Thursday, July 28, 2005

Can literature present an argument?

Tim Winton’s Minimum of Two is an anthology of short stories, which portrays the nature of human relationships in graphic detail. Recently, I found myself thinking differently about people in my life since studying this book as an English text. When I caught myself taking lessons from Winton’s book, I was struck by an unsettling thought. This book has not presented an argument about life. That is, it has not said that “Relationships are important because the world is so-and-so.” Rather, Minimum of Two has simply presented a world in which relationships are important. Minimum of Two has given no exploration of whether the Minimum of Two world corresponds to the real world at all – and, therefore, no exploration of whether relationships are important in real life. Does it make sense, then, to be taking advice about real life from this book? – or, for that matter, from any piece of literature? For literature does this: it presents a world where some principles, propositions or structures are true. Simply presenting a world in which something is true does not say anything about whether it is true in our world and, therefore, whether we should accept it as a guiding principle.

What, then, is the purpose of literature? I see the role two-fold. Firstly, premises in an abstract argument may be difficult to state in plain language. Consider an argument:

If human dignity is valuable, then we should treat people with respect.

Human dignity is valuable.

Therefore we should treat people with respect.

This argument, as it stands, seems highly lacking. What is meant by “human dignity,” “value” and “respect”? Furthermore, what kind of explanation will help us? A technical definition of “dignity” gives us:


The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect.


Does help us at all?

It takes a human sketch of what dignity is in a real situation for us to understand what “dignity” really means. I can see no way to understand the concept of ‘dignity’ other than by being show an example of a person with or without dignity. Literature is perfect for showing such an example. Whilst literature cannot prove whether human dignity is valuable, it can elucidate exactly what we mean by human dignity (this is one of the central preoccupations of Ernest G. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying).

Second, consider a proposition that we already agree to be true. Often, it is difficult to see what the full breadth of an abstract concept until we see a story written which emphasizes this concept. Suppose were to become convinced, by some highly ordered argument, that “man is radically free” – i.e. that man is far less constrained in his actions than he believes himself to be. What is this fact, alone, by itself? This fact is cold! It may be true, but we have no emotional connection to it. Literature is able to form this emotional connection. By connecting with a character in a story, by feeling his pain and his triumphs, we can understand what a concept means in a spiritual sense. Literature allows us to feel for a concept after we already understand it.

Nonetheless, literature cannot present an argument. A piece of literature tells a story, and this story has no guarantee of being consistent with the real world. If I stated, with no evidence at all, that “Businessmen are the hidden sustainers of the world,” no intelligent person would agree with me unless they already knew of a reason why businessmen were “the hidden sustainers of the world.” What does a piece of literature such as Atlas Shrugged do except to state this premise, albeit in beautiful prose and descriptive language? If we do accept a contention due to a piece of literature, must we then conclude that we’ve had our emotions seized upon, and been manipulated to accept an argument devoid of logical justification?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

forgive my cynicism; we should start from the premise that all persons are actors and duplicity a normal reaction of the human condition.
Marx reports
'The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change [Selbstveränderung] can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice'
Marx also states that philosophy is to man (sic) what masturbation is to copulation (or words to that effect)
?charlatan or educator.

7/30/2005 06:56:00 AM  
Anonymous RdR said...

So, would you classify, say, "Gorgias" as a piece of literature, or as an argument? I would say that literature can certainly present an argument. However, literature is not always interpreted as being an argument (versus, say, being entertainment).
You seem to object to "literature as argument" based on a correspondence theory of truth (e.g. " guarantee of being consistent with the real world"). However, your objections might not hold with, for example, a coherence theory of truth.

7/31/2005 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Thanks for the contribution, Josh! For those who didn't notice, Josh is a newly-added contributor. I intend to invite a number of people to make occasional contributions, to provide a balance of opinion in the posts.

I would say that a real person can't be an actor. They can be deceptive, but they really say what they say, and they really do what they do. Literature adds a degree of abstraction, because there is no guarantee that any person might actually do what is being described, whether that is deceptive or not.

I would hesitate to classify Gorgias as a piece of good literature ;) That of course is a great example of something which is more like an argument than a novel. I would say it is usually taken abstractly - the justifications put in it can be analysed independantly of the possible fictional actions of the characters within it.

This is not always possible.


8/01/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Your post (and someone who referenced it) made me Think.

8/02/2005 09:41:00 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

First let me make clear that I was not disputing the power of literature as entertainment, catharsis, or any role other than to providing us with true beliefs. To define what is meant by providing a true belief, we'll need some epistemological grounding.

Consider a possible world S. Consider an event G in S, which is only caused by another event A (i.e. no event other than A causes G). Imagine that I am able to directly induce A, but not G. If I want to cause G to occur, I must understand that A causes G. In other words, I must hold true the belief that A=>G and act upon this. I can discover that A=>G by observing A in S, and seeing that G follows consistently. Then, I will successfully achieve the outcome of G by inducing A. If the fact G=>A is particular to S and not another possible world, T, then by observing what precedes G in T, I will derive a different rule. I may observe that C=>G, or X=>G, but not A=>G. But in S, only A=>G. If I induce X or C in my word S, then it the achievement of goal G would be a mere fluke.

The world of a book is another possible world. In this world – a fiction which has not even tried to create a world with commonalities to S – it is unlikely that A will not necessarily cause G. So, if we learn the cause for G from some book-world, we may come to believe that X=>G. Acting on this belief in our world, S, will lead us astray – we will not be able to achieve G.

The above may sound a bit jargonish. Whilst it is vital. it is not complicated. Here is a more concrete example: A man John is in a room, with a light and a switch that turns on this light. John wants the light to come on. In order to make the light come on, John must understand that pushing the switch causes the light to come on. If John watches people coming in and out of the room, and sees that when they flick the light switch the light consistently comes on, he can learn that the flick of the switch causes the light to come on. Then, John can act upon this belief. John can push the light switch and the light will come on.

But suppose that John had not watched what was happening in the room. Suppose, instead, that John had read a book about another room. This room looked similar to his, but it was critically different. In the book-room, waving your hands, not flicking the switch, about caused the light to come on. If John draws the belief that waving ones hands, not flicking a switch causes the light to come on, this will have been an incorrect belief.

This is a simple example is very simple, and is chosen only for its simplicity. But what is essentially different between our man’s belief that waving your arms example and other situations beliefs which we could derive from literature that would hold dearly important? Beliefs like:
Loving all living creatures will make the world a happier place
The most rewarding life for all men is the life of a warrior
Modern science world will be the downfall of civilization
Are also presented as facts, that one thing causes another. If we adopt these by experience from a book world, not our world, then we may be lead astray by an incorrect belief.

Notice that I have, perhaps misleadingly, defined a true belief as synonymous with a practical belief. That is, in the above discussion what I called a true belief was a belief that A causes G. But what of those beliefs that don’t take this form? What of the belief that the outback sky is beautiful, or that courage is valuable? These are beliefs that do not tell us what we should do to achieve some goal, and have no correct or incorrect answer. So here is another valid purpose of literature: literature may tell us things which are not facts, but which are aesthetic beliefs, beliefs which are neither objectively right nor wrong.

I may also be picked up on another point. In a fiction, though superficial elements are usually changed by the author, the author may represent accurately that part of the world which is essential to his contention. He may, for example, present a story of a family that does not really exist, but still show that when the family members murder each other life becomes rather unpleasant. If he has presented such a world, then the beliefs that we draw about whether life will be pleasant if we murder our family will be true. But if he has decided to change this fact for literary effect, to show a macabre world where life is best when we murder our families, then the beliefs we derive about the effects of family murder will be incorrect. So when we derive a belief from literature we are putting ourselves in the hands of the author, so to speak.


8/04/2005 07:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

That our observation of A=>G shows such cause and effect may strongly suggest that A can be the only cause of G, but it is not proof. In order to say that *only* A=>G, you must also say that an infinite expanse of other possible causes does not cause G; but since it is impossible to measure or expiriment on an infinite multiplicity of causes, we cannot say that only A=>G. There must be an allowance for, however seemingly remote, yet by the impossibility of proof, the possibility that something else could be a cause, which we may never know. While we have reduced this infinity of probabilities to some measure of the graspings of our finite minds, and it may seem rediculous to admit eternities we cannot comprehend, we do not absolutely know our one observed cause to be the singular cause.

"In this world - a fiction which has not even tried to create a world with commonalities to S"

Nonsense. "Realism" is the aim of so many authors. How many times have you complained in a movie because it's so "unrealistic", because "that wouldn't happen"? Writers know this, and yeah, they can flubb at it (or more truly - disagree with us on it) and get us upset, but to say that most authors don't try realism is simply misrepresentative!

"if we learn the cause for G from some book-world, we may come to believe that X=>G."

If I come to believe the same from, for example, your blog, which has your own series of beliefs expressed in it, which were relayed to you as experiences from others, and those others, just like books, have inconsistent beliefs.. then your beliefs are inconsistent. We deal with people using the same inconsistent theories that authors use to deal with the realities they create in their books. Stereotypes are an example. Our angle on reality is often exactly the same as it is on fiction. It is simply preposterous in that light to argue that fiction cannot be an argument. It can be in exactly the same ways that our views of reality are arguments.

"If John draws the belief that waving ones hands, not flicking a switch causes the light to come on, this will have been an incorrect belief."

Incorrect beliefs come from everywhere, not just books. We explain or understand things poorly while attempting to grasp matters we do not know; human ignorance is in play.

"If we adopt these by experience from a book world, not our world, then we may be lead astray by an incorrect belief."

Book worlds are very often expressions of philosophies acquired in attempting to grasp the real world; the ones you site as an example. Folks believe these things, and the literature is proof. And folks don't get these things from books any more than books are created by people. Literature is indeed if anything only proof of the incomplete and ill-holding nature of our "real" world - where our false ideas and bad reasoning, though our arrogance hold to it even to the death, does not hold. Refer back to my note on authors infusing realism or credibility in a book. That they choose to express the idea in a world with perhaps different consistencies does not make the argument less real; again, our own arguments about the real world have inconsistentcies - limitations of proof. So many arguments at some point rely on an origin that is beyond proof; where we do not know one way or the other, and we choose to believe one way or the other.

"What of the belief that the outback sky is beautiful, or that courage is valuable? These are beliefs that do not tell us what we should do to achieve some goal, and have no correct or incorrect answer. ... [If he has presented such a world to show] a macabre world where life is best when we murder our families, then the beliefs we derive about the effects of family murder will be incorrect."

Really, you mean to say that the belief that courage is valuable has nothing to do with telling us whether to achieve a goal? Big red flag. Courage is a value, a moral mandate to do something despite the fear of the risks involved in doing it. If you say courage has no correct or incorrect answer, you say a value isn't right or wrong, which doesn't work. Soon after saying this, you contradict this no-value stance by devaluing murder - a devaluation I strongly agree with - my point is that you contradict yourself with impossible relativism by first saying there are no values (itself a value statement), but then you express a value, as every human invariably does through word or action.

Your blog moderator posted a comment at my blog response, and I've just posted a reply (linked from my signature).

9/06/2005 12:57:00 AM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

greek theatre was created to teach understanding, research the traditional 'greek tragedy' you will see what you have discovered is infact very true we have just coated it in the comedic representations of our current media situation which exploits any meaningfull lessons to bring money

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