How can we impartially distinguish philosophy and literature?

In other words, if in the whole of an author's work there is not one single knowledge claim, then is it misnomer that the work be described as "philosophy"? If an author issues no knowledge claims, then is the work of literature philosophy? How then to distinguish philosophy from literature? Does such a demarcation render a scientific journal philosophy?

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    You are trapped in a language game: you want to delineate "what philosophy is" but then bump into people who consider the term "philosophy" to refer to things that lie outside your delineation. But then you are stuck with a parochial definition, i.e. what philosophy is to you.
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 18:11
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    The close votes are a little unfair, no? This is a legitimate metaphilosophy question on the difference between philosophy and literature. Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 21:05
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    @AlexanderSKing to me it seems like the school example for this close reason. It is basically a rant and a spin-off from meta.philosophy.stackexchange.com/q/3382/2953, with no other question than "am I right?". Also, this has happened before. Well, perhaps the edits made it better, I have not read the latest version.
    – user2953
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 22:12
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    @JohnAm if think it's fair to accuse the L.P of being mathematicians who shouldn't be called philosophers, then it's just as fair for Kennedy to accuse Nietzsche of being a poet who shouldn't be called a philosopher. Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 22:46
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    Can you define "knowledge claim" for us? Also I like the question on science vs philosophy. That was some quality editing you did.
    – Canyon
    Commented Apr 18, 2017 at 4:16

1 Answer 1


More of an extended comment than a full answer.

This is an interesting question at one level, but it loses some of its force if one disagrees with the idea that Nietzsche isn't really a philosopher. I can see how his output can be considered poetry or literature, but I disagree with the overall position.

"For example, Nietzsche's entire canon is a matter of what is true to Nietzsche - not what is true." This itself is a philosophical position - see Nietzsche's perspectivism.

Moreover, his contributions to the study of ethics and values in "Genealogy of Morals" and "Beyond Good and Evil" are definitely philosophical, especially the idea that morals undergo a genetic evolution and have historical basis, more so than any objective nature.

His idea of the Will to Power is a continuation of Schopenhauer's Will to Live, and has a definitely philosophical pedigree.

So the argument that Nietzsche isn't a philosopher is kind of difficult to maintain, if one sticks to a pseudo-Kuhnian sociological definition of philosophy along the lines of "Philosophy is the activity of professional philosophers".

More generally, I think the pendulum swings the other way: Even authors who are considered pure literature or poetry are still considered to have contributed to philosophy. They just did so using a different medium. Think of Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Lucretius, etc.....

Update: Logical positivist would agree with the view that Nietzsche wasn't a philosopher, but on their account, neither were Hegel, Sartre, Heidegger, etc...given the strict definition and very narrow scope that they accorded to philosophy as "the handmaiden of science". See the IEP:

At the heart of logical positivism was a novel way of dismissing certain non-scientific views by declaring them not merely wrong or false, but meaningless. According to the verification theory of meaning, sometimes also called the empiricist theory of meaning, any non-tautological statement has meaning if and only if it can be empirically verified. [...], the logical positivists concluded that the bulk of traditional philosophy consisted in meaningless pseudo-problems generated by the misuse of language, and that the true role of philosophy was to establish and enforce the limits of meaningful language through linguistic analysis.

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    "Looses" as in "let's loose unbridled"? ;)
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 18:42
  • Given the argument for an etymological understanding when using "philosophy", is that really a "philosophical position" or merely a statement of assessing literature? As for Kuhn's worldview, I don't see that as a sound justification as he offers only perspectival value and not epistemic merit. Thanks tho - good points, well taken regarding the honorific usage.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 18:53
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    @Mr.Kennedy in my haste, I forgot a more obvious answer to your question -- see my edit Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 20:58
  • To be sure - good reference. To be clear tho, I'm not arguing the literature other than philosophy is meaningless. I disagree somewhat with the IEP tho - the core of logical positivism was a demand for the rigor of scientific inquiry in philosophy. Thanks as well for the comment about demarcation & the close votes. FWIW I have reworded the question and voted to reopen.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 21:28
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    @Mr.Kennedy you might want to check out Karl Poppers views on metaphysics (I don't know enough about them to include them in my answer). While his falsifiability criterion is similar to the L.P's verification principle, his views on meaning were not as stark as theirs and he did think that non falsifiable statements were still meaningful. See possibly here Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 16:30

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