Gateway Course

"Philosophy and Literature" 


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.

Texts to order

  • Sophocles, Oedipus The King
  • Plato, Gorgias
  • Milan Kundera, Ignorance
  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy
  • (All other readings are on Canvas.)

Films we'll screen

  • “Adaptation” (w. Charlie Kaufman, d. Spike Jonze, 2002, 114 min)
  • “Get Out” (w. & d. Jordan Peele, 2017, 104 mins)
  • “Vertigo” (w. Alec Coppel/Samuel Taylor, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, 128 min)



Monday: Introduction: What is Literature For?

Wednesday: Literature as Truth, Literature as Lies
Literature: Sophocles, Oedipus The King;
                  Lydia Davis, “New Year’s Resolution”
Philosophy: Plato, Republic X, 595a-608b;
                  Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation vol. I, section 51;
                  vol II, section 37, p. 450; two-page introduction. (Suggested: vol. I, sec. 34)


Monday: Literature as Good Lies
Philosophy: Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy §7, §24, §25;
                   Beyond Good and Evil §24;
                   The Gay Science §54, §78, §107, §290, §299, §344;
                   The Will to Power §853.
                   (Suggested: Beyond Good and Evil §4)

Literature: Sophocles, Oedipus The King

Wednesday: Literature as Expression (Metaphor)
Literature: Marcel Proust, The Steeples at Martinville [excerpt from Swann’s Way];
                 Kay Ryan, “Intention”;
                 Charles Baudelaire, “The Swan”
Theory: Marcel Proust, The Septet of Vinteuil [excerpt from The Captive]

Wednesday, 7p.m.: Screening: “Adaptation” (w. Charlie Kaufman, d. Spike Jonze, 2002, 114 min)


Monday: Literature as Expression: An Objection [“Death of the Author”] 
Theory: 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]
             Virginia Woolf, Incandescence [excerpt from A Room Of One’s Own]
Literature/Film: Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”;
             Charlie Kaufman, “Adaptation”

Wednesday: Literature as Emotion-Generator
Literature/Film: Charlie Kaufman, “Adaptation”;
                         Rita Dove, “Five Elephants”;
                         Philip Larkin, “Aubade”;
                         Charles Johnson, “Moving Pictures”;
                         Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 3-35)
Theory: William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, paragraphs 5-8, 15, 26;
             Leo Tolstoy, What is Art, pp. 50-51

Friday, 5 p.m.: close reading / argument reconstruction due.


Monday: Literature as Catalyst (Metaphor II)
Literature: Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in possibility…”;
                 Wallace Stevens, “Man and Bottle”;
                 Louise Glück, “Ithaca”;
                 Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”;
                 Lydia Davis, “Away from Home";
                 Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 36-42)
Philosophy: Max Black, “Metaphor”
                    Donald Davidson, “What Metaphors Mean” [difficult]

Tuesday, 7pm: Screening: “Get Out” (w. & d. Jordan Peele, 2017, 104 mins)

Wednesday: Literature as Make-Believe
Philosophy: Kendall Walton, “Fearing Fictions”
Literature/Film: Jordan Peele, “Get Out”; Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 43-66)


Monday: Literature as Make-Believe (II)
Literature: Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 67-100)
Philosophy: Kendall Walton, Mimesis as Make-Believe, Ch. 1, esp. pp. 11-16, 21-43, 51-4
                   (recommended further reading: pp. 57-69)

Wednesday: Literature as Simulation
Philosophy: Gregory Currie, “The Moral Psychology of Fiction” 
Literature: Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 101-115)

Friday, 5 p.m.: First Paper Due


Monday: Literature as Imagination
Literature: Toni Morrison, A Mercy (pp. 116-134)
Philosophy: Richard Moran, “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination”

Tuesday, 7pm: Screening: “Vertigo” (w. Alec Coppel/Samuel Taylor, d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958, 128 min)

Wednesday: Literature as Edification
Philosophy: Martha Nussbaum, “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination”
Literature/Film: Toni Morrison, A Mercy (finish the novel: pp. 135-167);
                        Coppel/Taylor/Hitchcock, “Vertigo”


Monday: Literature as Clarification
Literature/Film: Coppel/Taylor/Hitchcock, “Vertigo”;
                 Lydia Davis, “The Old Dictionary”;
                 Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”
Theory: Joshua Landy, “Chaucer: Ambiguity and Ethics”

Wednesday: Literature as a Way of Life: Life as a (True) Story
Philosophy: Alasdair MacIntyre, “The Virtues, the Unity of a Human Life and the Concept of a Tradition”;
                   Michel Foucault, “On the Genealogy of Ethics” (pp. 348-51; pp. 340-43 also recommended)
Literature: Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (excerpts)


Monday: Literature as a Way of Life: Life as a (Tall) Story
Literature: Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape
Philosophy: R. Lanier Anderson, “Nietzsche on Truth, Illusion, and Redemption,” esp. pp. 185-7, 196-212;
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science §34, §54, §78, §110, §290, §307, §335, §341, §354

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


Monday: Literature as Personal Trainer: Formative Fictions
Philosophy/Literature: Plato, Gorgias

Wednesday: Literature as Personal Trainer: Formative Fictions (II)
Philosophy/Literature: Plato, Gorgias


Monday: Literary Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (I)
Literary Philosophy: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Repentance”
Philosophical Literature: Milan Kundera, Ignorance

Wednesday: Literary Philosophy and Philosophical Literature (II)
Philosophical Literature: Milan Kundera, Ignorance
Literary Philosophy: Michel de Montaigne, “Of Repentance”


Friday, 5 p.m.: Second Paper Due