Writing is Philosophy by Existence Proof


I’m moving out of my house. Packing forces me to look at everything in my house, and it’s a museum of my life. All the stacks of papers and books to read for unfinished projects, unanswered letters, or completed projects that I’d once been proud of but had since forgotten. Have you ever gone through a relative’s house after they died, looking for something that had captured and held something of their maker? Letters to the editor, birdhouses, notes in the margins of obscure books, collections of pen knives, and shelves full of electronic gizmos all used exactly once. All of which seem sullenly dull and uninteresting, unworthy of the passion and attention bestowed on them.

This is like that, only it’s me. It feels like reading my own obituary. Why did I do these things instead of something else? Should I have tried to accomplish more, travelled more, or partied more? I’ve often felt guilty about writing fiction, because it doesn’t “accomplish” anything. Yet, looking back years later on the things I did “accomplish”, they don’t seem any more worthwhile.

What is worth doing? This is the question of philosophy, and of writing.

On one level, writing is the kind of philosophy we’re used to. Every time you write something, you ask: What is worth writing? Do I need to have something important to say, or just a really good fart joke? Every time you put something out there for others to read, you’re saying what you think is important in life, what you think other people should do or know or think about or feel. Sometimes you write something to be an experience: a comedy whose only purpose is to make people laugh, because you think laughter is worthwhile. While sometimes you write something to talk about experiences, to point to what a character is doing and say “This is or is not worthwhile.”

In his Paris Review interview, Aldous Huxley said,

I think one can say much more about general abstract ideas in terms of concrete characters and situations, whether fictional or real, than one can in abstract terms. … I think that probably all philosophy ought to be written in this form…. It’s awfully easy to write abstractly, without attaching much meaning to the big words. But the moment you have to express ideas in the light of a particular context, in a particular set of circumstances, although it’s a limitation in some ways, it’s also an invitation to go much further and much deeper. I think that fiction and, as I say, history and biography are immensely important, not only for their own sake, because they provide a picture of life now and of life in the past, but also as vehicles for the expression of general philosophic ideas, religious ideas, social ideas. My goodness, Dostoevski is six times as profound as Kierkegaard, because he writes fiction. In Kierkegaard you have this Abstract Man going on and on–like Coleridge–why, it’s nothing compared with the really profound Fictional Man, who has always to keep these tremendous ideas alive in a concrete form. In fiction you have the reconciliation of the absolute and the relative, so to speak, the expression of the general in the particular.

But there’s another way that writing fiction is philosophy. It’s an attempt to do something worthwhile. Something that won’t make me wince when I look back years later and ask how I spent my life. Something that will preserve more of the feeling that went into it than a birdhouse or a stamp collection, that won’t look, to the people going over my things, like another stupid dull object to throw out. It’s philosophy by existence proof. It’s answering the question “What is worthwhile?” with a kiss instead of a dissertation.

Regular old “philosophy” is philosophy by theorem: building a series of general logical arguments that arrive at an algorithm for classifying things as worthy or unworthy. Philosophy by existence proof is the attempt to prove, by example, that there exist things worth doing.

I guess I could also say all hobbies and arts are philosophy, love is philosophy, and everything we do that we don’t have to do to live is philosophy.


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