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9 July 2021

Do gender norms enforce a divide between literature and philosophy?

Literature is seen as partial and feminine, whereas philosophy is associated with objectivity and masculinity. It’s time to put this false ideological separation behind us.

It’s 1978, and Iris Murdoch is appearing on a BBC television show called Men of Ideas. Nobody mentions the irony. She’s telling the host, Bryan Magee, she “feel[s] very strongly” that philosophy and literature are distinct enterprises. Asked what role she thinks philosophy can play in literature, she says, “Well, I think it had better keep out, on the whole.” She should know, you would think: by this point she has written 19 novels and three philosophy books.

Later in the interview, Murdoch concedes that there is one successful philosophical novel, but just one – Sartre’s La Nausée (1938). And that, she says, is a lucky coincidence due to the unusual proximity of existentialist thought to “the novelist’s art”. She won’t let Tolstoy get away with his claim to have written a philosophical book in War and Peace: “Tolstoy says this, but why should we attend to him?… Don’t trust the writer, trust the tale, you know. One has to see what he’s actually achieved.”

Murdoch drops a guillotine between her two identities – philosopher on one side, novelist on the other – even going so far as to say that she would be pleased if it were impossible for readers to tell that her fiction and her philosophy were written by the same individual. But why?

***

It’s 1972. Simone de Beauvoir is sitting down with Margaret Simons, who asks her whether her existentialist philosophy in The Second Sex (1949) influenced Sartre. De Beauvoir seems angered by the question. “I am not a philosopher,” she insists, “but a literary writer; Sartre is the philosopher. How could I have influenced him?”

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As Simons points out, De Beauvoir says in her autobiographies that philosophy is universal, and this is part of why she doesn’t consider herself a philosopher:

certain individuals are capable of pulling off this concerted delirium which is a system, and whence comes the stubbornness which gives to their insights the value of universal keys. I have said already that the feminine condition does not dispose one to this kind of obstinacy.

De Beauvoir is not in the business of universal systems. She writes about women. She takes sides in political issues. She is partial.

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***

It’s 1950. The philosopher Bertrand Russell is being awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought”. The award speech notes his “important books on practically all the problems which the present development of society involves”.

Russell does call himself a philosopher, but he doesn’t call all his work philosophy. He has defined philosophy as “the science of the possible”, a discipline concerned with universal truths. The specifics of contemporary politics or social progress are irrelevant to this. So is the evidence of our senses. Russell’s “philosophy” is his work about such things as mathematics, logic and the necessary truths of metaphysics. The rest? Journalism, or politics, or literature.

***

Maybe Russell’s definition of philosophy influenced Simone de Beauvoir and Murdoch. But I suspect they’re actually all drawing from a deeper wellspring of dubious ideology.

One can spy its deleterious effects in De Beauvoir’s uneasy sense that the “feminine condition” is unsuited to philosophy. Part of why she felt this might simply be a lack of acknowledged precedents: women in philosophy have often been ignored or written out of the history of the discipline, leaving the impression that philosophy is a male activity. By contrast, novel-writing has been acceptable for women arguably since the inception of the genre. By the time de Beauvoir claims the title of “literary writer”, there is an established tradition of women-authored serious literature that runs through Madame de La Fayette, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, Mary Shelley, George Sand, Louisa May Alcott, and Emily Dickinson to Colette and Virginia Woolf.

But there is more going on behind the scenes, and De Beauvoir’s existentialist philosophy illuminates it quite well. Women – for De Beauvoir – are subordinated through being positioned as “the Other”. Their oppression consists in their not being acknowledged as fully actualised selves: they are never centre-stage, always only supporting cast. Feminist philosophers built upon this idea in their critiques of scientific objectivity during the 1980s and 1990s, emphasising the associations between objectivity and masculinity: the only perspective we tend to regard as unbiased, objective and “universal” is the perspective of the dominant, male subject.

So, if philosophy deals in universal truths, it makes sense that it is an activity reserved for the impartial, unbiased and objective thinking subject: ie, for the rational man. This, perhaps, is why Sartre can write a novel that counts as philosophical: a novel with a male protagonist is “universal” enough to count as real philosophy, whereas a novel about women’s experiences is partial and subjective.

Thinking of it this way also casts light on Russell’s division of his labours into philosophy and not-philosophy. His philosophy is his work on purportedly universal, objective and purely intellectual subjects: mathematics, logic, metaphysics. His non-philosophy is his work on areas that are obviously rife with bias and laden with emotional attachment: social, ethical and political issues. We might as well have labelled these lists respectively masculine and feminine.

De Beauvoir’s existentialist feminism can also help us understand Murdoch’s divided identity: a splitting of selves is demanded of the existential Other, who must be able to see matters simultaneously from the dominant, masculine perspective and from their own subordinated one. It’s as if the “philosopher” label is reserved for Murdoch’s male-coded (rational, objective) identity, while the “novelist” is separated out as a female-coded (emotional, partial) second self.

***

Dividing philosophy from literature, and gendering the division, reaches back far earlier than 1950. In 1799, Madame de Staël wrote in De la Littérature dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales (“Literature as it Relates to Social Institutions”) that “perhaps it would be natural that, in a [fully enlightened] state, real literature should be the part of women, and men should devote themselves solely to the highest philosophy”. And when Plato infamously sets the literary against the philosophical in the Republic, he genders the matter by saying poetry moves us to extreme emotion, and extreme emotion is womanly.

Policing boundaries – whether between genders or between literature and philosophy – is only necessary if the line in question is liable to be transgressed. And indeed, as any good library can show you, there is no clear boundary between philosophy and literature. Philosophy is a perfect source of literary inspiration, and literature is a perfect vehicle for exploring philosophical ideas.

From Aesop’s fables to Borges’ short story “The Garden of Forking Paths” to the picturesque vignettes that pepper contemporary philosophy papers, short stories of all kinds are an integral part of philosophy. The same is true of poetry: from Lao Tzu to Lucretius to Lorde, poetry and philosophy have been inseparable for millennia, notwithstanding the disapproving glances of critics (the “metaphysical poets” of the 17th century, we should remember, were originally so called as a snide comment on their attempts to marry the intellectual and the emotional, the philosophical and the poetic).

And whatever Iris Murdoch says, philosophical novels are a big deal: imagine a literary or philosophical scene without the novels of Nietzsche and Camus and Voltaire and Dostoevsky and Proust and Joyce and Woolf and Huxley and Orwell and Kafka. Separating the literary from the philosophical is not at all straightforward. Nor, I would suggest, is it a good use of anyone’s time.

What is strange and ill-fitting is not the cozy relationship between philosophy and literature, but the ideological undercurrent that keeps whispering – in spite of all evidence to the contrary – that real philosophy shouldn’t mingle with literature because… well, what? Because literature is just not manly enough?

If that’s the problem, we need to get over it yesterday. More generally, if we want the best thought of our own generation to be not merely clever but wise, we’d do well to work towards a conscious reintegration of literary and philosophical virtues. This means realising that a great philosophical work is often emotional (and non-universal), and that a well-crafted poem may be smarter and less biased than anything in the latest issue of Journal of Philosophy.

Murdoch wrote brilliant novels, rich with emotionally engaged detail that created both a compelling story and philosophical depth. She didn’t call her novels philosophical, but I beg to differ. And I beg to differ with Russell’s refusal to call his Nobel Prize-winning work philosophy, and with De Beauvoir’s claim to be “not a philosopher, but a literary writer”. To use Murdoch’s words against them all: “Don’t trust the writer, trust the tale, you know. One has to see what [they’ve] actually achieved.”

Carrie Jenkins is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. She is the author of  What Love Is and What It Could Be and Victoria Sees It.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.