- The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction by Jukka Mikkonen
Many of us read works of fiction passionately not only because of their entertainment value or for their aesthetic inventiveness but also because we feel that they enrich our understanding of ourselves and the world. This is where there seems to be an important resemblance to philosophy. A number of fictional works can be legitimately called “philosophical” because they are thought provoking about issues that works of philosophy explicitly deal with. However, as the hot debate concerning truth through literature or literature’s cognitive value indicates, it is notoriously hard to pin down what it means to “enrich understanding” or what counts as “thought-provoking content.” Even if it is granted that literature offers some sort of knowledge, it is contested whether this knowledge is somehow relevant to the aesthetic appreciation of literary works.
Jukka Mikkonen’s The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction steps onto this battleground in a careful and thoughtful manner. Mikkonen is interested in the question of “philosophy through literature” (p. 2), and he narrows his inquiry to fictional literary works of the philosophical variety.
After an introduction that includes conceptual clarifications of the main terms and the outlining of Mikkonen’s position, the book is divided into three main chapters. First, in “Fictive Use of Language,” Mikkonen surveys prominent theories of fiction in order to arrive at a Gricean definition of the literary-fictive utterance. Second, in “Literature and Truth,” he examines the relationship of literature and knowledge, arguing that works of philosophical fiction provide knowledge not only in the form of assertions but also through suggestions, implications, and contemplations. One of the most intriguing claims of the book is found at the end of this chapter. Mikkonen’s thesis is that works of philosophical fiction can be seen as a type of rhetorical argument—what Aristotle called enthymeme, in which the conclusion is missing—and that the reader is intended to make the inference based on the fictive premises. Third, in “Meaning and Interpretation,” Mikkonen navigates among various positions with regard to [End Page 317] the significance of authorial intention in understanding and interpreting a work of literature. The clarity with which Mikkonen categorizes, describes, and evaluates the arguments in each chapter demands respect, and by themselves, these chapters make the book into a highly useful resource regarding issues in the philosophy of literature.
Mikkonen’s debut monograph seems to be a moderate book. This is explicitly signaled by two of the main pillars of his argument.
First, according to Mikkonen, works of philosophical fiction provide significant propositional knowledge. This is the propositional theory of literary truth. Proponents traditionally claim that authors of fictional narratives make literal assertions in their works, and that these assertions can be scrutinized for truth value. Mikkonen begs to differ. Along with others, such as Noël Carroll and Peter Kivy, he denies that authors make literal assertions. Instead, he argues that the assertions are not independent from the rest of the work and that they are made by a fictive voice, a voice employed by the real author. This is moderate propositional cognitivism.
Second, since these assertions are seen as intended by the real author to be imagined by the reader, Mikkonen needs to address the question of how intentions figure in interpreting philosophical fiction. According to actual intentionalism, a work’s meaning is determined by what its author intended to communicate in writing it. Such a position is too narrow for Mikkonen, so he proceeds to carve out logical space for his version of moderate actual intentionalism. The moderate version is broader: the author’s intentions do not determine meaning but they are relevant for it. In other words, if there are competing meanings, the correct one is that which is compatible with the author’s intention.
One of the most important counterarguments on the anti-intentionalist side is metaphysical, claiming that “intentions consist of beliefs and desires, which are objects of the mind,” and “objects of the mind cannot be discernible in public, for mind is by definition...