John Gardner, On Writers and Writing, p. 225:
. . . at their best, both fiction and philosophy do the same thing, only fiction does it better — though slower. Philosophy by essence is abstract, a sequence of general argument controlled in its profluence by either logic (in old-fashioned systematic philosophy) or emotional coherence (in the intuitive philosophies of say, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard). We read the argument and it seems to flow along okay, make sense, but what we ask is, "Is this true of my mailman?" . . .
Fiction comes at questions from the other end. It traces or explores some general argument by examining a particular case in which the universal case seems implied; and in place of logic or emotional coherence — the philosopher's stepping stones — fictional argument is controlled by mimesis: we are persuaded that the characters would indeed do exactly what we are told they do and say . . . . If the mimesis convinces us, then the question we ask is opposite to that we ask of philosophical argument; that is, we ask, "Is this true in general?"
We may distill the following claims from this quotation:
Fiction and philosophy do the same thing.
Fiction is superior to philosophy as a means to their common goal.
Philosophy is abstract: it treats of universals in abstraction from concrete particulars, and leaves us with the question, 'Is this true of our actual concrete experience here and now?'
Fiction is concrete: it approaches the universal from the side of the particular, and leaves us with the question, 'Is the depiction of the particular, a particular character such as Peter Mickelsson in Gardner's Mickelsson's Ghosts, revelatory of general truths?'
Ad (1). It would have been nice had Gardner told us what the same thing is that both fiction and philosophy do or try to do. But the passage suggests that the common goal is to reveal the truth about the world and the people in it. The aim is to raise certain perennial questions, display possible answers to them, and perhaps point us toward the best answer. How should we live? Is one way better than another? What can I know? What ought I do? What can I hope for? What is man? Etc. Should we live like the truth-seeker Larry Durrell in Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge? Or like the socialite Elliot Templeton from the same novel?
One could of course question whether there is some one thing that both fiction and philosophy aim at. In one sense there is. Philosophy and fiction, at least in their nondegenerate forms, deal with the Big Questions. (A novel or philosophical work that attempted to show that these questions are rubbish I would also count as dealing with them.)
But I think there is an important difference. A good novelist has the ability to set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character who illustrates a certain set of values or a certain modus vivendi. Think of Zorba in Nikos Kazantzakis' magnificent Zorba the Greek. He is one vivid character, and the sensitive reader must ask himself whether perhaps Zorba's way is the way to live, and not the way illustrated by his intellectual and introverted boss.
You want the girl? You take her, and you don't scruple over the morality of a roll in the hay with a woman not your wife. You press your point home and to hell with philosophizing about the line between rape and consensual sex. First live, then philosophize, and if you truly live, you will forget all about philosophizing. You eat when you are hungry, drink when you're dry, grab for all the gusto you can along the way, and let tomorrow take care of itself. That's the 'Zorbatic' way.
Unfortunately, the novelist does not establish anything one way or the other. He doesn't establish whether or not the 'Zorbatic' or any other way is the way to go. He paints a picture and rubs our noses in endless delightful details, entertaining us, stimulating our imaginations, raising in vague and woolly fashion great themes like the tension between Life and Thought, between aesthetic indulgence and ascetic detachment, but we get no bloody answer from the novelist. Or if we do get an answer it is but a gratuitious assertion aus der Pistole geschossen.
Now this can't satisfy anyone with a philosophical head. A vague gesturing towards Big Themes and Issues is fine, and so novels are useful for the broaching and illustrating of philosophical questions; but what one wants is detailed argument and at least the approach to something that could count as knowledge. The serious want rigorous inquiry and serious discussion.
Let's say you dream up a character who excuses his debauchery as a 'celebration' of life and you play him off against a character who is scrupulous and cautious and afraid to 'let go.' A good novelist can make it all come alive. But what has been accomplished? Are we any closer to knowing how we ought to live? No. Have we been given any reasons to prefer one way of life to the other? No. Have we see any rigorous inquiry into the question? No.
Ad (2). Is fiction superior to philosophy? Well, if the goal is merely to raise certain Big Questions and illustrate them concretely in vivid characters like Captain Ahab, Raskolnikov, Dean Moriarty, Zorba, Goldmund, Harry Haller, et alia, then fiction is superior. But philosophy aims at much more than this. To put it paradoxically, philosophy aims at concreteness at the level of the abstract in contradistinction to fiction which remains abstract at the level of the abstract. If you merely present some such theme as that the good life is the life of high social status, acceptance in the best circles in the manner of Elliot Templeton of The Razor's Edge, then you have done nothing to show that it is or is not the good life. One has presented a general theme but in an abstract way: there is no detailed articulation of the theme, and no detailed argument for it or against it, and of course no systematic integration of the point with other points in the vicinity. Fiction is abstract at the level of the abstract, no matter how vivid and lifelike the characters it deploys.
Ad (3) and (4). These claims appear to be Gardner's reason for (2). Fiction is superior because it is concrete while philosophy is abstract. But these are flimsy reasons for believing in the superiority of fiction. For as I have shown, fiction is itself abstract where philosophy is concrete, namely, at the level of the universal. Of course, one could respond by saying that fiction is concrete where philosophy is abstract, namely, at the level of the particular. And that may well be right. But then we have no argument for the superiority of fiction over philosophy.
I think the problem with Gardner and most artists who are averse to philosophy is that they cannot grasp its point and purpose, beauty and nobility. They either lack philosophical aptitude, or else thir minds shut down when it comes to the nitty-gritty of close analysis and rigorous argument. The literary fuzzhead cannot help but think that philosophy done seriously, with patience, rigor, and clarity, is just abstract bullshit. They are like people who cannot function at high altitude: it makes them dizzy and they can't wait to get off the mountain with its jagged peaks and sweeping vistas. Reality is down below, they think.