June 17, 2012, by Stephen Mumford

Literature, Philosophy and Existentialism

I have a difficult relationship with novels. I sometimes wonder what’s the point of a fictional story. And should I really spend frivolous time on novels when I haven’t yet even read the complete works of Aristotle, where surely more truth is to be found? Dickens is my favourite author but I always feel a bit guilty reading him and he thus tends to be kept for holidays. Does the seeker after truth have any business reading fiction, which after all is just a figment of one author’s imagination?

My pondering on such questions was recently to an extent resolved when I read Simone de Beauvoir’s outstanding 1946 essay ‘Literature and Metaphysics’ (in her Philosophical Writings edited by Margaret Simons). Important truths about the world can be found in both philosophy and fiction but different kinds of truth. In metaphysics – the branch of philosophy in which mostly I work – the truths are objective, abstract, general and eternal. Metaphysical questions, such as what is a particular or what is a cause, should have the same answers now as two thousand years ago. Philosophy attempts to do the seemingly impossible: to describe the world as if from no particular point of view on it, either in time or space.

But we all do have a point of view on the world. Every writer is situated, where experiences determine many of our thoughts, feelings and attitudes.  And so is every reader. Novels give us a subjective, concrete, particular and temporal description of a world. They provide a view from somewhere, which, as it is not ours, allows us to experiment with other ways of thinking: seeing things through the eyes of others that we would most likely never experience ourselves.

Nevertheless, these two approaches – objective and subjective – can come together in the philosophy that describes the nature of individual existence; namely existentialism. And to show what it is to exist as a person in our world, the novel form may be just as attractive to the existentialist as the abstract dissertation. Hence, Beauvoir points out “It is not by chance if existentialist thought today attempts to express itself sometimes by theoretical treatises and sometimes by fiction; it is because it is an effort to reconcile the objective and subjective, the absolute and the relative, the timeless and the historical” (p.274). Kierkegaard, Sartre, Camus and Beauvoir all wrote both metaphysics and literature. And perhaps the highest form of all, as Beauvoir suggests, is the metaphysical novel, which will grasp humanity in relation to the totality of the world. Find such a novel, and you will not be wasting your time.

Posted in English StudiesLiteratureMetaphysicsModern LanguagesPhilosophy