Literature and Understanding
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Literature and Understanding

The Value of a Close Reading of Literary Texts

Jon Phelan

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eBook - ePub

Literature and Understanding

The Value of a Close Reading of Literary Texts

Jon Phelan

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About This Book

Literature and Understanding investigates the cognitive gain from literature by focussing on a reader's close analysis of a literary text. It examines the meaning of 'literature', outlines the most prominent positions in the literary cognitivism debate, explores the practice of close reading from a philosophical perspective, provides a fresh account of what we mean by 'understanding' and in so doing opens up a new area of research in the philosophy of literature.

This book provides a different reply to the challenge that we can't learn anything worthwhile from reading literary fiction. It makes the innovative case that reading literary fiction as literature rather than as fiction stimulates five relevant senses of understanding. The book uses examples of irony, metaphor, play with perspective and ambiguity to illustrate this contention. Before arguing that these five senses of understanding bridge the gap between our understanding of a literary text and our understanding of the world beyond that text.

The book will be of great interest for researchers, scholars and post-graduate students in the fields of aesthetics, literary theory, literature in education and pedagogy.

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Chapter 1
Literary fiction as a subgenre of both literature and fiction

There is a tendency in the philosophy of literature, less conspicuous in the philosophy of fiction, to use the terms ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ interchangeably. Yet the terms appear to track an important distinction; one recognised by publishers, librarians, booksellers and any reader who expects a different kind of read from the shelf marked ‘literature’ than from the shelf marked ‘fiction’.1 The problem is that in running the concepts ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ together, no distinction is drawn between arguments that are sound only if the concept ‘literature’ is employed and arguments that are sound only if the concept ‘fiction’ is employed. As a result, the conclusions of such arguments are taken to apply indiscriminately to both literature and fiction, to the potential detriment of both. Some work needs to be done in order to determine what the conceptual relations are between literature, fiction and literary fiction. Once this is in place I can investigate the claim that the cognitive gain from reading literary fiction is generated from a reader’s engagement with literary fiction qua literature and not, as is too often assumed, qua fiction.
There is a tradition that takes all literature to be fictional by definition. This view is summarised by Tzvetan Todorov when he says that literature is ‘imitation through language’ and as all imitation is not real but fictional then ‘literature is fiction’ (Todorov 1973: 7 italics in original). It is not clear, however, why we should join this tradition given that many works read and admired as literature are not fictional. Works admired for their literary qualities but which are not fictions include: Descartes’ Meditations, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, some of George Orwell’s essays, and The Song of Solomon. Some works considered ‘literary’ include works based on fact which are fictionalised in their presentation such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Thomas Hardy’s poetry on the death of his wife. So there are numerous examples of works that are classed as ‘literature’ but are not classed as ‘fiction’; while various novels by Dick Francis show that there are works classed as ‘fiction’ that are not classed as ‘literature’. One can say, along with others (such as Lamarque 2013: 525), that ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ are not co-extensive terms.
The distinction between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ may be further recognised through contrasting the writing and reading practices associated with these categories. A budding author who sits down to write literature nurtures a different set of ambitions to one who sits down to write fiction whether the former accomplishes his or her literary ambitions or not. Morrissey negotiated his contract with Penguin Classics with the promise that his autobiography was ‘literature in the making’; an ambition reflected in the highly stylised opening pages. Similarly, a reader will opt for a work of literature with the expectation of taking on a more challenging read than is expected in ‘mere fiction’ which we enjoy with the same light attention as we do a box of chocolates. In spite of the various distinctions between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’, there are recurring cases in the philosophical literature of these terms being treated as co-extensive. Here are three examples.
John Gibson frequently runs the terms ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’ together in Chapter Two of Fiction and the Weave of Life:
Here, Gibson assumes that all literature is fiction. The examples he draws on in Fiction and the Weave of Life are from literary works by, among others, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Shakespeare. For instance, Gibson argues that it is the literary language of Shakespeare’s Othello that conveys to the reader a sense of what racism is really like. So, when Gibson talks about literature he seems to have fiction in mind and when he purports to be discussing fiction, it is various features of literary language which support his argument (Gibson 2007: 73–80).
A second example comes from Martha Nussbaum’s collection of essays, Love’s Knowledge. Nussbaum uses the terms ‘fiction’ and ‘literature’ interchangeably when she contrasts the full and fine detail of literary narratives to the nuts and bolts illustrations common in philosophy:2
A similar point is made in a later essay, but this time with reference to literature:
In the first passage, Nussbaum lists what she claims are some features of fiction and in the second some features of literature. This is crucial to her subsequent argument, but she gives no theoretical basis for focussing on these features, or for classifying them as features of ‘fiction’ rather than features of ‘the literary’ respectively. Some of the features mentioned (plottedness and indeterminacy) are arguably characteristic of fiction but not all literature, while others (particularity, rich metaphors and imagery or ‘pictures’) are arguably characteristic of literature but not all fiction. Yet the same assurance cannot be given to the other features listed. Nussbaum needs to be clearer about which properties belong to each category and needs to clarify the theoretical basis underpinning her selection.
In a third case, Catherine Elgin defends the claim that novels, poetry and plays can aid our understanding when she says:
Yet it seems unlikely that she means all fiction: Jeffrey Archer as well as Geoffrey Chaucer. Elgin’s argument, like those earlier, rests on certain features, in this case features of fiction. The four features identified as promising a better understanding in the passage earlier go well beyond any usual classification of fiction. Patterns, such as the repeated references to ‘nothing’ in King Lear, may more accurately be classified as a typical feature of a literary text as opposed to a typical feature of a fictional text. Elgin, and others, might reply that ‘fiction’ is shorthand for ‘literary fiction’ in these contexts. This seems plausible, but if objects are classified under two sortals then it is good methodological practice to clarify which sortal is relevant in order to avoid ambiguity. If both sortals are relevant, then it is good practice to distinguish in which way the claim may be made about each and give some account of the kind of relation that exists between sortals. Thus, if I claim that nettle soup has health giving properties then I need to say whether it is owing to something in the nettles or because it is served as a soup or both. The same goes for the cognitive potential of literary fiction: one should specify whether we learn from a work as fiction, as literature, or both and if both how literary features stand in relation to fictional features in terms of their respective cognitive value.
The three examples cited are, of course, parts of much longer, robust defences of cognitive gain from reading literary fiction and I only include them here to warn against slippage between key terms. I should also point out by way of a further preliminary point that ‘cognitive gain’ and on occasion ‘cognitive power’, ‘cognitive advantage’, ‘cognitive affordance’, ‘cognitive value’ appear in the following discussion as placeholder terms. The notion of cognitive gain is central to the argument of this book and a fuller treatment of this notion occurs in Chapter Three. At this early stage, suffice to say that by ‘cognitive’ I mean, very broadly, what is related to thought and to the development of thought. By ‘gain’ I mean what the reader can do better, quicker and in the right direction as a result of reading literary fiction. Cognitive gain in the sense of developing one’s thinking in the right direction need not equate to the acquisition of new propositional knowledge. The cognitive gain referred to may be presented as the reader coming to a better understanding of X having read literary fiction. This is enough for now as I want to return to the conceptual model set out in this chapter.
Four ‘super-genres’ are identifiable: fiction, non-fiction, literature and non-literature. As stated earlier, there are fictional texts that are not literary and literary texts that are not fictional. There are, of course, fictional texts that are literary; we shall refer to such texts as ‘literary fiction’. The main aim of this first chapter is to provide an account of what is characteristic of texts which occupy this intersection between ‘literature’ and ‘fiction’. Both terms are loose and any attempts at strict definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions are fraught with counterexamples. The proliferation of peripheral cases which resist easy categorisation motivates my defence of a non-essentialist account of both fiction and literature. By ‘non-essentialist’ I mean a rejection of clear boundaries between concepts specifiable in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. The boundaries are vague and there is movement between super-genres, but as we shall see, this does not prevent some account of fiction, literature and literary fiction being offered.
A final word on methodology, this chapter is concerned with the categories of texts and, in the course of what follows, I refer to specific works which I take to be representative of these categories. I have tried to choose uncontroversial examples, unless controversy is required, but the argument is concerned with categorisation and does not rest on the examples cited.


The aim of this section is to provide a plausible account of fiction before moving on to give a plausible account of literature. I should point out that it is not always clear from the work of those defining fiction whether they have all fictional representations, printed works of fiction or individual fictional propositions in mind. In each case the result will have some bearing on what is meant when a text is referred to as ‘fiction’ which is our focus. Prima facie, it seems easier to account for fiction than literature; after all, doesn’t ‘fiction’ just refer to what is made up? Defining fiction is not this straightforward; for one thing many fictional narratives refer to facts about things that are not made up and describe real people, places and events. In addition, some predominantly factual accounts contain fictional elements. Thucydides says:
Further, there are some narratives that are made up that do not constitute the kind of fiction I seek to elucidate. Such narratives include: blatant lies, white lies, fantasies, jokes, unscrupulous curricula vitae, counterfactual or alternative histories, thought experiments in science or philosophy and legal fictions.
Essentialist accounts of fiction, which seek a set of necessary and sufficient conditions on fiction, dominate recent discussion. The mainstream essentialist accounts of fiction state that a fiction (written or verbal) is an utterance where:
  • a) There is a mandate that we imagine X where
  • b) X is at most accidentally true.3
Stacie Friend has argued against the essentialist view principally by the provision of counter-examples. To reveal, with Friend, what is problematic about the orthodox, essentialist view requires an additional distinction, that (a) can be further divided into two constituent claims:
  • (a1) There is a mandate.
  • (a2) There is a distinct kind of imagination at work.
(a1) is usually specified along Gricean lines (by the essentialist Gregory Currie and others); though for Kendall Walton it is a matter of the requirements involved in playing a game of make-believe. A more significant point concerns (a2) as the essentialist needs to give an account of what is meant by ‘imagination’ in a way that shows a necessary link between imagination and fiction. This essentialist account of fiction takes for granted that the same distinct kind of imagination is at play in all fictions.
Let us assume that, given the mandate, the imagination referred to is that of the reader of fiction and not the writer. We are talking, in other words, about ‘the recreative imagination’ rather than the ‘creative imagination’ (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002: 9–11). While there is no overall agreement as to the nature of the imagination in the case of fiction, various candidate notions have been suggested: the experience of mental imagery, some form of simulation or make-believe (see Friend 2008: 151–156). If imagination is taken in any of these three senses then it lends itself to Friend-type counter examples. Friend’s principal criticism of the essentialist account is that the kinds of imagination specified are not particularly connected with fiction. Friend says that the ‘[I]nvitation to imagine, whether explicit or not, is common to narrative works of non-fiction’ (Friend 2012: 183). Two examples are cited. The first is Ernest Shackleton’s South, an autobiographical account of the explorer’s failed expedition to Antarctica, in which the reader is invited to engage imaginatively with the story. The second is Simon Schama’s A History of Britain which explicitly invites the reader to imagine a setting and think about what it would be like to be present at one of Disraeli’s lavish parties. Friend’s two examples are a blueprint for a counterexample to the essentialist account of fiction in respect of the kind of imagination at play.
Kathleen Stock (2013, 2017) seeks to retrieve the essentialist account of fiction in light of Friend’s criticism with the following account of propositional imagining.
For Thinker T to imagine that p requires that:
  1. T entertain the thought of p being the case and
  2. either T does not believe p or inferentially connects p to other thoughts where there is at least one thought that T does not believe.
Stock describes the relevant cognitive act in (1) as follows: ‘[B]y imagining I don’t mean anything particularly full blooded’, that is imagining need not ‘involve anything particularly experiential’ but ‘thinking of a certain case as being the case’ (Stock 2013: 887). A simple conjunction is sufficient for the inferential connection referred to in (2). If p is ‘I am typing’ then this statement is not sufficient for us to say ‘T imagines p’. However, if T thinks ‘I am typing’ and ‘I am on the moon’ then T is imagining (Stock 2017: 146). On Stock’s account, if a text gives rise to imagining then this is sufficient for that text to be fiction.
However, Stock’s account does not offer a thorough enough explanation as to why a text counts as a fiction; this inadequacy applies to shorter as well as longer pieces. Consider the following scenario which would be incorrectly classified by Stock as fiction. We discover that Socrates did write something which turns out to be a tract on mind and body dualism, connecting dualism to monotheism, in much the same way as Descartes did in his conceivability argument in the Sixth Meditation. For the sake of this counter example, say that Socrates was merely rehearsing dualism as a provocation and was indeed a ‘great ironist’ as Nietzsche calls him in Beyond Good and Evil (V. 191). A present day reader with anti-dualist leanings reads the text, is able to entertain the thought that dualism is the case but either does not believe dualism is the case or connects dualism to other thoughts that the reader does not believe such as God’s omnipotence or ‘what is conceivable is possible’. Stock would have to count such a Socratic work as fiction according to criteria (1) and (2), but this categorisation is surely overridden by the context and the presence of other features standard to philosophy such as the role of the principle that ‘if I clearly and distinctly understand X apart from Y (and vice versa) then X and Y are metaphysically distinct and could exist apart.’ This work by ‘Socrates’ is philosophy not fiction.
At best Stock supplies a necessary but not a sufficient condition on fiction but her account does not include enough detail on what fictions have in common so does not count as a satisfactory way of determining what counts as fiction. An essentialist account of fiction may be retrieved with a better account of the imagination but at present imagining is ‘[A] notion yet to be fully clarified’ (Walton 1990: 21) and the trail goes cold.

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Citation styles for Literature and Understanding
APA 6 Citation
Phelan, J. (2020). Literature and Understanding (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Phelan, Jon. (2020) 2020. Literature and Understanding. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Phelan, J. (2020) Literature and Understanding. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Phelan, Jon. Literature and Understanding. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.