Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and philosophy

Joshua asked:

Am always wondering: is every creative book a philosophical work? Since authors think before they write, are they not engaged in philosophy? For example, was Franz Kafka “thinking philosophically” when he decided to write “Metamorphosis”?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Gregor is not a bad man. Like many millions of his fellow citizens, he has taken on the burden of supporting his family financially. His work as a salesman is thankless and hard — like so many millions of hard working men. He wakes up one morning to discover that he has undergone metamorphosis into a giant insect. His just reward?

In a version of ‘Metamorphosis’ made into a play which I saw years ago, the insect in question is a cockroach, which is how I always picture Gregor.

Yes, this is philosophy. But the question to ask is what exactly can philosophy be, if Kafka’s novel is an example of it. Ian Fleming, an author I have enjoyed, ‘thought before he wrote’. He has an eye for pungent detail. But you’d have to work hard to find philosophical ideas in his novels, or in the mind of his character James Bond. Stoicism perhaps. Belief in the absolute priority of serving his country, and the ability to withstand gruesome torture in pursuit of his aim.

(That’s one thing Kafka and Fleming have in common — a talent for describing the gruesome.)

For me, there can be only one answer: philosophy is concerned with the ultimate questions. What is reality? Why are we here? What is the point of living? Is anything really ‘good’ or ‘bad’ except in relation to our likes and dislikes?

Looking around the world of professional philosophy, I see relatively few ‘philosophers’ by this criterion. If the rest were to undergo metamorphosis, I imagine them turning into clouds of bluebottles, looking around for rotting carcasses to gorge themselves on. You can spend your entire professional life mining some narrow topic in philosophical logic. Become the unquestioned authority in three-valued logic, or backwards causation, or whatever.

Who cares?

Joshua, if you want to think about the ultimate questions, then, yes, you’re probably better reading novels. But that’s not the answer, because you really need to go back to when philosophy began, with the Presocratics, to feel, with them, the sense of urgency in trying to make sense of what sort of ‘world’ or ‘cosmos’ we live in, what is the right way to live, what are the capacities and limits of human reason, and so on. Then go forward from there.

I don’t spend all of my time thinking about the ultimate questions, because you have to have a balanced diet. Protein and carbohydrate (complex, preferably). And fat too, for the brain. I can debate the pros and cons of three-valued logic as well as anyone. I also have interests besides philosophy. But the question that really gets me going is, Why I am here? What insect would I be?

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