Work/Life Balance Discussion: Which Works of Philosophical Fiction Are On Your Summer Reading List?

Discussion: Which Works of Philosophical Fiction Are On Your Summer Reading List?

Philosophical fiction seems to be an uncomfortable topic of conversation. To have written fiction counts for next to nothing on an academic CV and many who have are nervous about ‘coming out’.  And yet it’s hard to imagine what the discipline of philosophy would be like without Plato’s Republic or Symposium, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay or The Mandarins, Sartre’s Nausea, or Camus’ The Stranger.

In The New York Times a few years ago, James Ryerson described the tension thus:

Philosophy has historically viewed literature with suspicion, or at least a vague unease…Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many. Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them. Most philosophers are wary of the aesthetic urge in themselves. It says something about philosophy that two of its greatest practitioners, Aristotle and Kant, were pretty terrible writers.

In the interest of raising awareness about the under-appreciated nexus of philosophy and literature, we’d love to hear about your favorite works of philosophical fiction. There are lots of lists of philosophical fiction books, such as the reader-driven ranking on Goodreads, this incomplete list on Flavorwire (in which only one woman, Iris Murdoch, is mentioned), and last week on the blog there were some links to really interesting pieces in the comment section.  Which other works of philosophical fiction would you recommend?  Do you have any on your summer reading list?  What works of philosophical fiction are you writing?  (N.B. Self-promotion is strongly encouraged.)  Tell us in the comment section below, or if you’d like to write a post about it, pitch it to us here.

Currently I’m reading Alain de Botton’s new novel The Course of Love.  In between italicized philosophical interludes, de Botton tells the story of Kirsten and Rabih, who meet, fall in love, get married, and live frustratingly ever after.  As with all de Botton’s work, it’s written for a general audience.  Although most philosophers will be familiar with the core ideas about Romanticism and libertinism (and, perhaps, also with the all-too-common conjugal tensions), the style is admirably light, swift, and subtly humorous – which makes for easy hammock-style reading.

Image: Pixabay

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


  1. Thank you for posting on this interesting topic. DOES writing fiction count next to nothing on a CV? I sure hope not! Well, I would agree that the philosophical mindset is quite different from the literary mindset in different respects. But, this certainly doesn’t have to be the case. For those of us who want philosophy to connect to everyday life, writing philosophical fiction is a promising route. Personally, I find it odd that there aren’t more contemporary philosophers writing philosophical fiction, if for nothing else because they care about philosophy making a difference in everyday lives. And, yes, I will take this opportunity to plug my own attempts to connect philosophy to everyday lives via fiction:

  2. Great post! Here are my answers to your main questions.

    Which other works of philosophical fiction would you recommend?

    Not all of these are written by professional philosophers, but they all deal with philosophical topics and are very well written.
    The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein
    The Truth Machine by James Halpern
    The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse
    Immortality by Milan Kundera
    The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
    Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
    When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom

    Do you have any on your summer reading list?

    I have Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein on my desk. He’s supposedly a sci-fi master with a philosophical bent, although my wife just read this one ahead of me and didn’t give it great marks.

    What works of philosophical fiction are you writing? (N.B. Self-promotion is strongly encouraged.)

    Thanks for the invitation! I’ve self-published one novel and three short stories of philosophical fiction so far and will soon be looking for a traditional publisher for my second novel:

    Draining the Swamp – Kirkus Reviews called this “A philosophically charged critique of government, couched in the form of a novel.” That’s a good tag line for this bureaucratic fable that is driven by political philosophy.

    Curiosity, Love of Learning, and Judgment – These are my first three short stories in a series intended to eventually cover all 24 of Martin Seligman’s list of character strengths from the field of positive psychology. Once they are all completed, I hope this collection of short stories will provide thought-provoking inspiration (using show don’t tell) on how to live a virtuous life.

    I’m also in the final stages of editing my second novel, which will be a sci-fi philosophical thriller about a company’s selection process for the first human candidates to receive life-extension technology treatments. Do you have what it takes to live forever? Read this and see who might.

    For details on these and all future work, check out my website and please consider signing up to my mailing list for news on each new work as it becomes available.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement for shameless self-promotion!
    Here’s some detail about my just-published novella inspired by Thomson’s “The Violinist”:

    Inspired by Judith Jarvis Thomson’s philosophical thought experiment “The Violinist,” What Happened to Tom? is a psychological and philosophical thriller, a horror story that any one of millions of people could, at any moment, experience. Tom, like many men, assumes that since pregnancy is a natural part of being a woman, it’s no big deal: a woman finds herself pregnant, she does or does not go through with it, end of story. But then Tom wakes up to find his body’s been hijacked and turned into a human kidney dialysis machine. For nine months he has to stay connected to Simon, a famous violinist, or Simon will die. Tom finds he is powerless to take legal or medical action to deal with the situation. He loses his girlfriend, his car, his apartment, and eventually his job as an architect. At the end of the novel, he has lost almost everything he holds dear and his life is completely, and irrevocably, derailed, and entwined with that of a violinist who no longer wants to work. Considering this situation analogous to an unwanted pregnancy, What Happened to Tom? is ultimately a feminist allegory about women’s reproductive rights.

    “This powerful book plays with the gender gap to throw into high relief the infuriating havoc unwanted pregnancy can wreak on a woman’s life. Once you’ve read What Happened to Tom?, you’ll never forget it.” —Elizabeth Greene, author of Understories and Moving

    • Sorry it took so long to mention it Peg, but I think your book “What Happened to Tom?” looks really interesting. I’m halfway through blogging about the 100 philosophy thought experiments that are in Julian Baggini’s book “The Pig That Wants To Be Eaten” and the violinist was covered in his experiment #29. My post on that is here:

      but I think your novella treatment of the issue sounds much more interesting. It’s on my amazon wish list now! I’ll leave a review there once I get to read it.

  4. I’ve got all of Nancy Kress’ works on my summer reading list.

    And though I’ve read Jass Richards’ trilogy, I’ll post a bit more detail here for others:

    (1) The Road Trip Dialogues – Rev and Dylan are intelligent, sensitive, idealistic, enthusiastic, and – utter failures. When they reconnect twenty years after teacher’s college, Rev is en route to Montreal to see the fireworks festival. (Something with great social and political import.) (Oh shut up. I tried. For twenty years. So fuck it.) Dylan goes along for the ride. (Typical.) The Road Trip Dialogues is a coming of age story. For those in their forties.

    “I am impressed by the range from stoned silliness to philosophical perspicuity, and I love your comic rhythm.” L. S.

    (2) The Blasphemy Tour – Two Canadian atheists go on a cross-country speaking tour of American Bible Colleges. No, seriously.

    “If I were Siskel and Ebert I would give this book Two Thumbs Way Up. Yes, it is blasphemy toward organized religion, but it gives you tons of Bible verses to back up its premises. And besides, it’s pure entertainment. There’s a prequel which I recommend you read first: The Road Trip Dialogues. I only hope there will be a third book.” 5/5 stars L. K. Killian

    (3) License to Do That – Rev and Dylan return from their Blasphemy Tour to discover that Canada has adopted the Parent Licence Act: people who wish to become parents must apply for, and meet certain requirements before being granted, a licence. What if? After all, we require hairdressers and plumbers to be licensed. Dylan, freelance journalist, investigates, interviews, and observes; Rev, loose cannon, solves an ‘illegal fertilization’ mystery. They both occasionally get stoned and silly, and deal with a baby wolf who has adopted them.

    “I’m very much intrigued by the issues raised in this narrative. I also enjoy the author’s voice, which is unapologetically combative but also funny and engaging.” A. S.

    It looks like JR is offering complimentary copies for review, but maybe that’s an old posting at

  5. Philosophical fiction? I’d nominate Hegel, except I think most of his plots leave a lot to be desired.

    I kid.

    As a more straightforward contribution to the thread:

    Peg’s recommendation of the Road Trip Dialogue’s is pretty tempting to me right now, and at $2.99 for a kindle download, that’s where I’m going to start, I think.

    I have had Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God on my reading list for a while and haven’t gotten to it. Same for Iris Murdoch’s The Sea. I hear very good things about these. (And I see that these two are mentioned in a comment above.)

    Has anyone out there read anything by Jo Walton, author of The Just City, The Philosopher Kings, and Necessity? Certainly in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy (which doesn’t bother me in the slightest), but I’d like to hear from someone who’s read them what they thought.

    But, to tell the truth, other than giving Roadtrip Dialogues a go, I probably won’t read any of the rest of these this summer and will opt, instead, for rereading Richard Russo’s Straight Man for the upteenth time… it’s my regular antidote to job-induced depression.

    I also will probably blow through one of CJ Box’s series since it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to make it to the mountains (or solve a major crime) this summer in person.

  6. Thanks, Jason, for the Jo Walton mention. I haven’t heard of her, but am a great fan of philosophical sci-fi (did you catch my Nancy Kress mention?), so I’ll be checking her out for sure!

    • Hi, Peg. Nancy Kress’ work looks interesting. Thanks for the tip. Also, your What Happened to Tom looks like a stimulating book — kind of a Judith Jarvis Thompson meets Kafka’s Metamorphosis? I hope it flies off the shelves (what would be the equivalent metaphor for the digital version of this?).

      Oh… And, having taken a quick glance at your blog, I totally agree with you about Last Man on Earth. My wife enjoys it, but it’s like nails on a chalkboard for me.

  7. Hey, Jason, I started with Kress’ Beggars of Spain (though I don’t know if that’s the first in that series), but that’s the one that got me hooked on her.

    Interesting suggested description of What Happened to Tom. I suppose your description is accurate, but/and if it is, what is says, more, about unwanted pregnancy is…great.

    Also, interesting about your wife’s liking The Last Man. I wonder if women more than men like it b/c it is SO insulting to men – lets women laugh at men…without worrying about being killed for it? (Atwood’s “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” My addition, “B/C they laugh at them.”)

    (And thanks for checking out my blog!)

  8. I just realized that my comment to Ed above might be taken to imply that I think Julian ‘stole’ my idea. THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT AT ALL. What I was suggesting was mainly the same reason Eric failed to ‘see’ my comment on the prequel post here about philosophical fiction. And possibly publisher status. And possibly publisher publicity. (It’s since been ‘given’ to another publisher …)

    • For what it’s worth, I certainly didn’t get that negative impression from your earlier comment. And I apologise for ignoring your own fine-looking collection! The fact that I purchased Pigs is down to random luck really. I moved to Britain and happened to see it in a bookstore one day. I didn’t go out looking for such a collection, nor did I shop around for a better one afterwards. I see in the amazon reviews for What If that you have grouped your experiments by category, which I personally would have liked.


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