Philosophical Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Philosophical Novel

David Cunningham

The philosophical novel can be minimally defined as a genre in which characteristic elements of the novel are used as a vehicle for the exploration of philosophical questions and concepts. In its “purest” form, it perhaps most properly designates those relatively singular texts which may be said to belong to both the history of philosophy and of literature, and to occupy some indeterminate space between them. Today the term is often used interchangeably with the more recent concept of the “novel of ideas,” though some theorists have sought to establish a clear division between the two (Bewes).

Among better known (and relatively uncontentious) examples of the form are works such as Voltaire's Candide (1759), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761, Julie, or the New Héloïse), Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833—34), Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brat'ya Karamazovy (1880, The Brothers Karamazov), and Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée (1938, Nausea). However, an extremely wide and disparate range of canonical novels, from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) to George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871—72), have also been read by critics in such terms (McKeon, Jones), and it is clear that, as a genre, the philosophical novel is marked by an exceptional plasticity. Certainly, to the extent that it is not identifiable with any specific formal or technical quality—equally embracing, for example, the epistolary novel and science fiction, omniscient narrators and interior monologues—the attempt at any precise generic definition would seem inherently problematic.

Enlightenment Narratives

Although the extent of their direct influence upon Western European literary developments remains disputed, an important precursor to the philosophical novel is to be found in Arabic fictional narratives. Of particular significance is Ibn Tufail's Hayy ibn YaqzImagen, written in the twelfth century. An early example of the desert-island story, Hayy ibn YaqzImagen utilizes fictional narrative for explicitly pedagogical and didactic purposes, as a means of explaining, and dramatizing, philosophical-theological ideas. The book was newly translated into Latin in 1671 as the Philosophus Autodidactus, followed by English, German, and Dutch translations at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and is thought to have influenced Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22). It also bears comparison with a text such as Rousseau's Émile (1762)—anticipating the latter's use of novelistic form to elaborate a philosophy of education, in a manner which was itself to exert a crucial influence on the later bildungsroman.

It is in the context of the development of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, particularly in France, however, that the philosophical novel most clearly assumes its modern shape. Ian Watt notoriously claimed that eighteenth-century French fiction “stands outside the main tradition of the novel” (33), as opposed to that “inaugurated” by Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding. Yet this exception culturelle might equally be regarded as a function of the unique centrality of the philosophical novel to the early French novel's development, constituting an alternate tradition to its Anglophone counterpart. In a later 1754 commentary on his Lettres persanes (Persian Letters), originally published in 1721, Montesquieu writes: “Nothing has been more pleasing in the Persian Letters than finding there, without expecting it, a sort of novel [roman]” (qtd. in Keener, 136). Although not quite the first epistolary fiction, Montesquieu's early use of that form lends it some distinctive characteristics, as he makes clear: “[I]n ordinary novels digressions may be permitted only when they form a new story themselves. The author should not add passages of philosophical discourse because...that would upset the nature and purpose of the work. But in a collection of letters...the author has the advantage of being able to join philosophy, politics, and morality with a novel” (qtd. In Keener, 137). Significantly, the Lettres persanes is thus marked, formally, by the extent to which philosophical reflection and social comment tend to predominate over characterization or narrative momentum (see EPISTOLARY).

The legacy of such openness to directly philosophical “digressions” may be located in a number of later eighteenth-century fictions such as La nouvelle Héloïse and the Marquis de Sade's Aline et Valcour (1788, Aline and Valcour). Yet, tellingly, if the fictional and narrative works of Rousseau, or, say, Denis Diderot, are often regarded by critics as occupying a somewhat liminal position with respect to the mainstream history of the novel, it is because, in their apparent privileging of discursive reflection over plot or characterization, they are generally seen as belonging more properly to the history of philosophy itself.

By contrast, other eighteenth-century novels such as Candide or Samuel Johnson's Rasselas (1759) are much more clearly organized around “a single motivating [philosophical] doctrine [which] generates a parable that illustrates it” (Anderson, 172). These works are less distinguished by the heavy presence of philosophical discourse within the fabric of the text than by their specific use of novelistic technique to give “concrete” imaginative form to a set of more or less “abstract” theoretical propositions. Often close to allegory in this respect, characterization and plot are not so much downplayed in such novels, as they are used as a kind of literary means to implicitly philosophical ends. Characters thus tend to be constructed so as to embody specific intellectual positions, while fictional situations are deployed as illustrative of particular philosophical dilemmas.

Candide and Rasselas also conform to bakhtin's theorization of the novel as acquiring its productive dynamic from the parodying of other genres—in this case, the “genre” of philosophy itself. Similarly to Jonathan Swift's slightly earlier comic deflations in Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel such as Candide is, above all, parodic and satirical in its approach to the intellectual positions it engages, Voltaire's central target being a somewhat caricatured version of Leibnizian “optimism.” The capacity of the novel to give concrete and particular form to philosophically lofty ideas is thus deployed here to largely negative effect, as the theory that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” is violently confronted with the reality of the actual world Candide encounters (see PARODY).

From Romanticism to the Novel of Ideas

Although it has had a far greater influence on the philosophy of the novel than on the philosophical novel itself, one key legacy of French Enlightenment narratives is to be found in early German Romanticism. Friedrich Schlegel's famous declaration that the roman (novel) is (or should be) a “romantic book”—a specifically modern fusion of “poetry and prose, inspiration and criticism” (1991, Philosophical Fragments, 31)—takes much from his readings of Rousseau and Diderot, as his 1799 “Letter about the Novel” makes clear, and is also manifested in a handful of novels attempted by the Romantics themselves, including Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion (1797—99), Novalis's Heinrich von Ofterdingen (pub. posthumously, 1802), and Schlegel's own Lucinde (1799). Alongside the French philosophical novel, the major reference point for these works is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in particular Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (1795—96, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), of which Schlegel wrote an enthusiastic 1798 review. Initially, Novalis, too, praised Goethe's famous bildungsroman as a work of “practical philosophy” and thus “true art,” but his later misgivings concerning its focus on the quotidian particulars of contemporary bourgeois reality—“unpoetic to the highest degree, as far as spirit is concerned”—are perhaps more revealing as regards the philosophical novel's immediate fate (1997, Philosophical Writings, ed. M. M. Stoljar, 158).

Nineteenth-century realism did not prove especially conducive to the philosophical novel, for obvious reasons given its emphasis on the empirical and everyday. Many canonical works of realism certainly have strong philosophical elements within them—George Eliot's novels, for example, exhibit an obvious influence of the German thought of which she was herself a translator—but these are rarely presented as dominant concerns. The exception to the rule here would appear to be the Russian novel, although, arguably, this is because of the exceptional nature of its relationship to the “foreign imports” of both Western European realism and post-Enlightenment philosophy (F. Moretti, 1998, Atlas of the European Novel 1800—1900, 195—97). In Leo Tolstoy's Voyná i mir (1865—69, War and Peace), characters not only become the focal point for a complex exploration of different systems of belief, but, in its later sections, the novel increasingly incorporates philosophical and essayistic forms of discourse into the prose itself. Such direct argumentation is further combined in Dostoyevsky's Zapiski iz podpolya (1864, Notes from Underground) with a more thoroughgoing construction of the novel as a vehicle for putting to “the test of life” particular contemporary ideas—in this instance, Russian nihilist and utopian socialist thought—a model which Dostoyevsky was radically to extend in a progressively ambitious series of works that followed.

Importantly, Dostoyevsky's novels have come to be among the first since early German Romanticism to be accorded serious attention as philosophy. The “Grand Inquisitor” story recounted by Ivan in Brat'ya Karamazovy has, for example, frequently been anthologized and discussed as a significant philosophical argument in its own right. However, to treat such sections in isolation as minor philosophical treatises is to remove them from what Bakhtin describes as their specific “polyphonic” or “dialogic” context, which constitutes Dostoyevsky's most significant contribution to the modern philosophical novel's development. For the latter is generally less concerned with using the novel for the elaboration of a pre-conceived or “monologic” philosophical position than with the deployment of narrative as the means by which divergent ideas may be brought into (a frequently unresolved) conflict with each other in the work.


The philosophical novel arguably returns to much greater prominence in so-called “high” modernism. Works such as Robert Musil's Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (1930—42, The Man without Qualities), Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (1913—27, Remembrance of Things Past), or Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg (1924, The Magic Mountain) are, for example, readable as varieties of philosophical novels in the degree to which they directly interpolate often lengthy philosophical reflection into the prose of the novel itself, whether via first-person narration or dialogue. At the same time, early twentieth-century novels that sought to elaborate (often idiosyncratic) philosophical ideas frequently did so, implicitly, as a means of responding to a perceived historical “crisis,” as in D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (written during WWI, pub. 1920). If such extensive incorporation of philosophical discourse recalls the eighteenth-century French philosophical novel, however, writers such as Musil or Mann tend to be far less systematic in their elaboration of any identifiable philosophical proposition, and more concerned, in the wake of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, with constructing and meditating upon a confrontation between ideas as a means of representing the contemporary.

Although, in practice, the two overlap, a somewhat different type of philosophical novel might be identified in novels such as Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (1922), Sartre's La Nausée, or Albert Camus's L'Étranger (1942, The Outsider). While both their literary tone and variant philosophical sympathies are radically different from those of a novel like Candide, such works still tend to conform, in broad terms, to that Voltairean model of the philosophical novel organized around a “motivating doctrine [which] generates a parable that illustrates it” (Anderson, 172). By contrast, a rather different manifestation of the philosophical novel would be identifiable in Franz Kafka's Der Prozeß (1925, The Trial) or Samuel Beckett's Trilogy (1951—53). Here it is less a question either of direct philosophical reflection, in the manner of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, or of the quasi-allegorical elaboration of a preexisting philosophical “content” by literary means, than of the degree to which such novels may be read as exploring a series of fundamental philosophical questions at the level of literary form itself. As Theodor Adorno argues, while in Sartre philosophical problems tend to be “diluted to an idea and then illustrated” (though this is perhaps less true of La Nausée than of the plays), in Beckett and Kafka “the form overtakes what is expressed and changes it” (241). In Beckett, this is complicated by a network of philosophical allusions that, while making his writing seem to “offer itself generously to philosophical interpretation,” go on, as Simon Critchley puts it, apparently “to withdraw this offer by...reducing such interpretation to ridicule” (143). As such, recent readings of Beckett have often stressed the fundamentally parodic character of his allusions, recalling, in their own way, the satirical eighteenth-century philosophical novels of Voltaire and Johnson.

Critical Issues

For many critics, as Proust once remarked, a novel that too obviously trumpets the explicit “idea” behind its construction is akin to an artwork with the price tag left on. English Showalter's judgment that a writer like “Sade” has more interest because of his ideas than because of his talents as a novelist” (477) is, then, fairly typical of the opposing claims of literary value and philosophical originality or rigor that are often evoked in debates surrounding the philosophical novel. Adorno, for example, criticizes both Sartre, for using literature as a mere “clattering machinery for the demonstration of worldviews” (242), and Musil, for a predominance of “thinking” at the expense of properly novelistic narration (see S. Jonsson, 2004, “A Citizen of Kakania,” New Left Review 27:140).

From a different perspective, however, it is the novel's very concrete sensuousness and attentiveness to everyday experience that has been said, by some, to lend it a special intellectual significance with regard to characteristically philosophical concerns. Hence Showalter argues that the novel may actually have been “the best medium” for a thinker such as Rousseau “to express his thought...[insofar as] the autonomy of...fiction nullifies the philosopher's tendency to sterile systems and abstract perfection” (476—77). It is not surprising, therefore, that the specific philosophical position with which many of the more successful early practitioners of the philosophical novel, such as Voltaire or Johnson, are associated is one that favors empiricism and a skepticism toward abstraction per se.

Finally, an obvious issue raised by this brief account concerns the degree to which the philosophical novel—in its loose, traditional, generic definition—has historically been, or remains, a European or “Western” form. Certainly the usual examples proposed of contemporary novels within the genre, such as Milan Kundera's Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí (1984, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), have tended to be by somewhat self-consciously European writers. Of course, there are obvious instances of the philosophical novel to be found within the North American tradition, stretching back to the nineteenth century—from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851) to the works of William T. Vollmann and others today. Equally, there are many twentieth-century Japanese novels, like KenzaburImage Imagee's Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967, The Silent Cry), strongly influenced by existentialism, or his Atarashii hito yo mezame yo (1983, Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age!), that could be read as examples of the form. Surprisingly, while, for example, various of Jorge Luis Borges's hugely influential short stories have often been understood as belonging to the broad tradition of the conte philosophique, critical consideration of the Latin American novel during the Boom period has rarely engaged any of its canonical works as instances of the philosophical novel, even if the writings of Alejo Carpentier or Isabelle Allende would certainly seem open to such interpretation.

More generally, attempts to locate examples of the genre beyond “the West” entail the perhaps difficult question of how far the modern European conception of “philosophy” itself can be projected onto other traditions of thought. This would clearly be an issue in assessing whether, for example, various instances of the modern Indian novel's engagement with Hindu thought should be read as belonging strictly to the philosophical novel tradition. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that there are, at the very least, strong parallels to be found in the case of works such as R. K. Narayan's The English Teacher (1945), with its semiautobiographical exploration of grief and enlightenment, or Raja Rao's The Serpent and the Rope (1960) and The Chessmaster and His Moves (1988), both of which draw extensively upon Vedantic thought.

SEE ALSO: Definitions of the Novel, Figurative Language and Cognition, Ideology, Intertextuality


1. Adorno, T.W. (1991), “Trying to Understand Endgame,” in Notes to Literature, vol. 1, trans. S. Nicholsen.

2. Anderson, P. (2006), “Persian Letters,” in The Novel, vol. 2, ed. F. Moretti.

3. Bakhtin, M. (1984), Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics, trans. C. Emerson.

4. Bewes, T. (2000), “ What Is ’Philosophical Honesty’ in Postmodern Literature?,” New Literary History 31: 421—34.

5. Critchley, S. (1997), Very Little...Almost Nothing.

6. Jones, P. (1975), Philosophy and the Novel.

7. Keener, F.M. (1983), Chain of Becoming.

8. McKeon, R. (1979), “ Pride and Prejudice,” Critical Enquiry 5(3): 511—27.

9. Schlegel, F. (2003), “Letter about the Novel (1799),” in Classical and Romantic German Aesthetics, ed. J.M. Bernstein.

10. Showalter, E. (1972), “ Eighteenth-Century French Fiction,” Eighteenth-Century Studies (17.5) 3: 467—79.

11. Watt, I. (1972), Rise of the Novel.