Advanced Search

Why does fiction make us feel so emotional sometimes? Rationally, my mind knows

Why does fiction make us feel so emotional sometimes? Rationally, my mind knows that the stories I read aren't true and are all completely made-up, but even knowing this, I can't help but find myself tearing up at certain well-written stories. Is there any reason to feel this way at all or is it all just a waste of emotion?

This raises a concern that goes back to Plato and Aristotle! Aristotle thought the function of art should be to bring us into an emotive state that would be the kind of state we would be in if the events depicted truly took place. "The plot...must be structured... that the one who is hearing the events unroll shudders with fear and feels pity at what happens which is what one would experience on hearing the plot of the Oedipus." Aristotle thought that experiencing a performance of some tragedy --which we know is not a reflection of what took place historically -- can be a way of refining our moral or ethical character and judgment. He thought our ability to make and experience works of art involving possible events --that did not occur in our world-- is a reflection of our greatness as humans. One way to articulate what takes place when we emote over characters in fictions is that the fictional work can be likened to a world. So, there is the world of Oedipus in which the main character kills his...

If every person can interpret a work of literature differently, by linking the

If every person can interpret a work of literature differently, by linking the depictions with experiences in their life or knowledge they have acquired, how is it possible for literary critics to "analyze" the meanings of works of literature?

This is a great and complex matter. There are a few philosophers of art who come close to an "anything goes" approach to the meaning of a work of literature, but most of us think there are some boundaries in terms of historical context, the intentions of the artists, and most importantly the content of the work of art itself. You might consider a distinction that some find useful between the meaning of a work of art and the significance of a work of art. In terms of significance, a work of literature might have all sorts of features depending on how the work is experienced. Reading Jane Austin might lead me to become a Marxist and someone else to become a Hindu, and so on, but while the book could have such multiple, different significant effects, to get at the meaning of her work we would need to study the plot, characters, England and continental Europe at the time, the English style she used, and so on.... Once we take those factors into account we can see (or I wager we will see) that her work was not meant as Marxist or Hindu literature. Part of this seems to be the sort of thing we can debate objectively (pointing out that Austin died in 1817 whereas Marx wasn't born until 1818, for example) but we might also see how the meaning of a work might contribute to the significant future multiple readings and re-readings of works of literature. In this sense, the meaning of a work such as Sense and Sensibility might remain constant through your life, and yet the work had a radically different significance for you when a young reader than when you re-read it at sixty. I discuss some of these issues in a recent book, Aesthetics: A Beginner's Guide, which you may (or may not!) find of interest. You have certainly raised a central matter that requires far more of a response than I have attempted in this short reply. Good wishes.

This is a great and complex matter. There are a few philosophers of art who come close to an "anything goes" approach to the meaning of a work of literature, but most of us think there are some boundaries in terms of historical context, the intentions of the artists, and most importantly the content of the work of art itself. You might consider a distinction that some find useful between the meaning of a work of art and the significance of a work of art. In terms of significance, a work of literature might have all sorts of features depending on how the work is experienced. Reading Jane Austin might lead me to become a Marxist and someone else to become a Hindu, and so on, but while the book could have such multiple, different significant effects, to get at the meaning of her work we would need to study the plot, characters, England and continental Europe at the time, the English style she used, and so on.... Once we take those factors into account we can see (or I wager we will see) that her work...

If you could recommend one novel for high school students about the subject of

If you could recommend one novel for high school students about the subject of philosophy what would it be? I'm looking for a work that is readable, entertaining and raises important philosophical issues as they relate to the Theory of Knowledge. Many people online have recommended Life of Pi or Tuesdays with Morrie. Any other suggestions? Much thanks in advance.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance might fit the bill, though it is a bit more oriented to metaphysics than epistemology / the theory of knowledge. I am not sure it is super entertaining, but C.S. Lewis's book Until We Have Faces is terrific; it is a re-telling of an ancient myth. You might also like novels by Hermann Hesse like Sidartha --it is a re-telling of the tale of Buddha's enlightenment, and is quite moving and rich for stimulating philosophical reflection. There is a new book: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, raising all sorts of great puzzles (including epistemological ones) and that could be read alongside of reading Lewis Carroll's classics. You might also check out the Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy book, which unearths interesting philosophy in connection with Rowling's work. Although not out yet, there is a forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy book which might be great to read along side short stories and novels about Holmes. Here is another radical idea: you might try writing some short stories of your own that take up questions / arguments that arise from the Theory of Knowledge. You could begin: George was in the tenth grade in a humanities course when he first encountered Descartes' worry that all our perceptions might be false. He still could not shake the worry when the bell rang and he ran into Chris who had unshakable confidence in his views of the world......

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance might fit the bill, though it is a bit more oriented to metaphysics than epistemology / the theory of knowledge. I am not sure it is super entertaining, but C.S. Lewis's book Until We Have Faces is terrific; it is a re-telling of an ancient myth. You might also like novels by Hermann Hesse like Sidartha --it is a re-telling of the tale of Buddha's enlightenment, and is quite moving and rich for stimulating philosophical reflection. There is a new book: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, raising all sorts of great puzzles (including epistemological ones) and that could be read alongside of reading Lewis Carroll's classics. You might also check out the Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy book, which unearths interesting philosophy in connection with Rowling's work. Although not out yet, there is a forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy book which might be great to read along side short stories and novels about Holmes. Here is another radical idea:...

When I read Shakespeare or Sophocles I feel like I am getting a glimpse into a

When I read Shakespeare or Sophocles I feel like I am getting a glimpse into a powerful mythical dimension of fate and synchronicity that those writers seem to have a masterful vision of. However, the mythical dimension of life is more often associated with revealed religion (ie. The Bible, The Vedas, etc) than it is with philosophy. What philosophers have dedicated a central part of their philosophy to explicating those underlying forces of life that are dealt with indirectly in the works of great literature such as Sophocles and Shakespeare? (Aristotle doesn't get deep enough for me but he seems agree that tragedy is about the interconnectedness of forces, Hegel is too hard to read although his ideas about Tragedy being about the conflict of irreconcilable "rights" seems somewhat compelling, Nietzche's take on Greek tragedy confuses me because he is considered an atheist but I don't see how atheism gels with his assertions about Apollonian and Dionysian forces at work in tragedy, Freud sees Oedipus in...

You have asked: who else writes about the mythical dimension of life from a philosophical vantage [point]? Ralph Harper would be good to check out (try his book Sleeping Beauty). He does some interesting philosophical and theological work on fairy tales, but his work does bear on what you might call the mythical (deep use of symbolism that resonates with the kinds of material you would find in the (highly recommended) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (OUP, 2005)). Richard Wollheim might also be good. His writing is difficult (but not as challenging as Hegel!); you might check out The Thread of Life and The Mind and Its Depths. Jonathan Lear is also a contemporary philosopher who is sensitive to mythology (he combines philosophy and psychoanalysis). The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch might also be interesting, as she defends a fairly optimistic, contemporary, secular form of Platonism which may be seen as anti-tragedy. Check out her books The Sovereignty of the Good (1970) and The Fire and the Sun (1977). Actually, Plato himself may be read as replying to Homer (e.g. in the Ion and Republic) and in offering a counter-mythology (the myth of the cave and the myth of er).

Although Mircea Eliade was not a philosopher, two of his books are philosophically very interesting: The Myth of the Eternal Return and Patters of Comparative Religion. There is an interesting Freudian reading of myths in the classic The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettlheim, but this may have the same limitation you note with reference to Freud himself. Though in fairness to Freud, I think he does connect his work on Oedipus and other myths with a bigger picture; this can be seen in his tragic naturalism as outlined in his 1930 book Civilization and its Discontents. Erich Auerbach was also not a philosopher, but what he has to observe in his book Mimesis; The Representation of Reality in Western Literature is quite fascinating philosophically. Have a go with the first essay, "Odysseus' Scar," and if you like it, keep going!

You have asked: who else writes about the mythical dimension of life from a philosophical vantage [point]? Ralph Harper would be good to check out (try his book Sleeping Beauty). He does some interesting philosophical and theological work on fairy tales, but his work does bear on what you might call the mythical (deep use of symbolism that resonates with the kinds of material you would find in the (highly recommended) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (OUP, 2005)). Richard Wollheim might also be good. His writing is difficult (but not as challenging as Hegel!); you might check out The Thread of Life and The Mind and Its Depths. Jonathan Lear is also a contemporary philosopher who is sensitive to mythology (he combines philosophy and psychoanalysis). The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch might also be interesting, as she defends a fairly optimistic, contemporary, secular form of Platonism which may be seen as anti-tragedy. Check out her books The Sovereignty of the Good (1970) and The Fire...

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist?

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist? Consider the Iliad. The original copy of the Iliad was lost long, long ago, yet the Iliad continues to exist through its copies. If all original-language versions of the Iliad were to disappear, leaving only translations, one would assume the Iliad would continue to exist. What if all copies of the Iliad in any language and in any material form were destroyed, and we were left with nothing but the memory of the Iliad? Would it then cease to exist, until someone (presumably with photographic memory) decided to write it down again? What if all memory and knowledge of the Iliad were erased, but copies still existed, lying around in old boxes where nobody remembered them? Would it still exist if this were the case? How can we conceptualize the existence of things, like an ancient epic poem, which exist in physical form yet are not dependent on these forms?

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for those of us in the Platonic camp, we think that the Iliad still exists even if all records of it fanish. In such conditions, there would still be truths about the Iliad. For example, in such a post-Homeric world, it would still be true that Achilles kills Hector in battle before his beloved city of Troy. Nicholas Wolterstorff has a good book on such topics called (I believe) Works of Art.

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for...

In response to a previous question Sean Greenberg characterized philosophy as

In response to a previous question Sean Greenberg characterized philosophy as consisting of arguments? Is that true? Doesn't much of philosophy consist of description as well and isn't that different from argument? Is a defense of a description (which I think would require an argument) the same thing as the "description" itself? Hopefully that question made sense. Sean Greenberg's response was to a question about whether Shakespeare had a coherent philosophy. Wouldn't the idea that description is philosophy make the idea that Shakespeare has a coherent philosophy more plausible. (Also I suppose a person could use a brilliant philosophical insight without believing it and it doesn't have to fit together in the way Plato's Republic fits together) But then someone might say you can separate the philosophy from the text but I'm not so sure. Certainly something that transcends the text but is still coherently related to the text could be clearly exposited couldn't it? Is there any interest in literary theory...

Perhaps Professor Greenberg should reply to this, but here goes: I suggest that there are at least two ways of defining a philosophy. On one meaning, to have a philosophy is to have a worldview or a conception of yourself, the world, values, and so on. From this point of view, most people have a philosophy Secondly, "philosophy" can stand for the disciplined reflection on world views or ways of thinking about reality and values. The latter can certainly involve description, clarification, and criticism. Probably Professor Greenberg put such an emphasis on arguments is that while philosophy can involve a great deal of exploration and exposition, a great deal of philosophy addresses questions of justification or evidence. Using these distinctions, I think it likely that Shakespeare the person had a worldview and thus had a philosophy, but in the work attributed to Shakespeare there are multiple philosophies or worldview (Macbeth's philosophy seems different from Prospero's) and it would be hard (but not impossible!) to find straightforward philosophical arguments in the texts that would help us choose which philosophy is better justified.

To speak to your final suggestions, I do think that philosophy need not be seen as so defined by argumentation that this definition becomes a straitjacket. After all, the term "philosophy" come from the Greek philo and sophia and is usually translated the love of wisdom. So, in a sense, loving wisdom can be a philosophical activity, and perhaps a wise person is not always argumentative! As for philosophical work on literature and the arts in general, check out the online site for the American Society for Aesthetics and the British Society for Aesthetics.

Perhaps Professor Greenberg should reply to this, but here goes: I suggest that there are at least two ways of defining a philosophy. On one meaning, to have a philosophy is to have a worldview or a conception of yourself, the world, values, and so on. From this point of view, most people have a philosophy Secondly, "philosophy" can stand for the disciplined reflection on world views or ways of thinking about reality and values. The latter can certainly involve description, clarification, and criticism. Probably Professor Greenberg put such an emphasis on arguments is that while philosophy can involve a great deal of exploration and exposition, a great deal of philosophy addresses questions of justification or evidence. Using these distinctions, I think it likely that Shakespeare the person had a worldview and thus had a philosophy, but in the work attributed to Shakespeare there are multiple philosophies or worldview (Macbeth's philosophy seems different from Prospero's) and it would be hard (but...

Was Shakespeare REALLY a philosophical genius? I've read many impressive

Was Shakespeare REALLY a philosophical genius? I've read many impressive interpretations of his work from the various literary schools of theory but none of them seem to sort out Shakespeare's philosophical views in a straightforward and clear way. Have analytic philosophers deduced a coherent Shakesperean belief system from his works?

Although I agree with most, if not all, of Professor Taliaferro's response to your fascinating question, I want to add a few remarks that may take the discussion in a slightly different direction.

You asked whether Shakespeare was a philosophical genius, and whether philosophers have "deduced a coherent Shakespearean belief system from his works." I think that the two questions should be distinguished. It's not at all clear to me that an author may be a philosophical genius only if a philosophical system can be deduced from his works. Indeed, Wittgenstein, for example, who to my mind at least was certainly a philosophical genius, resisted--at least in his 'later' writings--systematization altogether, so it would be somewhat misguided even to try to deduce a philosophical system from his writings. One might of course respond that Wittgenstein was systematically anti-systematic, and that that in itself constitutes a kind of systematicity. But that seems to me to be a Pickwickian sense of 'systematic'. I propose, therefore, that systematicity not be taken as a criterion of philosophical genius, or even of philosophy. I now turn to the question of whether Shakespeare was a philosophical genius.

One could similarly ask whether Dostoyevsky or Philip K. Dick, was a philosophical genius. Both writers, in certain of their works of fiction--to my knowledge, neither wrote works of philosophy--raise philosophical questions of various sorts, just as Shakespeare certainly does. But does treating an issue of philosophical interest make the treatment of that issue philosophical? I don't believe that it does; I believe that what's distinctive of philosophy is that it makes arguments, and it's not clear to me that works of fiction--or at least the works of fiction by the Dick or Dostoyevsky, or at least their works that I know--themselves make arguments. (Characters in works of fiction make arguments, to be sure, but I would be very wary of identifying the author of a work of fiction with any one of his or her characters; moreover, it's not clear to me that that the point of a work of fiction is to make an argument--although that is not, of course, to say that I know what the point(s) of a work of fiction are, and in fact I would think that that is a matter of interpretation that would need to be settled on a case-by-case basis.) Similarly, despite the recent vogue of treating films as 'doing philosophy', I'm quite suspicious of such an approach to film, although whether some film could be seen as 'doing philosophy'--even if it is granted that what's distinctive of philosophy is advancing arguments--is a question that can only be determined by considering the film in question. (Of course, it might be argued that what I have highlighted as the distinctive feature of philosophy is too restrictive, and perhaps a more catholic conception of philosophy would more readily admit of treating works of literature and films and other art forms, too, for that matter, as philosophical. But could dance, say, be treated as philosophy? Now there's an interesting question, that might reveal something about the nature of the kinds of art that we think could be philosophy...)

What, however, about authors such as Diderot, or Tolstoy, or Camus, or Borges, who wrote both works of fiction and philosophy? Might their works of fiction be philosophy? This, I think, is a subtler and somewhat different matter, but I'm inclined to think that even the fictional works of such authors, although they may be seen as illustrating or exploring certain ideas with which they engaged philosophically, are not themselves instances of philosophy. (War and Peace might be a tricky case for such a view. But I stand by it, at least for the nonce.) But there are of course other authors who wrote both works of fiction and works of philosophy, and here too, I think that in order to adjudicate the issue, one would need to consider each case.

Probably the most recent attempt to engage Shakespeare by an analytic philosopher is Colin McGinn. I believe McGinn gives special attention to Shakespeare's wrestling with skepticism on different levels. I think McGinn is a fine philosopher, but his book has gotten some quite critical attention. Dale Jacquette has argued that McGinn does more to impose a philosophy on Shakespeare, rather than discover one. I suspect it would be very difficult to make a compelling case for a single coherent belief-system or philosophy in Shaekespeare's work as a whole. I suggest his genius lies in his openness to many conflicting currents in philosophy and religion. I am an analytic philosopher who has published an account of redemption in some of Shakespeare's work (this can be found in popular form in a book of "creative non-fiction" called Love. Love. Love, Cowley Press, 2005), but I would only claim to find a view of redemption in SOME of Shakespeare's work, rather than to make such a claim for all his work...

When investigating the relationship between works of fiction (literature, film,

When investigating the relationship between works of fiction (literature, film, TV shows, etc) and social issues like racism and particularly sexism, it seems to me that much debate involves judging the work in question based on *possible* interpretations, rather than those interpretations favored by the author or the average member of the public, which can lead to the work being both praised and scorned by people from the same camp. For example, one critic might say a story presents a strong feminist message because that story tells of a woman in the traditionally male role of a warrior using sword and stake to combat, say, evil male creatures emerging from a cave under the town, showing that a woman is equally capable of being a hero and in control of her life. Another critic might, of the same story, say that it is anti-feminist and sexist because it implies that the female warrior is only powerful because she wields a phallic symbol, and that violence is being justified against beings emerging from...

I, too, like your example! Let me add three comments to Charles' response above.

First, we can distinguish between several different interpretative communities. One of these are 'average members of the public' -- consumers of cultural products who have no specialist training in the area. Another would be professionals, those whose career has been devoted to understanding a certain area of cultural production. A professor of literature, for example, or a film critic. A third group, generally rather small, comprises the makers (the scriptwriter and director of your fantasy story, say). Now, we might want to think that these three groups should agree, or should tend towards or strive towards agreement. But there are good reasons to think otherwise. A Hollywood scriptwriter in the 1950s would have had to bury the left-leaning political message of his film under a thoroughly populist and conventional surface. You might even say that in such a case the author’s intention was precisely not to be understood, or at least not by everyone in the same way. Likewise, take a novel like Ulysses. Many people can read it, and enjoy it or get something out of it – but only a very few well-trained people will be able to see the complex and dense web of literary and historical allusions that Joyce uses. Does that mean that the book, and its meaning, ‘belong’ only to professors of literature? By no means. It only suggests that we may be wrong to think that somehow interpretations ought to converge among different consumers.

My second comment is that interpretations of the meaning of something don’t come from nowhere. There is probably nothing to stop someone from thinking that Charles’ dog represents the Baltimore Aquarium. But that person, if asked ‘What makes you think that?’, would probably have to decline to answer. What we are asking for in that question is evidence, a set of references to the conventions of symbolism, or to the author’s biography, laid out in such a way as to make the interpretation compelling. In other words, interpretation of meanings is not a private and spontaneous event, but is rational and communicable. In your example, the problem is that both interpretations seem to be rational. Further debate would have to look at the particular film in more detail: for example, what exactly does this female character do and say? It may be impossible to decide the issue, but that does not mean that there are no generally useful criteria for what counts as evidence of an interpretation.

Third, the search for the ‘meaning’ of something is a relatively recent way of thinking about art or literature. Plato and Aristotle, talking about literature, hardly mention what we would normally call the ‘meaning’. They are concerned about what kind of thing it is, where it comes from (is literature based on knowledge?), or what effect it has on a reader or viewer. It is only within the past century or two that, somehow, we all decided that the main thing to be said about a cultural product was its meaning. Are we sure we are right?

You have raised THE critical question at the heart of the theory of meaning, and one that is central to the philosophy of art. Also: Clever example! Roughly speaking, there are three main schools of thought on the matter. There are those who put primacy on the intentions of the artist or artists. So, if the story was intended to be what you describe first (feminist), then it does not follow that the work of art is a success, but it would follow that the meaning of the work itself is defined by the creators seeking to show women in a compelling, strong light and the success of the piece might be measured by how well (or badly) that intention is evident. Then there are philosophers who utterly repudiate intentionality and seek to focus only on the work itself. These philosophers sometimes allow for multiple meanings (and even allow that the meaning of a work might change from generation to generation) and sometimes not, appealing to the conventions of the art world to nail down the central meaning...

What is a poem? I'm thinking about this in reference to developments from

What is a poem? I'm thinking about this in reference to developments from Modernism on. The writer presents something novel in form with some familiar signs such as appearance on the page, embedded quotations or references, etc. The reader likes or dislikes, but basically accepts. It seems this is a new attitude, less tied to conventional definitions, but is it? Is there still a point to asking, "What is a poem?"

Another panelist should take up this question, but I will start by commending you on appreciating the difficulty of defining 'poetry' given the breadth of sounds and marks that count as poems today. Long gone are the days when 'poetry' could be defined in terms of rhythm, but as we get to the point of having trouble defining boundaries over what is and what is not a poem, we do well to recall that the Greek term (poesis) from which we get in English 'poetry' meant 'to make.' So we may have come full circle. Originally, 'poesis' covered the making of anything; now we may come (sadly or happily) to the same point when almost anything can count as a poem. Even so, there are too alternatives to entertain: define poetry in terms of family resemblence to what is recognized as poetry today. This would mean that a decision whether X (whatever) is a poem is if it resembles the writing of T.S. Eliot, Pound, Edna St. Vincent M, Dylan Thomas (and here follows a long list of poets in the Norton Book of Poetry). This method of definition is sometimes called 'ostensive' and is respectable in different domains: colors have been defined in terms of examples (red, green....) and so have religions (e.g. Y is a religion if it resembles Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism....). Alternatively, one might try a formal definition. I will leave it to another panelist to do this, except for suggesting that a poem involves language that is about the aesthetic or sonorous character of the words as sounds. To give an example: what makes these lines from the Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock a poem?

"Let us go then, you and I, as the evening is spread out against the sky...."

I think it is not just the referential meeting (someone is asking you to join him or her for a walk at dusk) but this line and those that follow is in some way about the affective (emotively charged) way the language sounds.

Another panelist should take up this question, but I will start by commending you on appreciating the difficulty of defining 'poetry' given the breadth of sounds and marks that count as poems today. Long gone are the days when 'poetry' could be defined in terms of rhythm, but as we get to the point of having trouble defining boundaries over what is and what is not a poem, we do well to recall that the Greek term (poesis) from which we get in English 'poetry' meant 'to make.' So we may have come full circle. Originally, 'poesis' covered the making of anything; now we may come (sadly or happily) to the same point when almost anything can count as a poem. Even so, there are too alternatives to entertain: define poetry in terms of family resemblence to what is recognized as poetry today. This would mean that a decision whether X (whatever) is a poem is if it resembles the writing of T.S. Eliot, Pound, Edna St. Vincent M, Dylan Thomas (and here follows a long list of poets in the Norton Book of Poetry...

Many people will say that such and such a poem or book or movie taught deep

Many people will say that such and such a poem or book or movie taught deep truths but then they never say what exactly they learn and I rarely challenge them since I suspect that they don't know. But I don't think they are kidding me since I have had the same impression from reading a great literary work. So is great literature more like music than actual philosophical discourse in its ability to convey ideas about life?

Very interesting! Consider two options, among others: one is that great literary works might be (as you suggest) akin to instrumental music. Such music may have emotive features (joy, anger, expressions of longing...) that are difficult to put into words and that is why your friends seem a bit weak in terms of their ability to state these deep truths. But secondly there might be deep truths that are not merely about emotions, but one finds hard to articulate because of a lack of vocabulary. Imagine one finds Tolkien's Lord of the Rings very moving and revealing but one cannot quite say why. Imagine (what seems likely) that Tolkien's trilogy raises questions about the ultimate meaning of life and the possibility of transcendent purpose, but that the reader is completely secular and has no vocabulary or training by which to put these matters into words.

Very interesting! Consider two options, among others: one is that great literary works might be (as you suggest) akin to instrumental music. Such music may have emotive features (joy, anger, expressions of longing...) that are difficult to put into words and that is why your friends seem a bit weak in terms of their ability to state these deep truths. But secondly there might be deep truths that are not merely about emotions, but one finds hard to articulate because of a lack of vocabulary. Imagine one finds Tolkien's Lord of the Rings very moving and revealing but one cannot quite say why. Imagine (what seems likely) that Tolkien's trilogy raises questions about the ultimate meaning of life and the possibility of transcendent purpose, but that the reader is completely secular and has no vocabulary or training by which to put these matters into words.