Friday, September 30, 2011

Watch a Philosopher and a Literary Theorist Duke It Out Over At The New York Times

It comes as no surprise to me that William Eggington's piece in The New York Times, "'Quixote,' Colbert and the Reality of Fiction" addresses the question of whether or not literature (or literary theory) can be both "fun" and "knowledge," since I've struggled with this question myself quite a bit (including here and here, for two examples). 

Before we get too deep into the "yea-or-nay" argument, however, it should be noted that Eggington is responding to Alex Rosenberg's "Why I Am A Naturalist," in which it is posited that naturalism (the "philosophical theory that treats science as our most reliable source of knowledge and scientific method as the most effective route to knowledge") does not view literary theory or fiction as a serious course of study because it "can’t take them seriously as knowledge."  Rosenberg finishes by saying,
That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.

What naturalists really fear is not becoming dogmatic or giving up the scientific spirit. It’s the threat that the science will end up showing that much of what we cherish as meaningful in human life is illusory.
Not a particularly surprising view coming from a man who has written twelve books on the philosophy of biology and economics.  The part that I find most telling is his term "illusory."  Yes, a scientist (or naturalist) would view much of what we "cherish" (hope, faith, love, friendship, ethics, values, a.k.a. everything literature is about) as not knowable via science.  How can we scientifically prove any of that?  We can't, which can't be a comfortable position for a man of science.

I don't agree with William Eggington, however, that Rosenberg's defense of naturalism is "at the expense of other theoretical endeavors such as, notably, literary theory."  He immediately sends out a knee-jerk response that peaks with the following argument:
As readers of the novel, in which we must relate conflicting reports about reality to the independent reality required by the story, we divide ourselves into two, and momentarily forget to ask the question of how the fictional interior reality relates to our own. This division of the self was the active ingredient in the German Romantics’ reinterpretation of irony, which they often based on readings of Cervantes, and which they identified as the key trope of aesthetic modernity.

The fictional worldview, then, is one in which we are able to divide our selves to assume simultaneously opposing consciousnesses, and to enter and leave different realities at will, all the while voluntarily suspending judgments concerning their relation to an ultimate reality. This worldview has had an extraordinarily powerful impact on the modern world; in some interpretations it is the very epistemological signature of modernity, affecting equally our thought and politics as thoroughly as it does our art and literature.
Not a particarly surprising view coming from the Chair of the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures at the Johns Hopkins University.  I doubt that many people would argue that reading helps with empathy, or with the impact reading has on the "epistemological signature of modernity."  (By the way, can I say that phrase just screams "academic out of touch with the world." He might want to work on that.) 

The problem is that, no matter how many shrill arguments Eggington makes, a naturalist can't prove any of this by science and would simply deflate the argument by restating that as his thesis.  Rather than coming out swinging with a "nuh-uh," Eggington should have focused on the weaknesses of the naturalist argument and then supported it with his "key tropes of aesthetic modernity" arguments. (Again with the academic mumbo jumbo, for the love of God.) 

Of course, Rosenberg would still just respond with a simple "it's not science" and the argument would go round and round.  But do we really care what someone who only values that which can be proven through science has to say about literary theory?  I mean, really?

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