Love thy neighbourhood

Terry Eagleton

  • The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat by Steven Lukes
    Verso, 261 pp, £14.95, November 1995, ISBN 1 85984 948 2

Most astrophysicists could write a bad novel, whereas few novelists could rise to being even poor astrophysicists. Those who live in the world of letters have to suffer the humiliation of knowing that, like courting or clog dancing, writing fiction is something that almost anyone can do indifferently. There is a nasty piece of work inside most of us. The author of a study of Durkheim would not seem the most obvious candidate for literary creation, but Steven Lukes’s novel is as enjoyable as it is because, not in spite of, the fact that he is a political philosopher. Political theorists, after all, concern themselves with human conduct, as astrophysicists do not; and Anglo-Saxon philosophers are notable for their penchant for jokes, satiric gibes, homespun examples, dotty anecdotes, as German Neo-Hegelians on the whole are not. One would not rush to open a novel by Jürgen Habermas, but Richard Rorty no doubt has a few suave short stories inside him. There are philosophical idioms which are inherently anti-fictional – positivism, for instance – and those which lend themselves naturally to literature. It is no accident that Sartre, whose philosophical thought turns on angst and nausea, should have been the novelist and playwright that one suspects Frege or Husserl could never have been. For many Anglo-Saxon philosophers, this is more or less equivalent to confessing that Sartre wasn’t doing philosophy at all, even though one of the texts they most revere, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, is a ragbag of fictional devices. The style of philosophising of the Investigations is that of a man who valued art above philosophy, and who dreamed of writing a philosophical treatise consisting of nothing but jokes.

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