I WANT TO SUGGEST a way of appreciating the achievement of J. M. Coetzee's book, Elizabeth Costello, and its eight “lessons.” Given the nature of these lessons, this will make inevitable an attempt to raise the question of understanding the work in terms of what I shall call “philosophical fiction.” In this, I take myself to be following the lead given us by the book itself, in which philosophy obviously plays a large role. The idea will not be to show that fiction is philosophy. Of course, it is not. The book is literary fiction, even if a unique genre; not quite a short story collection, and certainly not a mere device for ventriloquizing philosophical claims. But the idea that fiction can be philosophical requires a defense of the claim, first, that fiction can be a distinctive form of thought, even a form of knowledge; and second, that such knowledge is relevant to, has a bearing on, the sort of knowledge philosophy, or at least some version of philosophy, tries to achieve. The bearing of fiction on philosophy is not that fiction is a form of philosophy. It has this bearing precisely because it is not. It has this bearing even, and especially, when what fiction achieves throws into some doubt the prospects for philosophy to achieve what it is trying to achieve. The immediately problematic or paradoxical nature of this thought can be put by saying: if the idea is that fiction is “philosophy by other means,” then the emphasis must first of all be on the phrase: “other means.” And that already threatens the claim that it can be philosophical. (How “other” can such means be, and still be means to philosophy?)
As a strictly theoretical question this leads us immediately to the notion of the form of literary fiction. Knowledge is knowledge by being of some generality, and generality is formal. It extends to many instances. This problem is dual. It concerns the distinctive form of all literary thought, as contrasted, say, with forms like mathematical or religious thought. And it concerns the specific content of any fictional insight. If a drama can be philosophical, then, say, the play, Othello, cannot be about, be a way of understanding, Othello's jealousy without also being about, showing us something about, jealousy in general.