Acknowledging Other Minds

The other day a bit of coffee-break Googling and Youtubing led me, for once, to something other than videos of ships in storms, or Sigur Rós playing in fields. I found a talk given by my friend Sean Keilen (of the University of California, Santa Cruz) as part of an event held back in 2010 at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. An impressive group of speakers gathered to discuss ‘The State and Stakes of Literary Study’. The video is available online.
      The speech is thought-provoking and inspiring in several ways, and it prodded me back towards the problem (central to this blog here and here) of what literature might know, and especially what it might know about minds. Sean’s argument focuses on the priorities of undergraduate education and the justification of literary study.
      He argues that we should move away from the ‘compulsive mistrust’ of literary works that some political and theoretical approaches have fostered; we should instead take the risk of loving the books we read. Early on he suggests we should see literature as a form of wisdom (rather than a form of knowledge). Later on, citing Hans-Georg Gadamer, he says that while ‘sciences stand apart from the objects of their study’, the humanities are ‘inside the frame of their own enquiry’. That is, in literary study the observer and the thing being observed are so entwined that they have to reflect on one another.
      As a result, Sean argues, we should not argue for literary study in the language of science or market forces. Claiming to know things about ‘your brain’ may not be the right strategy. He cites Stanley Cavell, proposing that ‘the works of art we study don’t seek to give us knowledge of other minds, but to bring us to a point at which we can acknowledge their existence. This acknowledgement requires from us that we put ourselves in the presence of those works, and show ourselves and our limitations’. The outcome of this acknowledgement would be personal growth for the reader, but it may also be a more interactive, experiential, generously disposed encounter with the world, and with the mind.
      In an essay entitled , Cavell defines his terms. One point he makes is that perhaps ‘acknowledgement goes beyond knowledge… Goes beyond not, so to say, in the order of knowledge, but in its requirement that I do something or reveal something on the basis of that knowledge’. From ‘inside the frame’ it is not possible to stand apart; literary knowledge about the brain may be animated by the need to respond, to live with it all.

Chapter 5 in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969), 238-66. The quotation below is from p. 237.
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