Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Philosophy of Fiction and Art

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, August 10, 2006 | Category: |

I attended a seminar today by a Professor from Temple University in the US. The seminar was on whether Art (capital A) can convey knowledge. The arguments centrally revolve around aesthetics and epistemology, i.e the accepted modes of interpreting these kinds of questions.

[An aside: I had a concern from the outset that the question we were interrogating is itself constructed and fallacious. The reasons for this are multiple. Firstly, there seems to be an ordinal approach to Science, Art and various other disciplines. This stems from the early dispute between poets and philosophers in the Greek tradition where Art was above Philosophy (i.e. Aristotle more important than Plato – shock horror). From these philosophically different ideas came the disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, etc. In contemporary society the issue is whether Art is on a lower rung than Science in terms of a socially acceptable and useful discipline. The argument to say that Art provides knowledge is to try to get it higher on the social ladder so that it can be legitimate relative to Science. My personal feeling is that, regardless of the practicalities, this is a constructed and historically determined dichotomy, rather than an extant one with considerations of which we need to take cognizance. What this means is that putting Science and Art on a social hierarchy in the first place is irrelevant and fallacious. They are dramatically different disciplines and trying to compare particle physics with poetry can lead to some fairly problematic ideas. I concede that in monetary terms, or governmental budget allocations, the difference and the hierarchy are considered, but this does not mean that the hierarchy itself should exist. I also concede that my argument here is not at all useful in terms of policy making, because for that we need (by virtue of the economizing problem) to allocate resources for society to be operating optimally.]

Back to the seminar. Noel Carroll presented his paper and basically sat there reading to us from the paper. In that way I didn't feel that it was that professional, nevertheless the content was interesting. Quite thankfully, his voice was also not soporific regardless of the US twang. So yes, the arguments against Art conveying knowledge are to do with the following:

1) Common Denominator

2) Expertise

3) Banality

4) Evidence

The common denominator argument comes down to an idea that form is the only common denominator that is shared by all Art. This would then mean that if we are to gain knowledge from art then said knowledge would have to be from some cognition relative to the form itself. Moreover, if all art does not convey knowledge through its form, this would then mean that it should not be incumbent on any art to attempt to convey knowledge. This is an aesthetic argument. The refutation of this is based on the idea that it is inherently essentialist, it conveys some kind of necessary condition in certain circumstances, but it does not mean that if there is some sui generis form then we cannot gain knowledge from such. Moreover, the knowledge that we gain need not be formally provided for us in fiction (specifically from NC, of realist fiction). What this means is that we can gain knowledge of social phenomena and social realities from art and from the milieux in which art is presented. Essentialism is flawed.

In terms of expertise, the idea is that artists are trained in the specific skills needed supposedly to create art. As such a visual artist is taught perspective, a poet prosody and forth. We should not then expect such artists to be able to offer valid critiques of society, they do not have expert knowledge in that area and hence their presentations or representations are unlikely to impart knowledgeable information or processes of cognition to the reader of such art. If you are unsure of this then think of a different argument, we do not expect a lawyer to be presenting works containing good perspective to their client who is asking about a divorce – they have not been trained as such. To a large extent this argument is valid, it is also more of an epistemic argument than an aesthetic as the prior argument is. It should also be noted that I agree with this argument to a large extent, both in terms of the training necessary to be an artist and the training necessary to comment on social phenomena. Both require specific training and should be viewed as areas of expertise. This does not mean that an artist cannot gain knowledge, nor that a lawyer cannot draw a good piece with perspective. What it does mean is that in many, more na├»ve, cases there will be situations in which people present inferior knowledge. However, this does not mean that Art and Artists irrelevantly present knowledgeable portrayals of events. As an artist gains knowledge and expertise in specific areas then they can present knowledgeable portrayals of such (back to the whole thing on social realities being presented by realist authors).

It should be noted that the above also relates to the banality and the evidence arguments. In terms of banality, many truisms are found from reading literary works. These can be found in, say Death of A Salesman where we can say that the truism is that 'looks and being well-liked aren't everything'. Or, if we were interrogating Pride and Prejudice the truism could be 'don't rush into things'. As much as these truisms are banal, and as much as the knowledge of them is required beforehand in order to interpret them from the text that one reads, there is more to the story. The counter-argument is that as much as these pieces do offer said truisms, in reality they offer a nuanced and particular view of specific characters, social realities and a vehicle through which we can begin to understand certain contexts of action. Death of A Salesman isn't only about the truism I presented earlier, it is also about familial relationships, the problems of consumerism, the idea of a nuclear family, father-son relationships, suicide and so much more. Attempting to dismiss the entire play as a 'banality' is missing the point of the other psychological and socially informative knowledge that it can confer.

Lastly, in terms of the evidence debate, we see several situations worthy of consideration. Firstly, we know that fiction, and in most circumstances Art, does not attempt to present specific evidence to support some thesis which the piece itself may be progressing. However, these days, specifically in fiction, pieces of evidence, and by inference, evidence based knowledge, is presented through referencing, research discussions and on occasion footnoting. Apart from the usefulness of these, the question is whether this idea of 'evidence' is a necessary bar by which to measure fiction in the first place as well as the knowledge that it can confer. Fiction's virtue is that it can convey knowledge to the reader through a process of personal corroboration of events that take place in a fictitious setting. I know that what happens in a specific realist novel is not (by any stretch of the imagination) factually real, but I can glean knowledge of a location, of people and of psychological phenomena through reading such a work. The question that we then ask is at what level we want to set the bar for evidence to be a criteria for the gaining of knowledge from a work. We know that in scientific work it is absolutely necessary to reference, produce experiments, etc. Does Art, do fiction and visual art, require the same from us as 'readers' of such in order for us to accept that there is knowledge to be gained from them?

Anyway, I just thought that I would present some of these interpretations of mine as a point of interest. Some of the arguments interest me, others are arb. I often laugh at how young artists attempts to make sweeping statements about world poverty, trade, Karl Marx and the like without any specific knowledge about them. Ho hum. Life goes on. Comment if you feel the interest bubble within you, don't if you don't.

Currently have 3 comments:

  1. The whole question seems masturbatory in the extreme. I don't know of any arena in which the question of whether Art can convey Knowledge is a particularly pressing philosophical issue. To debate it at length seems to me the habit of a mind that's traipsed too far down the path to the land of cute abstractions.

    Nevertheless, it's darkly pleasing to see how easily all the arguments are rebutted, a process whose curt abruptness may highlight the numbing banality of the topic.

  2. Hi Simon

    Hoping you remember me - though I'm sure you would seeing as your memory most likely extends further than a year! (Circa Honours 2004).

    I got your blog address from Dave Bartlett and have been checking it out. Nice stuff!

    I also noticed your favourite book list - nice selection. Richard Mason (The Drowning People)is my cousin, have you read his latest book, 'Us'?

    What are you planning on doing following your masters? I'm studying again myself - who would have thought?!


  3. Where's Simon?