Cross Breeding Literature With Philosophy, Research Time, 12/11/2013

Over the past few days, I’ve read some Arendt, and I’ve read some Said. I’ve had plenty of ideas, but I think the most interesting one revolves around how we understand art, that disciplinary philosophical priorities may not concentrate on what is most interesting philosophically interesting about art.

Reading Joe Margolis’ book on aesthetics helped me get a solid sense of at least one healthily significant debate in North American philosophy of aesthetics, the analysis of beauty and of standards or categories of aesthetic judgment. But this, to me, is not the overriding purpose of aesthetic philosophy. At this point, I will give the caveat that I’m looking into North American aesthetics philosophy only for the first time, as part of a philosophical idea I only recently thought of. I still don’t know the full shape of the wider field, but this post is about just what I’m beginning to learn.

Because reading Said’s Culture and Imperialism so soon after an introduction to the debates of beauty and aesthetic judgment brings two very different debates into very close contact. I don’t know that I would be thinking about this contrast if I had not read the books within a month of each other. But Said is, in some chapters, uncovering and interpreting a political philosophy of colonialism through the analysis of artworks like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, and several telling references to sugar plantations in Antigua in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Through the tools of literary analysis, he is crafting an account of a political philosophy that none of the canonical philosophical thinkers of the same period, the 19th century in Western Europe, openly develop. Or at least, we don’t remember that the central thinkers of liberal traditions have applied their skills at thinking to the justification of empire.

Diderot was one of the great polymath
intellectuals, author of some books that can't be
fit into a single category. I consider this high
Now, an initial reaction might be to say that the action of literary analysis belongs to literary studies, or cultural studies. And that would be true. But a philosopher may have to keep such an ability among his tool chest, in case it turns out to be useful. After all, it’s often no trouble in philosophy to draw upon literature for examples to illustrate a concept. 

A book by Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature supplied ideas that were very important to my revisions of the ecophilosophy project, and much of that book involved analysis of environmental themes in Romantic literature. When we go back to the Romantic period, we find literature taking on philosophical concerns, and philosophy being composed more like literature. One doesn’t have to be a Romantic itself for that latter, as I think the best examples are Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream by Denis Diderot, a man who predates the Romantic period. 

Even an idea as small-scale as my whimsical weekend blog posts about a fictional television sci-fi show illustrates how philosophical ideas can be woven into popular fiction. If literature and philosophy are to gain from each other, perhaps a solid direction for philosophers to pursue in future is to combine these traditions in new ways.

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