On being asked to collect in one volume essays originally published in this and other journals, I thought that I could see, as I re-read them, some of the motives that had led me to philosophy as working also for a particular approach to a literature.
Perhaps the connection is general, or not unusual. There are a set of needs, sometimes amounting to obsessions, which only philosophical argument can satisfy. Some of these obsessions are found, as incitements to the imagination, in writers who are superficially quite unlike each other, and who never themselves entered into philosophical argument. Many of the high abstractions of philosophy, theories of reality and illusion and theories of the self, have their more concrete equivalents, an apt expression or even a kind of translation, in a personal style of fiction, or of rhetoric, or of poetry. When one works back to the philosophical ideas that are suggested by idiosyncrasies of form and method in fiction, the translation sometimes helps to explain the hold that a novelist or poet has had upon one when other explanations fell short. There is a middle ground of inner conflict and uncertainty, which may be expressed and also resolved in argument, and which may also be expressed and resolved indirectly in some imaginative experiment with language.
Approaching the middle ground from the other side, one may see some of the abstract arguments, which are the substance of philosophy, as permanently interesting, partly because they reveal the imaginative needs of a temperament of a recurring type, or because they are an indirect form of self-exploration and of a typical rebelliousness; and this view may be justifiable, in spite of the rigor and generality which the philosopher could properly claim for his arguments and which alone can earn assent. Then one is impelled to turn to those writers who have not disguised their will to order the world in accordance with their imaginative needs: to novelists, poets, and moralists.
It is characteristic of modern philosophy that it is founded upon a distrust of philosophy. Some philosophers have seen philosophy as imperfectly satisfying intellectual needs which logic and mathematics will finally meet more adequately. Others have suspected that in philosophy, and particularly in moral philosophy and in the philosophy of psychology, strict argument is interesting only if it is also a working out of an imaginative vision. Some of those who belong to the second group, as I do, may have turned to philosophy in the first place, partly because of an early obsession with the power of the inherited vocabulary to set limits on their experience, and to veil and muffle their perceptions and their feelings. Perhaps they had felt themselves to be trapped within the normal resources of description, and had looked to the fiction and poetry of others for an escape from literalness. They will become philosophers or critics, if it is also for them a necessity that the liberation should come from the outside, and should have the impersonal…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.