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  • Literature Is Philosophy: On the Literary Methodological Considerations That Would Improve the Practice and Culture of Philosophy
  • Amir R. Jaima

How should one write, what words should one select, what forms and structures and organization, if one is pursuing understanding? (Which is to say, if one is, in that sense, a philosopher?) Sometimes this is taken to be trivial question. I shall claim that it is not.

—Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge

[T]here is nothing that so alters the material qualities of the voice as the presence of thought behind what is being said: the resonance of the diphthongs, the energy of the labials are profoundly affected—as is the diction.

—Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

philosophy and literature are akin in rich and meaningful ways. Like philosophy, novels make arguments and explicitly engage the range of philosophical questions; and like literature, essential elements of philosophy include aesthetic considerations. Moreover, the current distinction between philosophy and literature does a disservice to both. Overlooking the philosophical contributions of literature ignores incisive criticism, silences interlocutors, and passes over valuable contributions to traditional questions. Overlooking the literary qualities of philosophy omits important aspects of arguments and inappropriately trivializes the impact that beauty has on thought. In order to rectify this methodological shortsightedness, I will present a number of literary considerations that would augment the rigor and range of philosophical inquiry and analysis.

Furthermore, the consequences of the traditional distinction between philosophy and literature extend beyond stylistic qualms with academic writing. The relegation of literature to a philosophical supplement or to the realm of art has contributed historically to the double exclusion of non-dominant voices from philosophy. On the one hand, the particularity of literature is [End Page 13] analogous to the particularity of certain kinds of voices. Just as literature tells particular stories rather than making generalizable claims, the black voice, the woman’s voice, and the queer voice are presumably too mired in their subjectivity to provide insights that bear upon humanity in general.1 On the other hand, literature is not considered a critical discourse.2 This creates a disciplinary problem because the methodological peculiarities of the literary form provide unique advantages for addressing some kinds of philosophical questions, such as those posed by Africana philosophy. If literature is not considered a critical discourse, then the use of the literary form for the analysis of questions will not be considered “analysis” or even the engagement with “questions.”

First, I will defend the kinship between philosophy and literature and propose four literary considerations that would improve philosophy. Then I will examine the ways in which the traditional philosophical form of discourse without the proposed literary considerations implicitly entails evaluative commitments that perniciously maintain the cultural homogeneity of the discipline.

Part 1: The Kinship between Philosophy and Literature

In the contemporary discourse, we make a distinction between philosophy and literature. Presumably, philosophy is critique, whereas literature is art. Philosophy is evaluated in terms of truth and goodness, whereas literature is evaluated in terms of beauty and expressiveness.

Insofar as they converge, philosophy is the content, the meaningful aspect of a text; it is what one has said or written. Conversely, literature is the medium or form; it is the structural or material aspect of a text; it is how one speaks or writes, that is, the way that the text appears. Though all discourses have both form and content—and in that sense are both philosophical and literary—the two aspects are, nonetheless, viewed independently, converging accidentally in a given text. Any particular content could, in principle, be expressed through any number of discursive forms—in the same way that a chair, for example, may be made out of any number of materials, such as wood, metal, or plastic. The decision to use one material rather than another is a function of durability, comfort, cost of materials, design, and so on, but these considerations do not affect the chair-ness of the chair. Analogously, the decision to write one way rather than another is function of clarity, rigor, conciseness, beauty, and so forth, but these considerations presumably do not affect what is being said. [End Page 14]

At this juncture...


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