Philosophy and Genre

Philosophy has always been practiced in a wide variety of genres, both written and spoken. In philosophy programs in the west, we’re often trained to look for philosophy in specific types of writing: structured prose passages that make arguments in an explicit and logical form. But this is not the only way philosophy is done. This post highlights the wide range of genres used for doing philosophy and the prevalence of philosophical forms that might be considered ‘non-standard,’ including within mainstream professional philosophy. It also notes some of the effects of considering some kinds of writing and speech, and not others, to be philosophical.

My background is in German philosophy, and this is reflected in the examples given in this post; however, I have tried to include examples from other philosophical traditions as well.

A relatively wide range of forms are commonly used in philosophy within a modern academic setting. We read and produce essays, books, book chapters and journal articles, and are familiar with lectures, seminars, conference presentations, debates and interviews. We’re also increasingly used to reading blog entries and online articles (e.g., the APA Blog and Aeon) and listening to podcasts on philosophy (e.g., The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps and Philosophy Talk).

In addition to published philosophical works, philosophers and historians of philosophy frequently use unpublished notes and drafts, as well as correspondence, to help clarify and interpret the thought of historical philosophers. Spinoza’s letters, the Marx-Engels correspondence, and the correspondence of Elisabeth of Bohemia and Descartes are some notable examples. The Oxford New Histories of Philosophy series includes several volumes of correspondence by historical women philosophers. Unpublished notes and manuscripts have been particularly important in the study of Leibniz, Nietzsche, Husserl and Wittgenstein, among others, but may come into consideration at any point in the study of a philosopher’s thought, especially where their published work is unclear or silent on a certain point.

Most professional philosophers have worked with more philosophical genres than only the above. Almost anyone with a philosophy degree will have read Plato’s dialogues, and the dialogue has continued to be used throughout the history of philosophy, for example by Augustine, Giordano Bruno, Berkeley, Hume, Schelling, and Anne Conway and Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, to give only a few examples from the western tradition. Dialogue forms are also used in Chinese, Islamic, Jewish and Indian philosophy, among others: we find examples in Mozi, the third century BCE philosopher Gongsun Long, Averroes, Yehudah Halevi, Rabindranath Tagore, and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In some ways related to the dialogue is the philosophical drama: examples were written by Plato and Mengzi, Voltaire, Lessing, Sartre and Beauvoir – and by Günderrode (who also wrote dialogues). Rousseau even wrote a philosophical opera (The Village Soothsayer).

We’re familiar with lectures, seminars and conference presentations as forums for teaching and practicing philosophy. Where written records of these exist, such as in the cases of Schelling and Fichte, these are also sometimes consulted by historians of philosophy in a similar way to unpublished manuscripts. Other public speaking events such as sermons and speeches, and written records of these, can also be interrogated for their philosophical contributions. Examples that are often interpreted as works of philosophy include Joseph Butler’s Fifteen Sermons and political speeches by Edmund Burke, Clara Zetkin and Frederick Douglass, among many others. More so than lectures and conference presentations, sermons and speeches tend to overtly exhort their listeners to espouse a particular position and/or take particular actions, and to use rhetoric as well as logical arguments; they are less likely to aim for, or to claim to have achieved, an objective or disinterested perspective.

Short genre forms, such as analects, maxims, proverbs, aphorisms and fragments, have long played a role in academic philosophy, despite the fact that these forms seem antithetical to an understanding of philosophy as requiring sustained argumentation. It is sometimes said that western philosophy begins with the fragment, as the earliest western philosophy of which we have records, that of the Presocratics, survived only in fragmentary form. Heraclitus, Ban Zhao, Pascal, La Rouchefoucauld, Montaigne, Shaftesbury, Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein wrote philosophy in the form of aphorisms or fragments. These genres may be used pedagogically (as they are easy to remember), to prompt moral reflection and stimulate moral action, in the service of skepticism (e.g., in the paired propositions of Sextus Empiricus), or to highlight the limitations of human knowledge, especially the inadequacy of knowledge that purports to form a system or reflect a whole (the latter approach is particularly explicit in the work of Nietzsche and the Early German Romantics).

Commentaries on established philosophical and scientific texts are another longstanding format for philosophy in many traditions. Examples include Hypatia’s commentary on Diophantus’ Arithmetica, Porphyry’s commentaries on Euclid, Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah, Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle, Émilie du Châtelet’s commentary on Newton’s Principia, Wang Min’s commentaries on the Yijing and Laozi, Zhu Xi’s Zhouyi benyi, and Abhinavagupta’s Īśvarapratyabhijñā-vimarśini.

Literary genres have been used to great effect by numerous philosophers. Philosophical novels have been written by (among others) Ibn Tufail (Hayy ibn Yaqdhan), Rousseau (Émile), Margaret Cavendish (The Blazing World), Germaine de Staël (Delphine), Friedrich Schlegel (Lucinde), Nietzsche (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), Mary Wollstonecraft (Maria: or, The Wrongs of Women), Sartre (Nausea), Beauvoir (She Came to Stay). Philosophy is also sometimes practiced through poetry, including in ancient Greek, European, Indian (e.g., Abhinavagupta’s Abhinavabharati), Mexican (First Dream by Juana Inés de la Cruz), and Chinese (e.g., the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch) philosophy.

Add to the above encyclopedias and doxographies, meditations, soliloquies, biographies and autobiographies (e.g., by Augustine; Rousseau; Abelard and Douglass), allegories and parables, myths and folk tales, religious scriptures, pictorial histories, travel narratives and even postcards… And this is not an exhaustive list.

Philosophers have various reasons for working in specific genres. Some of these forms have been helpful, during certain historical periods, in avoiding censorship or deflecting condemnation for engaging in intellectual activities not thought suitable for one’s position. For example, Lessing wrote his play Nathan the Wise to avoid censorship for its challenge to the supremacy of Christianity: clothed in this literary form, it was harder for his enemies to pin him down as responsible for any particular controversial claim than it had been regarding his earlier attempts to present these points in a more discursive form. In Europe, authors often used fragments to distance themselves from their work, claiming to be mere editors of found pieces of controversial or scandalous writing by others, which they had really written themselves. Women in late 18th and early 19th century Europe, including Günderrode, often presented their philosophical thought in novels, letters and poetry, which were considered more acceptable forms for women than essays, treatises or monographs (or public lectures and speeches).

But authors may also choose a specific genre because they consider it the most suitable medium for philosophical thinking or communication for a particular topic or in their particular case. Essays, articles and books are good media for explaining things and making arguments, but they can be dry or leave their readers unpersuaded. Novels, short stories, dramas and poems can present information to their readers in a way that is more persuasive, or that makes their ideas more concrete, as Karen Detlefsen points out. For example, I have argued that some of Günderrode’s literary works are efforts to convey what it would be like to experience the things she argues for in her metaphysical pieces (such as consciousness after death, or reincarnation). Some genres, including dialogues and dramas, allow multiple viewpoints to be expressed and related to each other by the various characters. This is helpful for presenting and responding to objections, and may encourage the audience to question others’ positions and engage in dialogue themselves. And some philosophers, such as the Early German Romantics and Nietzsche, oppose the claim that it is possible to create a comprehensive or accurate understanding of the world, or to engage with ideas and events from an objective standpoint. They may use rhetorical strategies for communication or claim that fragmentary, incomplete, and self-contradictory writings speak more truthfully (or at least less deceitfully) than straightforward discursive language.

In light of this rich diversity in media for doing philosophy and the strengths of many of these forms, it should be surprising that those who work on marginalised figures and traditions in philosophy are often asked to justify why they count as philosophy, or simply told that these subjects are “not philosophy.” In her paper “How is this philosophy?” Kristie Dotson explores this “culture of justification” within academic philosophy, which she argues presupposes shared norms for conducting philosophy that are not, in fact, very widespread, even within the western tradition. In addition, the demand for justification is applied unevenly: various forms of exceptionalism, including the idea that only westerners can accurately understand nature and society, work “to not only refuse some [people] access to justifying norms, but to also exempt others from being subject to certain prevailing justifying norms.”

As Dotson and others point out, the focus on certain forms of thought and communication as properly “philosophical” and the marginalisation or exclusion of others is integral to the constitution of philosophy as a practice. Dotson notes: “In a culture of justification, historical, unwarranted exclusions come to inform the very justifying norms relied upon for legitimation.” Similarly, Sarah Tyson argues that “the history of European and Anglophone philosophy is more than incomplete; it has been constructed through practices of exclusion that we can critique.” And Robert Solomon claims that “our critical scrutiny today should be turned on the word ‘philosophy’ itself… to realize that what was once a liberating concept has today become constricted, oppressive, and ethnocentric[.]”

I believe that the lack of a single, universally agreed-upon definition of what philosophy is or what form it should take is a strength of the philosophical project. The interrogation of our world in all its aspects (physical, social, linguistic, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual), and the exploration of different ways for conceiving of experience, can be, has always been, and still is conducted through a multitude of forms.

I believe that the lack of a single, universally agreed-upon definition of what philosophy is or what form it should take is a strength of the philosophical project.

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3 thoughts on “Philosophy and Genre

  1. Dear ACE,
    Thank you for the comprehensive synopsis of the historical forms of the philosophical project. This survey reminds and frees me to consider some of my own ideas and projects more liberally. In addition, your writing is delightfully clear and direct. You are a refreshing instructor and your work is deeply appreciated.


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