- Of Literature and Knowledge: Explorations in Narrative Thought Experiments, Evolution and Game Theory, and: Literature, Analytically Speaking: Explorations in the Theory of Interpretation, Analytic Aesthetics, and Evolution
Among Peter Swirski's many books, the two under review here are the ones that most directly address issues in the philosophy of literature. Swirski has written two fascinating "explorations" (as the subtitles announce) in topics both within and surrounding the study of literature, manifesting the author's vast knowledge of a number of academic disciplines—not just within the humanities as traditionally conceived, but extending to game theory, evolutionary theory, and related fields.
Swirski's key idea is that literary studies ought to be strongly interdisciplinary, integrating perspectives from analytic philosophy—not only analytic aesthetics but also, say, analytic philosophy of science—as well as game theory, social sciences, evolutionary psychology, and other academic areas not conventionally [End Page 404] seen as particularly relevant to the understanding and appreciation of fictional literature. I will briefly comment on this important suggestion below. First, however, I will describe in broad strokes some of the main positions defended in the two volumes.
Of Literature and Knowledge (hereafter abbreviated LK; Literature, Analytically Speaking is hereafter abbreviated LAS) argues persuasively for the cognitive value of fictional literature, seeking to establish a "science-consilient program of literary research" (LK, p. 153). Swirski starts from the insight (he calls it his "basic premise") that it is the capacity of literary fictions for generating thought experiments, a capacity they share with philosophy and science, that enables them to generate nonfictional knowledge (LK, p. 4). In thought experiments we go beyond what actually takes place in the world and what can be experimented with in standard empirical ways. We imagine alternatives, possibilities, worlds that could be real. Literary narratives, according to Swirski, "lie on a continuum with philosophical thought experiments"; instead of sharp disciplinary boundaries, we should admit the possibility of "gradualistic metacognition" (LK, p. 8).
Fictions, stories, and narratives also play an evolutionarily explainable role in real life: they are "adaptive tools to help us navigate more efficiently . . . our time on earth" (LK, p. 6; see also p. 94). Given that literature is our natural adaptation to the natural world, with a long evolutionary history, it should be obvious that academics representing various methods and approaches ought to join forces in better understanding the ways in which literature succeeds in connecting us not only with imagined worlds but also with the very real one we live in.
While Swirski's first chapter in Of Literature and Knowledge is a powerful defense of the epistemic value of literary narratives and an equally powerful criticism of postmodern, deconstructive misconceptions of the nature of language and literature, he seems to rely on a relatively straightforward reflexive argumentation against relativism, familiar since Plato. I am highly sympathetic to the way he encourages objective, interdisciplinary studies of literature (see LK, p. 19), but I am not quite convinced that "postmodern relativism" or constructivism can be set aside as easily as he suggests. For example, he points out, correctly, that truth claims should not be confused with truths (LK, p. 24), but it is not obvious that this is sufficient to set aside the rather elaborate nonrealist discourse engaged in by thinkers like Baudrillard, Derrida, or Latour, whom he mentions along with a number of other "postmodernists" but fails to criticize in detail. (This would require a more comprehensive examination—both in the book and in a review aiming to acknowledge its virtues.) Claiming that even Thomas Kuhn—read by many as an antirealist and constructivist—unequivocally rejected antirealism, Swirski sets against each other a "moderately realistic belief in understanding mind-independent reality" and "a form of constructivism that [End Page 405] argues for a plurality of community-relative interpretive...