Monday, June 10, 2013

Academic Theory: How Philosophy Matters in Writing

I was thinking about it it other day and I realized that it has been quite some time since I've done any academic theory classes. Today I figured I would do a short lesson on literature philosophy.

If you have never taken a philosophy class before, you might not realize how important certain movements in philosophy are for writing. As a general rule they go hand in hand, and expanding one's understanding of philosophical values and concepts can greatly help. Think about it like this. All books are trying to make a point. From the highest accolades of literature to the dumbest bullshit that comes off the press, the books being placed into the hands of the reader are preaching something (to put it crudely, though even that kind of association shares a lot of meanings). Heart of Darkness is about the folly of colonial expansion into the Belgian Congo, and the horrible acts of evil perpetrated by the colonists upon the indigenous people there. It fights the notion that we as humans are inwardly good and capable of humanitarian acts. No, at the heart of it, it's all darkness. I could also introduce the Twilight books, which are garbage, and any human being caught enjoying them should highly consider their taste in literature and men. Those books have a surface level philosophy catering to the distinctions between familial bonds and the desires of the individual. It's a very simple, overdone, trite dichotomy.

So where I thought I would start in all this is set a foundation for all of you first, and perhaps continue this series outward, further delineating the movements as they develop.

There are two primary branches of philosophy: Eastern Philosophy and Western Philosophy.

Eastern Philosophy 

You'll find that Eastern Philosophy shares a general association with people of the east, primarily the continent of Asia, but really it's anything that concerns lands east of Palestine. Technically Jewish thought is corralled into the framework of eastern philosophies, even though Judaism concerns a monotheistic deity, which is an idea more typically discussed in Western cultures through the advent of Christianity. The big idea with Eastern philosophy is understanding that in these cultures value is placed on the group and not the individual. This can be seen in Hindu and Buddhist thought, where the individual's goal is to ascend to a higher plane of consciousness that strips them of all their personality. In Japanese culture, the good of the family far outweighs the desire of the individual. In modern Japanese works like Kokoro and A Personal Matter, the primary protagonists are demonized for embracing western values like personal agency and entrepreneurial thought.

When you are writing a book, if you understand these themes and basic constructs, it supplies a great amount of material to work with. You can play with these themes, like have a protagonist that is slowly pulled away from the family by a western minded person. Conversely you could create an antagonist who is attempting to destroy the individualism of a certain group of people. These are all incredibly surface level ideas. What I am trying to get across is that manipulating these basic philosophies will create interesting premises and ideas in your literature.

Western Philosophy

Generally the opposite of Eastern Philosophy is Western Philosophy, though that is a risky dichotomy to establish. Suffice to say, if in Eastern thought one finds writings bolstering the power of the group and the order of civilization, Western thought will promote the power in the individual to change society or tear it down. "Western Civilization" represents the catch all cultural milieu that embodies European cultures and the USA. This goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle's theories of knowledge, and how one conceives the world. Regardless of which side you pick, at the end of the day what is going on is that a person is choosing for himself/herself how to picture the world.

Books written from a perspective of individualism are intriguing but can risk becoming too bogged down in egotism. Any young person's book that is considered coming of age is more or less guilty of this tragedy. However you can play with the themes of Western literature by making stories about people understanding their own existence through their actions. This is called Existentialist literature, and was arguably started by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Notes From the Underground is a cool  book that expounds on this style of literature.

It's a crude beginning but I hope you see the two divergent paths, one going towards Athens and the individual, and the other going towards Sri Lanka, to lose the individual wants of the soul. Taking both ideas and playing with them in your books is where to start. How well you do at this determines how good the book will be.


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