guest post by Nick Riggle
Philosophy is a famously rigid and complex discipline full of daunting and difficult prose. As a sign of this, people have wondered whether philosophy is literature. Literature is creatively ambitious, figurative and fun, wildly imaginative and associative. Philosophy, in contrast, is often hyperbolically literal, formulaic, painstakingly logical, tortuous and so often unfun.
But even in a tradition as strict as analytic philosophy, fun can be had, imaginations can run wild, and style can reign. If there is anything true in the complaint that philosophy lacks the quality of literature, it is that philosophy often lacks voice.
What does it mean for a “voice” to be present in works of philosophy? Voice is a vague concept in literary theory and it is often defined in a way that is indistinguishable from the typical definition of literary style. Here is how an expert defines voice: “A writer’s voice is the way his or her personality comes through on the page, via everything from word choice and sentence structure to tone and punctuation.” And here is philosopher Jenefer Robinson’s influential definition of literary style: “I shall argue that style is essentially a way of doing something and that it is expressive of personality. …what count as the verbal elements of style are precisely those elements which contribute to the expression of personality.” If you’d rather not take a philosopher’s word for it, here is poet Frank O’Hara: “Style at its highest ebb is personality.”
But voice and style are not the same. Literary style is the expression of the ideals the writer has for their writing. The writer who values economy of expression and rhythm has a different literary style from the writer who values complexity of thought and detailed emotional insight. Writing that follows strict formulae or rules of composition (e.g. writing legal contracts or instruction manuals) has difficulty achieving style because the rules crowd out the expression of literary values. Trying to inject one of these anti-style genres with style is a recipe for literary disaster. Or worse: witness WeWork’s failed IPO filing.
Voice comes from the perspective the writer inhabits as a writer. A writer’s voice is that of a single mother in Southern California expressing the difficulties of raising two children. She might do this through a poetic economy of expression or through a complex and emotionally nuanced account. A writer’s voice is that of a Zoomer navigating romance through DMs and dating apps, or a bank executive worried about the economy. Literary voice is, in this way, personal, where literary style is artistic.
Of course voice and style are not entirely separate. They can interact and influence each other. A writer’s artistic ideals might be informed by the perspective that drives their voice, and a writer’s voice can be shaped and inflected by their style. Some aesthetic writing practices encourage the former (rap, or romantic poetry with its ‘spontaneous overflow of passionate feelings’) and others tend toward the latter (Flaubert, Proust, Ernaux, French Writing in General?).
But there is an important difference between voice and style when comes to connecting with a reader. While style can captivate and impress, voice is a locus of love. By conveying the specificity of a perspective, literary voice forges connections and grounds affection between reader and writer, where people can communicate elusive truths about the world and their experiences. In doing so, voice has the power to create literary intimacy.
Although style and voice can interact in mutually supportive ways, when it comes to philosophy, style and voice tend to conflict. Philosophers are encouraged to adopt an ideal of philosophical writing that inhabits an impartial or impersonal perspective. Philosophers abstract from all real-world roles and particular perspectives and write from the place that Thomas Nagel called “the view from nowhere”—speaking from a general ‘we’, making claims about what ‘one’ does, structuring the prose by the general strictures of logic, writing to a faceless opponent.
If literary voice comes from inhabiting in writing a particular role and perspective, then a common ideal of philosophical writing amounts to aspiring to a kind of voicelessness, where everyone tries to write (and read) from the placeless perspective of a General Philosopher. Philosophy thus tends to lack that source of writer-reader connection and affection, and so it often overlooks those elusive truths we can communicate by developing literary intimacy.
The ideal of voiceless writing is a kind of style, and since style and voice interact, the philosophical ideal of writing can be quite literally self-sabotaging—trying to bring a voiceless self forward in writing in ways that clearly present a vocal self. Often that voice is simply a product of its time—the way that Kant, for example, comes across as a very specific dude in a very specific set of circumstances—revealed in various time-stamped expressive devices, e.g. the strategies the philosopher deploys to attain voicelessness.
When we suppress the power of voice in philosophical writing, we tilt philosophy toward voiceless questions that ask for perspective-free answers, and in doing so we encourage philosophers to lose their voices. This is an expressive problem in itself, but the problem is exacerbated when we also care about making philosophy a more diverse practice. Simply gaining membership to an elite club does not mean you can really speak your mind. And a philosopher’s particular identity can deeply influence their philosophical concerns without shifting their writing voice an inch out of the view from nowhere. Without diversifying voice in philosophical writing, we risk losing a source of the intimacy that can communicate the important and elusive truths philosophers possess. To bring voice into philosophy, we need to be able to step out of the view from nowhere and land somewhere, in our own bodies, times, and lives.
History has shown that philosophy can inhabit a wide range of literary forms in the service of voice—novels, letters, memoirs, dialogues, confessions, plays, and poetry [as I was editing this piece Helen De Cruz posted this]—and past philosophers have effectively developed voice in their works. Unfortunately, perhaps the most famous and widely taught example is Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, where, to me at least, he at best semi-convincingly deploys the voice of a man desperate for knowledge to encourage the reader to cultivate their own doubt. There are more effective examples in Montaigne, Emerson, de Beauvoir, Arendt, Cavell, and others. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes from the perspective of two radically different worldviews to get his readers to inhabit them and appreciate their differences. Sor Juana’s The Answer and Friedrich Nietzsche’s entire oeuvre scream with voice.
Some contemporary philosophers have tiptoed outside of the confines of academic writing. Most recently, Kieran Setiya’s Life is Hard adopts the voice of a man who suffers chronic pain and of a philosopher who wants to understand the place of pain in a life well lived. Chloe Cooper Jones’s Easy Beauty combines a philosopher’s discernment with deeply personal, beautiful, and humorous insights into her own disability. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s impassioned voice in Elite Capture is blazing with his own sense of care and conviction. My recent book This Beauty develops the voice of a man who had a challenging childhood, who is becoming a father, and who sincerely wants to understand what, if anything, makes life worth living so that he has something sincere and thoughtful to say to his sons. Philosophers like John Kaag, Anthony Appiah, Agnes Callard, and Alexander Nehamas prove that philosophers can write from places of pain, oppression, loss, joy, need, and love. And in doing so they show how philosophy can handle deep and difficult issues in ways that bring to the fore the humanity they have forged by living and confronting life in the actual world as unusually reflective and intelligent people.
Let’s unleash the literary power of philosophy and let our voices sing.