Philosophical Romances

by Henry Farrell on August 1, 2003

There aren’t that many philosophical romances published in English any more; the genre seems to have fallen into a quiet desuetude. Me, I blame Umberto Eco. His splendid _The Name of the Rose_ gave us high expectations, which were to be disappointed by the arid academic score-settling of _Foucault’s Pendulum_, and then forcibly dashed into the gutter by the otiose _Island of the Day Before_. At a stretch I suppose, you can count popularizations like _Sophie’s World_, which are of arguable philosophical merit and inarguable novelistic triteness, but I don’t really see why you’d want to. However, if, like me, you enjoy books of this sort, I’ve got three recommendations which I suspect many CT readers will never have come across.

First out of the gate is Ted Chiang’s _Stories of Your Life and Others_. Cunningly disguised as a collection of science-fiction short stories, this is really philosophy of science and knowledge by other means, and is rather well done. Chiang’s prose is no more than competent, but he has some fascinating ideas, and unlike, say, Greg Egan, he’s actually interested in human beings. My favorite story is _Division by Zero_ which takes the results of Godel’s second theorem and arguments about “imaginative resistance”:, and smashes them together. The story is all about how really good mathematicians can ‘feel’ that a theorem is right. Imagine if one of them came up with a flawless logical proof that 1=2 (which Godel suggests is entirely possible; arithmetic cannot guarantee that it will not produce such contradictions). How then could she reconcile her feeling of the rightness of the theorem with her day-to-day experience of the world? Chiang works through the consequences – and creates a heartbreaking metaphor for human failures of understanding.

Second is a little older, but still relatively obscure, Robert Irwin’s “The Arabian Nightmare.”: It’s an altogether unique and unsettling work. The Arabian Nightmare is a disease of reason, a journey into the _Alam al-Mithal_, the dream world of 14th century Cairo, in which “there are always more causes than events.” The hapless Balian gets dragged further and further into a half-imaginary city, stalked by the Father of Cats, where dreams are impossible to distinguish from reality. The book is infinitely more subtle and disturbing than bog-standard brain-in-a-jar efforts like _The Matrix_, and better read too. As “Dave Langford”: describes it

bq. Laughing Dervishes confound the wise with Bertrand Russell’s paradoxes, and courtesans indulge in Freudian dream interpretation. … All is subject to change without notice.”The Arabian Nightmare is a guide to the Orient of the mind,” the blurb concludes, and that’s about it: the meaning of the title keeps shifting and expanding, until it stands for the darker side of that whole complex of fantastic romance conjured up by words like “Cairo”, “Orient” or “Arabian Nights”. If you like historical fantasy and booby-trapped reality, grab the book.

What more do you need to know? Go buy it.

Finally, M. John Harrison’s “Things That Never Happen”:, another volume of short stories with a sharp philosophical edge; you’ll cut yourself if you pick them up carelessly. All about desire, and its frustration, about our need for reassurance, for ontological solidity, and how it screws us up.

bq. “And there’s always this fucking sign on the baker’s van: ‘REAL’ BREAD. I mean,” I asked the old man, “what’s that? Inverted fucking commas! Even the fucking bread calls its own existence into question?” (The East)

bq. “In London the light was like the light you only see on record covers and in the color supplements. Photographic precision of outline under an empty blue sky is one of the most haunting features of the London landscape. Ordinary objects – a book, a bowl of anemones, someone’s hand – seem to be lit in a way which makes them very distinct from their background. The identity of things under this light seems enhanced. Their visual distinctness becomes metonymic of the reality we perceive both in them and in ourselves” (A Young Man’s Journey to London).

Harrison is one of the best prose stylists of his generation; his writing is savage, lucid and exact. Strongly recommended.



David Duff 08.01.03 at 8:48 pm

Sorry, I’m sure it says more about me than you but I found that last quote pretentious. Granted, it might have had something to do with the fact that I haven’t the slightest idea what “metonymic” means.

But let me widen the topic. I often hear erudite critics (well, more erudite than me) saying of a book or essay that it was ‘beautifully written’ and I never know how they define that phrase and why they choose that really rather odd adjective to apply to a piece of prose.

I read a work of fiction for an interesting story that will tell of a clash of characters leading to an outcome. I hope the prose will be servicable to that end but I do not look for it to be of such an overblown or overwrought nature as to disturb my concentration on the importance of plot and character. It’s rather like those art critics who blather on about the brush strokes used by a painter!

Hopefully someone will open my eyes to what I am missing.
David Duff


Jeremy Osner 08.01.03 at 9:14 pm

Hi David — I didn’t have that reaction to the Harrison quote but I can see how someone might have. The thing is there are some books in which beauty of language is a key element — this is always (as far as I know) true of poetry; it can be true just as well of prose fiction and of essays.

I would consider it a problem for the beautiful language of a novel or an essay to detract from the sotry line or from the argument; but all other things being equal I would much rather read a good story told in beautifully crafted language than a good story slapped on the page without care.


Jeremy Osner 08.01.03 at 9:15 pm

PS. I do think on rereading it that the last sentence of the Harrison quote is overworked, poorly structured and detracts from the rather lovely image he had been building up to that point.


Joshua 08.01.03 at 9:16 pm

Unfortunately, if what you say about your reaction is true and not just hyperbole, you seem to be “tone deaf” to prose style. People who aren’t can find beauty in prose for a number of reasons that have their analogs in other artforms (most closely in music) such as rhythm, clarity within complexity, nuances of expression, twists on common phrases and turns of thought, tension and satisfaction, and so on. Beautiful is no more surprising as an adjective when applied to prose than it is when applied to music.

It’s true that criticism can become pompous and overblown, but talking about brush-strokes (or metonymy for that matter) is no more blather than is talking about tempo or attack in music.

Metonymy, btw, is just the substition of one word or phrase for another closely associated one, as in “the sword” for “military power”, e.g. The pen is mightier than the sword.


Doug Turnbull 08.01.03 at 9:43 pm

Another title I’d throw out there is _The Dream of Scipio_ by Iain Pears. While I didn’t think it ever really fully weaved in teh neo-platonic ideas it talks about a bit, it is an excellent dramatic meditation on our responsibility in dealing with worldly power. When is it acceptable to compromise your ideals in order to achieve a lesser good, or to ameliorate an evil.

The book follows 3 characters, all in southern France. One a Roman noble during the final barbarian invasions, one a poet during an outbreak of the plague in Avignon, and one an academic during Vichy.

The characters are a little thin at times, but the story is good enough to carry you along and to dramatize the ideas, which are the real meat of the book.


Henry 08.01.03 at 9:46 pm

David – I think it’s a case of _de gustibus …_; some people like clear, vigorous, transparent prose, some prefer their language more ornate. Orwell’s perhaps the best known proponent of the bluff, no-nonsense style. Personally, while I like my prose straightforward when it’s journalism (with the exception of people like Kapuscinski), I’m a fan of the more baroque style too. Nabokov, for example – his _Pale Fire_, and _Speak, Memory_ are masterpieces of colorful, yet vigorous language.

The bit from MJH was chosen more to illustrate his philosophical underpinnings than his writing style. At the risk of boring everyone, here’s a longer extract from his “Young Man’s Journey to London,” that I’ve scanned in.

“When I was a child my grandmother often took me about with her. I was a quiet boy already in poor health, and she found me at least as easy to manage as a small dog. Her habits were fixed: each Wednesday she visited the hairdresser and then went on to Manchester by train for a day’s shopping. She wore for this a hat made entirely out of pale pink, almost cream feathers, dotted among which were peacock eyes a startling brown-red. The feathers lay very dense and close, as if they were still on the breast of the bird.

“She loved cafes, I think because the life that goes on in them, though domestic and comfortable, can’t claim you in any way: there is nothing for you to join in. `I like my tea in peace,’ she told me every week. `Once in a while I like to have my tea in peace.’

“Whatever she ate she coughed and choked demurely over it, and for some time afterwards; and she always kept on her light green raincoat with its nacreous, gold-edged buttons.

“When I remember Piccadilly it isn’t so much by the flocks of starlings which invaded the gardens at the end of every short winter afternoon, filling the paths with their thick mouldy smell then sending up a loud mechanical shrieking which drowned out the traffic, as by the clatter of pots, the smell of marzipan or a match just struck, wet woollen coats hung over one another in a corner, voices reduced in the damp warm air to an intimate buzz out of which you could just pick a woman at another table saying, `Anyway, as long as you can get about,’ to which her friend answered immediately, “`Oh it’s something, isn’t it? Yes.’

“On a rainy afternoon in November it made you feel only half awake. A waitress brought us the ash tray. She put it down in front of me. `It’s always the gentleman who smokes,’ she said. I looked at my grandmother sulkily, wondering where we would have to go next. At Boots she had found the top floor changed round again, suddenly full of oven-gloves, clocks, infra-red grills; and a strong smell of burning plastic had upset her in the arcades between Deansgate and Market Street.

“Along the whole length of the room we were in ran a tinted window, through which you could see the gardens in the gathering twilight, paths glazed with drizzle giving back the last bit of light in the sky, the benches and empty flower beds grey and equivocal looking, the sodium lamps coming on by the railings. Superimposed, on the inside of the glass, was the distant reflection of the cafe: it was as if someone had dragged all the chairs and tables out into the gardens, where the serving women waited behind a stainless steel counter, wiping their faces with a characteristic gesture in the steam from the bain marie, unaware of the wet grass, the puddles, the blackened but energetic pigeons bobbing round their feet.

“As soon as I had made this discovery a kind of tranquility came over me. My grandmother seemed to recede, speaking in charged hypnotic murmurs. The rattle of cutlery and metal trays reached me only from a great distance as I watched people come into the gardens laughing. They were able to pass without difficulty through the iron railings; the wind and rain had no effect on them. They rubbed their hands and sat down to eat squares of dry battenburg cake and exclaim `Mm’ how good it was. There they sat, out in the cold, smiling at one another: they certainly were a lot more cheerful out there. A man on his own had a letter which he opened and read. “`Dear Arthur,’ it began.

“He chuckled and nodded, tapping a line here and there with his finger as if he was showing the letter to someone else; while the waitresses went to and fro around him, for the most part girls with white legs and flat shoes, some of whom buttoned the top of their dark blue overalls lower than others. They carried trays with a thoughtless confidence, and spoke among themselves in a language I longed to understand, full of ellipses, hints and abrupt changes of subject, in which the concrete things were items and prices. I wanted to go and join them. Their lives, I imagined, like the lives of everyone in the gardens, were identical to their way of walking between the tables – a neat, safe, confident movement without a trace of uncertainty, through a medium less restrictive than the one 1 was forced to inhabit.

“`Yes love?’ I would say to introduce myself. `Thank you love. Anything else love? Twenty pence then thank you love, eighty pence change, next please. Did Pam get those drop earrings in the end then? No love, only fried.’
“I think it’s just as well not to be,’ they might reply. Or with a wink and a shout of laughter, `Margaret’s been a long time in the you-know-where. She’ll be lucky!’

“At the centre or focal point of the gardens, from which the flower beds fell back modestly in arcs, a statue stood. Along its upraised arms drops of water gathered, trembled in the wind, fell. One of the girls walked up and put her tray on a bench next to it. She buried her arms brusquely in the plinth of the statue and brought out a cloth to wipe her hands. This done, she stared ahead absently, as if she had begun to suspect she was caught up in two worlds. Though she belonged to neither her image dominated both of them, a big plain patient girl of seventeen or eighteen with chipped nail varnish and a tired back from sorting cutlery all morning. Suddenly she gave a delighted laugh.

“She looked directly out at me and waved. She beckoned. I could see her mouth open and close to make the words `Here! Over here!’ “She’s alive, I thought. It was a shock. I felt that I was alive too. I got up and ran straight into the plate glass window and was concussed. Someone dropped a tray of knives. I heard a peculiar voice, going away from me very fast, say: `What’s he done? Oh, what’s he done now?’ Then those first ten or twelve years of my life were sealed away from me neatly like the bubble in a spirit level – clearly visible but strange and inaccessible, made of nothing. I knew immediately that though what I had seen was not London, London nevertheless awaited me. I knew, too, how to find it.”


David Duff 08.01.03 at 10:00 pm

Jeremy and Joshua,
Thanks to you both.
I deliberately left out poetry which is an exquisitely difficult and unique art form of its own. For debates sake, let’s stick to prose in the form of the novel. I agree to a certain extent with Jeremy that the words must be put together in a workman-like manner. Too careless or indeed, too ‘baroque’ and it begins to interfere with what is after all, the main point of a novel – plot and character. An analogy might be useful. I might admire,say, an elegant Georgian house but I pay no atention to the brickwork!

Joshua use a musical analogy which suits me very well. I am incapable of singing a true note but I can hear a bum one from a mile away! I will like or dislike a piece of music for the inexplicable emotional response that it produces in me but again I don’t notice the notes unless they jangle.

Books and buildings and symphonies are constructed from, so to speak, the molecules of their particular form but it is the overall end result that I judge not the minutiae. That would be like going to the Taj Mahal and admiring the pointing!

Anyway, thanks to you both and I have learnt two things. First, what ‘metonymy’ means and second, that ‘BTW’, which has foxed me ever since I became involved in the blogosphere means ‘by the way’.
David Duff
PS: You will have gathered that I am very definitely a University of Life man!


Chris Bertram 08.01.03 at 10:44 pm

To marry your last post with this one: Philip Kerr’s _A Philosophical Investigation._


David Duff 08.01.03 at 10:50 pm

Now that was a corker!
David Duff


Chun the Unavoidable 08.02.03 at 12:25 am

Your comment about Egan is unfair. Distress and Teranesia reveal more political awareness than the rest of the “hard” sf genre combined, I tend to think.

And I feel safe recommending The Book of the New Sun to anyone. It’s both weightier and more engaging than Eco, I think.


kaledonia 08.02.03 at 1:36 am

1) I was taught (by a pretentious yet dear friend) that “metonymy” is the rhetorical substitution of a small part for the larger whole. So “Sword” for “war” works, insofar as swords are key elements of war. Slightly different than simply a “closely associated word” which might describe “Mother” for “Father” for example.

2) Chun is changing the subject slightly, from “philosophical romance” to “politically aware” novel. Teranesia is good at politics, okay at dysfunctional relational psychology, not much interested in philosophy.

For sweeping alternate histories, history of science, mixed with perfectionism through reincarnation, try “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson. Beautiful prose too, seemingly without working at it.

If you enjoy existentialist musing mixed with unorthodox mystery novels, try Jerome Charyn. It’s a nontraditional take on the genre discussed here the other day.

For what it’s worth (FWIW in type-slang, BTW), I enjoy many different kinds of novel, but first of all they have to be enjoyable novels. If they happen to include an interesting idea, or illustrate a cool problem, that’s great too, but not essential. Too many novels-of-ideas fail because the reader doesn’t get sucked into the little world.


pathos 08.02.03 at 2:01 am


You are mixing up synecdoche and metonymy.

Synecdoche means “part for the whole”, as is “I got some new wheels” for “I got a new car”.

Metonymy means “related thing”, as in “power of the crown” for “power of the king” or “ruling from the bench” for “ruling from the judges who sit on the bench”.


pathos 08.02.03 at 2:04 am

As for “beautiful prose” and what it is and isn’t, I recommend the seminal Atlantic Monthly article “A Reader’s Manifesto” from about two years ago that I put in the URL place.


Henry 08.02.03 at 3:42 am


I haven’t read _A Philosophical Investigation_ yet, but have been planning to for years. I’ve just started Kerr’s Berlin Trilogy, and am enjoying it a lot.

Chun – I’m allergic to Greg Egan – not so much because of his politics, but because he seems to take an engineer’s attitude to human personality. IMO he doesn’t seem to find people interesting as people. I actually find his stuff physically unpleasant to read – he has a parched and starved little mental universe.

Wolfe now, that’s a different story. I wouldn’t identify him as writing philosophical romances, but BOTNS, _Peace_, and _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_ are among my very favorite books. I could happily Wolfe-blog (or, indeed, Vance-blog) all day. I’ve had an advance copy of _Knight_ for the last couple of months, and have been holding off on a post talking about its connections to “The Best Introduction to the Mountains”: until it’s officially out (in September, I think).


Chun the Unavoidable 08.02.03 at 3:47 am


You’ll note that caledonia’s example for metonymy is taken straight out of the, though the wording differs. An earlier poster mentioned it as well.

Also, I’m pretty sure that “seminal” doesn’t mean “middlebrow.”

Egan was mentioned as someone who doesn’t care about people, so I pointed out that his novels are very much more politically aware than others of the genre, which suggests that he is indeed concerned with social relations.


Chun the Unavoidable 08.02.03 at 3:54 am


I think Egan is far less guilty of what you call the “engineer’s approach to human relations” than almost anyone in the genre. Compare with Niven, or the ghastly Pournelle, or Asimov, or the often dreadful Benford, or nerd ne plus ultra Bear, or just any of them.

I wasn’t clear on exactly what you meant by “philosophical romance,” though I’m pretty sure it’s not a generic definition a literary critic would use. My sense was of a sophisticated narrative employing philosophical themes, and I think the Wolfe books (and Long and Short Suns as well) would fit.


Matt Cheney 08.02.03 at 4:15 am

Great post, and good thoughts from everyone.

First, on the style and taste subject — contrary to “A Reader’s Manifesto”, there’s no such thing as an “objective” guide to what is or isn’t good prose. What matters is the author’s purpose and how the form and subject work together. That’s why judging M. John Harrison on one paragraph is unfair — his stories are so carefully written, that they have to be read complete to understand the narrator’s voice and what Harrison is doing with the prose, which always works along with the deeper philosophical purposes. The longer excerpt from the story gives a better sense of him, but that story is also a part of his largest body of work, the Viriconium series, which has a tremendous range of prose effects.

Also, it is not the purpose of all novels to be about character and plot. Plenty of writers — many of whom you may not like — write for reasons of philosophy, language, etc. Paul West, William Gass, William Gaddis, and Carole Maso are all examples. Brilliant writers, but their purposes are not necessarily ones which the mainstream audience has sympathy with. However, they do show that a novel (whatever that is) can be more than just plot or character.

I’d support Wolfe as a philosophical writer as well, at least with some of his work, unless you’re using a definition of “philosophical” which only includes analytic philosophy or something. “Fifth Head of Cerberus” is all about identity, at least when the three stories which form the book are read together and across each other. (It’s one of those books you have to read multiple times to get anything from, since the first two parts only begin to have resonance once you’ve read the third, etc.)

What about China Mieville? His “Perdido Street Station” is one of my favorite novels of the past few years, and gets into lots of ideas about science, humanity, politics, etc. It’s not strictly about philosophy — it’s an adventure story, a romance, a study of crisis, a portrait of an imagined city, etc. But various philosophical questions are also central to it.


David Duff 08.02.03 at 12:07 pm

“Also, it is not the purpose of all novels to be about character and plot. Plenty of writers — many of whom you may not like — write for reasons of philosophy, language, etc.”

I really don’t want to get into the, dare I say, ‘quagmire’of linguisics but a ‘novel’ is surely a work of fiction in which a plot is unravelled by characters. It might have a background of science or philosophy or WWII or spying or sex but in essence it is a story. Anything else is not a novel. Perhaps we need another word to classify the genre of books that are not really concerned with plot and character but only with some esoteric subject. But still, I can’t help wondering why these people don’t just write proper books explaining their philosophy, science or whatever.
David Duff


David Duff 08.02.03 at 12:19 pm

Thanks a million for the link to that Atlantic Monthly essay by Meyers. I haven’t even finished it yet but already it is saying everything elegantly that I was stumbling to say. I urge every one o this post to read it – you just click on Pathos’s name.

All this education – my brain’s beginning to hurt!
David Duff


Henry 08.02.03 at 4:33 pm


Insofar as Wolfe is interested in ideas, I suspect that his novels are theological rather than philosophical. And not theological in the sense of Thomas Aquinas (philosophy by other means), but in _conveying_ a certain religious sensibility. He has an essay somewhere (Castle of the Otter?) about how he was inspired by the idea of Christ with a whip. Mieville’s books are wonderful too, and play with ideas, but I don’t think that they have the rigour of a philosophical novel, nor do they aspire to it. There are bits and pieces of Mieville’s Marxism scattered through his books (the dialectical nature of ‘crisis energy’ for example), and _The Scar_ in particular borrows from some of the ideas of his Ph.D. dissertation (he’s interested in late-mercantile capitalism, and has an interesting chapter on the Law of the Sea), but what’s wonderful about Mieville’s work is his _sociological inventiveness_ – Malarial Queendoms, the thanatocracy of High Cromlech, rather than a nuanced exploration of a set of philosophical ideas. Both these authors write superb novels, novels which furthermore riff off interesting ideas, but the ideas aren’t the point of them, I don’t think. And that’s the key imo to a philosophical novel.


Keith M Ellis 08.02.03 at 6:35 pm

For someone with a so-called “Great Books” education, my everyday reading tastes are decidedly middle- or lowbrow. And so I find I generally agree with Mr. Duff. There’s nothing that annoys me more than a writer who’s calling attention to his/her own writerly cleverness.

I’ve not read Joyce’s novels. And I mention that because it seems to me that only in the hands of great artists does the display of technical bravado and flourish result in anything more than a momentary curisoity. And the great artists use such skill as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Mere cleverness seems to me to be banal. And that’s what I find in most self-conscious contemporary literature.

Henry, I agree that Foucault’s Pendulum wasn’t nearly as satisfying and elegant as Name of the Rose, but it was a tour de force with a purpose, and I respected and enjoyed it for that. But Rose is by far the superior novel and is exemplary, I think, in regard to the rare quality in discussion here. It’s a fine philosophical romance, erudite, dense, and yet paradoxically light as a feather and a joy to read. It calls attention to itself, again and again, only upon reflection, not while being read.

I would say that my favorite Shakespeare, A Midsummer-Night’s Dream, is a philosophical romance. It, too, is light as a feather yet dense with layered meaning and irony.

Less successful, but still astonishing, is the book on my nightstand that I will begin reading again this evening: War and Peace. Tolstoy, I think, thought of it as grandly philosophical–and certainly romantic–though his philosophical monologues are the book’s notable flaws. Nevertheless, I’d argue that his extraordinary wedding of the grandiose scope with the personal, and the descriptive with the psychological, is profoundly philosophical and succeeds in a way that makes his monologues superfluous.

Since science fiction has been mentioned, I’ll say that I just now finished Dan Simmons’s new book, “Illium”, which excited me for obvious reasons but which I found somewhat disapointing. I think he needs a stronger-willed editor.


David Duff 08.02.03 at 6:48 pm

I am fascinated by your statement that ‘The Dream’ is your favourite Shakespeare. I was all set to direct it this Autumn but unfortunately I was forced to withdraw so, apart from any other reason, I would like to ‘hear’ your reasons. If you can be bothered please post them here or send them directly to me.

In the meantime I URGE EVERYONE TO READ MEYER’S ESSAY – just click on Pathos’s name up above.
David Duff


Keith M Ellis 08.02.03 at 7:01 pm


Gosh…I wouldn’t really know where to begin, if that makes any sense. It’s been a while since I’ve articulated my thoughts about that play. It’s delightfully (not ponderously) self-referential, and that pleases me. A lot of my approach to the play centers on Bottom. But I really can’t say more than that.

Not that I know anything about the stage, but I’d be afraid of directing that play–more than others of Shakespeare. Best regards to you.


David Duff 08.02.03 at 7:07 pm

Just about to set fire to the BBQ, the food and probably the house but I’ll post tomorrow and tell you why my original thoughts on the play changed as I dug into it – that’s why I would be interested in your opinions.
David Duff


J. Ellenberg 08.02.03 at 8:27 pm

Let’s keep in mind, too, that when we talk about “beautiful prose” we are not necessarily talking about the ornate and that which shouts about itself. We’re talking about Hemingway and Munro, not just Fitzgerald and Nabokov.

For what it’s worth, Henry, I thought the first quote from Harrison was pretty good, and the second not so good: e.g. “is one of the most haunting features of” just lies there on the page (screen?) without any of the nice casual music of “‘I mean,’ I asked.” I didn’t read the whole long excerpt, but I thought it looked good.

The Myers essay? Not so good, I thought. I, too, dislike some of his targets–but he didn’t convince me he’d done anything more than exalt his personal taste to the status of a value judgment.


Nicholas Weininger 08.03.03 at 1:43 pm

While we’re on the subject of Eco, what about _Baudolino_? Plenty of philosophy of science and knowledge in there. And I thought it beautifully done, with much better plot flow and characterization than either _Foucault’s Pendulum_ or _Island_ (though I liked _FP_ very much and didn’t dislike _Island_).


Neel Krishnaswami 08.03.03 at 2:08 pm

Chun: I found Teranesia to be nearly unreadable. Greg Egan is just too hostile to large parts of human experience (in particular religion) to be objective about them. Characteristic of this tendency is making the protagonists’ parents members of the Indian Rationalist’s Association. It felt to me this was an example of Greg Egan simply being unwilling to think about religion and culture, rather than being a natural part of the story. And I say this as an atheist who is strongly opposed to the mores of traditional Hinduism!

Ted Chiang strikes me as a rationalist, too, but he’s able to write write about religious worldviews with sympathy — consider his stories “Tower of Babylon” and “Hell is the Absence of God”. Both of these stories are in the collection Henry named, but the far and away best story in the collection was “Story of Your Life”. I’d never have thought that the calculus of variations and epistemology could be genuinely emotionally powerful! (“Division by Zero”, on the other hand, didn’t impress me as much. But then, I’m a computer scientist, and for me meta-mathematical concepts like logical soundness are engineering problems rather than philosophy.)


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 08.04.03 at 3:16 am

Neel Kraishnaswami gets at exactly what I like in the stories of Ted Chiang.

Second the recommendation for The Years of Rice and Salt, a book I’m currently in the middle of and don’t want to leave.


dsquared 08.04.03 at 1:19 pm

>>which Godel suggests is entirely possible; arithmetic cannot guarantee that it will not produce such contradictions

Not sure of this at all …


Keith M Ellis 08.04.03 at 5:16 pm

Well, I asked my friend who’s formally (heh) studied Godel’s theorem about arithmetic and he couldn’t answer it offhand although he’s inclined to say that arithemetic is consistent (in his defense, I woke him up to ask the question and he was a little groggy and probably irritable). And I’m pretty sure of it. Godel uses Russell and Whitehead’s PM to generate his proof. PM is, as is widely known, formalized arithmetic. Furthermore, Godel relies upon simple arithmetic to tokenize his statements. I think that PM (and arithmetic) would need to be known to be consistent in order for his proof to work. As a matter of fact, the Godel Statement would be false were PM (and probably arithmetic) inconsistent. So, I think the above assertion about arithmetic is another example of a popular misunderstanding of Godel. (But, not having actually worked through Godel’s proof, I probably know no more about it than the people I’m implicitly criticizing.)


dsquared 08.04.03 at 8:12 pm

My understanding is that it’s precisely because (a formal system with enough representational power to specify the theorems of) elementary number theory is consistent, that it’s incomplete. And in any case, even if “arithmetic couldn’t guarantee itself to be consistent”, a larger formal system which contained arithmetic as a subset could guarantee that arithmetic was consistent.


Neel Krishnaswami 08.04.03 at 8:43 pm

dsquared: In 1936, Gerhard Gentzen proved that arithmetic was correct using transfinite induction. Ted Chiang unfairly but amusingly described this in “Division by Zero” as “assuming the implausible in order to prove the obvious”.


Glenn Condell 08.06.03 at 8:38 am


don’t expect too much from Philosophical Investigation – it’s a thriller and I found the attempt to weave Witgenstein thru it unconvincing, but he’s always a good read. Berlin Noir is engrossing stuff.

I’ve just finished Michel Houellebecq’s Platform. It has a philosophy of sorts and a romance of sorts, but it’s seven hundred years and a million miles from The Name of the Rose.

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