Theory of Knowledge: The Arts – Literature, Part One, Dr Catherine Brown

Hello. I’m David Mitchell – I teach
Philosophy at New College of the Humanities. With me is Dr Catherine Brown who’s convener for English in our College. Today we’re talking about literature – one of the arts – from the point of view of theory of knowledge. Catherine, does literature strike you as a source of knowledge? It doesn’t strike me as a source of knowledge in various respects, it is a source of knowledge, I think, but you have to think about the ways in which it could be that very
carefully and the way you just posed that question reminds me of when I was a
sixth-former trying to decide what subject to study and I was torn between
English and History and part of me, the part of me that’s orientated towards
knowledge and the part of me that’s also morally orientated towards knowledge – the
acquisition of fact, thought that History was the obvious
choice and therefore I was actually fighting to justify to myself the study
of what gets called fiction. Anyway, I resolved that question for myself in
many ways and a lot of me very happy in studying what we call fiction but I
would want to put in that caveat just as what gets called non-fiction if you go
into Waterstones and you look at the non-fiction section again, I think that has a
question mark over it too. So, it doesn’t strike me as that so but knowledge is
there but it has to be sought for in very careful ways. Roughly speaking one
of the ways in which literature seems to give us knowledge is knowledge of the
past and all knowledge of other countries and of course we know from LP
Hartley’s famous opening to ‘The Go-Between’ the past is another country
they do things differently there so there I think there’s a strong analogy
so a lot of what applies to the past applies to other countries and when
you’re reading something like ‘Heart of Darkness’ you’re dealing with both
because it’s a novel set in 1890 written in 1899 and set in the Congo
so we’ve got both there. Does it teach us about the Congo in 1890 and I say 1890,
that’s when it’s set and that is also when Conrad, its author, undertook the
journey on which it’s based. To some extent, yes, certainly we get a better
idea of that what the Congo was like in 1890 from reading that novella than we would from visiting the Congo today. We get a better idea of what London looked
like in the early 18th century from reading Moll Flanders or in 1840 from
reading ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ or in 1925 from reading Mrs. Dalloway than we
do from looking at London today and what it looks like something of the feel of
the place. So, it is it is a way to travel in time and travel in place. Then, of
course, come the caveats tumbling in. One is of course that that writers tend to
be writing at least slightly in the past in fact it turns out that Moll Flanders
by the end of her novel which was published in 1722 is 69 and it’s now the
1680s which means that at the beginning of her own autobiographical narration
which really starts when she’s reaching the end of adolescence, the author of her
novel was writing about London 90 years before the time of writing. Now if we
think what it would be like to describe London 90 years before now that would in
fact involve some historical research and to what extent would we have captured
it and whatever capturing can mean And in any case, even if set in the present, even if giving one’s own description of London in this present if
you meet another author, another contemporary author to any given other
one will see a different picture of London emerging. This is only a version of a question which historiographers have to ask
themselves as well. Literature is one source to historiographers of what a
particular place at a particular time was like but they are very well aware
that you handle that with care and you perhaps handle it with care particularly
when something is presenting itself to the world as literature in the guise of
fiction that certainly since modern historiography developed in the early
modern period with it’s more straightforward alignment to or
commitment towards the discovery of fact something that the gap has opened up
between the writing of history and the writing of literature therefore one
handles it with all the more care. Conrad writing a novella knew that he possessed
then a certain kind of liberty from historians of the Congo in 1890, we know
that it was a great deal more developed there were railways there were townships
that had been developed by the Belgians which have no mention which simply don’t
appear in the novel – just ask the historical person who was very heavily
involved in the development of the Congo, Leopold II, the King of the Belgians – he
doesn’t appear in the novel either and then one has to ask oneself to what
extent is in fact this in any way historically accurate always it
metaphorical and this is one of the very important questions in interpretation of
that novella – is it a metaphor for the heart of darkness of all humanity or
is it about imperialism per se or is it about Bank Belgian imperialism and
distinction to the rather brought more benign by implication British form of
imperialism or is it about a particular version of Belgian imperialism as
practiced by the firm but which is interestingly just called the firm
throughout the novella. So, these questions arise and I think they arise
in a particularly strong form when reading literature since that split off
from history as opposed to certain other historical sources, so one handles it with
on what certainly also does in in inferring any biographical facts about
the author again one might be inclined to get a sense of what Conrad himself
experienced in this journey of the Congo which will of course have its own its
own subjectivist vice but even then one one cannot assume the absence of
certain deliberate or non-deliberate departures from that experience on his
part so again it’s a very difficult thing, a very dangerous thing deducing
biography from what an author’s written. All we can know for sure
and even for this one needs literary historians and here I don’t care whether
they’re coming from the literary side as a historicist, a type of literary critic or whether they were in fact historians who specialise
in the history of literature but that kind of Venn intersection between
literary people and and historians, which we call literary historians, it’s for
them to tell us whether in fact Conrad wrote it and when he wrote it. So, we take
that from them they do as well as they can in ascertaining that kind of fact
and then that is pretty much as much as we know that he put those words in that
in order at that time and even then the intervention of other people aren’t
in his writing cannot be ruled out with D H Lawrence he wrote, literary
historians happen to know, with Freda his wife often in the room he would read out
bits of his work to her – she very probably then have some influence may have given some forms of word, so even the
purity of one person writing isn’t sure so the knowledge that Conrad the person the
flesh-and-blood person wrote this work even that is slightly questionable. Right, well there are many ways of being critical in doing criticism. You’ve
mentioned throughout what you contain the comparison between English and
History for study of literature and historical study. It puts me in mind of
Aristotle’s comparison in the poetics where perhaps not really giving history
it’s due he contrasts them in this way: History just tells you what happened
poetry his tongue tells you the kinds of things that can happen
and one can perhaps develop that and link it to something you refer to several
times which was how literature can give you the feel or the sense of doing something. Perhaps it’s too much to look for
to look to literature for how it feels to do such-and-such, what it’s like
to do such-and-such, because as you say that’s such a subjective thing but maybe
if one said literature can convey to one and give one a fuller understanding of
how it can feel to be unjustly accused what it can be like yes to
rediscover a long lost sibling then that’s a further dimension of the
way in which literature can give us understanding it so it’s a more
experiential sort of understanding. Indeed, I agree with that I think the
distinction between does and can though is a shaky one because to say it can
feel like this to recognise that it feel like this I think is almost the same saying it does feel like this. It’s one of the ways in which it
does. Yes. I think that’s right. and so that was indeed the second main
area I was going to comment. The first is things it gives us knowledge but
in in a way that needs to be handled with great care of things that have
happened. The other main area is things that do
happen and particular in relation to motions of the mind and of feelings that
of the relationship between thought and feeling and this is recognised through
recognition. So Alexander Pope’s, the second line of this couplet “what oft
was thought but ne’er so well expressed” isn’t just a question of being well
expressed it’s often the case that it hasn’t been thought in the first place,
it has been felt. So, one thing that literature does is make us conscious of
certain aspects of our own ways of feeling which we have not before
cognised and which it changes your life to have
brought to consciousness. I mean this is one of D H Lawrence’s great projects – he
is thought of as an anti intellectual and as a railer against
consciousness or the over dominance of consciousness in our lives but in fact
he described his own whole writing project as written papers with reference
to another but I think it applies to his whole writing project as a passionate
struggle into conscious being and that having been made conscious of certain
aspects of oneself that had hitherto been unconscious it is his thought we
can then live more healthily with that cognisance. So, in a sense he is trying to
get sex up into the head for example in the case of sex which is which is
important to him and more broadly this applies to one of the most important
things that literature achieves for us but here we come to kind of blow
between knowledge per se and understanding and as a philosopher you are
perfectly well aware that the Germans in the 19th century developed
this distinction but they had a distinction of subjects between the Naturwissenschaften which we would call the Natural Sciences and the geisteswissenschaften, which rather beautifully, is translated as as knowledge
of the soul and in the geisteswissenschaften which we would called the
arts and humanities the method is which is understanding with
some kind of an empathetic leap in other words it is beyond the knowledge which
can be acquired without any leap of imagination so the leap of imagination takes us into someone else’s subjectivity and the literary
writer has to do that with her or his various characters in order to create
them in the first place and then what we might call an adequate or a responsive
or a valuable or a rewarding reading of the text involves the reader to making
that empathetic leap into a construct which has already been given
to us by a prior empathetic leap on the part of their creator so indeed this is
one of the great things literature offers – a greater
understanding of the way in which our emotions and the
relationship between thought and emotion tends to work is productive one might
say of something we might call wisdom and so for this term which has an
old-fashioned ring to it which is interesting but it is precisely this
intersection of knowledge and good judgment and understanding it’s a word
significantly that is very strongly connected with George Eliot who put such
a premium on this wisdom and one of her super case was the wise woman and very
definitely not in the sense of a witch-doctor if anything rather the reverse given how avantgaard she was for the time in her
in her disbelief in metaphysics. She also talks about a moral obligation to be
intelligent and so there is also a moral dimension to her in this empathetic leap
to have understood someone which is an intelective thing. One must in the
same process also have gained some sympathy with them. So again in the forms
of understanding that literature offers they quite frequently make their own
implicit moral claims along with them claims about what is morally involved in
that type of understanding. Right, yes.

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