Is Philosophy Fiction?


Philosophical writing inhabits a strange space within what we call literature. I hear people say things like, I mostly read non-fiction while others proffer, I prefer fiction. But, as a reader of philosophy, I’m not sure where I stand in such a discussion — a discussion which, as a philosopher, I find misleading. Sure, there is a clear line between a history of Grecian urns and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. But I’m not sure if it’s a question of fictionality that distinguishes one from another but a question of convention and style.

Some believe philosophy should be rigorously bereft of style, as straight forward as possible, words declaring the logic of the universe unadorned, unencumbered, utterly naked. Some philosophers even use axioms and theorems as if ensuring readers that this is certainly non-fiction. What can be said at all, writes the early, cranky Wittgenstein, can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. I enjoy some of this philosophy — but because of it’s odd non-style style. Which, no doubt, would infuriate its avid advocates. There’s nothing quite like telling someone that their truth is beautiful.

Meanwhile, other philosophers believe their endeavor is fundamentally literary, a matter of style, believing that the language cannot be separated from what the words describe. Hence their writing must perform their ideas. Of course, the person who wrote about the performative ascribed to a principle of clarity (which is not to say that clarity and performativity are mutually exclusive). But to those for whom meaning is perpetually deferred, the writing performs said deferral which can, alas, make the writing seem less than clear. To wit, Derrida:

I will speak, therefore, of the letter a, this initial letter which it apparently has been necessary to insinuate, here and there, into the writing of the word difference; and to do so in the course of a writing on writing, and also of a writing within writing whose different trajectories thereby find themselves, at certain very determined points, intersecting with a kind of gross spelling mistake, a lapse in the discipline and law which regulate writing and keep it seemly. One can always, de facto or de jure, erase or reduce this lapse in spelling, and find it (according to situations to be analyzed each time, although amounting to the same), grave or unseemly, that is, to follow the most ingenuous hypothesis, amusing. Thus, even if one seeks to pass over such an infraction in silence, the interest that one takes in it can be recognized and situated in advance as pre-scribed by the mute irony, the inaudible misplacement, of this literal permutation. One can always act as if it made no difference. And I must state here and now that today’s discourse will be less a justification of, and even less an apology for, this silent lapse in spelling, than a kind of insistent intensification of its play.

I can’t help but feel that this writing couldn’t be clearer — as an argument about, and of, the role of play in language. In that sense, it’s not vague or obtuse at all but is really quite succinct.

Classically, philosophy and poetry — not to mention mathematics — are intimately intertwined. I think of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (now that’s a title!), an epic poem laying out, well, the nature of things. All nature, then, as self-sustained, consists/ Of twain of things: of bodies and of void/ In which they’re set, and where they’re moved around. This nature, among other things, involves what he calls clinamen, the swerve of atoms as they move through space. I might say a thing’s clinamen is its style — which makes style not something added to a thing but constitutive of it.

In any case, from one perspective, philosophy and poetry engage the world with words. Regular language is too conventional; it does not articulate the complexity and profundity of experience. Poets make language an experience in and of itself. Poems do not merely describe the world but the very reading of them is an experience. Philosophy, as a reckoning of the lived world with words, can enjoy the same demand. I don’t read Heidegger — not because he was a Nazi but because I find him a humorless phony — but methinks this was his shtick: poetry as the ultimate philosophic expression. It puts words closer to the becoming of the world, forging a certain intimacy with experience.

Does it matter that I find Heidegger soul killingly arid? The fact that I said such a thing in my dissertation — and hence conspicuously omitted Heidegger from my bibliography — enraged some faculty. Yes, I use the word enraged sans hyperbole. Somewhere, I have a letter in which an academic declares his repugnance at my declared repugnance of Heidegger. I will admit, I giggled when I read his letter. There’s a reason I’m not an academic; academics make the terrible mistake of thinking they are truth seekers. Me, I love books and ideas for the experience, not the truth (is my experience my truth? Or a truth? If you say so).

And then there is Deleuze and Guattari who don’t see their writing as poetry as much as they see it as science fiction. They don’t reckon experience but proffer new, alien, possible worlds. Instead of a rigid line composed of well-determined segments, telegraphy now forms a supple flow marked by quanta that are like so many little segmentations-in-progress grasped at the moment of their birth, as on a moonbeam, or on an intensive scale. They perform their philosophy: A Thousand Plateaus is, indeed, a thousand plateaus (more or less but who’s counting?). But it’s not poetry they write even if much of it is, indeed, poetic. And it’s certainly not scientific-descriptive as in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

And yet it is, in their own words, empirical. But of a world you don’t recognize. Hence the writing can often be quite difficult. How could it be otherwise? This is philosophy as science fiction, proffering worlds you didn’t even know you could imagine. When you go to Turkey, do you expect to understand what everyone’s saying to you? So of course their writing uses strange words and figures (haecceity, rhizome, territorialize). Of course it scrambles known distinctions between categories (ornithology, art, science, literature).

This can make their writing seem obtuse as you scream, What the heck are you talking about? Just be clear! But that’s your fault, not theirs. They are asking you to think differently and, in order to do so, you must speak differently. From the perspective of this new world, their writing couldn’t be more lucid! You just have to be willing to take leave of this world, to travel into space and through the cosmos, not quite sure where you’ll end up.

If you go to the bookstore (there are still few of those in San Francisco), pick up a series of books that call themselves philosophy. You will in fact find a vast diversity of styles. Plato writes hilarious, bawdy little plays. Kant writes an elaborate, pedantic descriptive system. Nietzsche loves aphorisms, outbursts, and asides. Kierkegaard rarely uses his own name but writes as pseudonyms within ever different fictional contexts. Francois Laruelle writes nearly indecipherable prose. Wittgenstein started by writing strictly axiomatic tomes and ended by writing open ended thought vignettes. And what does Georges Bataille do?

If the philosophy becomes too didactic, prescriptive, or practical, it risks becoming something else entirely: the dreaded new age. This happened to Carol Castaneda, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. He gets dismissed as fruitcake hippy shit or, on the other hand, taken too seriously, as if he were a guru (not that there’s anything wrong with gurus; but there is something wrong with serious). But, to me, he’s a philosopher offering the greatest pedagogy since Socrates and Jesus. And, like Plato, Castaneda works with characters and dialogue, offering a vision of the world and how to go in it. Does this exclude him from the hallowed halls of philosophy? Or is the problem that his philosophy demands scary, non-bourgeois experience?

What’s hilarious to me is the debate about whether Castaneda was a true anthropologist or if he made up Don Juan Matus. It’s the wrong question. Making something up doesn’t make it less true. But the fact that the question plagues us is of interest: Something is either fiction or non-fiction, dammit! Accusing Castaneda of making Don Juan up is a way for academics to avoid reckoning the oddity, intensity, and severity of Castaneda’s world.

To me, all great literature blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction by creating a truth within the very experience of reading. But, that aside, novels, poetry, and plays have a clear place within the conventions of our thinking: they are decidedly not non-fiction.

Philosophy, however, continues to trouble this cultural distinction as philosophers themselves are torn. In the US, most of those whom I call philosophers are not read in philosophy departments. I got my PhD in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley because, in 1991, that was one of the only places in the country to read Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Ricoeur, even Gadamer and Nietzsche. People ask me what I studied and I sometimes say philosophy but, just as often, critical theory or even literary theory.

Why is this? Because philosophy departments in the US are run and dominated by a certain belief about the role of style in philosophy — namely, that it doesn’t belong there. If you are writing philosophy and the writing matters then you’re not writing philosophy; you’re writing literature. Or so the argument goes.

But all writing — even scientific writing, even mathematical formulas, even computer code — is stylized. There’s no such thing as writing bereft of style. There is of course writing that is soul draining, pedantic, life negating (99% of academic writing). Such is its style.

To me, a book of philosophy proffers a life. It gives a body, affect, ideas, concepts, notions. I can’t just strip away the voice, the mood, the language to reveal the ideas. Nietzsche is not Nietzsche without his exclamation points! Kierkegaard is, in fact, rarely Kierkegaard. And the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus is perfectly stilted. This is not to say that I avoid or dismiss their respective concepts. That would be absurd. What I’m saying is that I don’t — that I can’t — separate the concepts from the style.

Style runs through every moment of the philosophy — from the words and rhythm to the reference and figures to the concepts and ideas. Style is what sutures a body, a book, a philosophy together. Take away style and you take away life.

Want $15 credit toward your first ride with Uber? Click here and sign up today.

Uber is a mobile app that connects you to a ride. Download Uber and never hail a cab again.