Skip to main content

What have you learnt from literature?

I read a piece in the Observer a week or so ago in which an author with a background in psychotherapy said she had learned more about human psychology from Conrad, Shakespeare, etc than from Freud, Yung, et al. It is often said that we learn a great deal from novels.

But what do we learn, exactly? What kind of "truth" do novels contain?

I can see that if I read a story about a killer, that laid out how he became a killer in such a way that I can see that I too could have ended up like him, then I have learned something valuable. I can also see that I might read about a concern someone has in a story that I share, but thought was unique to me, and so learn that I am not alone in having such thoughts and feelings. I can also see that I might have a feeling that I find difficult to articulate, and in a novel find a perfect expression of it. "Yes!" I might think, "That's how I feel". Novels can also provoke us to think about things we might not otherwise have considered. These are ways in which I could learn something, gain some insight.

On the other hand, novels are stories. And stories can be propaganda, even unwitting propaganda. Literature can be used to tell lies about the human condition. A skilled writer may, by pressing our emotional buttons, make us feel sympathy for a cause we should revile, or make what is wrong seem right or normal, for example.

Literature is about a good yarn with a beginning a middle, and an end, a strong character that develops, and so on. Real life rarely has these features. People rarely change, and when they do, rarely change in the ways that a good story requires. The real explanations for why people do things are rarely as dramatically satisfying and neat as those for fictional characters. When people write biographies or dramatized accounts of real events, real life has to be very heavily edited and shoe-horned into the conventions of literature, so that we get a good story. Either that or the author has to search hard for one of those unusual episodes or lives that actually meets the requirements of good literature.

So isn't literature, in many ways, profoundly misleading, providing the illusion that real life has a clear narrative structure, a plot, a moral, is driven by psychological principles, etc., that are actually rarely if ever present in real life?

Isn't the "psychology" it presents, often as not, mythical, rather than actual, reflecting what an all-too fallible individual, the author, thinks makes people tick, rather than what actually makes them tick?

Indeed, aren't we just endlessly presented with the same stock of archetypal plots and characters over and over again, which function as cultural sign-posts for us: "Oh, it's a story about a quest, and X is the flawed hero, and he learns this sort of lesson as he pursues the quest...". Even when a story deviates from these archetypes, doesn't it succeed precisely by deliberately flouting them - by revealing itself to be of another archetype, rather than the one it initially appeared to be (the plot with a "twist").

Anyway, these reflections lead me to ask: given that people regularly claim to have learned so much about the human condition and psychology from literature (novels), what's the most important thing you have learned? Is there a novel you were reading, when suddenly you were struck by a rather profound insight? If so, I'd be interested to know.

My suspicion is that, because people always say that learned this profound stuff from novels, but seem rarely if ever to provide an actual example of something they learned, that actually the profound truths and insights contained with novels are largely, if not entirely, mythical.

Of course I know this will provoke howls of outrage from literary types and that I shall be branded a philistine. I am just asking, that's all... If the insights are there let's have some examples. Otherwise, I'm thinking "Emperor's New Clothes" (ok, there's an insight right there!).

Remember - it's genuine penetrating insights I am after, not statements of the bloody obvious dressed up in literary garb.


Mats Volberg said…
But thing with most (good) literature is that it is in more or less based on real-life, the author relies on some known facts about the human condition or on personal experience, and retells these things in a different or over-exaggerated form.

So all we do learn from literature is things we already know.
Unknown said…
Is "having new thoughts" the same as learning? My example is Linda Nagata's science fiction novel, Vast. The story is set in the far future, and addresses, in several different ways, the question of what a "self" is. For instance, one of the characters lives mostly in a computer - the core processor of a starship. He has set up an automatic process that wakes him up once a month for 90 seconds. If nothing has gone terribly wrong, he then goes back to sleep. This way he avoids going insane during the centuries-long journey between the stars. Another character has such exquisite control over his own mind that when he has unpleasant feelings he can "edit them out". Images such as these made me think about consciousness and selfhood in a new way. Now, maybe this is a valuable experience, but not learning. And if it's not learning, then I really don't know how one would learn from a novel.
One thing you can *definitely* learn from literature is about how other people think--how the author thinks, how his audience thinks. You say that literature can make us love what we should hate, would you ever know that if you had never cracked open a novel?
anticant said…
One of the greatest 'psychological novels', in my opinion, is Alexandre Dumas' "Count of Monte Cristo" - a gripping and complex tale of revenge pursued to its uttermost which shows that achievement of an obsession, however virtuous, doesn't bring happiness.
Mike said…
Challenging someone to explain exactly what he's learned from literature is like challenging him to explain what he's learned from life. Reading novels gives breadth and depth to our inner experience of life. It allows us to transcend the narrow confines of our circumstances. When we read a story we are mentally living another life, and the benefits of that are completely different from the benefits of science or philosophy. It isn't about facts or ideas. In my view, one of the greatest benefits of reading fiction is in the building of empathy, which is vital to the whole concept of civilization.

Joseph Conrad makes the case for fiction most eloquently here:
Mike said…
I see the link to the Conrad essay was cut off at the end of my post. I will try again, because it's a great essay that speaks directly to this issue. It is easy to find on the web. It's Conrad's preface to his novel, "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'" (which is probably the most politically incorrect title imaginable nowadays, but that's another issue). Here is a different, shorter link:
Greg O said…
I'll forever regret that I stuck with my English with Philosophy BA for three years rather than switching to single honours Philosophy. I *hated* the bloody English modules, and with this post I think you've put your finger on some of the reasons I became disillusioned with the subject.

As you suggest, literature is in the business of manipulating emotions, not addressing issues or advancing knowledge. And there's something rather unseemly about, say, trying to tweak people's moral judgments by creating an adorable doe-eyed innocent and then giving her a good kicking (stand up, Thomas Hardy).

I find it virtually impossible to read 'worthy' literature now - I tend to find myself just thinking, 'Yes, but you just made it up, didn't you?' or 'If you've got something to say, just say it!'

Having said all that, I know I'm a very literal-minded, geeky sort of person, the sort of person who wants everything to be pinned down and not left 'woolly'. I'm sure many people would be left absolutely cold by the sort of philosophical writing that interests me, and engage with issues much better if they're wrapped up in an engaging, human story. (Which is where books like 'The Philosophy Files' come in, of course, with their vivid storytelling/dialogue elements.)
georgesdelatour said…
I'd say "The Grand Inquisitor", from The Brothers Karamazov, really, really makes you think. There's plenty of brain food for a philosopher in there. The previous chapter, about the suffering of children, is one of the best interrogations of the notion of a loving God ever written.

I'd also nominate the short stories of Borges, and Lem's Solaris, as literature that really made me think philosophically.

What about the plays of Tom Stoppard? Such as Arcadia? or Jumpers?
wombat said…
I presume you would disqualify those works of speculative fiction (e.g. SF, alternate histories etc.) which contain or are based round philosophical thought experiments. Roy S mentioned the description of alternate ways in which one could experience time for example.

In one sense it is very unlikely that a novel which truly reflected real life (whatever that is) would succeed. Nothing much would happen for pages and pages. If the story did not include the mind numbing tedium and triviality you could justly say that it did not reflect real life.

Isn't literature [novels] profoundly misleading? Provided that it's in the fiction section, no. Most of the readers know that it is fiction.

It's much less misleading than other stuff like biography, some histories or documentary. After all these contain facts, details of things which really happened, comments actually made by the protagonists, all of which help to conceal any spin that the author might wish to impart.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Storytelling is one of the oldest art forms. I recently bought a book, On the Origin of Stories by a Kiwi academic, Brian Boyd, subtitled, Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. At the same time I bought Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, which follows the Joseph Campbell model of Hollywood storytelling with heroes and archetypes and all the clichés that Stephen was railing against. The 2 approaches couldn’t be more different.

I’ve actually taught fiction writing, and one of the universal appeals of stories, both fiction and biography, is the idea of a character overcoming adversity, because, I believe that’s how we all find wisdom and self-knowledge. A bit like Socrates’ adage about the unexamined life. It’s only when we fail that we really examine ourselves, and that’s what fiction reflects. Whether it’s successful or not depends on the skills of the writer and, to a large extent, what the writer has experienced him or herself.

When I was 16, I read Albert Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) and it challenged my idea of God, so that’s pretty powerful. It was one of only 2 books that we were set when I was at school that I actually read. The other one was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

When a really good story touches us, I don’t believe we know why. We don’t analyse it, we are just affected by it. Stories are like dreams in that they expose us to situations we might not meet in normal life, but they have to be well written enough to put us in someone else’s shoes.

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…
If you are a philistine, then so am I. I rarely read fiction and then only at the urgent behest of someone who wants to know what I think of it. Usually I can take it or leave it but whenever the novel has been about some subject I know about, I have been disappointed.

In my opinion whatever a novel can teach us about reality, a good textbook can teach us better and in more depth. While a textbook can be impartial, a novel is always written from a point of view and this usually introduces impartiality when not outright bias.

Literature is entertainment, something for whiling away a rainy afternoon. When it becomes an academic subject, its importance is inevitably exaggerated because critics and lecturers do not want to seem to be talking about "mere" entertainment. It has to "meaningful" and "important".

If people like reading novels, fine, but they should remember the important thing: it's all made up, you know!
Anonymous said…
Historic fiction is valuable in that it gives us a window into what someone felt at the time. I've been reading a lot of medieval literature recently and it reveals the values, and something of the social structures of the time period. It's a nice complement to archeology and history in that way. I also enjoy wrestling with the original languages, a pleasure that I don't get with modern fiction in English.

Yours truly,
anticant said…
Literary critics are the very devil - academic parasites. Read the novels, not the critics!
Greg O said…
Thank you Silver Tiger.

This is all quite therapeutic for me - I've been living with the lingering sense that I'm somehow stupid and/or uncultured for preferring 'dry' non-fiction to literature ever since my BA days. Seems I'm not the only one who's inclined to think fiction is generally best seen as more or less thought-provoking entertainment, leaving non-fiction to deal with the serious stuff.

Does this mean I can stop beating myself up about reading old detective novels in preference to Joyce, and non-fiction in preference to either?
Stephen wrote: aren't we just endlessly presented with the same stock of archetypal plots and characters over and over again[?] I would say "usually" but occasionally you will find gems that I liken to masterpiece paintings. Works to simply enjoy for their excellence. In this regard, I have two offerings:You Can't Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe and The Spare Room by Helen Garner. The first was published after the death of the author in 1940 and I found it on Bill Clinton's list of the 10 best books he ever read. The second was recommended to me by Peter Singer. Both are superb works of art. What did I learn from reading both? Nothing. Just like I learn nothing from walking through the Guggenheim, tasting a remarkable Shiraz, listening to Handel's Messiah or gazing into the sunset over the Bras d'Ors Lakes in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia ... but I wouldn't trade any of those experiences for anything.
Kosh3 said…
Martha Nussbaum said something similar about literature and philosophy of ethics, as I recall: that you could learn more about morality by reading a novel than you could by taking a course in the philosophy of morality.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Speaking of literature and philosophy, I always thought Graham Greene did the 'moral dilemma' better than anyone else.

Best examples on DVD or video, in my opinion, are The Third Man starring Orson Welles (Greene wrote the original screenplay) and The Tenth Man, which was a lost manuscript (originally written during the War, I believe) he rediscovered it in 1985 and it was turned into a film starring Anthony Hopkins.

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…

We go to literature for precisely the same reason that you went to the mountains recently: defamiliarization. Just as the mountain air is charged with fresh sensations, so literature is charged with fresh language; and just as mountain paths wind in ways unfamiliar to the first-time visitor, so literature winds for the first time reader of, say, James Baldwin. When we go to literature, we are being provoked via charged language and authorial path-plottings to see and think differently from our usual grooves of sight and thought. And here's the kicker: Unlike walking in nature, where there is no telos---no designer---directed towards the landscape---when we trod through a poem, a novel, a short story, or a play, we are encountering an author who has laid out (metaphorically) every stone in our path, every vista, every animal and plant we stumble upon. When we come, for example, to a poem by William Blake, unlike with purposeless blind nature, we know that Blake (in a poem like "London") meant to alliterate here ("marks of weakness marks of woe") and reflect on the spread of syphilis there ("blight with plagues the marriage hearse").

Blake doesn't just prosaically say: "Isn't the spread of syphilis awful!" He charges the language, our imagination, and a consequence of syphilis that maybe we hadn't thought about (men, after visiting prostitutes, bring it home to their wives---turning the marriage carriage into a marriage hearse).

I'd also like to address something else that you said: You questioned the value of the plots of literature, that they weren't real, but contrived. But I'd like to suggest that all narrative---including historical narrative---is a form of contrivance after the fact. In other words, we all tell narratives from the vantage of death, as obituary. We cannot, in surveying the landscape of a story that we are currently in, tell a person what, exactly, will be the salient points in that landscape 50 years from now. We can only speak from the vantage of what has already died and past---and as the narrative seems to us now. Like the detective who goes over the objects of a crime scene, we cannot tell a narrative about something---historical or fictional---without making decisions about what was most important in light of a death---something complete. For example, when Oliver Stone makes a film about Bush, or a historian makes a book about Bush, what will be chosen out of the Bush landscape to tell? These are authorial matters of emphasis dependent on the passage of time.

One of the things that we do when we read, say, a short story (like Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener") is find out what the salient objects of Bartleby's existence was for that narrator. What Bartleby ate, how he interacted with employees, what he did---all of these things are the objects of narrative that seem important in the light of Bartleby's death, in retrospect, and from the vantage, say, of a narrator writing of him a year after Bartleby's death.

You yourself, Stephen, will no doubt tell a different story about what were the salient and important things about your life, and the key objects and events, from the vantage of 70 than from your current vantage. Things passed over now may rise to huge narrative importance 20 or 30 years from now, and things that seem important in your narrative now may drop into insignificance from a different narrative vantage.

Literature, like life, is an author's dream that evokes different evocative objects from different vantages. When we enter the dream of Blake's "London" poem (for example), our eyes are cast on "the marriage hearse" one moment, and the "marks of weakness, marks of woe" at another. These are the "plot points" on which narrative is built, and the charged language is the air literature moves in.

We read literature as Freud listened to patients, quietly overhearing their dreams, making meaning of them and from them.

---Santi Tafarella

P.S. I'm an English prof. and my blog is "Prometheus Unbound" at
sentiententity said…
I rather doubt it counts as "literature", but I learnt how to get a false passport and build a nuclear weapon from Frederick Forsyth.

More seriously, I still think I learnt nearly all of what one needs to know about politics and power from Orwell's 1984.

Paul Hutton said…
I second sentiententity regarding Orwell, 1984 and power.

I also learned a little bit more about love from Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karenina), kitsch and the meaning of life from Milan Kundera (The Unbearable Lightness of Being), absurdity from Heller (Catch-22) and also Camus (The Plague).

Indeed I thought The Plague and Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov would be useful reading for anyone interested in religious claims to moral authority?

I also learned a little bit about 'madness' from Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar) and Sebastian Faulks (Human Traces).

Literature has its place. Especially in helping us fully appreciate and imagine the consequences of acting on a set of complex moral or political beliefs. In this it helps scientists, politicians, moral philosophers and other decision-makers to generate and test the bold hypotheses so admired by Popper.
Toby said…
An interesting discussion and something I have thought about a number of times.

I find I read less and less fiction. When I do read fiction seriously, it tends to be "ideas" novels (Doris Lessing, Philip K Dick, Philip Pulman spring to mind) where philosophical concepts are explored through the situation and story. (Science fiction is, as has been noted, a rich source for philosophical thought experiments.)

As for what I have learnt from literature, it is difficult to say. I suspect I have learnt enough to understand the literary allusions that permeate our culture and thus appear well-educated....
Protagoras said…
The fact that literature encodes values means that you can learn a lot about what people value from it. This is most obvious in the case of literature of cultures other than one's own, but one can often be surprised even by those much closer to home. I imagine the main reason fiction appeared was to teach the values of the tribe to its members. That most fiction is not religious myth any more, and not explicitly designed to serve similar functions, does not mean that it does not continue to do so in more subtle ways.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Something I just remembered. In New Scientist last year (25 June 2008 issue under the title The Science of Fiction)they reported on psychometric tests showing that reading (fiction) improves empathy.

I haven't linked the article because you have to be a subsriber to access it. But it's headlined with: Reading novels isn't just entertaining, it helps you navigate the complex social world, says Keith Oatley.

They found, from 'reading' eyes in a 'letter box' view to judge emotional content, readers of fiction scored higher. And people even scored higher after having just read something, if I remember the article correctly (I haven't re-read it).

This is not surprising when one considers that empathy is a prerequisite for fiction to work.

I would contend that empathy is what the world needs more than anything else and that's the best reason I can think of to promote fiction.

Regards, Paul.
Greg O said…
Paul's point on empathy interests me. Could it be that evolution has furnished us with the *need* (rather than just the ability) to empathize with other people - real or imaginary? If regular practice makes us better empathizers - and thus better able to act altruistically, and to judge what's good for us on the basis of what we perceive to be good for other people - that would have at least some plausibility, I think.

And people surely do feel the need to be empathizing constantly - poking their nose into other people's emotional lives just so they can feel sorry for them, or happy for them, or angry for them. Often those people are fictional, but plausibly much the same thing is going on here as when someone sits down with a 'tragic life' memoir to put himself through the emotional wringer, or flicks through a 'true life' or celeb magazine.
Greg O said…
By pure coincidence, I stumbled upon this (by Steven Pinker) 20 minutes after writing that last post on empathy:

"Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the Golden Rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."

The whole article is fascinating. I often wonder why people tend to talk as if the world is going to hell when it's pretty obviously getting better and better all the time - Pinker is addressing the point of violence specifically, pointing to evidence on just how vastly less violent today's world is than the world of centuries or millennia ago.

It's here if anyone's interested:
wombat said…
Greg O - "I often wonder why people tend to talk as if the world is going to hell when it's pretty obviously getting better and better all the time"

If we carried on as if it was getting better and better it would probably go to hell in pretty short order!

We talk that way because our standards and expectations of behavior are being raised up. Before cosmopolitanism we simply didn't care one way or the other what went on in the next village. Now we do - "Aren't they dreadful over there?"
Greg O said…
Wombat - of course there's something in what you say about our expectations being raised and hence our tending to talk as if the world's going to hell (this is one of things Pinker talks about in that article).

I just find it interesting that in some areas our high expectations are accompanied by the knowledge that things are improving (e.g. we see how far medicine has come and are therefore less willing to accept illness as something inevitable), while in other areas (e.g. war/violence) our high expectations are accompanied by a belief that things are actually getting worse.

My grandmother was recently trying to tell me how much better things were in her day, for instance. You know, the good old days when the Nazis were rampaging through Europe, your friends and family were dying of diseases that are now treatable etc. etc.

It makes no sense, but that sort of belief is everywhere. When people talk about not wanting to bring kids into the modern world, I always feel like pressing them to name a decade they'd have preferred to have kids in. Some time in the Victorian era, perhaps? Nah, don't be daft. Early 20th century? Hmm, best wait for the World Wars to finish. Actually, let's hang on for the NHS and penicillin. Oh, and some measure of sexual equality would be nice, and IRA bombs were a bit of a pain, and the internet has its uses, and...

Sorry, this thread is veering way off topic. It did all start out with a point about fiction and empathy, honest!
Spencer said…
Stephen, the wording of your challenge is telling. You ask, "But what do we learn, exactly? What kind of "truth" do novels contain?", but then seem to squirrel any response we might wish to make, by claiming that the romanticism of some literature is "rarely if ever present" in what you refer to as reality.

I put it to you that this statement represents a wilful ignorance on the subject, but, libel aside, I'd like to take a stab at answering your question.

As a philosopher you are intimately aware of the necessity to distinguish between different forms of truth, yet you appear to project literature as a medium which may access only factual truths. I would argue that literature has the ability to share all manner of truths with its consumers.

The most obvious example is, as you say, myth. The ability to convey myth alone bestows a certain kind of truth-telling power on any medium. As Joseph Campbell argues in his book "The Hero with A Thousand Faces," myths across many (he argues all) cultures communicate similar values and images. By looking at psychoanalysis, it is also possible to postulate that even those people without access to the traditional imagery and narratives of any given culture's mythology tend to reproduce said ideas in their own dreams and fantasies. In other words, there are fundamental truths in myth - truths which concern the nature of human identity. And what could be more profound than the kind of self-knowledge which unites the consumer with a much greater whole?

This is the most important kind of truth which literature can contain: truth about human identity. In your fourth paragraph, you do literature a great disservice. You assume rule where I see only convention and myopia. Where are the beginning, middle and end in a Joyce novel, or in one of Stoppard's plays? Where is the character development in Kafka's work? Using these traditions to define literature is like claiming that cinema is about ninety minutes of romance, or that philosophy is about grad students with bad facial hair and incomprehensible books. You are confusing form with content.

But enough lollygagging. You asked for profound truths which I have found in literature. Well, here's one which has never ceased to amaze me, throughout my short life. Every time I return to the medium, I am astonished by the potency of the realisation that I am alive, in a world full of riches, and treasures, and wonderful humans.

That's kind of the point, actually. Literature and philosophy don't have to compete for justification. They're different. Philosophy obsesses over truth, and it's a worthwhile goal. Literature, like all art, just begs us to share our insides with one another.

I hope that goes some way to answering your question.
Anonymous said…
Glancing through this thread, I was struck by the way in which nearly all the posters seem to treat prose as the prime form of literature.
Nearly all the prose I read is non-fiction. I read more poetry that prose, and find it a valuable way of exploring my own emotions.

One thing I have learned from literature, both poetry and prose, is how to use the English language - and that includes playing with it as well as using it to convey information and to persuade other people.

There's a sense too in which one needs to learn from one book how to understand another. I sometimes wonder how British children nowadays who do not have the 1611 AV and 1662 BCP as part of their 'mental furniture' can appreciate much subsequent prose or poetry.

And how could we argue with the Christians if we didn't have some knowledge of their sacred texts? [I hope Stephen will agree that they count as fiction!] Discovering what others believe can help one get on with them socially and understand where they are coming from.

But there's also an implication here that the only value of literature is to learn from it. It provides a valuable source of pleasure too - like anticant I found 'The Count of Monte Cristo' a source of much enjoyment as a child. [BTW - there's an excellent new translation by Robin Buss in the Penguin Classics series.] Immersing oneself in another person's created world - be it Dumas or Tolkien - can extend one's empathy too.
Anonymous said…
Agree with the gent about The Karamazov Brothers. I'm reading it at the moment and I've never been so struck by a novel in my life.

Freud liked it.
Philosophical Fiction Fan said…

Isn't "The God of Eth" a story?

1. Siddartha helped me "get" Buddhism
2. The Stranger helped me "get" existentialism
3. Life of Pi provided the insight of how stories make more sense to us than hard facts
4. Crime and Punishment and the feeling of Napoleon-like specialness
5. Cellist of Sarajevo and value and hope and morality in life and war
On and on...

Literature is just another way of putting things. Sure, it can manipulate, but what about the Sophists of non-fiction? Sure, stories have to be shoe-horned, but so does non-fiction. There is no history book or philosophy book that chronicles every angle, every cause, every influence that leads to a conclusion. That's why people keep writing - fiction and non-fiction. There's no sense exaggerating the case for either one. I think that they bot play their roles.
Unknown said…
1. Buddhism, existentialism and "how stories make more sense to us than hard facts" are ideas. Indeed. they are human-made ideas. When learning these things are you learning anything significant about the world? (Is this a fair distinction to draw? I'm not sure.)

2. Have you learnt a fact, or just an author's opinion?

3. Did you get a new idea, or is it a feeling? Certainly there's a difference.

4. A book can give me a feeling I've never had before. Have I then learnt something? That would seem to be an awfully broad definition of 'learning'. It would be almost the same thing as 'experience'.

5. When we get practical information (how to hot-wire a car, say) from a novel, it can only be because that part of the book is not fictional. Say a fascinating character showed me something about how to think (as the protagonist of Connie Willis's Passage might). This can only be helpful if her advice is true.

6. Many books, whether nominally fiction or nominally nonfiction, give bad advice. How do we tell the difference?
Derek said…
The first thing to remember is that literature isn't 'about' entertainment, just as it isn't 'about' knowledge. Literature can be both, and is both, and even at the same time. So yes, some or a lot of literature isn't intellectually stimulating, and doesn't pretend to be. But literature isn't inherently academic, so it's inappropriate to expect that of it.

Second, of course much of literature, including the supposedly enlightening literature, is pure fiction in terms of its events. Further, Stephen is right that, at a slightly more subtle level, life doesn't exactly have plot, clear progression, resolution, etc. But, as has been pointed out above, people know that, too. If they didn't, that would e.g. seriously blunt the enjoyment of escapist literature. Those who are most likely to learn from fiction are probably those who know these slightly more subtle points; those who didn't recognize that life doesn't have typical plot development are not likely to learn anything anyway, I would guess.

So, what good is literature? It's not because it lists facts, obviously. I used to think that it should reflect ways in which people actually are, and so reveal human nature that way. I more recently came to realize, partly by reading someone who I unfortunately cannot recall, that rather what greater literature tends to do is magnify. Take two examples mentioned above, both of which I'd agree with, both written by people with serious philosophical interests: The Stranger, by Camus, and The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. Mersault and Ivan are not realistic people, that much is clear. But what they teach us, if anything, isn't what living people are like. Rather, we learn about elements of human life, aspects of living, and potentialities. With Mersault, roughly, the idea is to see a life lived absurdly, to see how the world could be seen in eyes that find no connections, no overall significance. It magnifies elements and tendencies in some of our own lives, or that we see in others, and that's how Mersault 'speaks to us.' Similarly, Ivan Karamazov is the atheist intellectual pushed to human extremes by a question many of us face: what is justice, what is meaning, without God? We rarely face it like Ivan did, but just for that reason Ivan can (presuming, of course, that Dostoevsky is reading the situation right) tell us about our own concerns and thoughts; the subtleties and intricacies of our own problems, or about human nature generally, are shown in these ways in bold relief.

That's one intellectual use of literature, and not the only one. For example, I said nothing about allegory (partly because I've never cared for it as much). I recently reread The Hobbit in preparation for the movie; Tolkien's descriptions of Goblins, of dwarves, and of, on the other hand, hobbits and elves show a particular way of looking at industrialization and nature, at overwhelming shows of power versus cooperation, and greed versus kindness. There are no doubt other things, too, but it can be said without listing them all that literature is certainly worth a lot more than nothing, if not just a whole lot.
Paul Crowley said…
Ken McLeod made this argument on April Fool's Day. After he confessed that it was an April Fool, several people including me asked to read his rebuttal, but so far he hasn't.

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Aquinas on homosexuality

Thought I would try a bit of a draft out on the blog, for feedback. All comments gratefully received. No doubt I've got at least some details wrong re the Catholic Church's position... AQUINAS AND SEXUAL ETHICS Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts. When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Arist

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o