Philosophers, Cleverness and Storytelling

Will Essays Leave a Comment

I’m very happy to have just signed a contract with Bloomsbury for a book about Levinas and storytelling called Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling. The book comes out some time early next year, all being well, and it’s been a long time in the making. It aims to read Emmanuel Levinas, the French-Lithuanian philosopher of ethics, both as a storyteller of ethics, and as somebody who calls storytelling to ethical account. There is an intriguing tension here. On the one hand Levinas talks about ethics (almost despite himself) by recourse to the telling of stories; but on the other hand he raises all kinds of interesting questions about the ethical dangers of certain kinds of storytelling.

As a writer of stories myself, it seems that I cannot prevent myself from reading philosophers as storytellers of sorts. Of course, telling stories is not the only thing that philosophers do; but the boundary between storytelling and philosophy is always a blurred one. And the thing about stories is that when you are caught up in them, they can seem so terribly, terribly compelling, not to say self-justifying; but when you step outside of them and ask, ‘why this story and not another?’, then the answer is not always clear.

This is a problem that I often have with philosophy. To take an example, let us imagine that Philosopher A, who is probably more clever than I am or ever will be, says x. I read about x and it all sounds pretty persuasive. Not only is this really rather convincing, but is (Philosopher A claims) a vital key to the puzzle of existence, without which we will all be the poorer.

I’m just about to sign on the dotted line when Philosopher B—who is at least as clever as Philosopher A—comes along and says that Philosopher A is completely wrong. ‘It is clear,’ (Philosopher B claims), ‘that we cannot sustain the position x; therefore I propose that Philosopher A is a buffoon and that is the case.’ Following Philosopher B’s argument, again I am a convert. ‘Of course,’ I mutter, ‘how could I have not seen it.’

At that moment, Philosopher A gets wind of this scandalous attack, then stands up, red-faced—nobody likes to be called a buffoon—and cries out, ‘Philosopher B has clearly misunderstood!’, and sits again down to write a further refutation. So it goes on. And looking on, for those of us who are clearly not nearly as clever as Philosopher A or Philosopher B, it becomes harder and harder to know how we might decide between one or the other.

And it is true, of course, that forming arguments and the practice of reasoned debate are a part of philosophy; but what I very much suspect is that these things are not as large a part of philosophy as many people—and many philosophers—think. If they were, you would find philosophers changing their mind much more frequently than they do. You would find Philosopher A and Philosopher B coming to an agreement, and then going out together for a candlelit dinner, to talk about their new-found mutual understanding over a bottle of wine. You would find that the rallying cry of philosophers was not, ‘Bumkum!’ (or whatever those old Oxford philosopher-dons of legend used to exclaim) but instead, ‘oh, yes, you’ve got a good point there!’ As it is, this is not something you hear philosophers saying very often.

Often it seems to me that the role reason plays in philosophy is that which was summed up by Saint Anselm when he said ‘Credo ut intelligam’: ‘I believe that I may understand’, rather than ‘I understand that I may believe.’ Anselm’s astute point is that arguments about the existence of God do not convert people; but they do demonstrate that, if one is signed up to this particular story, this story can be made consonant with the demands of reason. And this is often what many arguments in philosophy are about, even if this is not acknowledged: the attempt to bring pre-philosophical commitments in line with reason.

This is why stepping back from the heat of some of the often fearsomely technical arguments of the philosophers to ask ‘what kind of story is being told here?’ can be salutary. It allows us to see that even the most meticulously reasoned argument is often a move in a game of rhetoric, and that what is being presented is instead a complex story—shot through with reason and argument, but a story nonetheless—about how the world hangs together, about what we ought to do with ourselves, about how we ought to think, and about what ultimately, if anything, matters. It is not that reasons are not important. They are. But they often take their force from the part they play within a particular story or set of stories; and sometimes the way to make progress, to be capable of thinking differently, is not to tackle these reasons from within the story being told, but by spinning new tales, and from these new vantage points, seeking new reasons and new justifications…

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