welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


What’s the Story?

by Rick Lewis

Welcome to our magazine, which this time has a theme of Philosophy and Literature. Firstly, I suppose I had better eat some humble pie. When I was even younger and more foolish than I am now, coming from a physics background my inclination was always to think that in order to investigate the nature of our universe you need to get your hands dirty and do some experimental science. Later, I could see that science has some limits when it comes to understanding life and values, and that even when doing science it is sometimes necessary to straighten out conceptual confusions; to find clearer ways to reason; to avoid ambiguities – all of which requires close attention to how language works. In other words, I could see the crucial importance of philosophy. What did baffle me, later still, was hearing that the English Literature departments of many universities had recently become obsessed by the ideas of Continental philosophers such as Derrida, of postmodernists and poststructuralists and other dodgy characters. Frankly, I couldn’t see the point. What about their day jobs, teaching great literature and exploring the use of synecdoche in Silas Marner? I wondered if the English profs had succumbed to what might be called ‘philosophy envy’; to the lure of trying to prise up the lid and take a peek at the motor of the cosmos. Surely literature couldn’t provide much of a toolbox for that job?

Granted, some philosophers have also been great novelists – like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus – and expressed their ideas through that medium. But many other works of literature have also inspired philosophical reflection. How can that be? After all, surely in the end a novel is just a made-up story? Well, that may be so, but those literary works that become famous classics and continue to be cherished from generation to generation are those that somehow ring true, and capture some important aspect of real human life. Therefore, by studying literature we study the nature of humans, of values, of life itself. Or so goes the theory, at least.

After reading the five articles which begin this issue, I no longer have any doubts on this point. They all, in very different ways, use literature as a starting point for doing really interesting philosophy.

Plato, though, had very serious doubts about the whole business. He thought all art is about mimesis, or representation. Literature for example represents real life, yet it is not life. It can be confusingly similar to life and this, he said, can mislead us in important ways. This might remind you of those disputes you sometimes hear about a book or a movie that ‘fictionalises’ historical events. Therefore, Plato argued, in an ideal society, literature should be banned. Daniel Toré in this issue weighs Plato’s argument and finds it wanting. Literature, he says, can save us and enlighten us.

Who is this “us”, anyway, and what makes each of us remain the same person over time? That question has been a recurring theme in philosophy for centuries. Inês Pereira Rodrigues in her article examines one very literary answer: the theory of narrative identity, which says that “who we are is constituted by or formed from the stories we tell about ourselves.” What then happens, she asks, when somebody is, like Don Quixote in Cervantes’ famous novel, deluded about their own story? In cases where the stories we tell ourselves are neither accurate nor even believable, are we still us?

Perhaps only a great book can reveals something original about real life, but what exactly makes a book great? Many people have had very definite views about this, including – as Colin Stott will tell us – two of the best-known literary critics, Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis. What is the nature of a novel anyway, and how can it reveal existential truths about our lives? Mike Sutton critically examines what one novelist, Milan Kundera – author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being – wrote about this. Theatre can be even more philosophically fruitful, especially if the play you are watching is by William Shakespeare. Sam Gilchrist Hall looks at the recurring role of human folly in Shakespeare’s plays, and how it relates to humanism and to the Critical Theory of Adorno and others.

Turning from the Bard of Avon to the Sage of Königsberg: 22nd April 2024 is and always will be the 300th birthday of Immanuel Kant, indisputably one of the greatest and most influential philosophers in all of history. We’ve brought you a special Kantian section to celebrate. Happy Birthday Kant!

Finally, in our regular ‘Brief Lives’ spot, you can read about the trials and tribulations of Mikhail Bakhtin. An oppressed and marginalised Russian intellectual (is there any other kind?), arrested by the secret police, exiled for years, his main work was done back in the 1920s but it took until the 1960s before it properly came to light. He then swiftly became a huge influence on literary theorists and indeed philosophers around the globe, his ideas spread by the likes of Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes. His main books focused on the works of Dostoevsky and on the uproarious Renaissance essayist François Rabelais. What he drew from these narrow studies, though, had universal applicability. He had developed a set of highly original concepts applicable to literature, to society and to human lives in general. We’re told he wrote of the laughter that “is a powerful response to official culture and the truth that officialdom tries to cultivate.” We could all use some of that!

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X