Chiara Bottici (New School) was one of the opening speakers at the Night of Philosophy held at the French Embassy in New York City on April 24th, 2015. She chose a controversial figure to focus on—Machiavelli, whose “very status as a philosopher is contested”—in order to get at the question of what does and what does not count as philosophy.
Towards the end of her talk, she asks:
Why are philosophers reluctant to take literary writings seriously? Why do philosophers, beginning with Plato, feel the need to ban the poets, whereas literary theorists do not feel that need? Is it to reinforce the idea that philosophy concerns arguments, reason, the logos, whereas fiction concerns stories, metaphors, and myths, and is thus somehow more primitive? But has philosophy ever liberated itself from myth? And even more so: does it even need to do so in the first place? Why cannot stories, and even mythical ones, be able to carry the logos itself, if it is true that at the time of the Homeric poems mythos and logos were used as synonyms and, correspondingly, the first philosophers kept intermingling them? Why has the logos subsequently taken on such an exclusionary drive?
I’m torn. I think good philosophy generally aspires to a kind of rigor and transparency that is hard to imagine being present in good literature. But ways of communicating have their limits, including philosophical discourse. If you haven’t had the experience of art helping you see beyond the limits of words, well, then, I guess one explanation could be that you are much better with words than I am.
It is not that philosophers have been unable to make use of literary writings. They have throughout history, and even philosophers nowadays who consider themselves analytic borrow from literature. But I suppose what Professor Bottici is getting at is that philosophers typically don’t think they could do philosophy in the form of fiction or poetry or myth. Is she right? And if so, is it a problem?
The transcript of the talk is here.
Bonus points for commenting in the form of a poem.
(image: detail of “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder)