Source: Philosophy: The Basics (2012 5 ed), p. 2 Bottom.

The history of philosophy is a fascinating and important subject in its own right, and many of the classic philosophical texts are also great works of literature: Plato’s Socratic dialogues, René Descartes’s Meditations, David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, to take just a few examples, all stand out as compelling pieces of writing by any standards.

How can these philosophical texts be judged as 'great works of literature' alone? Please help me to distinguish between philosophy and (philosophical) literature. These Reddit posts by 'SocratesJones', by 'slickwombat', by 'singdawg' didn't help.

2 Answers 2


I don't think the claim is that the works mentioned, and others such as Hobbes' Leviathan, are great works of literature apart from their philosophical ideas and arguments, conceptual analyses and sorting out of stubborn puzzles (aporiai as Aristotle called them).

The point is rather that philosophical tasks, those I've listed, can be carried out with more or less literary efficiency, clarity, elegance, imaginative metaphors, arresting similes, analogies, allegories. Plato's middle dialogues are replete with such literary devices, all framed in beautiful Classical Greek. It is unlikely that the Republic, to take one example, could be read just as literature because Plato's literary skill is in the presentation of philosophical ideas and arguments, and without a grasp of these the aptness of the similes, analogies and allegories that drive the text along is lost.

The same is the case with Berkeley, whose limpid, flowing prose is a literary pleasure - but only if one can following the argument, or rapid sequence of arguments. Hume's urbane and elegant style, touched with irony, is a joy but not if one cannot follow complex philosophical arguments.

In this sense the texts I've mentioned, and those you've mentioned too, are not strictly 'great works of literature' as one might say 'in their own right'. I could say that of the plays of Marlowe or Shakespeare, Henry James' 'Portrait of a Lady', George Eliot's 'Middlemarch' or James Joyce's 'Dubliners' and a host of other plays and novels. They are literature and can be appreciated as such by that well-known figure, the general reader. The philosophical works we've been talking about are not great literature in this accessible way. But they are great literature to those who can comprehend the philosophical ideas and arguments of Plato, Berkeley, Hume and others and, comprehending, relish the consummate literary mastery with which those ideas and arguments are expressed.


What does it mean for philosophical texts to be also great literary works?

The former requires knowledge claims and the latter is an honorific.

Also, it is important to distinguish how the term philosophy is used. Is it used in the sense of the Greek translation (i.e. respect for obtaining knowledge), or the honorific sense (i.e. "a way of looking at things")? To disambiguate so, when evaluating the written work, ask if the propositions are empirically verifiable, or matters of opinion to be either agreed or disagreed with. Can they be rationally assessed a truth value, or are the propositions contained within the work a matter of what is true to the author? I.e. is the author contending with empirical truth (the relationship between utterance and what is) or situational truth (the relationship between utterer and what is)? In the latter cases, the work is only "philosophy" in an honorific sense.

Keep in mind that the history of philosophy is not philosophy.

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