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Thread: Fiction vs. philosophy

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    Fiction vs. philosophy

    I've come to the conclusion that fiction is more useful in promoting a (moral) philosophy or world view or even just generating an interest/discussion in/about moral issues than ethics (as an academic field) is. Philosophy is too abstract and theoretical, even impersonal. Ethicists talk about how humans should behave towards one another and why and what kind of social ramifications there would be if everyone adopted a certain world view but fiction actually shows individuals relating to one another and moral decisions/world views played out in concrete examples. Philosophy deals with broad, social concerns but fiction deals with interactions between individuals and how broad social concerns affect everyday individuals. Not to mention that stories have and always have had a much broader appeal than philosophy which only appeals to intellectuals and people interested in the subject. I'm an atheist but I could see myself reading the Left Behind series by Tim Lahaye because it seems interesting (I also remember reading some of the books as a child) or any other pro-Christian novel but I couldn't see myself reading a non-fiction book about Christianity or why I should accept Jesus as my lord and savior. Realistically/unfortunately, most people who pick up a philosophy book advocating any given view are either a) interested in reading something that confirms their already existing world view or (and less common) b) interested in analysing opposing views so they'll be better equipped to critique those views in a debate. Would objectivism be as popular if Ayn Rand hadn't written Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead (forgive me if that sounds like a stupid question, I don't know a lot about Ayn Rand)? Do you agree? Is fiction a better vehicle for ethical commentary than ethics as an academic study is? What pros and cons do you see in either?

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    I agree that the 'arts' provide a better vehicle for ethical commentary than ethics as an acedemic study could ever do. In fact, you might enjoy reading "Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge" by Gary L. Hagberg 1994, or "Music and Humanism" by R.A. Sharpe 2000, or "A Measured Pace" by F. Sparschott 1995, or a volume of essays titled "The Literary Wittgenstein" edited by J. Gibson and W. Huemer 2004. And the list goes on...

    What is appealing about (some) Wittgenstein influenced writers is that they celebrate particulars rather than 'grand narratives' and shun 'theory.' We live our souls in the particulars of our lives rather than in the airless blanks of dismissive theories- i.e. materialism whether it be in a scientific or an ideological manifestation.

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    I see them as opposites.

    Philosophy seeks to create systems of thought, to neatly explain reality; and usually operating from an armchair, with little knowledge of the real world, philosophers will try to fit a square mankind into a round system. So a few cuts on the edges will have to be made on Mankind in order to fit, but it'll always be a crude piece of work.

    Fiction, on the other hand, shows that the world can't fit into any system. Fiction is chaos, discord, doubt, uncertainty, mockery. Characters do not exist to mouthpiece their creators' ideals. If that were so every novel by Dostoyevsky would be filled with orthodox Catholics who rspect the Czar's power. But instead they're filled with anarchists, nihilists and hedonists too.

    And even if Dostoyevsky were using some characters as mouthpieces, the fact remains that a nihilist like Stavrogin, who embodied everything the author despised, is treated with much autonomy and actually ends up being more seductive and fascinating than the mouthpieces.

    And what to say of the religious John Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost to justify the ways of God to men but instead created an enduring figure of rebellion - Satan.

    Only mediocre writers like Ayn Rand use fiction for strawmen arguments. Real writers know that the world is above all a huge mass of uncertainty and doubt, and use dozens of fictional voices, contrary and contradictory, to reflect what a complicated, fragmented world we live in.

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    Morality in art is a annoying fault in the artist, which must be tolerated for the works sake

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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Alexander III View Post
    Morality in art is a annoying fault in the artist, which must be tolerated for the works sake
    I think it's definitely an ideal many critics try to reach for, however it's not evident to me that our ability to appreciate something aesthetically can be entirely estranged from our personal ethical judgments. I think it does get easier to do so when we are distanced for the issues at hand in the work though, Spenser is easier to appreciate for us who have not had to deal directly with the effects of his British, Protestant imperialism and anti-Catholicism. Likewise, it's not really possible for us to come to a piece of work and entirely divorce our interpretation from our own experiences and morality. Finally, is the focus on pure aesthetics really justifiably a better way to look at literature than as a vessel for an argument, whether moral or otherwise? If a work reinforces ideas with destructive and negative effects, is it acceptable to defend the work on aesthetic grounds when it is effecting lives of people. (And now I think we're back to the racism in Heart of Darkness thread)

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    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip View Post
    I think it's definitely an ideal many critics try to reach for, however it's not evident to me that our ability to appreciate something aesthetically can be entirely estranged from our personal ethical judgments. I think it does get easier to do so when we are distanced for the issues at hand in the work though, Spenser is easier to appreciate for us who have not had to deal directly with the effects of his British, Protestant imperialism and anti-Catholicism. Likewise, it's not really possible for us to come to a piece of work and entirely divorce our interpretation from our own experiences and morality. Finally, is the focus on pure aesthetics really justifiably a better way to look at literature than as a vessel for an argument, whether moral or otherwise? If a work reinforces ideas with destructive and negative effects, is it acceptable to defend the work on aesthetic grounds when it is effecting lives of people. (And now I think we're back to the racism in Heart of Darkness thread)

    Hmm well I am belief that art must be useless and its purpose must be beauty itself, which is in fact a great purpose.

    I see your point however, but would it not be easier in such cases to write a philosophical treatise or a political manifesto, because when the two are mixed, the art does loose its value often being overshadowed by political,religious and moral issues which should steer away from art.

    Of course there is going to always be some level of social commentary, but when writing I think the writer must keep in mind all else is second to the creation of beauty.

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    It is not like Philosophy is aiming to promote anything, but to speculate about the nature of their objects. A movie or a book will just reflect philosophy, so, without philosophy they would be nothing.

    And that is not saying that style is not refined and present on philosophical texts. Quite otherwise: works of Plato or Schopenhauer are you undenyable effecient to promote and explain their world views and are so well written that they spread their influence upon art even from stlistic point of view.

    And to the end, Philosophy is not meant to be easy. It is hard. It is meant to make you think.

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    The ethical philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a lot of time for your view. "Therapy of Desire" is well worth a read. She looks closely at Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, a work which (unusually) combines poetry with philosophy & physics. She also injects a fictional character into "Therapy" and imagines her going through the various school of ancient philosophy - Epicurean, Stoic, Skeptic... as a way to illustrate the ideas of these schools. So, like Lucretius, she ends up, I think, producing that rare beast, a great work of literature and philosophy.

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    She's also one of the great Liberal philosophers of the 20th century, well worth the read.

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