Stanford University

Gateway Course

CLASSICS 42: Philosophy and Literature (COMPLIT 181, ENGLISH 81, FRENCH 181, GERMAN 181, ITALIAN 181, PHIL 81, SLAVIC 181)

What, if anything, does reading literature do for our lives? What can literature offer that other forms of writing cannot? Can fictions teach us anything? Can they make people more moral? Why do we take pleasure in tragic stories?

This course introduces students to major problems at the intersection of philosophy and literature. Team-taught by one philosophy and one literature professor, it addresses key questions about the value of literature, philosophical puzzles about the nature of literary language, and the surprising uses of literary style in philosophical texts.

Readings span literature, film, and philosophical theories of art. Authors may include Sophocles, Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Proust, Woolf, Walton, Nietzsche, and Sartre. Students master close reading techniques and philosophical analysis, and write papers combining the two. See sample past syllabus below.

See the schedule on ExploreCourses

Sample Past Syllabus

Here is a sample syllabus from a previous year. (The syllabus changes year to year, so please do not assume that a given text will be on the reading in a given year.)

An introduction to the some of the most intriguing and illuminating points of intersection between philosophy and literature, with specific attention to the function(s) of literature and to the function(s) of literary form in certain philosophical writings. We will raise the following questions:

Why would a writer whose aims are philosophical produce anything other than a treatise?
Why would a writer whose aims are literary make use of philosophical ideas, motifs, and vocabulary? What, in general, can literary forms achieve that non-literary forms cannot? What is (or can be, or should be) the effect of imaginative literature? Should we think of it as conveying (special kinds of) truth; transmitting idiosyncratic visions; inventing glorious lies; or simply setting up useful make-believe scenarios? Is it a storehouse of philosophical examples, of phenomenological data? Or is it instead a formal model for ways of living one’s life? And can literature improve its readers morally? Or does its function precisely depend on a refusal to offer clear positions and adopt definitive stances?

We will explore three general kinds of connection between philosophy and literature:

  • philosophy on literature: philosophical approaches to the understanding of literary texts (issues of truth, authorship, selfhood);
  • philosophy in literature: literary texts that explicitly invoke philosophical problems or approaches, particularly those belonging to the ethical domain;
  • philosophy as literature: problems raised by certain philosophical texts whose proper use requires careful attention to their form.


Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
Milan Kundera, Ignorance
Plato, Gorgias
Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Additional readings may be found online, via 


Monday, September 26: Introduction: What is Literature For?

Wednesday, September 28: Literature as Truth
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation vol. I, sections 30, 34, 51, 52
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “Beyond Meaning” (Production of Presence), esp. pp. 64-90
Test Case: Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Monday, October 3: Literature as (Bad) Lies
Plato, Republic X (595a-608b); Gorgias, 447a - 461a
(Suggested: Plato, Republic II-III (376d-398b))
Test Case: Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Wednesday, October 5: Literature as (Good) Lies
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy §1, §7, §24, §25; The Will to Power §853; 
Beyond Good and Evil §1, §4, §24; The Gay Science §54, §107, §290, §299, §344; The Genealogy of Morals III:23-25
Test Case: Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Monday, October 10: Literature as Expression
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, I, III, VIII
Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” [read for the general idea]
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” [read for amusement]
Alexander Nehamas, “The Postulated Author” [read carefully]
Wayne Booth, [“The Implied Author”], from The Rhetoric of Fiction
Test Case: Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”

Wednesday, October 12: Metaphorical Expression
Max Black, “Metaphor”
Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean”
(Suggested: Karsten Harries, “Metaphor and Transcendence”; David Hills, “Aptness and Truth in Verbal Metaphor”)
Test Case: Shakespeare, Sonnet 130; Emily Dickinson, “I Dwell in Possibility”; Wallace Stevens, “Man and Bottle”;
Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”

Wednesday, October 12, 7p.m.: Screening
“Adaptation” (Charlie Kaufman)

Friday, October 14, 5 p.m.: Take-home Exercise 

Monday, October 17: Literature as Make-believe
Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions”
Test Case: “Adaptation”; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (read to p. 61)

Wednesday, October 19: Literature as Make-believe (II)
Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe, Ch. 1, esp. pp. 11-16, 21-43, 51-4 (recommended further reading: pp. 57-69)
Test Case: “Adaptation”; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (read to p. 89)

Monday, October 24: Literature as Simulation
Gregory Currie, “The Moral Psychology of Fiction” 
(Suggested: Kendall Walton, “Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality”)
Test Case: “Adaptation”; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (finish the novel)

Wednesday, October 26: Literature as Imagination
Richard Moran, “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination”
T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet”
Test Case: Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Wednesday, October 26, 7p.m.: Screening
“The Usual Suspects” (Bryan Singer)

Friday, October 28, 5 p.m.: First Paper Due

Monday, October 31: Literature and the Moral Imagination
Martha Nussbaum, “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination”
Tamar Gendler, “The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance”
Test Case: “The Usual Suspects”; Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Clerk’s (/Scholar’s) Tale”

Wednesday, November 2: Literature as Moral Instruction
Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep, ch. 6 (esp. 169-82) and ch. 7 (to 206)
Test Case: “The Usual Suspects”; Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Clerk’s (/Scholar’s) Tale”

Monday, November 7: Literature as Moral Instruction (II): Some Heated Objections
Richard Posner, “Against Ethical Criticism”
Joshua Landy, “A Nation of Madame Bovarys”
Test Case: Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, Chaucer’s Valediction (aka Retraction)

Wednesday, November 9: Literature as a Way of Life: Life as a Poem/Portrait
Michel de Montaigne, “To the Reader”; “Of Giving the Lie”; “Of the Art of Discussion”
Test Case: Shakespeare, Sonnet 35

Monday, November 14: Literature as a Way of Life: Life as a (True) Story
Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition” (After Virtue)
Test Case: Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (excerpts)

Wednesday, November 16: Literature as a Way of Life: Life as a (Tall) Story
Alexander Nehamas, “This Life—Your Eternal Life” (Nietzsche: Life as Literature)
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science §34, §78, §110, §290, §307, §335, §341, §354; Ecce Homo frontispiece
Test Case: Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape

Monday, November 28: Literature as Catalyst: Formative Fictions
Pierre Hadot, “Spiritual Exercises” (Philosophy as a Way of Life)
Test Case: Plato, Gorgias

Wednesday, November 30:Literature as Catalyst: Formative Fictions
Test Case: Plato, Gorgias

Monday, December 5: Literary Philosophy and Philosophical Literature
Literary Philosophy: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Repentance”; “To Flee from Sensual Pleasures at the Price of Life”
Philosophical Literature: Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Wednesday, December 7: Conclusions

Friday, December 9, 5 p.m.: Second Paper Due