[Starting Points] (What) Can We Learn from Literature?

“I learned a lot from reading this book.” You’ll find a sentence like that on a lot of puff quotes and Amazon reviews for a certain kind of fiction. The kind of fiction that’s, you know, good for you. Fiction that’s “serious” in some way, that earns nominations and prizes.

But what exactly do you learn? More to the point, how can you learn anything from a book full of events that, by the author’s own admission, are completely made up? When you learn something, you know something you didn’t know before. If you know something, that means it’s true (you can believe falsehoods but you can’t know them). So how do you get truth from fiction? 

These questions concern the nature and value of literature. We grapple with them in a course I teach on philosophy and literature. The view that literature is valuable at least in part because it is a source of knowledge or understanding is known as cognitivism.

Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The virtues of reading

The cognitivist view might seem natural. After all, we talk about learning from literature and everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Jordan Peterson extols the virtues of reading. But explaining precisely what and how we learn from literature is a lot trickier than it seems.

Let’s start with a more basic question: what is fiction good for? That question admits of many possible answers, which don’t have to be exclusive. There are the aesthetic pleasures of elegant sentence or plot construction, vivid descriptions, well-drawn characters, and so on. A good story can evoke a range of satisfying emotions: I laughed, I cried, all that stuff. Some fiction is intellectually rigorous and can deliver the satisfactions of a good mental workout. Some fiction can challenge us morally or politically in ways that help us grow.

In short, fiction can be lots of different things to different people. A cognitivist doesn’t deny this diversity. To be a cognitivist, you just need to maintain that one of the ways in which fiction is valuable is that it’s a source of knowledge or understanding.

Two features of cognitivism

Two points are worth emphasizing here. First, on the cognitivist view, a work of fiction is made better in virtue of transmitting knowledge or understanding. It’s not just a convenient bonus that we learn something when reading. For a cognitivist, this learning is part of what makes the work of fiction worth reading in the first place.

Second, this value must be due to the literary qualities of the work of fiction. I might learn a lot about Regency England by reading the novels of Jane Austen: how people dressed, how they talked, what means of transportation they used, and so on. But none of this knowledge results from the distinctive fact that I’m reading a work of literary fiction. A work of history could convey that information more thoroughly and more reliably than a novel. The knowledge we might acquire about the historical setting of a novel is incidental. It’s part of the stage-setting rather than the purpose of the novel. A cognitivist argues that the knowledge or understanding we gain from literature isn’t just incidental but is part of its point.

Some worries for cognitivism

The comparison with history gives some idea of the challenge for cognitivist arguments. Straightforwardly cognitive disciplines—natural and social sciences whose overt aim is the production of knowledge—have clear methods for generating and transmitting knowledge. The same can’t be said for fiction.

For one thing, cognitive disciplines aren’t at all coy about what exactly they’re telling us. A work of popular science is packed full of facts: one central purpose of that work is to give the reader new knowledge. Compare that with the writer’s advice of “show, don’t tell.” A work of fiction that insists too forcefully on what it’s trying to tell you is off-putting. It comes off as didactic or moralistic.

Even more worrying, fiction offers no clear method for getting to the truth. There are no citations, no repeatable experiments, no double-blind randomized control trials. Anyone can have an opinion. What makes that opinion into knowledge is that it’s supported in the right way by evidence. What kind of evidence could a fictional story possibly provide? By the author’s own admission, the story isn’t even true.

Learning from Tolstoy

Fine, so fiction doesn’t deal in facts. That should hardly be the end of the matter for a cognitivist. No one claims that fiction writing is an empirical science. The more plausible claim is that fiction gives us access to truths of a different kind: moral or conceptual truths.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, makes for a good test case. The novella seems to offer wisdom concerning our mortality and what to make of it. It teeters on the edge of being didactic but Tolstoy is such a gifted writer that he pulls off the didacticism without insulting the reader’s intelligence. Because its message is fairly direct, we should be able to say what kind of knowledge, if any, it conveys.

First a bit of summary. Ivan Ilyich has done everything right by the standards of well-to-do Russian society. He’s got a respectable career in the civil service, he married well (although the marriage isn’t especially happy) and has children. Everything is in order for a pleasant and admired life. But then, at the age of 45, he falls ill, and gradually has to face the fact that he’s dying. Neither he nor the affluent people around him have the emotional or spiritual resources to come to terms with his impending death. The only character who seems able to respond to his circumstances with any real sympathy is his servant, the simple peasant Gerasim.

Unlike most stories with literary merit, this one has a clear moral. Most people live in ignorance of their own mortality. Our lives are marred by petty preoccupations with social status. People with a deeper awareness of their mortality live simpler, kinder lives that foreground love, joy, and attention to the here and now.

What does Ivan Ilyich learn?

What do we learn from Tolstoy’s novella? One simple answer—too simple—is that we learn that we’re going to die. The trouble here is that we already know this. And so does Ivan Ilyich: he wasn’t under the illusion he was immortal before he contracts his fatal illness. So what does Ivan Ilyich—and by extension the reader—learn? Tolstoy suggests it’s less a matter of learning a new fact and more a matter of understanding how that fact pertains to me:

“The example of a syllogism [Ivan Ilyich] had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic—Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal—had seemed to him all his life to be correct only in relation to Caius, but by no means to himself. For the man Caius, man in general, it was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius and not man in general, he had always been quite, quite separate from all other beings.”

Tolstoy uses the narrative technique of free indirect speech to dramatize Ivan Ilyich’s thoughts while providing ironic distance on them. Ivan Ilyich doesn’t literally think that he is an exception to the general rule of human mortality. But, until he fell ill, he never really considered that this general rule applied to him specifically.

Ivan Ilyich is a kind of everyman figure. Tolstoy’s portrait of him isn’t flattering but it’s composed in a way that allows us to see ourselves reflected back. Ivan Ilyich always knew he was going to die, but he didn’t really know it. We, too, know we’re mortal. But do we really know it?

The rival claims of philosophy and literature

Tolstoy’s novella is fictional and yet it seems to teach us something about real life (and real death). How does it accomplish this feat? Rather than tell us anything new, perhaps it activates a latent knowledge in us. We know-but-don’t-really-know we’re going to die and Tolstoy brings that knowledge to the fore, makes it salient for us. It’s as if we had the knowledge all along but hadn’t situated it in its proper place.

This way of looking at things helps us see how a made-up story can teach us something real. But it doesn’t give us what a strong cognitivist position needs. If we had the knowledge of our mortality all along, we didn’t learn anything new from reading Tolstoy’s novella. We just saw what we already knew under a different aspect.

Another worry for the cognitivist is analogous to the earlier worry I raised about Jane Austen and historical knowledge. You can learn historical facts by reading Austen. It’s just that novelists aren’t the best source for learning those facts—historians are. Likewise, there’s an academic discipline that might claim to be a better source than fiction for learning moral or conceptual truths, namely philosophy.

As early as Plato’s Republic, we read of Socrates alluding to an “ancient quarrel” between philosophy and poetry. Both seem to offer wisdom of a similar kind. Do the literary arts offer us knowledge of a different kind from philosophy? Do they offer us knowledge at all?

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