Philosophy and Literature: A Short History

While sharing a common origin in myth, Western philosophy and literature have developed as two distinct yet interconnected media of reflection on the human condition. Since Greek antiquity, the relationship between philosophy and literature has been seen as both competitive and complementary. The very earliest philosophers were also poets, such as Xenophanes, Empedocles, and Parmenides. The sophists also tended to combine philosophy with literature. Plato, however, famously distrusted poetic imagination and banned poets from his Republic. At the same time, in composing his dialogues Plato drew on literary techniques. His follower Aristotle did not regard fiction as morally suspect. On the contrary, he thought of it as a useful aid to moral education of the citizens. However, in the Poetics he carefully sets apart imaginative literature—epic, tragedy, comedy and lyric poetry—from philosophy. Once the Romans appropriated the Greek ideal of paideia, they assigned equal educational significance to philosophy, rhetoric, and poetry. Thus many Roman philosophers, including Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Boethius, were also innovative literary authors who transformed such genres as the dialogue, the tragedy, and the Menippean satire.

The rediscovery of the classical tradition by the Renaissance brought forth the new ideal of individuality, which found embodiment in the humanists’ philosophical treatises as well as such new genres as the essay, the philosophical fragment, and the novel. Since Montaigne and Rabelais, a synergy between moral philosophy and literature has defined the European culture of the modern age, producing such constellations of thinkers as the seventeenth-century French moralists, the eighteenth-century philosophes, the Scottish Enlightenment, and the European Sensibility movement. However, the decisive move that brought language and literature to the forefront of philosophy occurred in the second half of the eighteenth century, when traditional theological conceptions of language as mere re-presentation gave way to a new understanding of language as the means of human self-expression. A crucial role in this intellectual revolution belongs to the German pre-Romantic Johann-Gottfried Herder. By insisting on the human origin of language and on its expressive dimension, Herder paved the way for the emergence of the new conceptions of creative genius and the imagination. In contrast to earlier philosophers who drew on literary genres and techniques without reflecting on the distinctiveness of literary language, early German Romantics made imaginative literature (Poesie) crucial to their theoretical inquiry. Literature came to be valued not only for its capacity to convey ideas, emotions, and knowledge of the world but also for its autonomy and authenticity….Read More

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