Philosophy in the Literature Class

It sounds like the perfect combination: philosophical fiction. Philosophy in your reading class? It might seem complicated, but the truth is that books that raise philosophical questions can be the easiest way to introduce and learn about philosophy. It is a seamless, entertaining way to give context to issues which may seem abstract and difficult, and learning in context is always a more functional and memorable approach.

World Philosophy Day is celebrated on the third Thursday of November each year, and it gives us a nice opportunity to explore some novels from a philosophical perspective. Read more about this day on the UNESCO website: Philosophy Day at UNESCO.

Levels: CEF B1, B1+, B2, Cambridge PET and FCE, Trinity 5, 6, 7, 8
Age: 12+
Themes: Art, Human interest, Mystery

Here are three titles for you and your classroom.

31_gullivers-travels-coverGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

  • Swift represents the idea of utopia through Gulliver’s travels to imaginary places. This work is closely linked to both Plato’s Republic and Thomas Moore’s Utopia. 
  • Ask your students if they know what ‘utopia’ means. You can give them a short definition: Utopia, is an imaginary land where people live under perfect conditions. (Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica) Or ask them to look it up in a dictionary and define it in their own words.
  • Swift also questions the limitations of human knowledge and understanding. Find examples of this in the novel.
  • How does Swift think about science and mathematics? How is scientific thinking represented?

9783852721521_500The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R. L. Stevenson

  • The story was published in 1886, a time when philosophers and scientists were showing more interest in the human mind and its workings. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are the classical representation of what a split personality can become, of course in a gothic novel, such as this one, this means that the representation is darker and scarier than a simple scientific study.
  • Several studies have been written about this novel from the perspective of dualism, a branch of philosphy.
  • What is dualism? It comes from the word ‘duo’. ‘The term ‘dualism’ has a variety of uses in the history of thought. In general, the idea is that, for some particular domain, there are two fundamental kinds or categories of things or principles. In theology, for example a ‘dualist’ is someone who believes that Good and Evil—or God and the Devil—are independent and more or less equal forces in the world.’ (Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) In philosophy dualism takes the position that the mind and body are not equal.
  • The character(s) in the novel also represent the doppelgänger or double, a figure who is the duplication of somebody else and he or she represents this person’s secret personality.

9783852723044_500To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

  • When you are reading To the Lighthouse, focus on the representation of time and human experience.
  • Just like other Modernist novels, the stream-of-consciousness technique raises questions about the human mind and how it perceives the world. It creates an illusion of the human mind at work, changing subjects in the middle of sentences, and combining physical sensations, memories and associations with traditional descriptive techniques.
  • How does Woolf treat the idea of time in the novel? Modernist writers were influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson. What did he say about time? How is it represented in the novel?
  • Bergson about time: ‘On the one hand, in order to define consciousness and therefore freedom, Bergson proposes to differentiate between time and space, “to un-mix” them, we might say. On the other hand, through the differentiation, he defines the immediate data of consciousness as being temporal, in other words, as the duration (la durée). In the duration, there is no juxtaposition of events; therefore there is no mechanistic causality. It is in the duration that we can speak of the experience of freedom.’ (Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Ask your students if they have ever experienced time from a personal point of view? When does time seem to go really slowly, when does time ‘fly’? Whay events from the past seem if they happened yesterday? Do we always experience time like other people do? Are there any examples of this in the novel?

Here are some ‘philosophical novels’ for you:

  • Murdoch, Iris: Under the Net
  • Murdoch, Irish: The Sea, the Sea
  • Joyce, James: Ulysses
  • Gaardner, Joseph: Sophie’s World
  • Kundera, Milan: The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Mann, Thomas: The Magic Mountain
  • Proust, Marcel: In Search of Lost Time

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