House Guest with Douglas Watson: Why I Make Fun of Philosophers

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Douglas Watson’s story “New Animal” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.


I don’t know that much about philosophy, but that doesn’t stop me from poking fun at philosophers in my fiction. Really, though, it’s my younger self I’m making fun of. In 1990 I went off to college figuring I would major in philosophy. What could be better than staying up half the night thinking in a rigorous way about the most important questions? Wasn’t time spent doing anything else—like getting a haircut—ultimately just wasted time? In high school I’d been taken with Plato and the kind of existentialism found in Herman Hesse novels. Throw in a bit of Thoreau and maybe spin “All You Need Is Love” on the turntable and you’ve got the picture.

But a funny thing happened in Philosophy 101, a thing that probably happens to a lot of freshmen who think they’re going to be philosophy majors: I fell out of love with philosophy. Philosophy, it turned out, was difficult and rather dry and quite possibly beside the point. Sure, my new college friends and I stayed up all night talking about the meaning of life, but we weren’t talking about Aristotle. Life, we decided, took place in the world, not just inside our skulls, and the world needed our help right now! The Gulf War was brewing, global warming was happening, and whole societal systems needed to be restructured ASAP if there was to be any chance of something-or-other. Trading the romantic image of myself in a scholar’s study for the romantic image of myself on a barricade, I began skipping classes and protesting the war and listening to the Doors. What I wanted was peace, and when I wanted it was right then.

At length I graduated and got a job. And a haircut.

I devoted myself to other things: environmentalism, the piano, history, fiction, rock ’n’ roll, tennis. Some of these things I have stuck with. Some I have dropped like so many hot potatoes. My having given philosophy the hot-potato treatment must bother me at some level, because philosophy keeps showing up in my fiction—but only so I can take cheap shots at it. David Hume, whose arid reasoning helped drive me away from philosophy, is a favorite target. Van Roost, the protagonist in my story “New Animal,” encounters Hume’s famous proof that it can’t be proved that the sun will rise tomorrow and thinks, “What nonsense!” Kierkegaard, too, ultimately lets Van Roost down. The story closes with Van Roost sitting alone, up half the night, troubled by the vague sense that he is “waiting for something”—a feeling I know quite well.

But perhaps a restless sense that one is forever waiting for something is a good cast of mind for a fiction writer. Like philosophy, fiction writing is a form of thinking.

But perhaps a restless sense that one is forever waiting for something is a good cast of mind for a fiction writer. Like philosophy, fiction writing is a form of thinking. John Gardner would tell me it is the form I trust the most. I can’t make myself believe in some grand search for meaning anymore—as though the mind were Napoleon and truth were there to be won on the battlefield. If Plato was right about the unexamined life, well, okay, then let’s actually examine life, the messy stuff of experience. That messy stuff is what fiction is all about. And—surprise, surprise—the mess looks very different depending on your point of view. Every character has a different take on things, a different set of questions and answers. No one answer is definitively right. That is how life actually is, and that is why fiction is good at understanding life.

Am I worse off for having abandoned philosophy? I don’t know, and I’m probably not going to find out. I still stay up half the night, but it’s usually because I’m lying awake rehearsing the next day’s list of worries. Somehow a fear that the sun won’t come up in the morning never makes the list. Although—wouldn’t it be interesting if it didn’t come up? Sounds like the beginning of a good short story…


Douglas Watson is the author of a book of stories, The Era of Not Quite, and a novel, A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies. He lives in New York City.

Author photo by Lee Towndrow