Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, has an essay in last week’s The Times Literary Supplement about literature and philosophy. He makes a fairly convincing case that literature (meaning primarily the psychological novel) does not offer the insight we sometimes think it does, gesturing at scientific evidence that:
we tend to credit a certain group of individuals [that is, authors], prone, apparently, to over-interpreting the meaningfulness of things and to emotional disruption, with a deep insight into human nature and conduct, and are not discouraged by the fact that many of them seem to have little experience of or interest in the corresponding reality.
So: our natural inclination to focus on the maximization of meaning leaves us vulnerable to bad errors in thinking about the mind, errors which systematic experimental work has done something to expose. The institutions of fiction, and the psychology of the creative artist, do nothing to keep us on track, and so literature’s filling in the detail of an already mistaken picture just makes things worse. That’s the message at its most pessimistic.
So far, I basically buy it–the way Henry James describes trains of thought is fascinating and internally consistent, but I never thought it corresponded that closely to reality.
Currie goes on the say that to protect novels from the neurologists, we should say that we read them under “pretense”–that we should “give up the idea that what is going on in literature-land is true learning, and make do with the pleasures of pretended learning.” We need to recognize, Currie says, that
when we engage seriously with great literature we do not come away with more knowledge, better abilities, clarified emotions or deeper human sympathies. We do exercise capacities that let us explore a fascinating, demanding conception of what human beings are like – probably a wrong one.
He denying saying we should “treat The Ambassadors as a tale of exotic beings psychological light years from us,” but that’s what it comes down to.
Now, to avoid writing another thousand-word tract, I’ll just make a few brief comments about the article.
1. Regarding Mimesis and Imagination: Currie ignores the oft-made claim that literature isn’t just teaching us what the world is like, it’s teaching us how to live in it–it’s not just descriptively mimetic, it’s constructively mimetic. Henry James isn’t just describing how human thought works, he’s imagining how human thought ought to work; he’s educating the reader into a way of looking at the world that he believes beneficial. Not everyone reasons through their problems in the intricate way Lambert Strether does, but seeing him do it teaches us to make those sorts of inferences and navigate those sorts of complex moral situations (hat tip: Rachel Davies). Now, this way of looking at it comes with a lot of baggage–perhaps most importantly, it seems to imply that the human mind is almost infinitely pliable–but still, I find it odd that Currie didn’t address the idea that when we make-believe, we make for ourselves new ways of believing things.
2. Regarding Transcendence and Objectivity: Currie also offers a perfect example of how devotees of science and those of poetry tend to talk past each other. It reminds me of the reviews Terry Eagleton and James Wood write of New Atheist tracts, and the New Atheist responses; the poetic atheists say, “yes, yes, God doesn’t exist and there is no transcendent objective Truth, but don’t you realize there is something transcendentally true (though only subjectively)?” and the scientific atheists say, “of course there’s no transcendent objective Truth, but don’t you realize there is something objectively true (though only immanently)?” Of course the poetic atheists’ only weapon is scorn for the scientific ones’ impoverished souls, while the scientific ones can wield facts, so to defend themselves the poetic ones all too often resort to things like this article–saying, well, all right, we admit that poetry isn’t really true, that neuroscience is better at people than the novel, but aren’t novels still fun?