not already considered as such).

To begin to address the opening question—“What is philosophy and literature?”—we might perhaps turn to the homepage of Philosophy and Literature, the namesake journal of the field in question, wherein we find a whole slew of references to the dialogue between literary and philosophical studies, the aesthetics of literature, philosophical interpretation of literature, and literary treatment of philosophy. Can we use this list of references to frame a response to the question? The answer would [End Page 472] be “probably not,” insofar as we would run the risk of falling foul of a definitional fallacy. The definiendum contains two key terms, “philosophy” and “literature,” and to include these terms as part of the definiens is to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 471-482
Launched on MUSE
2018-02-08
Open Access
No
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