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.

  • 2
    This is definitely interesting, thanks for the question! I'm wondering whether there might be any chance I could persuade you to spell the motivation out a bit further? What exactly does an answer to this question look like in your mind (what specifically would you like someone here to explain to you, what is the particular problem you are encountering in your study)? – Joseph Weissman Jul 19 '15 at 15:19
  • 1
    @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 Jul 19 '15 at 15:51
  • @martin Camus is well known for this as well. – hellyale Jul 20 '15 at 0:17
  • 2
    Literature had traditionally a much wider scope than is usually admitted now - history, essays, – Mozibur Ullah Jul 20 '15 at 11:11
  • How do you define "literature"? – curiousdannii Jul 1 at 3:06

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 Jul 20 '15 at 11:13
  • 1
    In psychology sublimation considerably changes the nature of a problematic issue, so on the whole that wouldn't seem to be suitable. – Chris Degnen Jul 20 '15 at 11:20
  • agreed, but it certainly provides another avenue for deconstructing these works. – martin Jul 20 '15 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.

  • 1
    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 Oct 31 '18 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"). Martha Nussbaum as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.