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Some novelists with philosophical backgrounds vividly recall how they felt when they first encountered Murdoch’s hard-nosed view. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose first novel, “The Mind-Body Problem” (1983), was published after she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton, remembers being disappointed and confused. “It didn’t ring true,” she told me. “But how could she not be being truthful about such a central feature of her intellectual and artistic life?” Still, Goldstein and other philosophically trained novelists — including David Foster Wallace, William H. Gass and Clancy Martin — have themselves wrestled with the relationship between their two intellectual masters. Both disciplines seek to ask big questions, to locate and describe deeper truths, to shape some kind of order from the muddle of the world. But are they competitors — the imaginative intellect pitted against the logical mind — or teammates, tackling the same problems from different angles?
Philosophy has historically viewed literature with suspicion, or at least a vague unease. Plato was openly hostile to art, fearful of its ability to produce emotionally beguiling falsehoods that would disrupt the quest for what is real and true. Plato’s view was extreme (he proposed banning dramatists from his model state), but he wasn’t crazy to suggest that the two enterprises have incompatible agendas. Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many. Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them. Most philosophers are wary of the aesthetic urge in themselves. It says something about philosophy that two of its greatest practitioners, Aristotle and Kant, were pretty terrible writers.
Of course, such oppositions are never so simple. Plato, paradoxically, was himself a brilliant literary artist. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard were all writers of immense literary as well as philosophical power. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana have written novels, while novelists like Thomas Mann and Robert Musil have created fiction dense with philosophical allusion. Some have even suggested, only half in jest, that of the brothers William and Henry James, the philosopher, William, was the more natural novelist, while the novelist, Henry, was the more natural philosopher. (Experts quibble: “If William is often said to be novelistic, that’s because he is widely — but wrongly — thought to write well,” the philosopher Jerry Fodor told me. “If Henry is said to be philosophical, that’s because he is widely — but wrongly — thought to write badly.”)
David Foster Wallace, who briefly attended the Ph.D. program in philosophy at Harvard after writing a first-rate undergraduate philosophy thesis (published in December by Columbia University Press as “Fate, Time, and Language”), believed that fiction offered a way to capture the emotional mood of a philosophical work. The goal, as he explained in a 1990 essay in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, wasn’t to make “abstract philosophy ‘accessible’ ” by simplifying ideas for a lay audience, but to figure out how to recreate a reader’s more subjective reactions to a philosophical text. Unfortunately, Wallace declared his most overtly philosophical novel — his first, “The Broom of the System” (1987), which incorporates the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein — to be a failure in this respect. But he thought others had succeeded in writing “philosophically,” especially David Markson, whose bleak, abstract, solitary novel “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” (1988) he praised for evoking the bleak, abstract, solitary feel of Wittgenstein’s early philosophy.
Another of Wallace’s favorite novels was “Omensetter’s Luck” (1966), by William H. Gass, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cornell and taught philosophy for many years at Washington University in St. Louis. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1976, Gass confessed to feeling a powerful resistance to the analytical rigor of his academic schooling (“I hated it in lots of ways”), though he ultimately appreciated it as a kind of mental strength-training. Like Murdoch, he claimed that the influence of his philosophical education on his fiction was negligible. “I don’t pretend to be treating issues in any philosophical sense,” he said. “I am happy to be aware of how complicated, and how far from handling certain things properly I am, when I am swinging so wildly around.”
Unlike Murdoch, Gass and Wallace, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel is “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” treats philosophical questions with unabashed directness in her fiction, often featuring debates or dialogues among characters who are themselves philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Still, she says that part of her empathizes with Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth. It’s a “huge source of inner conflict,” she told me. “I come from a hard-core analytic background: philosophy of science, mathematical logic. I believe in the ideal of objectivity.” But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: “You feel the problem.”
If you don’t want to overtly feature philosophical ideas in your novel, how sly about it can you be before the effect is lost? Clancy Martin’s first novel, “How to Sell” (2009), a drug-, sex- and diamond-fueled story about a high-school dropout who works with his older brother in the jewelry business, was celebrated by critics as a lot of things — but “philosophical” was not usually one of them. Martin, a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, had nonetheless woven into the story, which is at its heart about forms of deception, disguised versions of Kant’s argument on the supposed right to lie in order to save a life, Aristotle’s typology of four kinds of liars, and Nietzsche’s theory of deception (the topic of Martin’s Ph.D. dissertation). Not that anyone noticed. “A lot of my critics said: ‘Couldn’t put it down. You’ll read it in three hours!’ ” Martin told me. “And I felt like I put too much speed into the fastball. I mean, just because you can read it in three hours doesn’t mean that you ought to do so, or that there’s nothing hiding beneath the surface.”
Which raises an interesting, even philosophical question: Is it possible to write a philosophical novel without anyone knowing it?