While the stories of Virginia Woolf are not traditionally considered as works of philosophy, her literature has a lot to teach us about self-identity, transformation, and our relationship to others.

“A million candles burnt in him without his being at the trouble of lighting a single one.” – Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Woolf was not a philosopher. She was not trained as such, nor did she assign the title to herself, and she did not produce work which follows traditional philosophical construction. However, her writing nonetheless stands as comprehensive, albeit unique, work of philosophy.   

Woolf’s books, such as Orlando, The Waves, and Mrs Dalloway, are philosophical inquiries into ideas of the limits of the self and our capacity for transformation. At some point we all may feel a bit trapped in our own lives, worrying that we are not capable of making the changes needed to break free from routine, which in time has turned mundane.

Woolf’s characters and stories suggest that our own identities are endlessly transforming, whether we will them to or not.

More classical philosophers, like David Hume, explore similar questions in a more forthright manner. Also reflecting on matters of the stability of personal identity, Hume writes in his A Treatise of Human Nature:  

“Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre…”  

Woolf’s books make similar arguments. Rather than stating them in these explicit forms, she presents us with characters who depict the experience that Hume describes. Woolf’s surrealist story, Orlando, follows the long life of a man who one day awakens to find themselves a woman. Throughout we are made privy to the way the world and Orlando’s own mind alters as a result:

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.” 

When Hume describes the mind as a theatre, he suggests there is no core part of ourselves that remains untouched by the inevitability of layered experience. We may be moved to change our fashion sense and, as a result, see the world treat us differently in response to this change. In turn, we are transformed, either knowingly or unknowingly, by whatever this new treatment may be.  

Hume suggests that, while just as many different acts take place on a single stage, our personal identities also ebb and flow depending on whatever performance may be put before us at any given time. After all, the world does not merely pass us by; it speaks to us, and we remain entangled in conversation.  

While Hume constructs this argument in a largely classical philosophical form, Woolf explores similar themes in her works through more experimental ways:

“A million candles burnt in him”, she writes in Orlando, “without his being at the trouble of lighting a single one.”

Using the gender transforming character of Orlando, Woolf examines identity, its multiplicity, and how, despite its being an embodied sensation, our sense of self both wavers and feels largely out of our control. In the novel, any complexities in Orlando’s change of gender are overshadowed by the multitude of other complexities in the many transformations that one embarks in life. 

Throughout the book, readers are also given the opportunity to reflect on their own conceptions of self-identity. Do they also feel this ever-changing myriad of passions and selves within them? The character of Orlando allows readers to consider whether they also feel as though the world oftentimes presents itself unbidden, with force, shuffling the contents of their hearts and minds again and again. While Hume’s Treatise aims to convince us that who we are is constantly subject to change, Orlando gives readers the chance to spend time with a character actively embroiled in these changes.  

A Room of One’s Own presents a collated series of Woolf’s essays which explore the topics of women and fiction. Though non-fictional, and evidently a work of critical theory, Woolf meditates on her own experience of acquiring a large, lifetime inheritance. She reflects on the ways in which her assured income not only materially transformed her capacities to pursue creative writing, but also how it radically transformed her perceptions of the individuals and social structures surrounding her: 

“No force in the world can take from me my [monthly] five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine for ever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race. It was absurd to blame any class or any sex, as a whole. Great bodies of people are never responsible for what they do. They are driven by instincts which are not within their control. They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with.”

While Hume tells us, quite explicitly, about the fluidity of the self and of the mind’s susceptibility to its perceptual encounters, Woolf presents her readers with a personal instance of this very phenomenon. The acquisition of a stable income meant her thoughts about her world shifted. Woolf’s material security afforded her the freedom to choose how she interacts with those around her. Free from dependence, hatred and bitterness no longer preoccupied her mind, leaving space for empathy and understanding. The social world, which remained largely unchanged, began telling her a different story. With another candle lit, and the theatre of her mind changed, the perception of the world before her was also transformed, as was she. 

If a philosopher is an individual who provokes their audiences to think in new ways, who poses both questions and ways in which those questions may be responded to, we can begin to see the philosophy of Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s personal philosophical style is one that does not set itself up for a battle of agreement or disagreement. Instead, it contemplates ideas in theatrical, enlivened forms which are seemingly more preoccupied with understanding and exploration rather than mere agreement.