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Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006) 410-423

Reading Our Way To Democracy?
Literature and Public Ethics
Simon Stow
The College of William and Mary

"I believe," wrote Franz Kafka, "that we should only read those books that bite and sting us. If a book we are reading does not rouse us with a blow to the head, then why read it?" 1 Almost all of us who read books for a living and/or pleasure have undoubtedly experienced that most delightfully troubling of phenomena: a novel that forces us to think differently about the world and the way that we live. In recent years, literature's capacity to generate in its readers "a rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by" 2 —what Stanley Fish calls its "dialectical" potential—has drawn the attention of a number of liberal-democratic theorists, most notably Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty. By "liberal-democratic" is meant here, of course, that system of government with popular rule, regular elections, a commitment to individual rights and the rule of law; one that draws on a tradition of political thought that includes the work of John Locke, John Stuart Mill and John Rawls. Although their exact formulations of the claim differ in important ways, Nussbaum and Rorty are united in the belief that reading can enhance the practice of liberal-democracy by expanding the moral imaginations of a citizenry. Such an expansion will, they believe, promote the values of tolerance, respect for other viewpoints, and a recognition of the contingency of one's own perspective, in short, the values of civil society. Whilst there is undoubtedly something intuitively appealing about their claim, there is much that is philosophically and politically problematic about their respective formulations of it. Both seem to rest for example upon an implausible theory of the impact of literature upon its readers, and an illiberal tendency to treat reader-citizens as means and not as ends. Attempting to capture what is of value [End Page 410] whilst jettisoning what is problematic, I will briefly set out their claims; identify the difficulties within them; and offer an account of how their project might be operationalized in a way that is both more philosophically plausible and more politically consistent with liberalism. My aim will not be to offer another detailed account of the connection between literature and democracy—not least because I believe that the current accounts are overly deterministic—but rather to suggest some ways in which we might nevertheless build upon the current work to capture the potential benefits of reading for liberal-democratic societies.

Although Martha Nussbaum and Richard Rorty hold quite different views about the proper role of literature in philosophy—Nussbaum believes that literature is merely a valuable addition to philosophical Reason traditionally conceived, whereas for the postfoundational Rorty, the literariness goes all the way down—both suggest that reading will promote two values that they regard as essential to liberal-democratic practice. Following Rorty we might label these values contingency and solidarity. 3 Contingency arises from the recognition that even one's most deeply held beliefs are always only a perspective. It is connected to civility in that it serves, Nussbaum and Rorty believe, to undermine the vehemence of individual claims. Although this claim about the partiality of individual perspectives sounds dangerously postmodern for thinker such as Nussbaum—Rorty, who calls his political philosophy "postmodernist bourgeois liberalism," 4 has no such qualms—there are limits to this insight in her thought. Nussbaum is simply concerned to show that an excessive and over-confident reliance on philosophical Reason is likely to generate an incomplete understanding of a given situation. For this reason, she suggests, "storytelling and literary imagining are not opposed to . . . but can provide essential ingredients in a rational argument." 5 She argues, for example, that Hard Times by Charles Dickens will alert its readers—in particular "the person brought up solely on economic texts" who "has not been encouraged to think of workers (or indeed anybody else) as fully human...


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