When Philosophy Met Literature

Linda A. Cicero

The two arrived on the Farm as assistant professors in the fall of 1996. Lanier Anderson was interested in the history of philosophy in the early 20th century, focusing on Kant and Nietzsche. Joshua Landy, a scholar of French modern literature, was fascinated by Proust.

They didn’t know each other, and their paths might never have crossed on campus. Like other young academics intent on winning tenure, they could have hunkered down in their respective departments—philosophy for Anderson, French and Italian for Landy—and churned out peer-reviewed articles and book chapters.

But Anderson and Landy were drawn to a philosophical reading group organized by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, professor of French and Italian and of comparative literature. They began to sit in on the informal weekly discussion, where participants were reading the first volume of Heidegger’s collected lectures on Nietzsche.

“At a certain point in the conversation, Lanier said how ridiculous and absurd it was that Heidegger should get Nietzsche wrong,” Landy recalls. “And that’s exactly what I was going to say.”

As the two scholars chatted some more, they discovered they’d had the same doctoral thesis adviser, at different universities. Anderson had studied with philosopher Alexander Nehamas at the University of Pennsylvania, and Landy had worked with him at Princeton.

That kind of encounter, between philosopher and literary scholar with a common intellectual background, doesn’t often happen in academia. “Until very recently, the relationship between literary disciplines and philosophy has been really bad—we’ve been snarling at each other,” says Ken Taylor, chair of the philosophy department. “One of our ambitions is to end the snarling and bring about deeper intellectual cooperation and understanding.”

Taylor is referring to the fallout from analytic philosophy, the dominant movement in 20th-century philosophy. As Landy puts it: “ ‘Dry and technical’ was the great accusation leveled at analytical philosophy by literary folks.” Says Anderson: “Literary scholars perceived the philosophers as overly narrow, and philosophers were put off by entrenched schools of thought in so-called literary theory.”

Thanks largely to Anderson and Landy, Stanford is bringing practitioners from the two disciplines together. Ten years later and happily tenured, they oversee the initiative in philosophy and literature, a program that offers new tracks within undergraduate humanities majors, as well as graduate student workshops and faculty events. A gateway course that Anderson and Landy co-teach is in its third year, and draws about 20 undergraduates. “They’re interested in the meaning of life, or in different ways of exploring questions about how they ought to live,” Anderson says.

Students can follow the track from within a number of humanities departments: French and Italian, German, Slavic studies, comparative literature, English, philosophy, classics and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities. Students major in one of these disciplines and take specialized “literary and philosophical” courses that give them a common intellectual experience.

One example: Landy’s course Getting Through Proust. “We dig into what the philosophy of Remembrance of Things Past is, and why you would write a novel instead of a treatise,” he says. “What philosophical things could one say about particular literary devices?”

On the horizon, Anderson and Landy envision a graduate program that will train a coming generation of scholars in both literature and philosophy. Says Anderson, “It’s time for us to put the history of mistrust behind us and move on into a world in which we can just discuss issues, without having to worry about which department a person is in.”