Can literature be philosophical? Can philosophy be considered literature? What are the roles of literature and philosophy in relation to "truth?" Why should philosophers be interested in literature?
While trying to come up with something to post in relation to the recent PEL discussion on Cormac McCarthy’s "No Country for Old Men" I came across an interesting discussion over at the Philosophy Now podcast on literature and philosophy that raises the above questions. The conversation opens by addressing the obvious "What is literature?", going on to explore the role literature plays in relation to philosophy, whether it is a "philosophical enterprise" or could "possibly" contribute to the "philosophical enterprise" (The answer? "Yep.")
What really drew my attention was the question of how literature bears on our understanding of moral reasoning and if literature is a better medium for conveying moral insights. The participants in the Podcast offer some skepticism about whether or not literature can provide philosophical insights that are not obtainable through "standard modes of philosophical argument." They do, however, seem to agree that literature can "inspire us to moral reflection", acting as "...an instance of moral thought." One of the ways that this is done is by "..pushing us to think imaginatively, particularly about possibilities." ("Literature both keeps alive threatened possibilities... and sets forth unanticipated ones".)
Martha Nussbaum, whose thoughts on this topic are addressed several times in this conversation, champions the notion that literature ought to be considered works of moral philosophy as it promotes a more empathetic society. (The question that arises around Nussbaum, "...could you become a more morally sensitive, more morally able person by reading literature?" seems to have been answered in the affirmative.) While philosophy often deals with explicit sets of propositions about this or that moral system in an argumentative, systematic sense, literature addresses the "experience" of being a moral agent by addressing the concrete features of persons and circumstances, provoking the reader to reflect on moral issues in a "different", indirect way. In taking you into a spectrum of different "experiences" as they might be lived by possible people, each iteration adds a facet to our overall notion of what it means to be "human", broadening our ontology of the "human being" (I would think that Wittgenstein's notion of "forms of life" would be relevant here since literature allows us to enter into specific examples of a given "form" and how we might come to an understanding of how different "meanings" and different "moral reasoning" are constituted.)
The claim, raised by Nussbaum and questioned by the participants here, that literature shapes our moral responses is becoming more than mere speculation.
This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.
That we might be less critical of the ideas found in fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, because our "guard is down" raises some dangers about what people come to believe as being "true" (the possibility that our view of the "real world" could be "distorted" or "manipulated" by the ideas we encounter in fiction underlines Plato's criticism of literature). How we interpret a given piece of literature, even without "explicit assertion" of an author's beliefs, can be influenced by the "...authors choice of evaluative vocabulary, which words do you choose to describe the 'goods' and 'bads' of what is going on." This "manifesting" of beliefs can subtly convey (and/or obscure) ideas, whose claims may or may not be challenged by the reader who might "export" those claims from the fiction into their understanding of the "real world" (and here we see a potential strength of moral philosophy, in the proper sense, as an analytic tool in evaluating competing moral claims).
Overall, it seems that "if the author is a decent guide to human psychology" then literature can, on a practical level, "enhance your moral thinking" but we should not consider literature as "moral philosophy" per se. Not that these questions and concerns should reduce Literature to its instrumental value in regards to philosophy as there are aesthetic qualities found in literature that exist independent of their philosophical significance just as there are philosophical works who aesthetic qualities should be acknowledged independent of their philosophical considerations (as Seth does in regards to the prose of Descartes’s "Meditations" or Daniel Horne does when he addresses the "...good emotional turns of phrases" found in Schleiermacher’s “On Religion" which is lacking in "rigor" and "methodology").
Addendum: I also just found a related discussion from 2007 on "Philosophy and Literature" over at Philosophy Talk that you might want to give a listening to.
those studies are beyond weak (lack of physiological data aside,where are the behavioral/observational/field follow-ups?), there is no concrete scientific data to date that shows that the kinds of skills needed to empathize/identify with fictional characters are the same skills that allows one to identify with flesh and blood people or that having some degree of “empathy” is the equivalent as having the combination of capacities to make the kinds of distinctions/choices that we generally think of as ethical, of course the limited studies on the behaviors of philosophers who teach ethics suggest that having an abstract/academic understanding of issues is also not enough (or of a kind) to bring about actual(ilized) behavioral changes, which is why folks like Dewey were right to focus on early childhood development/socialization and not just on post/late adolescent book learning, there is some irony to this side of Nussbaum’s work since she is one of the founders of thinking of morality/obligations in terms of capacities….
building off of the earlier posts along these lines I think that the broader question is one of what counts (and why) as rigor/discipline in philosophical study, which as you can see here in recent posts on theory/testing is an open and ongoing debate in the academy:
Bill B says
Great question in the title of the post! Some related questions that emerge are:
Can an individual behave ethically without ever having an occasion of, or even a capacity to, attempted conscious formulation of ethical principles?
Can an individual make ethical judgments, consistent over time, in one’s self or in others, without recourse to an attempted formulated ethic?
Is philosophy exclusively the realm of attempted formulation, or can human action itself demonstrate both wisdom and a love of wisdom without recourse to propositions and proofs?
Is love of wisdom a sufficient characterization of philosophy?
Is wisdom, by definition, wisdom only to the degree that it is conceptually formulated? Or can wisdom manifest in conceptually ambiguous expression or even action alone?
It seems to me that to the degree philosophy is regarded as, exclusively, an attempt at consistent conceptual formulations, then literature will be antagonistic to that degree. And to the degree that consistent conceptual formulations are regarded as simply one possible product of philosophy (love of wisdom), then literature can be regarded as philosophical product as well. The latter moves philosophy from the exclusive domain of conceptualizing, to a domain more like zen or the tao, where everything one does is in accordance to one’s philosophy or discordant with it.
Paul Paolini says
Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers” may be of interest here. Here’s a copy I found online: http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/goodre.html
Chris Mullen says
@dmf- While i can agree that the scientific basis for the above claims are not as fleshed out as they could be, their has been a great deal of talk about the relation of “Mirror Neurons” in affective experiences, in emotional experiences. and how this relates to “narrative empathy.”
As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, Empathy is “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation”. In plainer terms, empathy can be thought of as the ability to experience the experiences of someone else. How does this relate to “mirror neurons?” By imitation, mimicry, and imagination. The argument for mirror neurons role in empathy is quite simple: when we perceive an action or emotion of another person, a number of neurons that become active when we ourselves are conducting that perceived action or expressing that emotion begin to fire. Thus, we simulate the actions and emotions of those we observe.
Back in 1992, at the University of Parma, Italy, researchers foundthat when macaque monkeys observe another monkey or human perform an action like cracking a nut, the neurons that fire when the monkey itself performs the action also fires in response to watching another individual. Mirror neurons create a neuro-physiological link between one’s own experience and that of another individual. Mirror neurons are therefore neruomechanisms that facilitate a type of inward imitation.
On the basis of this research Vittorio Gallese, one of the scientists involved in the macaque study, formulated the shared manifold hypothesis which proposed that the human capacity to understand other human beings as intentional agents constituted an inter-subjectivity that made social relations possible. Gallese points out that the word empathy originally had an aesthetic connotation and described an imaginative act where an observer located themselves within a work of art,”
<—from "“The Roots of Empathy" linked above.
Gallese then goes on to discuss Maurice Merleau-Ponty's notion of intercorporeality (more here). Gallese quotes from the Phenomenology of Perception,
Now, whether or not Gallese was employing Merleau-Ponty correctly here remains secondary to his point which was to argue the importance of “mirror neurons” in relation to establishing a neurological grounding for empathy. Other studies have demonstrated that imitation does exist in relation to mirror neurons like this from January 2005: Human See, Human Do: Ballet Dancers’ Brains Reveal The Art Of Imitation:
Others have also explored how this “imitation” is experienced by reading about emotions and physical activities of fictional characters “…a phenomenon the researchers call “experience-taking.” Others have referred to this as the “chameleon effect” which is “..which is the brain-to-brain imitation of postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions. We literally absorb, in some cases, the idea of an experience as an actual experience, in a very real, physical sense by simulating each others behavior and internal states. (This internalization of others inspired VS Ramachandran to give mirror neurons the hyperbolic description of “Ghandi neurons” because they “dissolve the boundary between ourselves and others.” The Tell-Tale Brain, pg. 124)
Every story is a kind of thought experiment. What will happen if we take some set of characters, place them in a certain environment, and present them with various challenges? In a sense, this relates to the kind of “modeling” that is done by the frontal cortex when it comes to objects and actors in the “real world”, and about how those constituents of the real world interact causally with each other (see Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance). It would seem plausible to suggest that there would be a link from this “modeling” to the suggestion, offered above, that “mirror neurons” have a relationship to “imitation” and “simulation” and how this relates to “empathy.”
Like Nussbaum, the author Jane Smiley, in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel argues that
<—Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy
Of course, also like Nussbaum, the claim, while suggested by the above discussion, still needs to be substantiated. A book i read back in 2008 by Suzanne Keen called Empathy and the Novel argues that while novelists use empathy both as a narrative strategy and a subject of their novels, and clearly engage strong affective responses in their readers, this does not necessarily translate into altruistic behavior:
(another discussion concerning this can be read here: Neuroscience and the Study of Literature)
While the science is far from a consensus on mirror neurons, the hypothesis is pretty visible in the broad outlines made by the experimental, clinical, anecdotal, and intuitive evidence provided. Not that any of this addresses, necessarily, the objection that “…that having some degree of “empathy” is the equivalent as having the combination of capacities to make the kinds of distinctions/choices that we generally think of as ethical” Simply having the capacity for empathy does not, i agree, mean that one can think or act in “ethical” terms. All the above does is suggest that there exists an inter-related nature concerning empathy, how it might develop and how it might function. “Ethics” would require a more deliberate and systematic approach that is only hinted at here.
Some pretty interesting reads regarding the evolutionary history involved are:
The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative
The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language
Philosophy in the Flesh : The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought <—-does a good job at linking together imitation/metaphor, comprehension, empathy/Theory of Mind/somatic marker hypothesis, interoceptive awarenessa>, narrative theory, etc.
The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (You can read a brief review here and you can read a presentation of the ideas in the book argued here. I think Deacon’s argument concerning the primacy of “symbols” in human cultural evolution fits well in the above argument.)
The Imitation Factor: Evolution Beyond The Gene <—a pretty good examination of imitation in transmitting culture, not only in human society but also in other animal species.
speculation has an important place in philosophical investigations, and perhaps is a kind of middle ground between scientific hypotheses and science-fiction, but you may want to look at the series of posts on the blog here about the rush to make too much of (tho also too common-sensible/consumable) bits of scientific data and how this can all too quickly become part of the commenting/gossipy/pundit-ridden culture of our electronic age. Speculations should be explicitly presented as such…
Chris Mullen says
dmf- I was hoping that the offered links would have been sufficient grounds to extend the argument beyond mere “speculation” into more tentative grounding in actual multidisciplinary science. while not firmly established, i think it is reasonable to some interesting and, perhaps, fruitful links concerning our basic cognitive make-up as a species, how and why we “empathize”, and the idea that reading can foster a more empathetic personality.
Again, none of this means that the capacity to be empathetic equates to some kind of ‘ethics.’ We would still need that systematizing step of thinking through and organizing our intuitions and emotions into a comprehensive framework. I can appreciate the benefits and insights offered by neuroscience when it comes to human reasoning, empathy, and self-understanding but i remain skeptical of the competing claims in the popular field of “neuroscience-explains-everything.”
cm, sorry if that came across as harsh, was just trying to put in a word for caution and rigor, there is no doubt a physiological/material aspect to all human doings but we are really just at the beginnings of getting any sense of how these mechanisms/systems work, I’m actually a big proponent of neurophenomenology/enactivism but am also quite dubious of claims that the academic humanities and or the arts have much directly to do with how we develop, or not, as ethical/tuned-in critters. And as I said I think that speculation is critical to advancing knowledge, and for me is an important part of what makes philosophers more than underlaborers to scientists, but needs much follow-up work before it is useful for much beyond entertainment/sparking-interest. cheers, dmf
Chris Mullen says
I posted a much longer reply that ended being eaten by the spam filter (hopefully that will be amended).
However, i just ran across an interesting piece that speaks to the “exporting” of fictional representations into the real world: Belief in TV Romances May Hurt Your Love Life. This is reminiscent of the “CSI Effect” discussed in relation to the expectations people develop concerning the explanatory power of forensic science and how these expectations may or may not distort how one views the criminal justice system.
Just some food for thought concerning the real world affects of our fictional consumption.
Wayne Schroeder says
Chris–well done on your presentation of empathy as related to mirror neurons. Most neuroscientists accept the mirror neuron research, although there is a nay-sayer in England (John Bowlby country). Clearly more studies on the subject will help. However, the scientific proof of mirror neurons is not necessary to substantiate the role of empathy in human nature, just confirmatory.
The work by John Bowlby on attachment among primates is as solid as any human science will ever be. The work by Mary Main to apply attachment theory to the mother-child interaction is also solid science, and has resulted in identifying and predicting the empathy basis of Secure attachment, and three forms of failed empathy/attachment: Ambivalent, Avoidant, Disorganized.
Main developed the Adult Attachment Inventory to assess these states of empathy, and the instrument requires many hours to learn how to administer and score, and is over 80% capable of predicting the style of attachment the mother will have with her infant prior to its birth. The AAI has been validated across cultures.
It is through the capacity of empathy that normal human relationship develops (prior to two years of age) and by which we develop the capacity for good relationships. This empathic sense of self and others is developed prior to cognitive processing and thus is stored in the experiencing/non-verbal part of our brain. Therefore empathy precedes ethics. Since ethics contribute to cognitive awareness of good relationship, but do not establish good relationship with self and others, what builds empathy is primordial to what builds ethics. Since literature appeals to empathy/non-verbal (metaphorical) and philosophy appeals mainly to ethical/cognitive (explicit), there is a power that literature has which is missing in the philosophy which does not appeal to us personally. That is why Camus and McCarthy have such appeal.
“Most neuroscientists accept the mirror neuron research”, got a source for this and what “research” exactly ?
Chris Mullen says
Well, Patricia Churchland, in Braintrust, had some criticisms of the “mirror neuron” idea. There was also well written articles like the following: What the myth of mirror neurons gets wrong about the human brain. There was also a post over at a blog i enjoy, The Neurocritic, that offered some interesting critiques from various sources on the ‘hype’ of mirror neurons (see this article too)
So, no, there is no real grounds to say that “Most neuroscientists accept the mirror neuron research”.
Wayne Schroeder says
As I said, mirror neurons are merely possible confirmation of the empathy foundation of human nature which is already founded in John Bowlby’s research. However here is my known world: Marco Iacoboni, UCLA, Mirroring People, Giacomo Rizzolatti, University of Parma, Italy; Ramachandran, University of San Diego (he invented the cure for phantom limb pain); Emiliano Ricciardi, Pietro Pietrini, University of Pisa; Antonio Damasio,USC, Self Comes To Mind (see my review on Amazon);Jaak Panksepp, Archaeology of Mind; Louis Cozolino (Pepperdine)—these are the main neuroscientists publishing, and none of them question mirror neurons.
Literature is a mode of producing language. Its object is language, not characters. Language is a-moral. It may be a mode of communication and communication may lead (implicitly) to sharing experience (empathy) but literature (or far more broadly, ‘poetic language’ [julia kristeva]) is not simply about sharing an experience but is about a shared experience of language itself.
Literature is not only character and narrative but meter, rhyme, rhytm, beat, meter, tone. Language as language. This is what literature has the potential to be, signs freed from reference, freed from referring to anything at all.
(continuing) the question of the relation between sign, meaning, and referent (one that literature, as a system of signs, will never be freed from) is a philosophical question. likewise, if we accept the premise that there are no philosophical problems– only language problems– then complex systems of signs (literature/ ‘poetic language’) is fertile ground for working through the immense and innumerable problems that language is subject to.