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  • Literature, Knowledge, and Value
  • Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar

Many of the terms we use to assess works of literature are cognitive in nature. We say that a work is profound, insightful, shrewd, well-observed, or perceptive, and conversely that it is shallow, or sentimental, or impercipient. A common thread running throughout this terminology is that works of literature are ascribed cognitive features affecting the value of those works qua literature. Use of this terminology therefore implies adherence to a substantial philosophical theory, cognitivism, the thesis that (1) works of literature have cognitive content, and (2) this content enhances their value as works of literature. Note that cognitivism is not the thesis that literature's value resides in its causing us to acquire knowledge, but rather in its displaying such knowledge. A given work's displaying knowledge does not of course entail that it causes us to acquire it.

While cognitivism appears consistent with literary critical practice, it is open to a number of objections. In this paper we aim to defend cognitivism and in the process refine it. Broadly, objections to cognitivism deny either (1) the thesis that works of literature contain any cognitive content, or (2) the thesis that such content can be aesthetically relevant in the sense of being relevant to the evaluation of works of literature qua literature. The principal objection is to (2), for it is difficult to deny that no knowledge whatsoever can be obtained from works of art. For example, the Iliad sheds light on values, habits and customs of ancient Greeks, and nineteenth-century Russian novels may inform us about contemporary debates concerning the emancipation of the serfs. It is the relevance of such knowledge to the artistic value of the literature that is in issue. [End Page 111]


The main challenge faced by the cognitivist is well put by the anti-cognitivist, Peter Lamarque, thus: the "question artistic cognitivists dread most is what (nontrivial) truths they have learnt from works of art." It is thought a difficult question because in "propositional terms the best they can come up with are usually generalities of numbingly banal kind."1 The objection, in short, is that while it is correct that truths can be gleaned from literature, they are trivial. We call this the triviality objection. Stolnitz for example states that the truth to be learned from Pride and Prejudice is, "Stubborn pride and ignorant prejudice keep attractive people apart," which he describes as "pitifully meager."2

However, the notion of an insight implies nontriviality: a "trivial insight" is an oxymoron. So if the triviality objection succeeds, it follows that we should either stop calling works of literature insightful and perceptive, or that those terms have a different meaning in the context of literary criticism than they do in everyday parlance.

There is nothing which in principle debars a philosophical theory from correcting mistaken practices but the practice in this case is widespread and, on the face of it, unobjectionable. The alternative available open to anti-cognitivism is that literary critical terminology has an altogether different meaning from that in ordinary parlance, so that in a literary context a term such as "insightful" has a formal meaning only. Peter Lamarque for instance asserts that we (rightly) evaluate works of literature in part in terms of their content, but not in terms of the truth of the content: "it is usually a work's treatment of a theme which is judged profound or sentimental."3 Lamarque gives the following examples: "Milton's treatment of the Fall is profound just as is Descartes's appeal to God to refute scepticism, but neither need be interpreted as true." However, it is not as easy to divorce profundity from truth as Lamarque implies. With regard to Milton's treatment of the Fall, it is possible to find it profound without believing in the literal truth of the Fall. One might point to, for example, Milton's treatment of the sexuality of Adam and Eve, and the way in which it is bound up with their awareness of their mortality. When, in Paradise Lost, Adam learns of Eve's disobedience, he declares his wish to fall with her...


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