October 04, 2019

I have a theory that it is in the act of observation that philosophy, science, and literature converge. They all require prolonged, repeated exercises of induction. But first let me backtrack and explain how this all came about.

I’m still wrangling with Seth Godin’s provocation to post publicly every day (would it better be called an avocation?). I’ve been doing this here for about three weeks, with mixed results. Godin argues that blogging every day is the best way to become better at “noticing,” which sounds to me suspiciously like induction. Also, Godin sometimes introduces himself like this: “I’m Seth Godin and I notice things.”

It may sound like a tangent, but I wonder whether this introduction wouldn’t also suit Schopenhauer. I read the Essays and Aphorisms last year, and this seems to me to be a good example of devoting decades to deliberate observation.

Philosophy as a whole once had more interest in determining what the good life, or eudaimonia, might be, and (at least for some philosophers) this was based on an observation of what works and what doesn’t.

Science takes for its object the material world, according to a method which any educated person will understand in principle, but which is so rigorous that it often defies practice. (Most experiments are not being replicated, for example.) But it is clear that observation is intrinsic for it to work.

Literature might seem more of a stretch. It examines human behaviour, which resists measurement in a way that material does not tend to do. Or at least, to stipulate scope, the nineteenth century realist novel seeks to examine human behaviour. For this kind of literature to work, the characters and situations must be truer than true. And as literature takes not material but human behaviour for its object, this can only be done after observing humans for extended periods — just like some of the soft sciences.

For much as we might wish to reason a priori about how humans behave or ought to behave, every endeavour to do so from an armchair, at least of which I am aware, has failed.

But literature succeeds. The best nineteenth century novel is something like a vast, lifelong scientific experiment, including innumerable observations, with everything but the “discussion” and “conclusions” sections left out. This is why they (like many of the best works of science) are still read. They are brilliant acts of induction.

In this the Victorian novel is unlike poetry, which is direct transmission of individual experience and emotion into another medium, and therefore more akin to music. (This might even be an idea of Schopenhauer’s.) Because it requires an unfiltered access to one’s own experience, and perhaps even myopia, narcissism, or lack of empathy (here I am thinking of the heights of Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Mozart), poets and musicians can peak at an earlier age. This is not to say that poetry is not universal — it is — but it reaches its universals through simplicity and specificity, rather than through the complexity of induction and analysis. The “conclusions” section of the best scientific papers is also simple, but it was not arrived at simply.

The classic novel simply cannot be written in the absence of experience, or in a vacuum — I am thinking now of the dullness of Charleville, which Rimbaud so deeply despised, even as he proceeded, in the dullness of this youth, to surpass every previous poet, but after a few minutes of searching I cannot find his amusing acrimony to quote here. Instead, the novel must be based on long and dogged observation. It is therefore best written by the old. (I might even argue that many of the classic novelists reached their heights only in late middle age, and their zeniths only shortly before their deaths.)

But what has all this to do with Schopenhauer? As R. J. Hollingdale argues in the introduction to his translation of the Aphorisms:

Schopenhauer is not difficult to understand provided one knows first something of the problems German metaphysical speculation was engaged in during his lifetime, and then something of his own background and experience.

The combination — personal problems and subjective attitudes expressed in the language of metaphysics — is of the essence. Much of what in other nineteenth-century literatures went into novels, plays and poetry, in Germany went into philosophy, and this includes much of what was most original. There are no doubt other reasons for this, but one reason is certainly the overwhelming presence of Goethe.

Fascinating stuff. The argument is that Goethe cast a shadow so vast that would-be poets and novelists were forced to find their place in the sun as philosophers. He continues, rather beautifully:

The middle decades of the preceding century had been barren, but only in the way a field in spring is barren: the seed is down but it is not yet time for the harvest.

In due course the harvest appeared, and Goethe reaped it all. In every category of ‘literature’ as usually understood he supplied the model instance: Wilhelm Meister was the model novel, the first part of Faust the model play, Dichtung und Wahrheit the model autobiography, the Italienische Reise the model travel book; Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe — the ‘best German book’ in Nietzsche’s opinion – is the German equivalent of Boswell’s Johnson; the collected letters, which number over 13,000, is incomparably the greatest collection of its kind; and in poetry the comprehensiveness and size of his achievement threatened literally to exhaust the capacities of the German language, leaving nothing more to be done. One effect of all this was to drive original intellects out of the conventional literary categories into other fields, especially the field of philosophy, which Goethe had not harvested; and so it is that the world figures of German literature in the age after Goethe are not to be found among novelists or poets or dramatists, but among philosophers: Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche are the German peers of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Balzac and Flaubert, Dickens and Mark Twain.

This is not just a mind-blowing argument, but it seems to indicate to me that there is no fundamental difference between what the best minds in literature, science, and philosophy were seeking to do, at least until the nineteenth century. Science was not even consciously distinguished from philosophy until around that time.

Tolstoy, though, would already not have liked to be lumped in with the scientists. Science, he felt, was already beginning to diverge from its inductive inception, and to become somewhat more authoritarian:

These new justifications are termed “scientific.”

But by the term “scientific” is understood just what was formerly understood by the term “religious”: just as formerly everything called “religious” was held to be unquestionable simply because it was called religious, so now all that is called “scientific” is held to be unquestionable.


Science has adapted itself entirely to the wealthy classes and accordingly has set itself to heal those who can afford everything, and it prescribes the same methods for those who have nothing to spare.

And yet it seems to me that literature and philosophy, at least in their older senses, could be said to be different attempts to answer the only question that interested Tolstoy:

Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?”

The scientific method is at heart, anarchic — i.e., the opposite of hierarchical — because anyone is welcome to undertake a challenge to any previous theory, without either side appealing to authority, simply by repeating an experiment. Through this repetition of experiments, eventually an induction about the truth can be made. As we have seen in the past several centuries, no assumptions are beyond challenge, even those most fundamental to earlier scientific understandings of reality.

Finally, on the connection between Schopenhauer and Tolstoy. Andy Miller, in The Year of Reading Dangerously, argues:

But the one book which most affected the final shape of War and Peace was Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation; the German philosopher’s most renowned work.

‘Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I’ve never experienced before,’ wrote Tolstoy to a friend while he drafted the closing sections of his book; he openly acknowledged that the philosophical conclusions of War and Peace, especially the long passages concerning history and the will of the individual — the actions of so-called ‘great men’ and those of the multitude of people — derived from Schopenhauer.

I argued once, many moons ago, that Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is the unsung influence on the final shape of War and Peace. Many have remarked that Tolstoy read it, but no source that I could find analysed in detail the vast number of parallels in character and plot. (A few in more recent years have cottoned on.)

Miller and I could both be right; I said that Thackeray mainly provided the incidents (parties, jealous rages, duels, and so on) and characters for War and Peace, whereas Miller argues that Schopenhauer provides the ideas. I have a further theory, yet to be fully articulated, that plot/incident/character are relatively independent from the ideas in the classics—and that it is their willingness to deliver the goods in both domains that makes them classics.

But I’ve written enough. The main question now is: What makes us think that there are hard boundaries between philosophy, science, and literature?

I am, by the way, not the first to wonder about this.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.