Why do some philosophers write literature?

Bataille's main medium of propounding his philosophy was through his literature (though he wrote many notable essays expounding upon his views). One of his main influences, Nietzsche "illustrated" many of his ideas via some sort of narrative also.

Sartre, Kierkegaard and Voltaire are others that spring to mind as notable philosophers who explored their philosophies via literary means.

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    @JosephWeissman I was really looking for a description of when the limits of the usual systems of philosophical rhetoric are cast aside in favour of a narrative approach.
    – martin
    Commented Jul 19, 2015 at 15:51
  • @martin Camus is well known for this as well.
    – hellyale
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 0:17
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    Literature had traditionally a much wider scope than is usually admitted now - history, essays, Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:11
  • How do you define "literature"? Commented Jul 1, 2019 at 3:06

4 Answers 4


It's basically a matter of form matching content, and presentation aligning with philosophical commitments.

Plato's Socrates only asks questions, rather than answers them, because he believes wisdom cannot be bestowed from without, but that the student can only be guided to discover the answers from within --this necessitates the dialogue format.

The existentialists have similar commitments to the primacy of choice in the life of the individual. Neither Kierkegaard nor Sartre believe we can dictate absolute truths to another. Accordingly, they dramatize their philosophies, and leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. As with Plato/Socrates, Kierkegaard's work is often a progression where the reader is left at the lip of the last leap to complete the journey alone. For Plato/Socrates and Kierkegaard, this is because real Truth is something they consider to exist in a "realm" beyond ordinary human experience, it cannot be expressed in ordinary ways without debasing it. This can be contrasted with that wide range of philosophers (from Confucius to Russell) who possess more faith in the objective truth of the sensible universe. They accordingly have a higher level of comfort with saying "this is the way things are", "this is what you should believe" and "this is how you should behave."


Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" is a fairly significant example.

"The book embodies a number of innovative poetical and rhetorical methods of expression. It serves as a parallel and supplement to the various philosophical ideas present in Nietzsche's body of work. He has, however, said that "among my writings my Zarathustra stands to my mind by itself" (Ecce Homo, Preface, sec. 4, Kaufmann). Emphasizing its centrality and its status as his magnum opus ..." - Wikipedia

It would be in line with Nietzsche's aesthetic to say "why write a lecture when you can write a work of art." But that's not to say he used literature as a vehicle to explain the inexplicable. Rather he just chose to elevate it to a higher form.

  • @ChrisDengen would you say this is an example of sublimation? Many texts that question morality and deal with potentially inflammatory topics (in terms of the social context in which it is written) "elevate it to a higher form".
    – martin
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:13
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    In psychology sublimation considerably changes the nature of a problematic issue, so on the whole that wouldn't seem to be suitable. Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:20
  • agreed, but it certainly provides another avenue for deconstructing these works.
    – martin
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 11:25

A very good question. +1

It is said ( according to Wiki ), Wittegenstein read Brothers Karamazov 50 times when he engaged in WW1.

His view says,

Compare Dostoyevsky's view here to that of Protagoras: If the individual man, if the individual human being, is the measure of all things, that is to say if there is no true or false as we normally use those words (for 'truth' and 'falsity' are objective concepts, independent of the individual subject), then, in Dmitri's words "Everything is permissible" -- because the individual is also the only measure of good and evil (which therefore like truth and falsity do not exist).... However, for isn't there a "however"? "But you know that's only words." -- "All my life I wanted it not to be "only words"."

But is it "only words"? For haven't we a fundamental sense of fairness that Dmitri's words do violence to ["Forgive us our wrong-doing as we forgive those who do wrong to us"]; doesn't his contention do violence to our human nature -- for no one with this moral sense says "I can do it" = "It is good"? No one (except the ones Hume called "monsters") says, if there is no punishment for wrong-doing, then I shall be cruel and selfish ... again, as if the good were not really good and so worth doing for itself, but that one had to be threatened with punishment in order to do what one recognizes to be good. There is a fundamental flaw in Dostoyevsky's account; I would say, he is being perverse (false to his own feelings) when he says "All things are permissible", as if he himself would ever have permitted himself all things! "If all laws were to disappear tomorrow, all public order, the philosopher would go on living as he had always done." That is the difference between Greek philosophy and Dostoyevsky's religious (if, that is, religion must be about reward and punishment) account.

I personally think he ( Wittgenstein ) read too far.

Personally I think Dmitri of Brothers Karamazov is just representing "Russian folks ( especially poor people then )" in 19th century's Russia (n empire )) when Russian Empire met **Western thoughts, particularly socialism, in another words, I personally think Dostoevsky portrayed Dmitry as an ordinary folks back then while Ivan the Intelligentia.

For example, this phrase by Wittgenstein

But is it "only words"? For haven't we a fundamental sense of fairness that Dmitri's words do violence to "Forgive us our wrong-doing as we forgive those who do wrong to us"

I think he developed ( perhaps ) his idea beyond the original "image" by Dostoevsky, in my opinion.

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    1) Well, that actually was Ivan who accepted the idea of "All things are permissible". 2) This idea is quite nihilistic. Hardly it was actually the one a common human thought of. 3) But the question is why do philosophers write literature, not why they read and respond to it.
    – rus9384
    Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 23:54

Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel is a great treatise on this. Though he explicitly says "I am not a philosopher", his explication of what the novel is capable of that, perhaps, prose philosophy isn't, is very illuminating. His calling himself not a philosopher seems to me to be just an extreme adherence to the conceptual possibilities of conveying ideas within a novel. I think he probably imagines he is doing much better philosophy than 'philosophy' is capable of in its traditional modes. Hermann Broch is another great exponent of the philosophic possibilities of literature ("The Unknown Quantity", "Geist and Zeitgeist"). Martha Nussbaum writes on this as well.

There is a body of literature around Shakespeare's works as constituting political science, which should be of interest.

Much French philosophy operates accordingly, as has been mentioned. Beyond the obvious such as Camus and Sartre, check out Raymond Queneau's Odile (he did his PhD in philosophy, and was involved in the Kojevian scene in Paris - which he responds to in his novels). Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is another example (point of interest - his work Chantecler was a primary inspiration for Orwell's Animal Farm).

A good resource on this topic is "The Art of the Novel" series by the Paris Review. They did interviews with many of the 20th century's most substantial novelists, where many of them laid out their method and the philosophical questions they were trying to ask/answer in their works.

Another good resource is Noble Prize acceptance speeches. Many authors will outline their philosophical programs in said speeches. Naguib Mahfouz comes to mind, also an author who considered himself to be doing philosophy (often called the Egyptian existentialist).

One might say there is a difference between those who write philosophically and those who write literary philosophy. I am not of that mind, but is a distinction to be aware of.

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