An ancient library transitions into an enchanted forest, where mystical creatures and philosophers exchange ideas, under a canopy of intertwined branches and glowing manuscripts, illustrating the harmonious integration of folklore and philosophy, depicted in light gray, dark gray, bright red, yellow, and blue.

I love this piece in Aeon from Abigail Tulenko, who argues that folklore and philosophy share a common purpose in challenging us to think deeply about life’s big questions. Her essay is essentially a critique of academic philosophy’s exclusivity and she calls for a broader, more inclusive approach that embraces… folklore.

Tulenko suggests that folktales, with all of their richness and diversity, offer fresh perspectives and can invigorate philosophical discussions by incorporating a wider range of experiences and ideas. By integrating folklore into philosophical inquiry, she suggests that there is the potential to democratise the field and make it not only more accessible and engaging, but help to break down academic barriers and interdisciplinary collaboration.

I’m all for it. Although it’s problematic to talk about Russian novels and culture at the moment, there are some tales from that country which are deeply philosophical in nature. I’d also include things like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as a story from which philosophers can glean insights.

The Hungarian folktale Pretty Maid Ibronka terrified and tantalised me as a child. In the story, the young Ibronka must tie herself to the devil with string in order to discover important truths. These days, as a PhD student in philosophy, I sometimes worry I’ve done the same. I still believe in philosophy’s capacity to seek truth, but I’m conscious that I’ve tethered myself to an academic heritage plagued by formidable demons.


propose that one avenue forward is to travel backward into childhood – to stories like Ibronka’s. Folklore is an overlooked repository of philosophical thinking from voices outside the traditional canon. As such, it provides a model for new approaches that are directly responsive to the problems facing academic philosophy today. If, like Ibronka, we find ourselves tied to the devil, one way to disentangle ourselves may be to spin a tale.

Folklore originated and developed orally. It has long flourished beyond the elite, largely male, literate classes. Anyone with a story to tell and a friend, child or grandchild to listen, can originate a folktale. At the risk of stating the obvious, the ‘folk’ are the heart of folklore. Women, in particular, have historically been folklore’s primary originators and preservers. In From the Beast to the Blonde (1995), the historian Marina Warner writes that ‘the predominant pattern reveals older women of a lower status handing on the material to younger people’.


To answer that question [folklore may be inclusive, but is it philosophy?], one would need at least a loose definition of philosophy. This is daunting to provide but, if pressed, I’d turn to Aristotle, whose Metaphysics offers a hint: ‘it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin, and at first began, to philosophise.’ In my view, philosophy is a mode of wondrous engagement, a practice that can be exercised in academic papers, in theological texts, in stories, in prayer, in dinner-table conversations, in silent reflection, and in action. It is this sense of wonder that draws us to penetrate beyond face-value appearances and look at reality anew.

[…] Beyond ethics, folklore touches all the branches of philosophy. With regard to its metaphysical import, Buddhist folklore provides a striking example. When dharma – roughly, the ultimate nature of reality – ‘is internalised, it is most naturally taught in the form of folk stories: the jataka tales in classical Buddhism, the koans in Zen,’ writes the Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi. The philosophers Jing Huang and Jonardon Ganeri offer a fascinating philosophical analysis of a Buddhist folktale seemingly dating back to the 3rd century BCE, which they’ve translated as ‘Is This Me?’ They argue that the tale constructs a similar metaphysical dilemma to Plutarch’s ‘ship of Theseus’ thought-experiment, prompting us to question the nature of personal identity.

Source: Aeon

Image: DALL-E 3