People find philosophical provocation and nourishment in many things, not only in the explicit discussion of ideas by people identified as philosophers. In my life, literature was a philosophical presence before I knew what philosophy was. When I began formal study of philosophy, it felt familiar. It had the literary willingness to question, tease apart and press to unreasonable lengths basic ideas and claims. This is not to say that philosophy and literature gracefully melt into each other; they often have different allegiances, goals and methods. Literature as an art form has an allegiance to creative freedom that philosophy does not (even if many philosophical works and activities do involve exercise of creative freedom). Nonetheless, literature and philosophy spring from some of the same human needs and capacities: for reflection on experience, exploration of possibility, self-understanding, and testing of reasons and values. They are sprawling practices that influence and nourish each other. My focus here is on reading literature for philosophical provocation and nourishment. I will sketch some ideas about when and why philosophy can particularly benefit from what literary works have to offer, thinking especially about understanding race.
Sometimes we have evidence that we are not conceiving of reality adequately. We have ways of thinking – concepts, associations, principles, explanations, theories – that are somehow not perspicuous. They are not apt for identifying or grouping things we experience, or for articulating evaluative criteria. At such times we can feel the need to take up an odd relation to our own thinking. We need to study what it is to think in a given way, which is not the same as just thinking that way, and we need some way of testing it for adequacy. Now, this may sound like an impossible project: we cannot become detached observers of ourselves as thinkers and we cannot test our whole way of thinking for adequacy. We have to commit ourselves to some way of thinking in order to think at all. And the idea of judging the “adequacy” of a way of thinking may sound like quite a pipedream. Are we supposed to peek behind the curtain of human claims to knowledge and experience to check that we are on the right track? I am not trying to go down that difficult philosophical road; I hope it sounds plausible that more modest projects of scrutiny and testing are tractable. We examine our ways of thinking in piecemeal fashion, holding some commitments fixed. We test for adequacy as best we can, given whatever problems and virtues we are able to detect and given whatever criteria of adequacy make sense to us. These are obviously pitfall-laden, ongoing projects; the likely provisional status of their results does not mean that we do not make progress or that we should give up.
Let me illustrate with a simple example of individual inadequacy, testing and change. This is not a philosophically interesting example, but it illustrates, for one thing, the integration of thinking and practical activity. Until fairly recently in my bicycle-riding life, I did not realise there were two kinds (or at least two kinds) of valves for bicycle innertubes. When I inadvertently purchased an innertube with the “new” kind of valve, I spent some futile, befuddled time trying to fill it with air using my old pump. My mind had to open up to the possibility of a more complex category. I had clear evidence that my notion of a valve was inadequate. Now, I have not pursued this inadequacy very far. I do not understand what distinguishes the valves beyond the visual and procedural differences needed for filling an innertube, and I do not know why one might prefer one kind to the other. In this change of thinking and action, I can belatedly join a well-functioning practice maintained by a larger community that holds deeper knowledge. I benefit from a division of conceptual labour, as some philosophers put it, allowing others to understand the kinds in a way that I do not.
In the harder, philosophically interesting cases, we sense that we cannot take advantage of such a well-functioning way of thinking. We cannot just belatedly join in — inheriting a way of thinking, making established distinctions and acting on them — with confidence that deeper knowledge lies behind it. Furthermore, in some cases it seems that responsibility for having a well-functioning way of thinking reaches to each of us individually. Especially with ethically significant ways of thinking, it seems plausible that we each have a “testing” responsibility. Although I in fact do commonly proceed with inherited ethical concepts, principles, values and so on, and this is normal and inevitable in becoming educated into a social world, it seems that my understanding of and justification for an ethically freighted way of thinking should not be “subcontracted”, as it were, to others. It ought to make ethical sense to me.
Over the past few months, powerfully mixed in with living in Covid-19 virus conditions, there has been acutely renewed evidence — police violence and reverberating protests — that we do not have adequate ways of thinking about race and racism. The evidence itself is not new, but it has not gripped enough people’s attention and has not triggered widespread and sustained enough reflection. That is to put it rather neutrally; there have been interests at stake and entrenched injustices that have actively suppressed the claims of evidence. There is, at a minimum, the basic evidence that people have wielded racial categories using skin colour as a decisive element, as if skin colour were ethically meaningful. The categories do not make ethical sense. However, racial categorisation and discrimination are real and powerful, no matter how empty or incoherent the thinking that lies behind them. Others can trace the history, interests and psychological forces that lie behind this inheritance. It seems that we need, and have long needed, to figure out how to make progress as thinkers who have this inheritance. I want to discuss why literary fiction has positive potential in this context.
Let me note that other literary forms such as poetry and creative nonfiction are relevant too, but a focus on fiction will put some interesting issues on the table relatively quickly. Works of fiction, such as novels and short stories, paradigmatically represent events involving conscious agents, and the representations are not constrained in any direct way by a demand to record actual events. Precisely how works of fiction represent what they do, and the reasons and goals behind such representations, vary enormously. In reading a work of fiction we are asked to imagine the events represented at least in a minimal way — we try to register “what happens” in this fictional scene — and to consider what the point of such a work could be. Why imagine this fictional scene? Why represent events in this way, using this structure of words? Sometimes the appropriate answers will be along the lines of “it’s a fluffy farce” or “it’s a dogged celebration of patriotic values” or “it’s an exercise in wish-fulfilment”, and we assess and engage with those projects as we please.
For present purposes, I want to highlight the capacity of fiction to represent the events of thinking and assigning meaning, and the associated events of talking about what things are. Fiction can give us sustained portrayals of what someone is thinking — probably quite misleading if compared to the meanderings of actual consciousness — and it can give us dialogue, including disputes, between conscious beings. The reader can be handed a huge amount of “evidence” about ways of thinking and about how these show up in spoken expression and action. Of course it is not evidence about what actual people have thought, said and done, but it is evidence that someone (an author) took there to be reason for representing such events in this way. Readers can try to sort out their own proximity to the ways of thinking operating within the fictional events and in the reasons behind the work. I hope it seems plausible that this experience has promise for leading people into odd and reflective awareness of how they and others think. I hope it seems especially promising with respect to ways of thinking about race. The work of fiction can summon up multiple ideas about race operating inside and outside the fictional scene, entwined with feeling, action and social context, and this gives readers opportunities to notice, compare and assess these ways of thinking.
That literary works have this potential must be borne out in what readers do, and I cannot simply assume or establish those extremely complex empirical facts. But I will sketch two examples, short stories by U.S. writers Charles Johnson and James Alan McPherson, that strike me as having this potential. Johnson and McPherson make bold use of the possibilities of fiction, including one I have not yet mentioned, which is having some flexibility or expansiveness in temporal orientation. A work of fiction needs some kind of fictional “now”, the time at which fictional events are happening, but that time is usually not the only temporal horizon. In relation to thinking about race, this kind of flexibility or expansiveness seems important, if the hope is to move forward differently. These stories are unsettling, I think, with respect to past, present and future. They use their storytelling to register both people’s efforts to conceive of their reality in clear, fixed terms, and phenomena of fluidity, revisiting the past, and unfinished business.
Charles Johnson’s “The Education of Mingo”, first published in 1977 (when, the author noted in correspondence, he was also writing his PhD thesis in philosophy), is set in the 1850’s in the U.S. The central protagonist is a white farmer, Moses Green, who has a newly purchased “bondsman” or slave Mingo. I experienced the story as a kind of outrageous thought experiment about race-based slavery, going back in time and endowing participants in this practice with different options for thinking about slavery and the relations between slave and slave-owner. What could the slave-owner learn from being in relation to his slave? (Hegel’s thinking about recognition between lord and bondsman, in The Phenomenology of Spirit, hovers in the background.)
One character in the story expresses a familiar conception of slavery as a property relation and identifies slaves with tools. Moses, however, thinks of himself as an educator, saying to Mingo he will “’Teach you everything I know, son, which ain’t so joe-fired much’”. Questions can surface for the reader that do not appear to cross Moses’s mind: how can a tool also be a student, and what could show that someone else needs an education (and specifically this education)? Mingo’s black skin is perhaps used as a shorthand sign of this need, but Moses seems to take the fact that Mingo has different knowledge, has grown up in Africa and speaks another language, as sufficient reason for an educational destruction and replacement project.
“As he taught Mingo farming and table etiquette …, Moses constantly revised himself … He felt … now like a father, now like an artist fingering something fine and noble from a rude chump of foreign clay. It was like aiming a shotgun at the whole world through the African, blasting away all that Moses, according to his lights, tagged evil, and cultivating the good … But sometimes it scared him. He had to make sense of things for Mingo’s sake.”
The reader is privy to Moses puzzling over his powers and responsibilities if he plays this teaching, fathering, sculpting, blasting and cultivating role. What distinguishes his responsibility for Mingo from God’s responsibility for all of life, including human wrong-doing? Meanwhile, the narrative voice suggests yet another relation: “Moses … felt the need for a field hand and helpmate — a friend, to speak the truth plainly”. What Mingo thinks of all of this is left unstated, but a large part of the humour and provocation of the story comes from Mingo’s audacious moves as an interpreter and promoter of Moses’s interests. Mingo’s most elaborate speech responds to Moses’s puzzling, by closely entwining the educating and the property-owning conceptions. Mingo argues that he, Mingo, only knows what Moses teaches him, and that whatever he, Mingo, does, it is really Moses who is “’workin’, thinkin’, doin’ through Mingo’”. Moses takes this argument to heart and concludes that he cannot truly distinguish himself from Mingo: “’Mingo, you more me than I am myself. Me planed away to the bone!’”. Moses accepts responsibility for whatever Mingo does. By the story’s end Moses does not seem to grasp either that he and Mingo could be friends, or that merging with Mingo does not leave Moses in charge of the relation. But he has realised that their lives are joined, and that he is in no position to judge or punish Mingo.
Now, why tell this story? Why read it in 2020? Partly for the fun of it – it made me at least laugh out loud. But the philosophical prompt, it seems to me, is that we have even now not blasted away enough of the thinking that “made sense of” slavery. What happens if we revisit that thinking now and play with its terms? What issues can surface if slavery is viewed as, in part, a vast re-education project? Slavery, in the story’s conceptual space, undermines its own project of domination, once owner and slave become one. What would the legacy of that way of thinking have been? The story portrays a protagonist who, for all his limitations, nonetheless bumbles his way into reappraising and finding inadequacy in the ideas he was educated into. In that schematic fashion, our imaginative access to Moses’s education is suggestive, if we accept that we too have inherited ways of thinking that are not inevitably coherent or defensible.
The second story is James Alan McPherson’s “Elbow Room”, also first published in 1977. McPherson aggressively situates the “normal fictional” elements of the story, involving the marriage of a black woman and white man around the late 1960’s in the U.S., within several layers of commentary and attempted shapings of the story. The story is dotted with italicised remarks from an unnamed editor. Here is the opening passage of the story:
“Narrator is unmanageable. Demonstrates a disregard for form bordering on the paranoid. Questioned closely, he declares himself the open enemy of conventional narrative categories. When pressed for reasons, narrator became shrill in insistence that ‘borders,’ ‘structures,’ ‘frames,’ ‘order,’ and even ‘form’ itself are regarded by him with the highest suspicion.”
McPherson’s tactics (akin to the multiple authorial, editorial voices of Kierkegaard, who is mentioned in the story) allow for expression of competing aspirations for the story. The editor and the narrator intermittently carry on barbed exchanges:
“Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
I was cursed with a healthy imagination.
What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?
A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?
Unrestricted access to new stories forming.”
The editor frequently tells the narrator that a passage needs explanation: “Narrator has a responsibility to make things clear”, to which the reply is, “Narrator fails in this respect. There was no clarity”. The narrator, who is identified as a black man, seeks out friendship with the married couple, Virginia and Paul, for their stories. He is both eager and uncomfortable in this role, noting that he should not intrude, yet prodding them when he thinks they misunderstand their situation. It is also uncomfortable for the reader, as Virginia and Paul’s story is not allowed to be immersively absorbing. Their story remains at an awkward distance, disrupted by editorial asides and analysed by the narrator, who views their story with increasing resignation and cynicism. He wanted to use them for new storytelling purposes yet despairs of this. In the various speakers’ efforts to correct and influence each other, the terms “white” and “black” are often treated as traps or failures of imagination, if also as extremely easy to retreat to — the “white and black” stories are ready-made. The inadequacy of these terms is pressed, roughly, by tying them to arbitrary constriction of both human love and access to good stories. McPherson’s story ends with Virginia and Paul resisting their narrator’s doubt that they can generate a new story.
If we ask about the point of telling this story in this way — disrupted, awkward, suspicious of its own drives for story form and clarity — one answer is that thinking about race needs some halting, layered, dispute-laden treatment. Somehow we need to be made unable to read “the story of an interracial marriage”. What undergoing such a thwarted story experience will lead to is not settled; McPherson leaves only a hope of a new story at the end. A second point, for purposes of philosophical investigation of race, is that we cannot study only thinkable contents such as concepts, principles and reasoning. We need to try to understand a “life” of thinking in terms of race, including the complex needs, interests, delusions and conflicts involved in that life. McPherson presses the idea that this complexity is built into stories, and in his work he aims to expose such storytelling to reflection.
I take McPherson, Johnson and many other writers to give readers philosophically adventurous, constructive opportunities. What happens if we take them up on it is not easy to trace, but I hope to have made a case for the philosophical potential of exploring ways of thinking through reading literature.