philosophy: a novel idea?

Excerpts from the novel The Society of Others by William Nicholson:

[b]I’m writing this by the light of a new day, with a pen on paper, the old way. No seamless corrections possible here. I want to see my first thoughts, and the words I cross out, and the words I choose to replace them. First thoughts are usually lies. Vicini says, Write something about yourself, then write the opposite. Then open your mind to the possibilty that the second statement is true.

I’m not a bad person. I’m a bad person.

I didn’t mean to kill the a man in the reading room. I did mean to kill the man in the reading room.

What happened afterwards wasn’t my fault, don’t blame me. It was my fault. Blame me.

So this is the story of how everything changed. I’m not going to tell you my name. If you want a name, use your own.

I don’t…want money. What’s the point? You see something you want to buy, you get excited about having it, you buy it, the excitement fades. Everything’s the way it was before. I’ve seen through that game. They make you want things so they get your money. Then they take your money and then they’ve got it, and what do they do? They use it to buy things someone else has made them want. For a few moments they think they’re happy, and then it all fades and everything’s the way it was before. How stupid can you get? It’s like fish. Fish swim about all day to find food to give them energy to swim about all day. It makes me laugh. These people who hurry about all day making money to sell each other things.

I like my room. I said before I don’t want anything. but this isn’t entirely true. I want my own room. I don’t much care what’s in it so long as it has a door I can shut and lock so people don’t come in asking me to do things. I expect maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life in my room, and at the end I’ll just die here and no one will find me and that’s just fine with me.

This big wide world: first of all it’s not so big and wide. Really the world is only as big as your expereince of it, which is not big at all. And what sort of world is it? I would characterize it as remote, uninterested, unpredictable, dangerous and unjust. When I was small I thought the world was like my parents, only bigger. I thought it watched me and clapped when I danced. This is not so. The world is not watching and it will never clap. My father doesn’t get this, he’s still dancing. It makes me quite sad to see him.[/b]

Richard Rorty has suggested this: If you wish to pursue philosophy [or philosophical questions] in a more substantial, more sophisticated, more relevant, more realistic manner you should pursue literature rather than textbooks. I agree. Novels in particular [like the one above] take ideas and situate them contextually. We encounter characters discussing things said to be meaningful…and meaningless…in their lives while having to integrate these points of view into circumstantial labyrinths that often completely bend or break them.

The protagonist in The Society of Others has stumbled adventitously into a whole new world. In this world he is forced to probe his whiny, cynical, alienated, nihilistic, “youthful” sense that “life is hard and then you die” in a context that is as far beyond merely mouthing “philosophical” cliches like this as you can get. Who are you in a world in which chaos and violence and terrorism [and simply staying alive] become the center of the universe?

And it’s not a question of whether you agree or disagree with the ideas being presented. That would be like agreeing or disagreeing the music of, say, Philip Glass or the Kronos Quartet was better than the music of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. After all, if you have never been in the world the narrator is revealing how would you know what to think or feel about it…how to evaluate or judge it?

Instead, the novel forces you to recognize this: that what you think about the world you live in…what you do or do not find meaningful…comes down more to the intuitive, uniquely individual narrative than something that can be pinned down objectively using the tools of philosophy. Human realities…human relationships…are far, far beyond our capacity to know. Language here is more analogous to Doestoevski’s “notes from underground” than to Kant’s “categorical imperative”. Kafka seems to make more sense in this world than Descartes.

In other words, when I read the passages above for the first time they really resonated as “true to life”. They encompassed that “ring of truth” about “the human condition”. But I can easily imagine others reading and reacting to them in completely different and conflicting ways. This is how meaning “works” it seems. We take out of something what we first put into it: “I”. We don’t see things the way they are…but the way we are.

But: what goes into the making of “me”? Why am I the way I am and not some other way? Is there a way to be that is more rational than any other way?

This, in my view, is the slipperiest of all the philosophical slopes. Not “what is the nature of reality” but “what is the nature of any particular mind asking this?”

Sure, depending on your weaknesses as a philosopher, learning to appreciate good literature may help.

Well, maybe you want to put it like this: What is the nature of your reality?
What is the things and notions you feel certain and you don’t want to ask questions about them?

This can probably make the chart of YOUR reality (and truth and fact and so on), which is your basic way of seeing and interacting with your self and the rest.

But there is a big obstacle in this kind of thing.
Usually there are things we are not very aware because we DON’T WANT to see it, for whatever the reason (usually because of other truths/realities/facts/beliefs of ours).
So, usually most of us will stop doing this kind of thing after a while.
And we may “rationalize” why one cannot continue.
Some of philosophy (and religion, ideology, etc) is the product of this kind of rationalization.

It helps because it situates ideas out in the world. And to the extent philosophers resist going there is the extent to which their philosophy is for all practical purposes the mental masturbation of the Philosophy Forum ilk.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong.

I don’t think you’re wrong, iam, but then I usually approach philosophy through literature, drama and poetry. The Classics are called classic because of their universality–their ability to play the chords to which human emotions and thoughts respond. Just as a chord is more than one note, the responses are on more that one level and the over-tones and under-tones may be different for each reader.

Instantly, I like that guy. :mrgreen:

Most certainly.

It’s nature is an existential pastiche ever evolving and changing over time. Which is to say it is not something that can ever be pinned down in language. “I” is as far beyond The Word as is “freedom” and “justice” and “duty” and “good” and “evil”.

I can’t doubt my gender, my age, my health, my death etc.; and certain aspects of my life seem rooted in circumstances not likely to change.

But even here the variables are so complex I can’t be entirely sure. How much can any of us really know beyond all doubt about how and why we came to view our selves and the world around us as we do? There are just too many variables that were, are and forever will be beyond our control in a world bursting at the seams with contingency chance and change.

And that is just on a conscious level. Once you factor in our subconscious and unconscious “reactions” to everything, all bets are off regarding our “sense of self”.

And then, finally, we have to merely assume we have the autonomy to control even as much as we do.

Well, that depends, of course, on the manner in which you approach this.

Suppose, for example, you want to become rich. Here there are obviously ways far more rational than others to accomplish this.

But then suppose you ask instead, “is becoming rich a rational thing to do?”

Or consider this:

“In order to become rich I must close down my factory in America, putting hundreds of folks out of work, and open up a sweat shop overseas.” Is that rational?

And perhaps it is. Perhaps as a capitalist you have no choice but to move your busines overseas because the compettion has. If you don’t, the business will fail and the jobs will be lost anyway.

Is that rational? And, if so, does that inherently make it moral as well?

Is there a way to answer these questions philosophically such that “I” transcends political narratives and [rationally] derives the whole truth?

And are questions like these better explored in philosophical textbooks or in novels [literature] that situate them out in the world?

Compassion and empathy come naturally. It is easy to see what another person needs, or how to act in a given situation, if there is no concern about a mythical self to get in the way. Perhaps the greater part of true morality is simply stopping all the harm that we normally do, rather than taking on any deeds from unnatural ideas; that is, the harm that comes from having a false sense of self.

Okay, apply this analysis to the example I noted above regarding the outsourcing of labor: a widespread phenomenon that is boring full steam ahead into the American economy. What happens to compassion and empathy there? How does your “moral theory” fare against the reality of our [global] political economy?

I have to accept the reality of present-day capitalist society however exploitative or inhumane it may seem to be. Not because it is the best system that can ever be, or because its exploitation and inhumanity are unreal, but for pure and simple reasons of survival. The acceptance has only a functional value. Nothing more and nothing less. If I do not accept social reality as it is imposed on me, I’ll have trouble maintaining sanity within it.

Most certainly.
Isn’t it “more rational” to first seek out what determines true rationality for sake of your decisions?

If you want to know of being rational, you have to discover that “meaning of life” answer, else nothing you do can be rational by choice.

For what purpose do I live?
How do I accomplish it?

Clarify your situation and purpose
Verify your situation and purpose
Remember the hopes and threats to your purpose
Maximize the momentum to your purpose
Harmonize those actions
Make them your purpose (they always were)
Make them what you are, the Self-Harmony that is you.

That which stays in Self-Harmony cannot perish nor know dissatisfaction.

What this acknowledges in my view is the manner in which ethics [broached philosophically] can never really transcend political economy.

But capitalism as a political economy is [re Marx and Engels] rooted organically in history. As a consequence, I do not view it [as do most Objectivists and Libertarians] as a political philosophy “thought up” by “enlightened” philosophers.

What do you mean? I don’t understand why you’re saying this, but then again it seems like there’s some loaded terms and phrases in here. For instance, I know you’ve got some thing about topics that are “broached philosophically” that I don’t quite get. So I suspect I don’t really know what you’re saying here.

James S Saint,

In my view, your rejoinder is an entirely abstract reaction to the points I made. You say “most certainly”, but then merely back this “certainty” up with words that define and defend other words. The words are never situated in the proposed context I have given you.

Or choose another context we are all familiar with. What situation? What purpose?

There are philosophers who insist that, before one can consider an actual choice that any particular moral agent might make “out in the world” and “down on the ground”, one most have a thorough-going understanding of ethics. Theoretically, as it were. In fact, there are those who insist the blueprints for a just and moral society can literally be deduced from, say, your recliner in the den. We can [using the tools of philosophy] create an intellectual scaffold whereby we are able to posit the actual duties and the obligations of all citizens.

Thus right and wrong behavior are derived from Virtue and Virtue is derived from a rational discourse between rational human beings. Some then link this to a transcendental font—usually God or one or another rendition of metaphysical Reason.

And yet when we peruse the actual history of human interaction we note this hardly ever really happens at all. Instead, over and over again, it is those with wealth and power who are able to enforce one or another political narrative that sustains their own interests above all else.

Marx and Engels outlined [historically] this organic relationship between the infrastructure [the economic base] and the superstructure [the social and political institutions that sustain it]. These include nomadic tribes, slash and burn cultures, hunter-gatherers, barterers, feudalists, mercantilists, international tradersmen, plantation farmers, capitalists, state capitalists, socialists, state socialists etc…

In reality, however, all sophisticated discusssions of ethics will involve an extremely complex interaction between mind and matter. They are almost always intertwined inextricably and no one can really say for certain where an idea [or ideal] ends and a behavior begins. Let alone how they are actually intertwined in, say, our global economy today.

Thus, for example, those who defend capitalism ideologically often become confused here because they want to believe the free enterprise system is derived soley from their ideals and their logic and their inerrantly sound epistemological judgements. But, in fact, it is derived instead [by and large] from the corrupt, incestuous relationship between those who run the economy and those who run the political institutions. Including the media.

For instance, google “The Bilderberg Group” if you want an example of those folks who largely get to say what is right and wrong behavior out on the world stage. At least regarding our own rendition of state capitalism. But there are others like the folks who own and operate China.

Still, regarding behaviors that laregly fall outside the purview of political economy—“social issues”—the narratives often become even more complex. And that is because there are so many more ways in which to view them historically, culturally and experientially.


We can, if that’s the kind of society we want. It’s temporary and can’t last, but that’s true of any scaffold. It works for a while, until it doesn’t.

Visit The Philosophy Forum website. Go into the ethics discussion venue and they are everywhere. Old Andrew and Creativesoul in particular. They pretty much parrot the deontological agendas of the realists and the rationalists.


We can [using the tools of philosophy] create an intellectual scaffold whereby we are able to posit the actual duties and the obligations of all citizens.

It’s not whether “that’s the kind of society we want”, it’s whether “that’s the kind of society we can ever have” given the constraints of political economy.

It’s easy enough to “think up” an intellectual scaffold for a just world. Here you merely have to agree on the meaning of words. But how do you actually create one without the wealth and the power needed to bring it into existence and then to defend it against all enemies?

It’s not just a coincidence that The Enlightenment overlapped historically with the emergence of capitalism. Try to imagine this political philosophy emerging at the beginning of the Dark Ages!

Philosophy is just a bunch of thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

How could it be anything other than novelty?

I honestly can’t find what you’re referring to.

I’ve never met or read of a single person who believed you could posit the duties and obligations of citizens in a real setting, in the absence of the power to do so. Never.

I imagine capitalism would be a very foreign concept in other places and times. Why?