Stories

I came across this passage in Moore’s autobiography in the Schilpp volume fairly early in my career. It exactly captures my experience, including my inability to understand those who find no difficulty in doing academic work.

“I cannot claim that during this period I worked very hard, nor perhaps as hard as I ought. Indeed I do not think that for any considerable period of my life I have ever worked very hard, except perhaps for four or five years while I was at school. The fact is that, by disposition, I am very lazy; and there is almost always something which I would much rather be doing than working: more often than not, what I would much rather be doing is reading some novel or some history or biography – some story, in fact; for stories, whether purporting to be true or avowedly mere fiction, have a tremendous fascination for me. The consequence is that I have always been having to struggle to force myself to work, and constantly suffering from a more or less bad conscience for not succeeding better. This state of things seems to me so natural, that I find it difficult to believe that it is not the same with everyone; and if it were the same with everyone, it would not be worth mentioning – it would go without saying. But I have met with facts which seem to me to suggest that, unintelligible though it may seem, there are some people who don’t need to struggle so hard to make themselves work as I do, and are not so constantly or strongly tempted to do something else. Perhaps such people form only a small minority; but, if there are any of them at all, it is perhaps worth mentioning that I have never, since I grew up, been one of them.”

Moore continues: “Certainly during those six years [of his Fellowship at Trinity] I spent a very great deal of time in reading novels and in talking to friends. But a good deal of the time spent in the latter way was by no means without profit for my philosophical work.”

Moore, Autobiography, 24-5

I have only one quarrel with what Moore writes here: surely reading novels can itself be philosophically fruitful, in two ways. First, for moral philosophers, novels can provide rich examples and insights, far removed from the fatuous examples of philosophers involving runaway trolleys, drowning nephews in the bath, pushing big red buttons that will kill x number of people rather than y, and so on. Second, at bottom, all philosophical systems appeal to a certain, usually rather simple, picture of the world and our place in it. Some philosophers like their worlds uncluttered and austere; others populate it with strange entities, including numbers, possible people, universals, and the like. But whatever picture underlies the philosophy, to make it attractive one needs to tell a story: a narrative that shows how this view explains everything, leaves nothing out, and makes sense of the phenomena. Reasoning and logic come into the construction, of course, but in the end a plausible philosophical view is one with a compelling narrative. Just as in the classic novel form, we do not want loose ends, inconsistencies, and so on. But we can have all that and, if the story lacks appeal to that reader, they will reject the philosophical viewpoint as unsatisfying.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s