Wilkinson usefully distinguishes between “rational consolation” and “psychological consolation”, the former referring to when “philosophical analysis leads to the conclusion that it would be rational to care less about death than we currently do” and the latter to when “philosophical reflection will actually lead us to care less about death than we currently do.” And he outlines “Parfitian rational consolation” for personal mortality as follows: “Adopting a reductionist understanding of personal identity and a more timeless attitude, would mean that it is rational to care less about one’s own death or that of others.”

The narrative, aesthetic and affective dimensions of literature can thus lead to a bridging of the gap between rational realisation and psychological state. These are, however, not exclusive to literature; they can be – and indeed often have been, especially in the continental philosophical tradition – meaningfully used in philosophical writing. There is a strong literary dimension to philosophy, and as works by thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Sartre illustrate, literature and philosophy cannot be clearly distinghuished or strictly separated. The ancient Stoics, to whose engagement in consolatory philosophy Wilkinson also refers in his paper, also show awareness of this. In Seneca’s letter of consolation to his mother Helvia in relation to his own exile on Corsica (which I am currently working on a new publication of) the philosopher rhetorically self-consciously and strategically uses narrative and affective devices to engage the reader and for affective and psychological impact.
If we look to artforms with a strong philosophical dimension such as literature and fictional narrative, it seems clear that philosophical perspectives and rational argument can have psychological and emotional impact. Literature of course significantly differs from philosophy and arguably holds a special capacity for closing the divide between theoretical/rational insight and psychological/emotional state. Its affective, aesthetic, artistic and narrative features can make ideas, insights and hypotheses relatable for readers in ways that are beyond the scope of conventional philosophical and scientific writing that mainly rely on rational argument. These features allow for a much greater degree of identification and emotional and psychological engagement of the reader with the rational arguments and scientific and philosophical theories presented.
On one level Seneca argues explicitly and self-assuredly exactly what Wilkinson disputes, namely that rational insight is the only thing that can offer persons real comfort and consolation. But in arguing this, he does not simply rely on logic and clarity of argument. The text is highly performative and literary, incorporating personal and private material, using story-telling to illustrate its points, implicitly referring to events in the contemporary context in order to engage the reader, activate sympathy and facilitate identification between reader and the philosophical arguments. By Mette Leonard Høeg
Wilkinson accordingly argues that even though the philosophical insights into death and time in Parfit’s work provide reasons for fearing personal mortality less, it is “unlikely” that the Parfitian philosophical consolation will actually have a psychological effect in relation to personal mortality. And in terms of grief and fear in relation to the loss of loved ones, he finds it “deeply implausible” that the philosophical perspectives that give reasons for grieving less could lead to actual consolation (and that such a consolation may in fact, for certain reasons, be misguided and undesirable).
Literature can thus bring to light the beneficial and emancipatory potential of philosophy and science such as the philosophical reductive and materialist accounts of self and identity by presenting these in poetic and existential-philosophical terms, within a narrative framework and illustrating their meaning and implications performatively and dramatically through the acts, thoughts and speech of fictional characters. Compared to non-fictional and scientific forms of communication, it offers readers a possibility to more fully imagine how these perspectives can be lived with and incorporated into an existential model and a way of life and to actually experience the implications of accepting and identifying with certain philosophical notions and scientific theories through immersion in a story and identification with its characters.
While this line of argument appears sound and persuasive, it seems to me to rest on too strict a distinction between rationality and emotion/psychology and to entail a misleadingly reductive view of philosophical writing as ‘pure’ rationalism and logic.
It is well-known that rational insight and understanding of scientific facts do not necessarily lead to psychological change and shifts in intuitions. In his paper “Grief and the inconsolation of philosophy” (unpublished manuscript), Dominic Wilkinson sheds light on this gap between insight and emotions as he considers the potential of philosophy for offering consolation in relation to human mortality. More specifically, he looks at the possibility of Derek Parfit’s influential reductionist definition of personal identity for providing psychological consolation in the face of the death of oneself and of others. In Reasons and Persons, Parfit argues that personal identity is reducible to physical and psychological continuity of mental states, and that there is no additional fact, diachronic entity or essence that determines identity; and he points to the potential for existential liberation and consolation in adopting this anti-essentialist perspective: “Is the truth depressing? Some might find it so. But I find it liberating, and consoling. When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air.”
Indeed, all writing, including scientific and philosophical forms, always already entails narrative and aesthetic dimensions – even if the convention has been to try to reduce these as much as possible in the effort to enhance the logic of an argument and create transparency and clarity. But there is no such thing as a pure genre or a purely rational argument. A heightened awareness of this in analytical philosophy might well lead to a narrowing of the gap between philosophical insight and psychological state.
But as Wilkinson points out: “These claims may come apart. Obviously, it would be possible for philosophy to offer rational consolation, but to have little or no psychological traction. Equally, it is possible that a particular form of consolation might be psychologically effective, but like supernatural explanations, have no rational basis.” He is sceptical that the Parfitian reductionist account of self has any such psychological and emotional traction and refers, among other sources, to a recent empirical study on the relation between attitudes to personal identity and the self and attitudes towards death the results of which indicate that those with a strong belief in the persisting self as an illusion (such as Tibetan monks) do in fact not experience less fear of death than groups with a strong sense of a continuous self – contrary to the prediction of the researchers.
This blogpost is a prepublication draft of an article forthcoming in THINK.
Etching by J.F.P. Peyron, ca. 1773

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