Mark Anderson’s Thinking Life: A Philosophical Fiction is a layered philosophical novel. The first set of layers is that of the fictionalized relationship Anderson has to the novel itself. Anderson portrays himself as the mere editor of a manuscript by the eclectic scholar of ancient philosophy Michael Tomassi. The novel, by Anderson’s telling, is Tomassi’s production, one that is an intellectual autobiography of an imagined and never named philosophy professor. So, by Anderson’s layering, we have three doctors of philosophy recounting the tale—the fictional narrator and his life, Tomassi, the purported author, and then Anderson himself, the later discoverer and editor of Tomassi’s manuscript.
Anderson’s second layering is his method of unfolding the professor’s story. The program proceeds in four movements. At first, the professor suffers from the anxieties and disappointments of professional work in the academy. So he retreats to the mountains. Second, in the mountain retreat, the professor meets the curious and compelling thinker-artist, who provides a critique of the life of professional philosophy and a model for how to live intellectually independently, away from the quotidian grind of university administration. Third, the professor’s new idea of himself and his future germinates as he exchanges the occasional letter with the thinker-artist. Fourth and finally, the professor is his own independent mind, a creative individual. He draws down his obligations to the university, and he embarks on his own unique creative intellectual path.
The vision emerging from Anderson’s work, both with this novel and his other books (Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One; Moby Dick and Philosophy; Zarathustra Stone; and The Thinker-Artist) is both a diagnosis of modern intellectual melancholy, but also a picture of creative construction as an alternative. There are, on the one hand, classical influences of Platonic mysticism, but on the other hand, there is the anti-Enlightenment pull of Nietzschean personal development and creativity. Anderson’s book, with its picture of the life of professional academics, is a searing case that something has gone wrong with the university and the lives of the scholars there. The question, then, is whether the model of the thinker-artist Anderson proposes is the fix so desperately needed.