Friday, May 21, 2010

"Language, Truth, and Literature," Department of Philosophy, University of Liverpool, June 7, 2010.

A one day workshop addressing the cognitive value of literature

  • Mark Rowe 11 a.m. 'Poetry, Philosophy and the Language of Power'
  • Richard Gaskin 2 p.m. 'The Cognitive Value of Literature'
  • Peter Lamarque 4 p.m. 'A defence of the "no truth" theory of literature against recent attacks'

The humanistic tradition in literature may be encapsulated in two claims, one about truth and the other about knowledge. Samuel Johnson said that ‘the value of every story depends on its being true. A story is a picture either of an individual or of human nature in general; if it be false, it is a picture of nothing’. And Dylan Thomas remarked that ‘A good poem . . . helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him’. For centuries these claims passed as the merest common sense, but in recent decades they have come under increasing attack, not only from outside the tradition of analytic philosophy, but also by practitioners of that style of thinking. Deconstructionists, as is familiar, have long challenged the presupposition of humanism that literary texts have a stable and determinate meaning; but more recently a number of analytic or analytically inclined philosophers have argued that, although texts do have such meaning, and although they have value, perhaps even value of a broadly cognitive sort, they do not propound or express true (or false) propositions, and so do not serve as a means of transmitting propositional knowledge to the reader. The issue concerns not so much concise, individual aperçus that, as everyone acknowledges, works of literature may contain—passing observations or bits of advice that hit the nail on the head—but rather the meaning of a work of literature taken as a whole (or a significant part thereof). Is the humanist right in maintaining that these larger stretches of literary discourse can in some way contain, or embody, truths that a reader with a suitable background can come, by engaging appropriately with the text, to know? That is the topic of this one-day workshop. Peter Lamarque, who has written a number of important books and articles in this area, will be one of the speakers: Lamarque’s published position is broadly sympathetic to some form of cognitivism, but hostile to propositionalism about literary value. Mark Rowe and Richard Gaskin, the other two speakers, have published work that is more favourable (but in different ways) to the letter of humanism, as explicated above. Visit the conference webpage here:

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