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Sunday, August 07, 2016

Top 10 philosophers' fictions | Books | The Guardian

Photo: Esther Leslie
"Philosophy tends to be arid, more related to mathematics or dispatches from the courtroom than art, but some philosophy exhibits playfulness or poetic sensibility in relation to language or narrative form and some has even been speculative in a literary or imaginative sense." according to Esther Leslie, lecturer in English and humanities at Birkbeck College, London. She is the author of Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism and sits on the editorial boards of Historical Materialism, Radical Philosophy andRevolutionary History.

Jean Baudrillard, for one, coined the term “theory fiction” and speculated on scenarios for future real worlds that were more wild and improbable than science fiction. In his case, it was part of a quest to exacerbate the groundlessness of signs and meaning.

‘Humouristic’ ... the tomb of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, London. 
Photograph: Paul Grover / Rex Features

But postmodern suspicion is not the only way in which philosophers have used the strategies of fiction to further their projects. Hegel’s great work Phenomenology of Spirit can be read as a vast novel in which the characters, avatars of the spirit, move progressively through the world and through history. Its French translator, Jean Hippolyte, called it a “philosophical novel”: in one section the characters of Lord and Bondsman struggle dramatically over questions of recognition. Nietzsche was a stylist and his Thus Spoke Zarathustra often appears in lists of top philosophers’ novels. It has a protagonist and a plot that resembles something like a bildungsroman, as the tragic teacher hero learns lessons in life through his failures.

As industrial capitalism, with its wars and its factories, shook Europe up, literary form loomed as a crucial issue for disaffected philosophers – especially those in war-broken Germany, who were schooled in the Hegelian tradition, with its sense of universal history and dialectical method. Some understood the epic poetry of a seemingly harmonious and integrated ancient world to be unobtainable in the modern epoch that had birthed the novel, a form that is individually composed and consumed. Georg Lukács’s Theory of the Novel, written as the first world war raged, described the fallen personages of modern life as transcendentally homeless and barred from greater meanings. 

The novel developed its forms in a world in which the inner life of individuals, revolution and disenchantment clash and combine. By the early 20th century the novel was frayed and had absorbed the chaos, clatter and clutter of modern life. As a communist, Lukács turned to recommending that novelists invent rational and functioning worlds, like those once embodied in the work of a Walter Scott or a Balzac. In short, for Lukács, the choice was Thomas Mann over Franz Kafka. Others, those philosopher-poets who montaged Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche and invented critical theory, added up literary form, politics and philosophy differently. They drew on the exaggerations and emotional resonances of expressionism, the playfulness of Dada or the fairytale, the enigmas of allegory and the sharp wit of New Objectivity. One such was Walter Benjamin, with whom this top 10 begins.

Source: The Guardian