Literature as a mode of knowledge
Respess, John Russ
Mackey, Louis H.
Master of Arts
The claim that literature is a mode of knowledge meets with objections on two grounds. In the first place, Northrup Frye, a literary critic, maintains that the relation between literature and literary criticism parallels the relation between nature and the natural sciences. The result of the attitude is the removal of literature from the class of writing which can be considered true or false; as natural phenomena are data for the scientist, so works of literature are data for the critic. Since literature does not present a conceptualized view of the world, the claim is made that the knowledge of the world contained through it is a direct knowledge. The second objection deals with the application of the word "knowledge". It involves the notion that cases in which a knowledge of something is claimed must be cases in which there is a possibility of error. This situation does not exist in the case of knowledge through literature and therefore it cannot legitimately be called knowledge. This objection is met by showing that this view of knowledge leads ultimately to a point at which "knowledge" becomes meaningless. The remainder of the paper is a counter to Frye's objection. It is developed through a comparison of scientific writing and literature both as verbal structures and in their relation to the world and through an alternative statement of the function of criticism. With regard to the features of scientific writing and literature considered as verbal structures, three distinctions are made. The first distinction, which treats of causation, is that causation in scientific writing is proximate and testable whereas causation in literature is ultimate and non-testable. The second distinction is that the universe of a scientific treatise, is the objective universe, while the universe of a work of literature is in a sense discontinuous with that universe. The third distinction is that scientific writing is, objective (not from a particular point of view) while literature is subjective, i. e. the imitation of an action or an evaluation. It is shown how these views are related to the claim that literature is evaluative and science is not. With regard to their relation to the world it is shown that, because of its abstractness, scientific writing offers a clarification of the relationship of entities in the world., Literature, on the other hand, is concrete and particular and, rather than involving conceptual knowledge, involves knowledge through connaturality. Literature clarifies the world by structuring an experience. The particular and general levels of works of literature are discussed with a view to demonstrating the extent to which the experience of a work of literature is a cognitive one. The theory of criticism which follows from the proceeding is one in which explication plays the important role. By making explication the central critical act, the value judgment an the work is avoided. In addition, it is held that the critic should abstain frOM judgment on philosophical issues abstracted from the work and limit his consideration of these issues to showing how they are involved in the work. According to this theory of criticism, criticism and the direct experience of the work are integrally related. With regard to the science of criticism, a systematic body of knowledge about literature, it is suggested that if one is possible it need not involve the separation between the direct experience of literature and criticism which Frye advocates. In conclusion, a distinction is drawn between literature and philosophy on the basis of the latter's being, like science, conceptual knowledge.