An Attempt at an Important Note on Terms

Actually, I don’t think there is much to say about this word.

It would be nice to hide behind the Oxford English Dictionary here, but it seems to me that its definition of ‘literature’ relies on a definition of ‘literary’, and vice versa. I mean the usual range of texts that fall under this term because they’re fictions, or poems, or plays, or prose works that use language or treat reality in such ways that they need a special term to distinguish them from other kinds of writing. Ironically, I suppose I want to say that literature is something that’s read for its own sake, even as I want to say that it offers us insights into how human cognition works (and thus we might attribute it a purpose or value beyond ‘for its own sake’). I don’t expect any examples I come up with will tax anyone’s instinctive definition of literature. In fact, they will come tediously often from Shakespeare, because Shakespeare always seems to come into my mind.

This is the operative word. Writers are often given credit for insights. One of the things they are commonly thought to know about is psychology (motives, emotions, etc.). . Some go a long way towards crediting a special . But what more defined sort of knowledge can there be in a literary work? I’m worried about ‘in’, because this knowledge comes into being when a reader (or a listener, etc.) receives it. It’s interactive as well as inherent. Its validity is difficult to assert except inasmuch as it seems convincing, and/or engaging, and/or new to its receivers. It might seem convincing because it fits our impressions or because it’s pleasingly counter-intuitive. At times I will be tempted to see literary works as experiments into cognition, as they set up scenarios in which certain qualities can be explored. However, they are not experiments in a scientific sense. I suppose ‘knows’, and the terms that follow from thinking it over, are things I want to discuss in this blog. They are what this blog is partly about. Talking of which…

While this is a mostly innocent preposition that needn’t detain us long, the idea of ‘aboutness’ isn’t inert. At times it might seem as if any knowledge (see above) these works have about how thinking works would be incidental – a by-product of telling a story or describing a feeling. At times, though, it might be possible to see these works as being ‘about’ those insights. One to watch out for.

Nothing to see here… very general use of ‘your’. No functional difference from ‘the’ or ‘one’s’.

Please forgive me for being deliberately provocative. I could just as well have said ‘mind’. What I really mean here is the whole cognitive system, everything that does thinking (including emotions, senses, etc.). I said ‘brain’, though, as a reminder that my aspiration is to suggest ways in which literature addresses, and even answers, questions about thinking and feeling that are recognizable to cognitive scientists.

Greg Currie, a philosopher of literature, wrote trenchantly in the Times Literary Supplement, 31st August 2011, against slack assumptions that writers should be trusted to have insights into the mind.
From Sir Philip Sidney’s The Defence of Poesy… ‘But since the authors of most of our sciences were the Romans, and before them the Greeks, let us a little stand upon their authorities, but even [i.e. only] so far as to see what names they have given unto this now scorned skill. Among the Romans a poet was called vates, which is as much as a diviner, foreseer, or prophet, as by his conjoined words, vaticinium and vaticinari, is manifest; so heavenly a title did that excellent people bestow upon this heart-ravishing knowledge. And so far were they carried into the admiration thereof, that they thought in the chanceable hitting upon any such verses great fore-tokens of their following fortunes were placed; whereupon grew the word of Sortes Virgilianæ, when by sudden opening Virgil’s book they lighted upon some verse of his making.’
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