Finding Philosophy in Literature

This semester, I am teaching Philosophical Issues in Literature. PIL is one of Brooklyn College’s so-called upper-tier core courses; all graduating students are required to take a pair of these. Unsurprisingly, just about every student registered for my class told me during the first day’s introductions that they were taking the class because of a pair of familiar reasons: a) they needed an upper-tier core to graduate and my section had slots available and b) this section worked best with their academic and work schedule. (This ‘confession’ out in the open, I made my usual promises to try to make a core course as painless as possible.)

So, not Philosophy of Literature, but rather philosophy in literature. The former subject concerns itself with rather more traditional philosophical concerns: the nature of literature, fictional objects, the semantics of fictional works, and so on. The latter seeks to show philosophy may be found in literature, how authors do philosophy via their literary works, how indeed, a coherent philosophical vision can be presented in a variety of literary formats. In reading literature,  ‘morals’ can be drawn; metaphysical and ethical theses uncovered; aesthetic standpoints elicited. The anthology I have chosen as my text for the semester features extracts from novels, short stories, poems and plays; a blurb on the back suggests that as much philosophy may be found in a good novel as in anything written by Kant or Mill. I agree; it’s why teaching this class has long been on my short list of ‘want-to-take-this-on-at-some-point’ items.

If the classroom discussion that took place in the second class meeting is any indicator of how the semester will go, I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic that my pre-semester enthusiasm for the class was justified: while some students appeared initially reticent about discussing the assigned readings (extracts from Invisible Man, Puberty Blues and Giovanni’s Room), yet others were remarkably enthusiastic, and as the class progressed, had pulled in other students with their responses to the material.  A provocative reading sometimes generates a provocative response, and then it’s off to the races. By the end of the class, we had made interesting connections between the repression of homosexual identity and the internalized self-diminution of the black man in Jim Crow America, between the immigrant’s struggles to maintain coherence in his twin identities, the dilemmas of the conscientious objector, and adolescent struggles to adjust to peer group pressure. Among other things.

While the extracts in the textbook are grouped according to philosophical themes–such as self-identity, duty to others etc–and accompanied by little primers to the issues tackled in them, I am inclined to let the initial reading be a  trifle unguided so as to be able to elicit slightly unmediated responses to the text. My hope is that this will broaden the scope of our responses to the readings and make the ensuing class discussions even more eclectic. My class is set in Brooklyn; my students are a remarkably diverse group, and they promise to bring to their readings of the classics a singularly unique standpoint.

It promises to be a great semester.

13 thoughts on “Finding Philosophy in Literature

  1. This is one of the courses that I was hired to teach at Missouri State. I’ve done it under several incarnations.

    My first go around was with science fiction and dystopian literature. The reading list included:

    Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
    C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
    Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers
    H.G. Wells, The Time Machine
    Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

    There were also some short stories by Harlan Ellison and Bruce Sterling thrown in the mix.

    The second version of the course focused more on dystopias and alternate-realities:

    Franz Kafka, The Trial
    Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
    Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

    and a few more, which I can’t remember off of the top of my head.

    My latest version of the course–which I am teaching now–is a complete departure and focuses on the idea–and constitutive ideas–of the American Dream.

    Nathaneal West, The Day of the Locust
    Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
    Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly
    Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

    My conception of philosophical ideas in literature is not so much to use literature to directly address traditional philosophical themes. Increasingly, I think those themes—or at least, the ones which are concerned with human life—are too simplistically and unrealistically drawn, in philosophy. Rather, I use literature to *think philosophically*–i.e. to pull back and address human themes from a more abstract perspective–without employin the (IMHO) narrow tropes of academic philosophy.

    I hope you enjoy the course. It’s been my favorite of all the courses I’ve taught.


    1. Dan,

      Fantastic reading lists – I’m going to have to come back to these when I teach this class again down the line.

      I agree that academic philosophy handles many issues of vital interest to us – as human beings- in a very impoverished fashion. Indeed, I’d say it runs the risk of irrelevance in many areas. Literature lets us think philosophically in the right ways about these topics.

  2. Sounds like you have a great class ahead of you. If I was just a little closer, I’d come sit in your lectures.

  3. Hello, Samir, I am teaching a version of this course to high school seniors. You mention a textbook, which one do you use? I have been looking around for one, nothing so far I like. We start with Sophie’s World. I also use movies.

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