Friday, September 18, 2009

Literature as a Source of Knowledge

Jason Rosenhouse has an interesting post about whether or not fiction is a valid way of knowing something about the world.

Ultimately I agree with him (except for his ranking of Star Trek captains). Yes, literature contains truths about the human condition and about the world in general. Otherwise it would have a lot less value. But it also often contains falsehoods, or overgeneralizations.

Literature (and narrative media in general) can be extremely useful to help elucidate, proselytize, or reinforce existing beliefs. But I don't think it functions as a primary source of knowledge. A metaphor can help reinforce some aspects of how the world works. For example, one could tell a story about how white blood cells are the knights of the realm, ever vigilant in capturing and slaying unwanted intruders. Many things about the metaphor may ring true, and align well with the actual state of affairs. But we can't know how the immune system works from such stories. That takes painstaking investigation of the phenomenon itself.

Something in a work of fiction might "ring true", but there's no way to validate it within the framework of the story itself. You'd be surprised how many people overseas think that every American owns a gun from watching our movies. If I gleaned universal truths from Judd Apatow films, I'd live in a world where fat, unemployed stoner shlubs hooked up with super-hot TV personalities and lived happily ever after. How do I know the world does not work this way? By comparing the vision of the story with the actual state of affairs.

So I think it makes the most sense to view literature, and really all art, as a way of reframing truths to make them more interesting, accessible, etc., but ultimately not as a source of truth.


Kenny Wyland said...

I read this article a couple of days ago and wasn't a big fan of it. I think fiction is fantastic as a method of discussing ethical and moral questions (in addition to simple entertainment, etc), but it is not a "way of knowing" as the author asserts. It certainly encourages us to think critically about tough questions, but it doesn't impart knowledge upon us.

Anonymous said...

Well, no kidding -- that's my response to the article.

Fictions are a way of understanding how people go about understanding and feeling about the world. Although creative writers sometimes say their personal goal is to get at some sort of truth, and although readers of the stuff sometimes feel they have found some kind of truth in it, these are subjective by the very nature of the medium.

Does this count as a type of knowledge? Depends on how you define knowledge. If knowledge is comprised of a set of basic facts about the nature of existence, then no, fictions don't produce knowledge. If knowledge is comprised of interpretive schemes and understandings of interpretive schemes by which we process some semblance of a real, or truth, then we have something of value in fiction that we also have in histories and other cultural accounts.