When I first read philosophy, as a teenager, I didn't know what it was. I did not know, for instance, that you could question what a great philosopher said, or that you should only believe it if the arguments worked. To be honest, I didn't know that these books contained arguments
. My reaction to Russell on Our Knowledge of the External World
was not scepticism, but shock that, despite all appearances, this is how it must be: I was constructing my whole system of the world from echoes and two-dimensional discs of colour. A miracle!
There are other ways to read philosophy: as poetry
; as fiction.
[No] novelist has created a more dashing hero than the handsome Absolute, or conceived more dramatic extrications – the soul's escape from the body, for instance, or the will's from cause. […] Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds. […] But the worlds of the novelist, I hear you say, do not exist. Indeed. As for that, they exist more often than the philosophers'. Then, too – how seldom does it seem to matter. Who honestly cares? They are divine games.
This extraordinary passage was written by William H. Gass
, in an essay called "Philosophy and the Form of Fiction". Unlike him, I do care that philosophy is not a game, any more than it consists in lessons from the Oracle. The more interesting question runs the other way: how far is the novel a form of philosophy?
For Gass, the answer is: not
, for the most part, in proposing a metaphysics, but in presenting a world of which some metaphysics holds. The business of the novelist is creation not depiction; and the business of the critic – at least, the properly philosophical critic – is to lay bare the principles of the created world.
The role of chance or of assumption, the recreative power of the skillful reader, the mastery of the sense of internal life, the forms of space and time: how much is known of these? The ontological significance of the subordinate clause, […] or new words, or inversion – all passed over. […] The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.
This theory has a certain purity; but it is a recipe for misprision, since it matters to the metaphysics of some novels that they are ways of understanding this
world. In order to read a book, you need to know what kind of book it is – as I learned from my experience with Russell. (This point is developed with both insight and generality in Kendall Walton's "Categories of Art
".) It would be a mistake to read Jane Austen
as science fiction – which is, in effect, what Gass would have us do.
It is, correspondingly, no mistake to be baffled by a novel, like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
, that defies generic thought. The uncanny passivity of the characters: is it something we must simply grant – like the native English of beings from outer space? Or is it a picture of ourselves? For Gass, only the first response is warranted, and the friction of the book is planed away.
Even to focus on the characters is confused, on his account: it is the activity of the sentimentalist, someone who believes in them as people she has met, who forgets that "novels [are] made of words". Or rather, she resists this recognition, in distress:
It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears…from sponge.
The parody has a point: that even at their best, the "people [of fiction] have less spontaneity, are less intricate, less free, less full" than anyone's parents, or children, or friends. But the same is true of the worlds in which they live. Are we more justified in speculating on the form of cause and the elementary particles of Beckett's "Ping
" than on the reasons
for Cordelia's silence, Iago's treachery, or Hamlet's delay?