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The Philosophy of Writing and Reading

phi·los·o·phy, n: The study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.

The word philosophy derives from the Greek philo (“loving”) and sophia (“knowledge, wisdom”).  Although the etymology of the word would lead us to think that philosophy is the love of knowledge, the term refers to a much more complex process, which is defined, by some, as a form of critical thinking.

When looking at philosophy throughout history, there are many famous names that come to mind; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle being the most popular.  However, if we look at what philosophers discuss, it becomes clear that there is no single topic that is present throughout philosophical discourse.  When we compare this with other academic or professional fields, such as Medicine, Education, Mathematics and Science, we will find that Philosophy is the only field that is not focussed on anything in particular.

Then how can we define philosophy, if it has no core focus?  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2008), a Professor in Philosophy at Dartmouth College, argues the following: “Philosophy’s goal is nothing less than a systematic world view.  Other fields study particular kinds of things.  Philosophy asks how it all fits together.”

So, one definition of what philosophy is, could be that it aims to create a world view based on certain critical interpretations, related to a specific field.

When looking at philosophy as a field aiming to establish relationships between things (creating a holistic, or world, view), we can thus deduce that there are limitless branches of philosophy, such as philosophy of religion, of law, of mathematics, and importantly, of literature.

The Philosophy of Publishing

The entire publishing industry is firmly rooted in literature – not necessarily what we would define as ‘classics’ or ‘must-reads’, simply language.  Publishing could not exist without language, as there would be nothing to publish – no books, magazines, newspapers, songs, movies, pamphlets, or websites.

In order to understand the philosophy behind publishing as a whole, we must inspect what ‘literature’ is.  This is a heated topic of debate, and falls under the umbrella term of ‘Literary Theory’, which is the “systematic study of the nature of literature and the methods of analysing literature (Culler, 2000).”  For the purposes of this introductory article, we will inspect literature through the looking glass of ‘literature refers to any use of language’ – which brings us to its relevance in the publishing industry.

If we look at publishing from this angle, it becomes imperative to understand why there is a publishing industry.  We cannot begin to understand how the industry works, if we do not know why it exists.

In order to attempt to answer this question, we will be looking at two very important questions:

a) Why do people write?
b) Why do people read?

Locked up in these questions lies the origins of what we today call the publishing industry.

So, why do people write?

The Greek philosopher Plato is best known for ‘The Allegory of the Cave’, an allegory (conveying meaning through symbols) in his work The Republic.  Although Platonic philosophy is extremely expansive, we will be contextualizing his notion of the Cave within the realm of writing.

Plato said that we are all chained to the wall of a cave, facing a blank wall. We continually observe shadows on this blank wall, created by figures moving behind us.  Eventually, we start to assign meaning to these shadows – we begin to rationalise our realities.  Furthermore, we begin to believe that these shadows are in fact real.

Plato argued that what we observe everyday is not real, but is a representation (a shadow) of the ideal.  He continued to state that non-material abstracts (these ideals), and not the material world, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality.

Finally, Plato said that some people could unchain themselves from the Cave wall, turn around, and witness this ‘reality’ – the true form of things, which is not bound by material existence but is rather concentrated in ideas.

But what does this have to do with writing?

It can be argued that the act of writing (especially ‘unrealistic’ fiction, such as fantasy) is the tool with which we unchain ourselves.  The author is no longer constrained by what he observes – instead the author creates the very forms which will one day cast shadows.  There are many examples to illustrate this: Elves, Vampires, Angels, Demons, Dragons – all ideals we can relate to, know and understand, but have never witnessed.  We are aware of these ideals based on others who have ‘seen them’.

Writing is an act of creation, not limited to realistic boundaries or societal norm – we write because it sets us free, it challenges our minds, it breathes life into our imaginations.  That is why we write – to assert our own Ideals, to cast shadows on cave walls.

Sure… Then why do people read?

The act of reading addresses a variety of needs: information gathering, relaxation, gossip and escapism, to mention a few.  I would like to draw our attention to the idea of escapism.  We can define escapism as a mental diversion, or ‘escape’, from daily life by means of entertainment or recreation.

Although many see escapism as exclusively negative, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that escapism had an element of emancipation in its attempt to figure a different reality. What we thus see is the need to escape, with our minds, into realities that are not reflective of our material condition.

This leads us to why people read. Imaginary escape is one of the easiest ways to avoid mundane life – and reading perpetuates this.  Regardless of the content, reading anything allows us to move away from our own lives, and into others.  These other realms range from celebrity lives to fantastical worlds, and all of them provide us with the space and time to forget.

So, we see that people read in order to escape their realities – and enter others.  At first glance, this might sound strange – there is only one reality, isn’t there?

Multiple Realities

Writing and reading (and consequently the entire publishing industry) disagrees.  Writing is essentially the act of creating alternate realities.  Although they are not material, they are very much real. To refer back to Plato, these realities would be Ideals.  Think about Hogwarts, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and basically any fiction that has ever been read. Those realities exist on paper – if someone were to pick up Harry Potter in a million years, would they not perhaps mistake it as a historical book, rather than fiction?  In fact, some of these fictions have very much become real: Tolkien’s Elvish language (a supposedly imagined language) is very much real – you can buy books teaching you how to speak it from E.L.F. (the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship).  Reality has been changed from ‘fiction’ and applied in our physical realms.

Can anything then be impossible?

Realities cannot be contained or limited – every person has their own version of reality, and reading allows us to expand its boundaries, or jump into different realities all together.  This clearly addresses the need to ‘escape’ our own realities (or lives).

What we see from inspecting why people write and why people read, is that the publishing industry is a completely natural outflow of inherent human desires. On the one hand, we have the desire to create; to ‘break free from the cave wall’ – to write, paint, act, and so forth. On the other hand, we have the desire to break free from our own worlds, from the mundane trappings we are confronted with every day.  So, we read, watch movies and listen to music. The publishing industry is built on the philosophy of subjective reality, and the desire to ‘be somewhere else’.

Further reading:

Culler, J. 2000. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pavlina, S. 2007. Subjective Reality Simplified [Online]. Available at: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2007/09/subjective-reality-simplified/

Sinnott-Armstrong, W. 2008. What is Philosophy? [Online]. Available at: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~phil/whatis/wsa.html

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5 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    What a great article! 😀 I now feel my vast amount of reading is purposeful! Glad to have you on board Marius and look forward to more intelligent discussions 🙂

  2. Vanna Smythe says:

    Great article! Love the idea that writing is actually creating alternate realities. Though I kind of hope that millions of years from now, people won’t think Harry Potter is a historical novel 😉

  3. It’s interesting. When I read sometimes it’s hard to come back, in a way. I’ve become so engrossed in that reality that my own seems foreign for a moment. That’s when I know I’m reading a good book. As a writer, it’s even more interesting. I can create that world. It’s sort of like being Ariadne in Inception. You think it, the world becomes it. You’re the sculptor. Like you say, you turn around and see the shadows and give them form.

    I’ve also never viewed escapism as bad in principle. Everyone needs time off from their life. It’s when people take it too far that it becomes negative, like anything else.

  4. Em says:

    Great article! I think it’s also interesting that the these worlds are created from the same ideas of our reality but arranged in new interesting ways.

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