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  • Literature and Discovery
  • Brian Boyd

If “To be or not to be” is the most famous phrase of the seventeenth century, the most famous of the twentieth, again only six syllables, must surely be “E = mc2 “. What is the place of literature and literary studies in a world where discoveries such as Einstein’s can transform not just what we know of our world but the world itself? To what extent does literature involve discoveries—on the part of writers, readers and critics—that can be compared with those of science?

Science involves bold questing for explanation and then hard testing in search of counter-evidence or counter-explanations. Through proposing its answers and trying to criticize them severely, science learns where our attempts have fallen short and we need to think again. Literature involves no rigorous testing of this kind, although of course writers do test what comes to mind against an imagined audience’s response; readers pit their first hunches about a work’s direction or sense against what comes next; and rereaders or critics set hypotheses about the part against the whole or the whole against the part. But in literature the stress is naturally on invention rather than on selection, on imagination rather than adjudication.

That is one of its strengths. We do not need and would not be able to test Austen’s view of life against Dickens’s or Flaubert’s or Tolstoy’s or against possible counter-evidence, though we may assay them all against our intuitions, and find indeed that our intuitions become richer when we accept, as new windows on our world, Austen’s ironic but scrupulous attention to our actions and reactions to others, Dickens’s celebration of the generosity behind the variety of things that calls for an answering generosity in us, Flaubert’s cool analysis of the banal illusions we pursue to escape our banality, Tolstoy’s exact calculus of the interplay between [End Page 313] life’s infinitesimals—its usually overlooked minutiae—and its grand forces.

But the absence of hard testing in literature can mean that some who specialize too soon in the subject fail to appreciate either the need to test explanations or the power of negative evidence. There is a wide-spread and naïve methodological assumption in literature departments that if someone amasses evidence for an argument, that suffices, as if evidence against were not so much more decisive. As a consequence, many in academic literary studies can accept ideas long discredited, like “the paradigmatic pseudoscience of our epoch,” 1 Freudian psychoanalysis, and its Lacanian reflection, which seem especially welcome because they make it so easy to generate evidence for an interpretation, and never mind everything that counts against it. And never mind, too, the extraordinary work being done in the new sciences of the mind, which one would have thought so germane to literary studies, both in terms of subject—human experience, and the reasons why it takes some forms and not others—and in terms of method—how minds understand and respond to words and worlds.

The very dominance of science in our times has of course produced reactions like the postmodernist critique of science as “just another narrative” 2 —actually a form of science blindness since it derives ultimately from the limited and long superseded linguistics of Saussure, and the nugatory evidence for relativism advanced by a Margaret Mead 3 or a Benjamin Lee Whorf. 4 Philosopher Richard Rorty is at least not blind to science, but he urges philosophy to reject “science envy” and calls for a return to literature as the center of philosophy, literature as conversation rather than science’s hard inquisitions after truth: a cosy lounge where we can chat with Austen and Dickens, Flaubert and Tolstoy, say, rather than a cold laboratory where the evidence rudely rejects what we propose.

Rorty writes: “English departments can always be made to look silly by asking them what they have contributed to knowledge lately. But humanists can make biology or mathematics departments look bad by asking what they have done lately for human freedom.” 5 Rorty is wrong on several counts: science departments make undoubted contributions to...

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