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A Philosopher-Poet Experiments in Literature

Mara-Daria Cojocaru is a lecturer in practical philosophy at the Munich School of Philosophy, working in the tradition of philosophical pragmatism on issues of emotions, moral reasoning, and non-human animals. She is also a published poet. While her two books of poetry (Näherungsweise, 2008, and Anstelle einer Unterwerfung, 2016) are in German, some of her work has started to appear in English as well, e.g. in Route 57, a Sheffield based magazine for creative writing. She was finalist for the Leonce-and-Lena-prize in 2015 and has been awarded with the Bavarian young talents prize for literature in 2017. Cojocaru shared with me some of her thoughts about writing fiction and the Fiction Writing for Philosophers Workshop at Oxford Brookes University in June 2017.

Why did you attend the philosophical fiction writing workshop?  

First of all, I wanted to get to know all these philosophers who, like me, were involved in serious fiction writing. I had never met anyone else in the profession who did that, or, should I say, who would admit that she or he had literary ambitions. Long before I started to pursue a career in philosophy, I had been writing poetry. However, I think it was after I had published my first book of poetry during my PhD that I realized that nobody else was doing anything like that and that philosophers with an interest in literature were kind of frowned upon. I had approached the whole issue of publishing poetry rather innocently, and what I took away from that experience was that I should regard these two interests of mine as separate. This was at least the situation in Germany at the time. We’ll come back to the issue of whether that is necessarily true for all kinds of fiction or literature. But let me first state another reason why I attended the workshop.

Currently, I am in the process of putting together a new research project and in the course of this, I have developed an interest in writing in English as well. So, basically, I came in order to find out whether native speakers would take my writing seriously at all. Luckily, they did and I am now aiming to combine these two strains of my career even more decidedly. I think that this is much more honest and productive. Especially with my second book of poetry and the philosophical questions that came to trouble me – as regards perspective, as regards the epistemic value of poetry and fiction in general – I realized that I cannot really treat them as separate. I had always sensed that, but I lacked the courage to truly endorse my third reason for attending, which is that I think that literature is really much more powerful than academic philosophy if you want to communicate ideas.

My work on narrative during my PhD had strongly conveyed to me the sense that literature can relate to common sense and to everyday experience in ways that increasingly specialized and hermetic ways of writing in academic philosophy cannot. Though I wholly appreciate the need for technicality inasmuch as philosophy aspires to be a scientific discipline, history shows us that employing literary devices can translate ideas, especially as they appertain to politics and to ethics, into the realm of lived experience, for better or for worse. It is thus almost imperative for a philosopher who cares about how her ideas might fare under real world conditions to offer experiments in imagination herself rather than risking their appropriation by others. (I am thinking in particular of how some utopians abused Platonist ideas in that they turned them into simplistic blueprints.) Of course, however, the risk of such misappropriation is typically low. Thus, while I am not continuously (and ridiculously) worrying that “my” philosophical ideas might be misinterpreted, pro-actively offering such experiments in an undogmatic and non-simplistic way may also have the benefit of drawing a reader’s attention toward the complexities of the extant philosophical debates. This is what I perceive to be a great opportunity for philosophy in general. While we certainly should not overcharge literature with predetermined philosophical or moral or political expectations, I think pursuing an integration of philosophy and literature is a promising project and I would like to put some serious effort into it.

Should philosophers write fiction?  

Despite everything I have said above, I am not sure I would want to say that every philosopher should write fiction. We talked a lot during the workshop about the kinds of fiction that qualify as philosophical. And I don’t think that we arrived at a shared understanding. What is it that makes fiction philosophical? Everyone, it seems, agrees that Tolstoy, for instance, is literary fiction with tremendous philosophical significance. So, we are quick to incorporate great literature into philosophy, maybe too quick. Philosophers like to reference Nabokov, or Shakespeare, but this is where engaging with literature stops for most. You ought to have an educated interest in high literature, but since you yourself are unlikely to be a Tolstoyan genius, it may come across as pretentious to do more than read and reference the literature the world admires. Personally, this strikes me as both a little bourgeois and seriously limiting. There is so much more to explore.

For one, there are different genres that surely engage the reader differently. While speculative fiction might excel at translating the nuances of philosophical technicalities into philosophically alternative worlds and histories in a similar way in which science fiction imitates scientific ways of world-making, much of poetry and flash fiction might be particularly apt at offering novel and challenging perspectives without asking the reader to buy into the whole narrative background as well. Here, we gain glimpses at understanding the world differently and inspiration to reflect upon it ourselves. Now, that doesn’t mean that every philosopher ought to dabble in poetry or flash fiction or what have you, regardless of whether she or he either feels the need to or has the talent to do just that. What I do want to say, though, is that philosophers should take fiction seriously. Seriously both in its potential to convey knowledge, if that is possible, and to ask questions.

What did you learn at the workshop?  

To my surprise, I learned that philosophical dialogue is considered dead. I had only just started trying out dialogue myself. Not sure what I will make of this. I also learned that some people still harbour this stereotype that philosophers are, in virtue of being good philosophers, bad at fiction, because the analytical mind presumably is incompatible with the creative. I think this is plain wrong. I also learned about the wide range of opportunities to submit one’s work and to engage in collective writing practices, especially for people interested in what is called speculative fiction. One particularly intriguing piece of advice worked the other way around: write your philosophical article as if it had a plot. I am not sure I will be able to take that one on board, but I definitely found the thought inspiring. Again, it gave me a sense of confirmation that philosophy and fiction are not mutually exclusive spheres, and I think what I learned before everything else is to have confidence in their fruitful connection.

Have you written philosophical fiction before?  

Yes, although I am not sure that everything that I have written that some people might consider philosophical in nature was meant as philosophical fiction. In the case of the philosophical profession it seems that people are much more eager to interpret the fiction you write as “philosophical” simply because you are a philosopher, too, while the professional aura doesn’t seem to wash out into the poetry if you work as an accountant in your day-job.

What sort of philosophical fiction are you writing now?

I am really looking forward to completing the stories that I had started and that I discussed at the workshop. The feedback I received was both encouraging and to the point. I can’t wait to find the time for them. I am continuing my German poetry, of course, and my main concern there is to not write anything philosophically silly. In addition, and in relation to both the project I have mentioned above and the idea that philosophical articles can be modeled upon fiction, I am going to concentrate on the topic of thought experiments and the use of genuine literature in philosophy. Many people claim that these are altogether different things, but maybe this is too quick and we could become philosophically experimental in literature in an altogether different way.

More about Cojocaru can be found on her website here.  

1 thought on “A Philosopher-Poet Experiments in Literature

  1. Long live poetry and literature (and all the other arts) but Skye Cleary seems to think it’s ‘plain wrong’ to presume the creative mind is incompatible with the analytic. Undoubtedly both processes try to relate to one another but they are fundamentally different in kind as creativity remains intuitive and came much earlier in our evolutionary history than judgement, analysis and evaluation, which are second order derivatives of our feelings, no matter how far back we might try to go to find their source.

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