The trick of philosophical novels is that they’re not philosophy

One of the interesting things about Objectivism is that its primary method of transmission is novels – particularly Atlas Shrugged, but to a lesser but still serious extent The Fountainhead.

I don’t like philosophical novels. I don’t mind books with philosophy in them, as a sort of undercurrent, but when the characters start preaching platitudes, my eyes glaze over. So, one of my favorite novels is Dune by Frank Herbert, but by the time we get over to God-Emperor of Dune, I’m just bored. Leto’s long, dull as speeches rehashing a primitive Nietzschean fantasy are uninteresting. So, unsurprisingly, I’m also not fond of Atlas Shrugged and its even longer, even more overtly philosophical speeches. But, philosophically, they’re a trick and nothing more.

This is one of those things where I wish I were famous so that people would listen! I’m going to reveal a trick used by philosophical novelists, right here, right now, to beguile people:

An author controls the fictional world in a way that no philosopher ever can. So, Frank Herbert can have all of Leto’s bullshit prognostication be accurate because he determined the behavior of the fictional universe. So does Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

Philosophers, on the other hand, have this pesky little thing called “the world” with which to contend, not to mention their prickly peers who love it when fools make mistakes. And it is the primary reason why Objectivism, as a philosophy, hasn’t taken off. In the real world, the dribblings in Rand’s novels means very little.

In a novel, the writer can have whatever they desire be true. You can have your characters mouth platitudes and have others incredulously impressed because the author needs never bring up the lack of research and understanding of the basic premises. There need never be inconvenient scientists or economists or historians who say “wait a second, that’s nonsense” and give good reasons. By controlling both sides of the conversation, and every other element in the world, a philosophical novel can propose anything but needs prove nothing.

That, my friends, is a trick. It means there are no philosophical novels, that no novel can teach philosophy in good faith. They can get people interested in philosophy, the same way watching a movie might interest people in the book upon which it was based, but a novel isn’t philosophy to the same degree that a movie is not a book.  They’re just different things.  A novel based in philosophy is going to leave much out, and present things different, in ways that are fundamentally alien to philosophy.

Atlas Shrugged is a trick. It’s a pretty good trick, but it’s nothing but a trick. So if anyone – ANYONE – claims to have learned philosophy from a novel? They’re shining you on. They are spurious. They are ignorant or lying. Bet on it.

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