Literature and Philosophy

Literature can provide a forum for giving abstract philosophical ideas concrete expression; in E.J. Pratt’s “The Truant,” for instance, we are shown a war of wits between a figure emblematizing science taken as absolute authority, the Great Panjandrum, and an embodiment of humanism and free will, the Truant. As they argue, the philosophical standpoints they embody come up against each other and the reader must negotiate the resulting debate.

Literary critics have also mobilized philosophical ideas to formulate literary theories, in, for instance, deconstruction and Marxist criticism.

And, on the other side of things, philosophers have thought deeply about literature and used it to explore philosophical ideas from as early as Aristotle’s Poetics to Slavoj Zizek’s present day use of literary examples in his magnum opus, The Parallax View.

Philosophy gives profound ideas abstract, rational, logically ordered expression; literature treats these ideas in a less abstract way, as embodied in characters and situations.

Because they approach the ideas through different avenues–philosophy through generalities and literature through particularities–I think the two areas can be complementary and equally valuable.

In teaching, it sometimes helps to draw on literature’s well of concrete examples to illustrate philosophical ideas.  Works of literature can also be clarified by the application of philosophical ideas.

Therefore, I believe that works of philosophy and literature can be mutually clarifying.  In both of these subjects, students need to understand both general ideas and concrete examples, both theory and practical application. Philosophy and literature give us many fascinating works, ideas, and examples to draw upon and can  afford great pleasure if presented in an engaging way.


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