I recently came across an April 2006 NYT essay on abstract versus literary reasoning: The quarrel between philosophy and literature has been around so long that even Plato referred to it in ”The Republic” as ”ancient.” The rivalry … circles around one of the deepest questions of all: which gives the truest perspective on human life? Is philosophy’s sublimely abstract distance … the optimal place from which to glean essential truths? Or can they be yielded up only within the vivid intimacy of experience — if not the immediate experiences of our own lives, then the mediated experiences that narrative art affords? Does the [abstract] view, … in leaving out all the good stories, miss those large truths that are wrested out of the unexpected twists and turns that make us susceptible to love’s abandonment and grief’s annihilation? It is a good question, and Plato’s highhanded way of trying to resolve it in favor of philosophy — going so far as to recommend banishing poets from utopia — has fortunately not laid it to rest.
(i say this without having read the other comments - their combined length seems about four times that of the article itself).
Fiction's insights are implicit, philosophy's are explicit. In fiction aiming at a reasonable-level of realisim, the author is aiming at working out a realistic scenario.
They are usually trying to highlight certain features of that scenario, and because of this, it is designed for the reader to draw certain conclusions about it (e.g. about the nature of NGOs).
But what the author explicitly specifies is the scenario - the conclusions and, in particular, the model of why those conclusions are the case, is left somewhat implicit.
We are pretty good at evaluating concrete descriptions of scenarios, which helps the author to construct a reasonably realistic scenario.
Philosophers, on the other hand, tend to work on the level of general models: general descriptions that are abstracted away from specific scenarios. Descriptions that explicitly talk about why certain things are the case, /in general/.
These are harder for us to evaluate. And it is harder for us to incorporate nauances within models than within stories.
I'm not trying to say that stories "are better". I think that's why there is value to be had in both, and personally, I'm more interested in trying to draw the general, explicit lessons - the kind of thing philsophy is more targed at.
The heart might know things the mind knows nothing of, but the heart cant' be challenged. Literature and the arts can provide insights, but reason and philosophical thought allow ideas to be developed, analyzed challenged and determined to be correct or incorrect based on the standard of reason. Ideas challenged create the structure by which civilization's ideas of Truth advance. Good literature (and the arts in general) doesn't have to be reasonable to convey a message of Truth (it has to convey a message of Truth to be good however) and therefore can't be reasonably determined to be correct or incorrect.
Just my 2 cents...
The advice at the link below may be of benefit for certain other writers at this blog:
The trash and nonsense in Marx's journalsseems to have taken root in more mindsthan much fiction. But, then, Marx wasfiction, wasn't it.
Of course, they didn't measure whether this is the most efficient way to gain such understanding. It's possible that one could gain it as easily by reading psychology journals.
Neither the fiction nor the journals are likely to contain genuine insights - although there will certainly be exceptions, the vast majority of both will consist of trash and nonsense.
But the trash and nonsense embedded in the fiction is far more likely to take root in your mind than the trash and nonsense in the journals.
Thanks Robin for motivating this fascinating discussion.In case other readers didn't have a chance to follow the link posted above by anonymous, it linked to a study "Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds" by Raymond Mar et al.The study finds that people who read fiction (vs non-fiction) have better skills in comprehending their peers. (yes, yes, I know we need to understand the selection bias) - but if you take the result as is for a moment, it does suggest that one can gain insight - if you define that to mean understanding of the people around you - by reading fiction. Of course, they didn't measure whether this is the most efficient way to gain such understanding. It's possible that one could gain it as easily by reading psychology journals. But that would be much less fun.
Is there insight in, say, George Orwell's 1984?
Some small points:
First. Sartre published both works of literature and works of philosophy. Does anyone know why he chose both forms? Surely not just to reach more people?
Second. Many of the philosophers of the past had the notion that the written word "told" the brain what to think and that important ideas should be understood (and not just read) and therefore the best way was to explain between the lines. This goes well with the idea that literature surely can explain some extra quality.
How many of Plato's students were successfuladvisers to the rulers they advised? How manyof Hegel's disciples improved the life-span,living conditions, and increased the freedomof the people whose countries they governed?
Is there not error, bias, and folly in everyendeavor to which the human mind has turned?
Was Richard III as evil as Shakespeare wrotehim? Did witches prophesy Macbeth's rise andfall? How many reports of developmenteconomists are any more anchored in verifiableobservation than Macbeth's of Banquo's ghost?More than one, perhaps? More than one on eachof the seven sides of an issue? If there areseven grant making agencies with competingagendas, who here would bet against it?
Literature never of itself brought us as muchscience as the boiling point of water.But while cummings proclaimed:
"when serpents bargain for the right to squirm. . .
"and march denounces april as a saboteur
"then we'll believe in that incredibleunanimal mankind (and not until)"
how much philosophy, economics, psychologyand the rest of science is suited only toa unending variety of "unanimal" mankinds?
"Sean, are you sure Plato failed to understand Homer's true appeal?
Remember, the famous "ancient quarrel" quote is from Republic, and has a political context. Homer is subversive because he speaks the truth about human affairs, in a way that calls into question the Noble Lie. Also, many of Socrates's criticisms of Poetry can also be applied to Plato's Republic quite easily, so it would be strange to ascribe those views to Plato himself."
With regard to Homer's "appeal," I probably worded that wrongly. I should have said something like "value" instead. What I was getting at was that Plato had a point that literature can lie, and still be convincing. Plato's reasons for dismissing Homer were wrong (at least for me, because I don't share the philosophical commitments in that text).
I agree that the view shouldn't necessarily be ascribed to Plato--but rather to Socrates in that specific text. In fact, the discussions he has of art throughout his writings are often conflicting.
Has Robin Hanson ever noticed how much self-imposed stupidity there is in social science? "Men Prefer Attractive Women" No kidding.
There are several fascinating themes here: the emotional effects of literature, the tendency for narratives to be more compelling than abstract accounts (even aside from their emotional content), exploration of moral issues, etc. I agree with Robin that a book is warranted (maybe several, along with much research).
I want to focus on another theme that came up only a few times, however. I agree with Dan Burfoot that abstract theories are like good old fashioned AI, and literature is more like statistical learning. However the implications are much more serious than he draws out.
Models and typical social statistics are great if they are on topic and incorporate the important aspects of the situation. Like the attempts at predicate calculus "common sense" in GOFAI, any strong models define a framework for reasoning that makes some sorts of understanding much easier and more reliable, at the cost of excluding a lot of the complexity of the world. They work great on their target domain, and fail badly if the model doesn't fit the particular situation.
Once we have models and data, and people whose professional role is to use them, often we let these models and data determine the topic and "what's important". In that case they can become fatal traps and cause enormous human misery, which may be completely invisible from within the model.
Furthermore models are often hard to build and change, and data is hard to collect. So we may know of important aspects of the situation that we can't model or quantify. If we talk in terms of models and data we are then unable to even talk about these important aspects and they tend to become invisible.
Literature can always be extended to express whatever aspects of a situation we're aware of, and through the writing process we may considerably develop our awareness. As Acheron remarks, most literature is bad, like most of everything else, so most literature won't capture important aspects of a situation that would otherwise go missing -- but if that's what we want to do, literature is a much more reliable tool than models and data.
This pattern shows up vividly in international development, as mentioned in several comments. Theories have tended to sharply limit the vision of planners, who then blithely prescribe policies that lead to disaster. Often the potential for disaster could be detected by listening to people's stories and trying to fit them together, but the results could not be translated into the theoretical framework, and didn't count as "data", and so were ignored until after the catastrophe was undeniable.
This pattern is dissected though case studies in Seeing like a State by James C. Scott, which is pretty much a book length study of biases driven by this sort of abstract model dependence in certain domains.
(One could argue that statistical learning can get us out of this problem, and I might agree. But that is a whole different discussion, and I believe the points above are an accurate reflection of how we use models and data today.)
Discussing the comparative merits of literature and the more philosophical/scientific approaches has always been tricky for me because of what I recognize as my own innate biases -- I've spent most of the last several years studying literature and literary theory and writing fiction. It seems to me that every person is going to have tendencies one way or the other, and may even have mindframes that directly oppose one of the means of abstraction, if not both together. Because of this, it seems that one of the most redeeming values of literature is a discussion of it memetically. Don't ask me for figures or statistics on the matter, but it seems intuitive that literature, and hybrids of entertainment/idea-positing in general disseminate much more rapidly throughout the populace. While one could easily make the argument that this doesn't mean that these ideas are sound, the more scientifically oriented could use them as a guiding point for futher exploration of a certain generation's tendencies. For example, does a resurgence of Hemingway sales represent a growing interest and sympathy in machismo? &tc.
"Litterature offers the same insights as anecdotes: it suggests situations, often true, that may not have occured to the reader."
Even more than this, for the more scientifically minded, literature can act as a model, taking an idea into world scenarios where natural (or, granted, unnatural) extensions of the idea can be examined. The emotive aspects of literature provide the objective-minded individual to wonder, "What does my response towards this model mean?", while a person oriented towards the subjective will be forced to confront the rationale of the literature, even if only a little. Philosophy is not without its anecdotes and metaphors as a means to highlight an idea -- literature, through interpretation, is simply the reverse of this process.
It's also been argued that literature is a good facilitator for discussion for people who normally wouldn't bother with that sort of thing. Every person, with their a priori ideas and experiences, is going to bring a different view (of varying degree) to a particular work, which usually turns into a forum for the ideas of the novel in and of themselves.
We're dealing with a toolbox here, with each tool useful for different things. After all, when all you have is a hammer...
Ah, but what *sort* of book?
I'm struck by how passionate, detailed, diverse, and numerous are the opinions expressed on this subject. So why isn't there a book on this subject? Seems easy to write and seems a large audience is interested.
They tend (tend!) to read in ways that reinforce what they already think, they filter out what they do not want to hear
Good literature - and good readers - do precisely the opposite; they open a world that otherwise be foreclosed from the reader. That's the strongest epistemological claim of lit, and it's a good one, IMHO.