Why study philosophy and literature?
Anybody on a small joint course is familiar with the reaction that comes after the question, “What degree are you doing?” – the eyebrow raise of mild surprise and a response that sounds something like, “I didn’t even know that was a course, what made you choose that?”. Prospective students are presented with a seemingly vast array of options to choose from, and more often than not have decided the course they are looking for before even beginning to rifle through the catalogue of choices. It is not a surprise, then, that the obscure combinations of subjects which may not initially come to mind when anticipating the move to university are not well known, and my course is just one example of this.
When I began my first year, there were a total of nine people enrolled in Phil & Lit. By term 2, there were only eight. However, its small size does not detract from its value, and over the past three years I have come to have a lot of appreciation for the complement of the two disciplines, which provide an invaluable perspective on each other.
Having studied English from reception until my A levels, it should not have been a surprise to me that literature is a minefield of philosophy. From the study about the human condition in Frankenstein to questions of social responsibility in An Inspector Calls, even the implications of moral agency in The Lord of the Flies, at every stage of my literary education there has been implicit philosophical debate. Going to university and directly engaging with philosophical theory has extended my ability to analyse these texts, identifying views that authors allude to and providing me with extra tools to consider the purpose and influences of each text. I began to find myself referring to philosophers in my literature essays, framing my discussions in the way which I now found allowed me to gain the most from my study. Philosophy is embedded in literature, and every English student is a philosopher whether they realise it or not.
On the other hand, I had never actively studied philosophy before university – it felt daunting to take on a whole new subject at such a high level! However, once I began to be comfortable in the discipline, I realised that my background in literature gave me access to explore philosophical concepts on a deeper level than my modules were presenting me with. Relating what I was learning to texts I had read felt like exploring the most developed thought-experiments I had ever come across, applying theory to actual complex cultural reflections. The implications of differing philosophical viewpoints have almost all been solidified by authors, providing criticism and perspective which a purely theoretical study just cannot achieve.
So, to answer the question of why anyone should do philosophy and literature together, I answer that anyone considering doing only one of the two loses a vast dimension of their discipline. I believe the two are so inseparable that I even ended up doing my final year dissertation as a joint study; despite the extra work it required from me, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice if I just chose one. Sometimes, finding an obscure option can most definitely be worth a few eyebrow raises.