The best books of philosophical fiction

Alan McManus Author Of Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality
By Alan McManus

Who am I?

Scotland has a proud tradition of philosophical enquiry and I studied closely the work of most of these authors and benefited from almost all of them for my own Ph.D. work. Pirsig uses the old Scots word “gumption” for know-how and initiative and, in his honour, I use his related term “gumptionology” as my handle on social media. I also write my own mystery books series set in Scotland (the Bruno Benedetti mysteries) and they are often inspired by musing on philosophical and metaphysical matters but even my books on ethics contain some philosophical fiction. Our shared stories are fundamental to our humanity—and to our philosophy!

I wrote...

Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality

By Alan McManus,

Book cover of Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality

What is my book about?

“What the hell is Quality?” asked the author of my first book pick, halfway through his bestseller, prompted by a middle-aged colleague at Bozeman College (Montana) watering her office plants and asking him about his English teaching. He described that question as a seed crystal which grew into his two famous works of philosophical fiction then, mostly through misunderstanding, created a maze of educational and industrial regulations—provoking endless academic discussion over their justification and coherence.

50 years later, halfway through my doctorate in Scotland, suffering from painful RSI in my hands and wrists from typing obsessively in a damp ground-floor flat, trying to cram in every philosophical insight from Plato to Robert M. Pirsig, I decided, like these philosophers, to answer by telling a story.

The books I picked & why

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

By Robert M. Pirsig,

Book cover of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Why this book?

My friend Mandy says she doesn’t believe in conspiracy theories because people aren’t that organised. Admittedly, governments have acted in lockstep recently but Robert M. Pirsig would agree with her—and if you’ve ever been stuck on hold for over an hour only to be cut off, problem unresolved, you’d agree with him! In Plato’s day, the world was mostly run by warlords with just a dash of democracy. Pirsig complains of sloppy mechanics too intent on the radio to care about his engine noise. Nowadays the world is run by precariously-employed hungover teens squinting at their drying nail varnish while misfiling your tax return. He calls it ‘the spectator attitude’ and his first bestselling novel is about why they feel that way, and what we can do about it. 

The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy

By Martha C. Nussbaum,

Book cover of The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy

Why this book?

Martha Nussbaum’s book isn’t written as roman à thèse (thesis told as story) but it focuses on the dialogues of Plato and her work helped me understand a possible intention behind his philosophical fiction—when I was writing my own thesis on a more modern philosopher—especially how it tries to avoid the conflicts and suffering that compose Greek tragedy. Spanning millennia of muse-inspired myth about people under pressure, from Antigone in Ancient Crete (who just wanted to bury her traitorous brother) to Sophie in Nazi Germany (who had to choose between her children’s lives) this movingly-written and erudite book has the disturbing but very human insight that the howling Furies don’t let us off the hook just because we had no choice. And neither does our conscience.  

Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals

By Robert M. Pirsig,

Book cover of Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals

Why this book?

I recommend the sequel to Pirsig’s more famous bestseller because I’ve never owned a motorcycle (and I find bicycle maintenance hard enough), but now I own a sailboat—where his second story is set—so when he describes hearing people walking on the cabin roof, or checking the knots on the mooring ropes, I know exactly what he means because I’ve experienced this. Some of his fans felt this sequel was a betrayal of the magical mysticism of undefined Quality he described in the first book. For me, although problematic, it was a necessary clarification and one I not only used for my academic work on a range of controversies from abortion to transgender but also in my life-coaching practice: to inspire holistic transformation on all levels of wellbeing. 

The Thought Gang

By Tibor Fischer,

Book cover of The Thought Gang

Why this book?

I picked this book up in a charity shop, idly browsing while waiting for my elderly mother to choose a nice murder—so I think ‘unexpected’ is a good word to describe both the content and the quality. Once you get over the jarring juxtapositions, and accept the general absurdity of a middle-aged philosopher turned bank robber, occasionally on the lam, the characters (despite some distinctly unappealing attributes) become more sympathetic, and their outrageous fortunes and philosophical reflections do inspire interest in the fragmentary first recorded attempts at sustained thought about life, the universe and everything, in Europe: the pre-Socratics.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale

By James B. South (editor), William Irwin (editor),

Book cover of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale

Why this book?

This was a book I bought and loved and lost (my fault for leaving it in the University of Glasgow library) but not just because I loved the TV series. Ok, mostly. But also because it gave me a whole new insight into the forceful philosophy of Nietzsche as embodied by Buddy’s friend, rival and nemesis, Faith, and this was really useful for me trying to put generational conflict into words for my Ph.D. The 25 authors obviously love the series and, as this is one that I know well and have rewatched with audio/subtitles in various languages as an easy way to learn, their insights have added interest by providing another layer of meaning in this already multi-dimensional enthralling—and hilarious—narrative. I want this book back!

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