Thursday, March 02, 2006

Philosophy and fiction redux

Last week I posted the first salvo in a series on philosophy and fiction. There will be more on the site in the future from philosophers, theorists, and maybe their students, who have learned something about philosophy from novels.

This post isn't about any particular idea from a novel but rather an elaboration on the general idea of using fiction to do philosophy, this time as practiced by the philosopher Colin McGinn.

In my first post I wrote how I read Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire in a freshman philosophy class. The idea was we might think in a new way about how to live the good life if we consider how immortality might alter our perspective.

McGinn, ruminating on Paul Auster's Timbuktu and Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone, suggests we might think about the good life differently if we considered it from the point of view of a dog (Auster's book) or elephants (Gowdy's).
I have been trying studiously to imagine a world dominated by smells rather than visual scenes. Both dogs and elephants, as here depicted, take note of how un-olfactory us "two-leggers" are--maybe, indeed, that is the root of so much of our easy cruelty, our distance from the realities of flesh and death and fear. Vision is a relatively clinical sense, marvelously rich in data presented, but it lacks the earthiness of smell, the reality of chemicals, and the air that contains them. How much harder and weightier to kill something with the stench of its mortal fear in your nostrils than if its blood is just a scarlet liquid with no olfactory resonance!
Novels like these, McGinn argues, expand our sympathies in other ways. In Auster's book,
Mr. Bones spends most of his time relieving the unhappiness of his human friends: first, the lonely homeless poet Willy Christmas, who dies with his dog by his side; then Henry, the young Asian boy with the coldly strict father (who might, Mr. Bones fears, one day serve him up in a Chinese dish of some sort); finally Polly, the housebound suburban mother with the remote and rigid husband who won't allow the dog in the house. The dog is separated from each of his "masters" in turn, and their need for him is at least as his for them. Enabling us to see these humans through a dog's eyes helps us gain a fresh perspective on human society and human limitation. Just think of the amount of untold comfort animals have given humans; then remember the infinities of pain, fear, and death we have inflicted on them.
It is not only moral philosophy (how to be good) and political philosophy (how we should live with others) that this fictional animal-world can help us with; McGinn also uses it as a platform for thinking about consciousness:

Philosophers…have often debated whether animals have thoughts, with Descartes famously insisting that only the human head is host to real thinking. Language has been taken to be the mark of rationality, and rationality as the precondition of thought. I have never seen the force of this position: The consciousness of animals (at least some of them--take chimps) is as thought-laden as many a human's. What else could be going on in there?
But even being "thought-laden" still leaves a pretty big gap between humans and other animals. The interesting question is not if animals think but what non-human animals think about. That is, humans are capable of all kinds of idealizations and abstractions—what is heaven? What is a plane figure formed by connecting three points not in a straight line by straight line segments? Do animals have this capability? McGinn—like most of us—doubts it. (Please—no email from dissenting dog-lovers.) The difference is important, though it doesn't make us better off than animals in every way:

Neither dogs nor elephants are comforted, or troubled, by thoughts of the perfect life beyond the grave. Reality is just what they see around them, not some shadowy adjacency. I think animals understand death and I think they also know they will die (they just need to make an elementary induction from what they witness all the time). But I don't think that they envisage a life beyond this life. Frankly, I envy them. I can conceive of such a life, and I am attracted to it; but I just don't believe there is any such thing.
Who knew there could be so much to think about based on a couple of novels built around the inner- and social-lives of dogs and elephants?

McGinn's reflections leave off with a gift—or is it a challenge?—to the philosophically-inclined wannabe-novelist who is looking for the germ of a story:

I happened to be speaking to Oliver Sacks the other day about one of his favorite animals, the octopus. These animals are short-lived (two years he told me), can grow to an enormous size, and have a highly developed nervous system. We know little of them because they live so deep, but there is every reason to believe they have a rich mental life. What do they think about? Can they imagine? No doubt they remember and can compare the present with the past: What pangs of emotion are produced in them by this fundamental cognitive capacity? What metaphors, if any, shape their conception of their watery world? I wish someone would come along and tell me an octopus story but perhaps that is beyond the imaginative capacity or a merely human writer. It might end up sounding like you or me equipped with long tentacles and a live-fast-die-young mentality. Dear octopus, tell us your story--we are all ears ...
Take it away…

--Marshal Zeringue

A note on Colin McGinn:
McGinn, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Miami, is one of those thinkers who does cutting edge philosophy that only specialists understand and who also discusses ideas in a way accessible to curious amateurs. His The Making of a Philosopher is one of the more enjoyable nonfiction books I've read this century and I highly recommend it. (For fans of the movie The Matrix, I also recommend the McGinn essay at this site.)

The Making of a Philosopher reminded me of R.G. Collingwood's An Autobiography, a slim book I read over 20 years ago and have mostly forgotten except for its clarity in showing how an original idea develops in a first rate mind. McGinn's evolution as a philosopher started with his training in psychiatry; Collingwood's developed along with his archeological studies and fieldwork.