As I ready myself before heading into the wide world — say, before a plane ride — I scan my shelves for a book, for something to enthrall, engage, and inspire me. And, each time, I turn to a book of philosophy, to Bergson or Guattari, to Leibniz, Bataille, or even Lacan. I rarely grab a novel.
What is it I want from the experience of reading philosophy? What makes it different than reading a novel?
There are so many similarities. Argument and narrative are related: each arranges disparate elements into a flow that literally makes sense. Many novels, I believe, borrow narrative structures so they replay familiar tales — of redemption, of discovery, of whatever. And as I am attracted to strange kinds of sense, I turn to philosophy.
Of course, there is plenty of fiction that enjoys strange sense — I'm thinking of Borges, Joyce, Burroughs, Nabokov, Clarice Lispector, Lydia Davis, Maurice Blanchot, Celine. There are hundreds more. And I've read many of them.
But what about characters? I like characters. Ignatius Reilly, Humbert Humbert, Alex Portnoy, Dr. Benway: great characters. Note that we are not asked to identify with any of these characters; we don't find ourselves in them (well, Portnoy aside: I find too much I identify with). On the contrary, they are presented to us as not-us, as difference, as confrontations (even if not confrontational per se).
And the philosophy I read has plenty of characters — and even more character. Nietzsche? Besides Zarathustra and Socrates and Jesus and the warrior and dozens more, the writing itself overflows with character. It's like reading Ignatius Reilly's rants. Kierkegaard? Nothing but characters, Hilarious Bookbinder among them. Kant is more challenging as he tries just to present his ideas. But this, too, becomes character. How about Wittgenstein's Tractatus, a book as close to bereft of character as you can find? But of course that's a ridiculous thing to say: the Tractatus has plenty of character, albeit that of an uptight, pompous prick.
So when I read philosophy, I am looking for much of what I believe others find in novels: the expression of the voice of a character. I don't brush away the words to find the ideas. I don't ignore the style, tone, timbre, mood, rhythm, and intensity. That is what I read for! Which is why, perhaps, I am a rhetorician and not a philosopher.
What, then, separates philosophy from fiction? Not much. Philosophy, as Deleuze and Guattari claim, operates with concepts whereas fiction operates with affect. Of course, all philosophy is affective and all fiction has some relationship to concepts. But be more affective and you become fiction; be more conceptual, you become philosophy.
So I suppose I read philosophy because I like concepts. I even like the concept of affect. But I also like the affect of concepts. And so I read philosophy like it were fiction and I read fiction like it was philosophy — in that most tasty spot where concepts become a life lived and the affect of life abstracts to become concept.