Friday, February 24, 2006

Philosophy and fiction

If you haven't been around a university lately you might be surprised to learn that novels are often used to get students to think about philosophy.

The idea is that you can tell people how to live the good life (see, for example, the Ten Commandments), but these first principles often lack the power of a good story (see, for example, all those parables in the Bible).

Many years ago I took an introductory philosophy course in which we read Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, an excellent way to start an investigation of how to live the good life and how one's view might be altered if he was immortal.

I'm no philosopher but if I was ever to teach an introduction to philosophy course I think I would assign Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers. Pnin may be his most accessible work, and it's the one he wrote between his two masterpieces, Lolita and Pale Fire.

And, like the two better and better known novels, Pnin is about cruelty (or callousness, a distinction worth making, as this intelligent critique suggests). Pnin is also about compassion, which might seem banal to point out since it's the antonym of cruelty; but Lolita and Pale Fire are also about cruelty and less manifestly about compassion.

So, we have a novel one might use to teach about immortality and another that can be mined for a discussion about cruelty/compassion.

I wonder what other novels are getting a workout in philosophy class....

--Marshal Zeringue

UPDATE: see the March 2, 2006 sequel to this post.