Philosophers in Fictional Works


James Andow (Reading) has been compiling a list of philosophers in fiction, including novels, films, plays, etc. He says:

For no reason in particular, I thought it would be nice to have a list of fictional works in which one of the main characters is an academic philosopher. The rules are somewhat arbitrary. I am prepared to be flexible as to what counts as fiction, a main character, or a philosopher. However, I don’t want folks that just happen to be thinkers. What I really want is characters who are involved in philosophical academic activity—publishing, lecturing, having an office in a university, etc.

Examples include Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Averroes from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Oscar Amalfitano in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Issac Steiner in the TV series Gotham, and one of my favorites…

(from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors)

Check the list and email Dr. Andow with suggested additions (his email address is at the top of the list); feel free to mention them here, too.

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Dih2
Dih2
5 years ago

Marcuse in Hail Caesar!Report

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
5 years ago

I’ll take any opportunity I can get to plug the Patrick Melrose series by Edward St. Aubyn. A philosophy professor figures semi-prominently in the first one and apparently he’s based on Ayer.Report

Jerry Dworkin
Jerry Dworkin
5 years ago

Rebecca Goldstein “The Mind-Body Problem” Characters based on Kripke and Nagel
Woody Allen “Irrational Man” film
Michael Frayn “A Landing on the Sun” Character is a government official but doing philosophy in the mode of Philippa FootReport

Daniel Groll
Daniel Groll
Reply to  Jerry Dworkin
5 years ago

The Frayn book sounds independently fantastic. But a character doing philosophy in the mode of Foot? I must read it *now*.Report

jdkbrown
jdkbrown
Reply to  Jerry Dworkin
5 years ago

“A Landing on the Sun” is absolutely terrific–my favorite thing that Frayn has written.Report

Henri Perron
Henri Perron
5 years ago

Two small examples come to mind. In the Richard Linklater film “Waking Life” in which the scene and characters change every couple minutes, one of the first few scenes features a philosophy professor lecturing on existentialism and then continuing the discussion after class.

There’s also an episode of Saved by the Bell (college years, of course) that features an ethics professor who does something really cool: he leaves copies of the test (I believe fraudulent copies without the actual questions) around campus and whenever Zack Morris finds a copy and does the honest thing (turns it in to the professor) he gets an automatic 100% without having to take the test.

Perhaps not the greatest idea to give someone an automatic A, but it was a cool concept. Maybe it’d be a cool way to offer bonus points to honest students.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

The professor in “Waking Life” is the late Robert Solomon, right? One of the few bright spots in an otherwise terrible movie.

In Bright Lights, Big City, the character Vicky is a grad student in philosophy, and at one point is headed to a conference where she’ll reply to a paper called “Why There Are No People” — out of the fiction, a paper by Peter Unger.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

I forgot — David Sosa also does a star turn in the “Waking Life”! (But don’t get it twisted; the movie is still bad.)Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
5 years ago

Louis Mackey, too. (And for the record I liked the movie.)Report

Horace Beeley
Horace Beeley
Reply to  Henri Perron
5 years ago

A cool concept? More like conclusive evidence that the professor doesn’t know the first thing about ethics, honesty, or the point of doing either.Report

Curtis
Curtis
5 years ago

Catherine Deneuve plays a professor of philosophy in Andre Techine’s “Les Voleurs” (“Thieves”).Report

Sean McAleer
Sean McAleer
5 years ago

The to-be-assassinated philosophy professor in Bertolucci’s *Il Conformista* comes to mind. The whole film is replete with themes from the Republic, made explicit in this memorable scene: .Report

Sean McAleer
Sean McAleer
Reply to  Sean McAleer
5 years ago

For some reason, the link didn’t show up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiT8a1Z12H0.Report

Tim
Tim
5 years ago

“Saltwater”, directed by Conor McPherson. A film about an Irish-Italian family, the daughter’s boyfriend, Ray, is a philosophy lecturer at UCD. One reason why it’s worth watching is the hilarious Q&A near the end. This review offers a good summary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2000/12/20/saltwater_2000_review.shtmlReport

Theodore Gracyk
Theodore Gracyk
5 years ago

Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.Report

SM
SM
5 years ago

Quincas Borba by Machado de Assis. De Assis is great (and is often described as the Brazilian Henry James). Here’s part of the plot description (the book is as awesome as it sounds): “When the mad philosopher Quincas Borba dies, he leaves to his friend Rubião the entirety of his wealth and property, with a single stipulation: Rubião must take care of Quincas Borba’s dog, who is also named Quincas Borba, and who may indeed have assumed the soul of the dead philosopher.”Report

Martin Hahn
Martin Hahn
5 years ago

Annabelle Lyon’s “The Golden Mean” and “Sweet Girl” are novels about Aristotle and his daughter respectively.
Hugo Bellfounder in Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net”Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
Reply to  Martin Hahn
5 years ago

Bellfounder is supposedly based on WittgensteinReport

Carnap
Carnap
5 years ago

Wish I did not know this, but I do: Kevin Spacey in “The Life of David Gale”Report

Kevin Temple
Kevin Temple
5 years ago

Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus concerns the work and life of Dr. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Professor of Things in General at Weissnichtwo University and author of Clothes: Their Origin and Influence.Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
5 years ago

Many of the comments over at PEA Soup on “Philosophy in Novels” are relevant to this question: http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2013/04/philosophy-in-novels.html.Report

Brian Weatherson
5 years ago

Socrates (along with many others) in Jo Walton’s “The Just City”. He doesn’t have an office as such, but he is engaged in philosophical academic activity, some of it even in an Academy.Report

The Doctor
The Doctor
5 years ago

Socrates in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.Report

Nick Urfe
Nick Urfe
5 years ago

Rozanov, the titular philosopher in Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
5 years ago

Basically every Saul Bellow novel, but Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift, and of course Ravelstein (the title character being a very thinly veiled Allan Bloom), come to mind.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
5 years ago

Dr. Fischelson in “The Spinoza of Market Street” by I. B. Singer.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

Tom Stoppard’s television play Professional Foul, whose main character is a philosopher who goes to a conference in Czechoslovakia (as it then was) mainly in order to watch a soccer game; the character is absolutely based on (Tottenham Hotspur fan) A.J. Ayer.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears has Locke and Boyle, though not in major roles. The Indian Clerk, which is mainly about the mathematician Ramanujan, has Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein, including the latter’s disastrous attendance at an Apostles meeting. E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey opens with an intense philosophical discussion in rooms in Cambridge — the main figure in that discussion (though not in the novel, whose main character isn’t good enough at it to continue in philosophy) seems pretty clearly modeled on G.E. Moore. And though Moore isn’t present as such in Forster’s Howards End, its central characters the Schlegel sisters very much represent his values, i.e. personal relations and the admiring contemplation of beauty. The novel’s in that sense a reflection on Moore’s (and Forster’s Bloomsbury friends’) values.

About Ravelstein — though supposedly written by a friend of Bloom’s, I thought it made him out to be a complete jerk, and for having the very properties — e.g. vulgarity and materialism (“look how much money I’ve made!”) that he looked down on others for having. With friends like Bellow, who’d need enemies?Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 years ago

The main character of Stoppard’s Jumpers is a philosopher. Looking it up I realize Stoppard had the cheek to call him George Moore.

I’m not familiar with his latest play, The Hard Problem, but I wouldn’t be stunned if there was a philosopher in there too.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
5 years ago

Also, of course, Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere (1888), whose main character is a philosopher supposedly modeled on T.H. Green. I haven’t read it but I think David Brink has. Amazon says it was probably the best-selling novel of the 19th century.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
Reply to  Tom Hurka
5 years ago

Not the main character, but one of his mentors, called “Gray” (or “Grey”, I don’t remember which spelling) in the novel.Report

Bo
Bo
5 years ago

Jean Baudrillard in Will Chancellor’s novel A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (a fun read).Report

Zoe Jackson
Zoe Jackson
5 years ago

I am pleased to note that Flann O’Brien’s de Selby (from, eg, The Third Policeman) has already made Andow’s list. ‘The beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’ (TTP 7).Report

Nick Z
Nick Z
5 years ago

Kevin Spacey plays a philosophy professor (at UT-Austin, I think) as the eponymous character of The Life of David Gale (2003).Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
5 years ago

The protagonist of Italo Calvino’s “The Watcher” isn’t a philosopher (I don’t think), but there is a passage where he reads from Marx’s Early Writings, and there is some other explicitly philosophical speculation.Report

Kenny Pearce
5 years ago

Neither of these are professors, but the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” is a woman who, after completing a PhD in philosophy, has to return home to rural Georgia due to her disability. Also, Margaret Cavendish of course writes herself into The Blazing World.

Oh, and isn’t the professor in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress a professor of philosophy?Report

John Collins
John Collins
5 years ago

Colin McGinn makes a brief appearance in one of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. Can’t remember which one, but not the first one.Report

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
5 years ago

John Locke, among others, in Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Finger Post.Report

Kenny Easwaran
5 years ago

Edward Norton plays an ancient philosophy professor from Brown who moves to Oklahoma to grow marijuana in “Leaves of Grass”: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1151359/Report

Phoenix, son of Amyntor
Phoenix, son of Amyntor
5 years ago

“Aristotle Detective” by Margaret Doody.Report

Georgi
5 years ago

*Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord* by Louis de Bernières.

From Wikipedia: “The story follows the exploits of drug cartels in trying to silence a young philosophy professor, the eponymous Senor Vivo, who attracts a large following through his constant criticism of the drug trade.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Se%C3%B1or_Vivo_and_the_Coca_Lord

I read it a long time ago. It contains some gruesome violence.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
5 years ago

Ralph McInerny wrote a bunch of novels (I think more than 75?), several of which center around professional philosophers, e.g., the amazon synopsis of /On This Rockne/ reads, “When billionaire Marcus Bramble offers the school 10 million dollars to memorialize the great coach Knute Rockne, things get dangerously competitive. While debate rages over how to honor the coach, one trustee ends up dead. Now the fate of the football icon suddenly ends up in the hands of the Knight brothers: Philip, the private eye, and Roger, the brilliant Notre Dame philosophy professor. “Report

Joe
Joe
5 years ago

SenecaReport

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Joe
5 years ago
Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
5 years ago

The protagonist of Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction is a graduate student in philosophy at NYU. I think she ends up eating her committee.Report

Mike Jacovides
Mike Jacovides
Reply to  Mike Jacovides
5 years ago

I guess that’s on the original list. Still, it’s a cautionary tale worth spreading.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
5 years ago

Danielle Dutton, _Margaret the First_ (a novel about Margaret Cavendish)
Two novels about Abelard by Luise Rinser and Helen Waddell
Catherine Clement, _Martin and Hannah_ (no comment needed)
Irvin Yalom _The Spinoza Problem_
Steven Brust and Emma Bull, _Freedom and Necessity_ (features a big role for Engels)
Compton Mackenzie, _Sinister Street_ (a character based on F.C.S. Schiller)
Eco, _The Name of the Rose_
Micheal Flynn, _Eifelheim_ (features a small part for William Occam)
Charles Johnson, _Oxherding Tale_ (small part for Marx)Report

Don Fallis
5 years ago

Leibniz, Newton, and several other “Natural Philosophers” are major characters in Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver.Report

MentalEngineer
MentalEngineer
Reply to  Don Fallis
5 years ago

Can’t talk about Stephenson without mentioning Anathem. There are no actual-world philosophers, but many of the characters are basically academic philosophers – they spend all their time farming obscure plants, hiding from modern society, and arguing about the metaphysical status of numbers. There’s a Plato expy, there’s a Wittgenstein expy, there’s someone I’d like to think is Hume, and there are lengthy arguments (with typically Stephensonian footnotes and appendices) about set theory, Hilbert spaces, and possible worlds. Also, Platonism turns out to be true. I don’t know why everyone else seems to think it’s his worst book.Report

Matt
5 years ago

Bertrand Russell appears in a handful of scenes in the (quite good, I thought) movie about T.S. Elliot and his first wife, Vivian, _Tom and Viv_. He’s also mentioned, though doesn’t appear, in one of my very favorite movies, _Carrington_

There is a philosophy professor character in J.M Coetzee’s novel _Elizabeth Costello_. (The daughter in law of the title character, I think – I don’t remember it as well as some other novels by Coetzee that I liked more.) The title character is a novelist giving (I think) a Tanner Lecture at Princeton, who interacts with some philosophers there. Others are discussed. Supposedly Costello’s views are at least in part based on Mary Midgley, but I can’t say for sure as I don’t know Midgley’s work well enough to evaluate the claim.

Kant makes a minor cameo appearance in Bulgakov’s _Master and Margarita_, where the devil, soon after appearing in Moscow, mentions having spent an afternoon discussing proofs of the existence of God with Kant.Report

Simon Evnine
Simon Evnine
5 years ago

Oh, there are quite a few actual philosophers, represented a clef, in Joseph North’s _Diary of a Misplaced Philosopher_, an extremely funny book!Report

AA
AA
5 years ago

The main character of a French movie by Desplechin (My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument, 1996) is a grad student in philosophy of science: http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/136353/My-Sex-Life-or-How-I-Got-Into-an-Argument/overviewReport

praymont
5 years ago

Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’ has references to Locke, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Francis Bacon, Roger Bacon, and Kant. Clicking my name takes you to my blog post about philosophers in poems.Report

praymont
5 years ago

C. S. Lewis modeled a fictional character partly on Oxford philosopher T. D. Weldon in two scifi novels, Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength. The character in question is Dick Devine (aka Lord Feverstone). Yannick Grannec’s recent novel, The Goddess of Small Victories, is about Kurt Gödel and his wife Adele. Daniel Kehlmann has a play about Godel called Ghosts in Princeton. At the above peasoup link, I note several novels with characters based on Bertrand Russell. Russell and C. E. M. Joad were the bases for characters in The Coming Back, a roman a clef by Constance Malleson, with whom Russell had a romantic relationship.Report

David
David
5 years ago

I was just wondering about books with philosophers as characters the other month, neat. Casaubon in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum spends time as a philosophy grad student iirc!Report

Justin Johnson
Justin Johnson
5 years ago

Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates each have important roles as philosophers in Joseph Heller’s novel Picture This. They are slightly caricatured, of course. Descartes also has a cameo appearance, but doesn’t do much philosophy. There might be more, but I haven’t finished it yet.Report

Michelle Sowey
5 years ago

No one has yet mentioned my favourite: Dan Lloyd’s wonderfully entertaining Radiant Cool: A novel theory of consciousness (MIT Press), “a real metaphysical thriller based in current philosophy of mind—and a genuine scientific detective story revealing a new interpretation of functional brain imaging.” Check out Susan Blackmore’s review at http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/journalism/NSradiantcool03.htmReport

JDR
JDR
5 years ago

I do not see Mickelson’s Ghost by John Gardner listed here. The title character is a philosophy professor. Abelard and Heloise are prominent characters in Sharan Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur series of murder mysteries. Ian Morson’s Falconer novels feature Roger Bacon. And William Falconer is a philosophy professor himself.Report