Review: Fictive Narrative Philosophy by Michael Boylan

Michael Boylan is a widely published philosopher and the author of substantial literary fiction in a series of six novels (and numerous short stories) extending from Rainbow Curve to Naked Reverse. As the philosopher who has innovated in formulating the Personal Worldview Imfictivenarrativephilosophyboylanperative, Boylan is well qualified to comment on the intersection of the two categories of literary fiction and philosophy.

Boylan has a gift for concisely disentangling the formal philosophical arguments from texts, including philosophical and literary ones, into concise schemas of anywhere from three to a couple of dozen assertions. To reinforce his many distinctions about how philosophy shows up in literature (less so the other way around, except perhaps for Hume, Sartre, and Boylan(!)), Boylan does the reader a service in concisely summarizing numerous narratives, extending from the early novel (Fielding, Richardson), through Sand, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Mann, Johnson, Hemingway, Wright, Baldwin, Wilson, Marquez, Allende, Murdock, Faulkner, Eliot, Pound, Bellow (this list is far from complete), including theatrical pieces and poetry.

Philosophy and poetry (literary, narrative fiction) have not always been the best of friends. Plato famously said, in a quote that Nietzsche’s Zarathustra loved to repeat, “the poets lie too much.” The poets, by which the ancient Greeks understood the authors of diverse forms of literary fiction, use words to make an image of everyday reality. But everyday reality is itself a derivative image of the mathematical and formal truths that make up the deep structure of reality. Thus, the dilemma. The artist, including the poet, is merely copying forms of forms of forms. The result is the devaluing judgment of art (including narrative fiction) attributed to the philosopher King in Plato’s Republic.

Enter Boylan, who argues cogently that the canonical readings of this key text from Plato are one-sided and incomplete. If one looks at Plato’s accounts of art in other Platonic dialogues such as the Symposium and Ion, a different account of the authenticity of art emerges. The authentic genius, inspired and literally filled with spiritual (Godlike) energies, produces beautiful artistic creations that lead the audience in the direction of truth and goodness. It is only the second-rate artist, making copies of copies, who corrupts the common people with his second rate imitations. Thus, the critique of the artist laid forth in the Republic, while accurate enough in its limited context, is far from being the whole story.

Boylan lays out an entire overlooked tradition, beginning even in Plato, that tentatively and intermittently pushes forward. It emerges in the theory of genius of the romantics such as Shelly, Coleridge, and tentatively, though ultimately abortively, in Heidegger. Early evidence of this innovative possibility occurs in Longinus’ account of the sublime. In this alternative approach, literary fiction becomes philosophy and a way of philosophizing itself. The art work is rigorously philosophy as such in that the beautiful artifact shows the way to truth and goodness, the primary philosophical goals.

In the traditional paradigm, the philosopher delivers meaning through the overlay of philosophical distinctions onto the work of art. Boylan traces this approach in detail as it extends from Aristotle, through Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida, deploying his talent for concisely schematizing arguments in a way that makes them accessible and readable.

From another perspective, philosophy is arguably the deep structure of many of the more important literary fictions in the canon and outside of it. As noted, when philosophical argument ends up in the surface structure of a literary work (I am thinking of the philosophical ruminations of some of the characters in Mann’s Magic Mountain), though there is nothing wrong with that as such, the philosophical contribution stands to the narrative as an overlay. More fundamental than such an overlay approach, which is the dominant traditional paradigm, is the possibility of the literary narrative as a philosophical act in and of itself.

The turning point this new paradigm in Boylan’s presentation occurs with the emergence of Leibniz’s distinction of a possible world and its diverse forms. This opens the way to engaging the big philosophical issues of freedom versus determinism, time and eternity, the self and its persistence, in literary narrative form as such.

Boylan aligns with the account of Plato’s cave in which a prisoner, chained to the wall, watching the dancing shadows, escapes and climbs from the cave to see what we call the real world, the sunlit world of authentic reality. The prisoner then returns to the cave to try to tell his fellow prisoners about his experience. They think he is insane and end up killing him. Likewise, when Socrates tried to return to the cave and persuade the prisoner’s of the ultimate value of pure inquiry and speaking truth to power, things did not go well. In spite of logical argument and uncompromising inquiry, Socrates was condemned to death by the narrow-minded leaders of Athens, whose limited imaginations could not comprehend the possibilities to which Socrates referred.

Boylan suffers no such failure of imagination. Boylan’s innovation is to suggest going back to the cave as a narrative fictive philosopher. There is precedent for it. For example, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata uses comedy: the women of the city-state, the Athenian Polis, withhold sexual favors from the men until the latter stop their stupid aggression and wars. Might be worth a try.

Arguably empathy is on the critical path to the success of Boylan’s project as such. Boylan notes: “Empathy is an important skill for living in the world. It allows one to see the multiplicity of perspectives that others have, and it is an essential component to being an authentic member of any community according to my Shared Community Worldview Imperative” (p. 69).

Boylan asserts that Keats’ idea of “negative capability” enables the artist to locate and relocate her- or himself into different perspectives and world views: “I am there. I am living in the skin of the protagonist and facing his or her situation. It doesn’t matter if I cross time, space, class, race, or gender” (p. 69). Sounds like empathy to me.
Boylan puts his own innovative spin on this dynamic as empathy combines with sympathy (understood as emotional engagement with another), resulting in philosophical love (p. 148). Along the way literature expands out empathy and does so philosophically.

Since this is not a “soft ball” review, I will call out a three sticking points of disagreement or incompleteness. First, Boylan attributes a “correspondence theory of truth to Heidegger” (p. 36). Hmmm. How shall I put it charitably? This is debatable. If one distinguishes correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic theories of truth, as Boylan does, then Heidegger’s approach to truth as disclosure points constructively towards a pragmatic approach.

For example, Heidegger famously says that prior to Newton it is not so much that the latter’s laws were false as that they were neither true nor false. In this case, Newton was the one who brought forward the possibility of the coherence and correspondence of nature and human knowledge under law into the opening of the enterprise of natural science in human existence (including the mind). While any answer is going to be a gloss, I suggest pragmatics comes closest to Boylan’s compelling over-simplification. Indeed Heidegger’s “art as the becoming and happening of truth” (p. 37) sounds a lot like the fictive narrative artwork that Boylan is proposing as an alternative to logical argumentation in the narrow sense.

Second, the discipline of Rhetoric comes in for some criticism as the scourge of philosophy (e.g., p. 80) among those who use narrative for propaganda, fake news, alternative facts, and so on. And as long as one works with the limited definition of “rhetoric” accepted in the contemporary media, the criticisms are valid. But if one goes back to Aristotle, then rhetoric is more, much more, than impassioned argument that may persuade even while distorting the facts using unsound arguments.

Rhetoric not only incudes logical arguments and passion, it also includes ethos, which in this context means ethical character. The audience judges the cogency of the argument by means of logic, the energy of presentation, as well as the integrity of the speaker. Thus, if someone in the community is known as a liar (or purveyor of alternative facts), then even though he tells the truth on this one occasion, he is still not persuasive and he is refuted.

Conversely, even if the man of integrity makes a mistake in his facts, he is still believed because of his reputation for “telling it like it is.” This goes to the heart of narrative fiction – the well told, coherent narrative gets its force not only from logic and passionate language, but from the integrity of the persons and the project. In that area, rhetoric may require a “rehabilitation” similar to that which Boylan has performed for narrative fiction against the Plato of the Republic.

Third and finally, speech acts – doing things with words – are at a right angle to the trajectory of Boylan’s argument, and no one is proposing he write another book to integrate speech act theory. However, consider the possibilities. Speech acts bring commitments, structures, relationships, facts into being. In short, speech acts bring worlds into being. Arguably both philosophy and literary fiction are full of world making speech acts. The power of language in speech acts is that which narrative and philosophy share. Sometimes that power comes from formal argument, sometimes it comes from nuanced and seemingly infinitely iterated redescriptions of the details of life, its interactions, and human struggles for integrity.

Fictive Narrative Philosophy is a rich and engaging work, and I have tried to map the full tip of the iceberg here. Taking a step back, Boylan’s approach lines up with Hans Georg Gadamer who begins Truth and Method by talking about the truth value of aesthetics as it unfolds in play, which itself harkens to Heidegger’s alethic approach to truth. In its own engaging and provocatively singular voice, Fictive Narrative Philosophy extends the work on narrative and philosophy that occurs in such substantial contributions as those of Paul Ricoeur, Thomas Pavel, and George Steiner, each of who, in their own ways, refused to be put into traditional academic categories.

Indeed the reader comes away from Boylan’s latest contribution, Fictive Narrative Philosophy, with the compelling thought that just maybe we are not dealing with two distinct disciplines, regardless of how earnestly the philosophy and literature departments in the academic world might try to distinguish them.

Since the pricing of the physical book itself seems to target academic universities with money to burn, my recommendation is to fill out the form and have your local library order it to share the wealth of distinctions in fictive narrative philosophy with the entire community. Perhaps appreciating that much of the interesting work today in literature and philosophy is going on in comparative literature committees, Boylan ends his engagement with narrative fictive philosophy with an impassioned appeal for interdisciplinary engagement between academic departments of literature and philosophy. May it be so going forward!

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: empathic understanding, Ethics, fiction, Hermeneutics, narrative, narrative empathy, Philosophy, talk therapy

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