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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.

When reading a text, is it possible to determine the true meaning of the text,

When reading a text, is it possible to determine the true meaning of the text, or is meaning that which is in some way picked up on by the audience, regardless of what literary critics say? I ask because I've been reading lately about critiques of the portrayal of women in modern popular media. A lot of literary critics seem to think that women portrayed as strong, independant Amazon-like warriors are just playing into objectifying dominatrix fantasies, while a lot of fans of these works (like Xena, for example) think just the opposite - that these portrayals are empowering. So are the literary critics right, because they can presumably take apart the text more intricately and exactly, to find its true meaning? Or are the fans right, because regardless of the structure of the text, they feel empowered by it?

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.

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?

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.

Is listening to a classic book on tape, unabridged, sufficient to be able to

Is listening to a classic book on tape, unabridged, sufficient to be able to claim to have read it?

Here's a somewhat differently slanted view -- in favour, perhaps, of being a bit "daft"! :-)

No matter how many times I read three-year old Daisy her favourite book, no matter how well she knows it by heart, she hasn't read it herself. She can't read.

No matter how many times the adult illiterate listens to a tape a complete reading of e.g. Bleak House, no matter how well he knows the book as a result, he hasn't actually read it. He can't read either. (The blind person who can read braille, of course, can read Bleak House.)

The audiences that heard bards sing The Iliad were fortunate indeed. But most never read it. They couldn't read. (And what about audiences before it was written down?) Similarly for the groundlings at early performances of Shakespeare.

There's a difference between having read a work and knowing it well. You can read something without, as a result, remembering a word (as on long haul flights!); and you can know it very well without ever reading it.

Sure, since we tend to assume that reading and a certain acquaintance with a book go together, we do loosely ask "have you read X?" when we mean "do you know X?", or some such. But still, loose talk is loose talk. And listening to a classic book on tape, unabridged, is not sufficient to be able to claim to have read it. An illiterate person would plainly not be telling the truth in saying that he had read Bleak House after listening to a tape, since he can't read.

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.

What is the sense of literature at all? Sometimes I wonder if the sense of

What is the sense of literature at all? Sometimes I wonder if the sense of literature is merely a capitalistic one. I am a writer myself, I like to write, a creativity in me that walks its own roads. But why do we read fictional texts from others? If I read one of my own, I know "what it is about", I know the grounds, dreams, feelings, hopes, etc. I had while writing. But then someone else reads that- how could he read anything in that text, that I tried to put there rather in between the lines. Does reading literature tells us something about "the other"? Does literature work as a translator between two people with singular minds? Is literature a connection between "myself" and "the other"? Is then, therefore, the sense of literature to (very general) live in a human society?

Thanks for your nice question. It contains many components and I won't be able to respond to all of them. One reason is that I'm hesitant to offer generalizations about literature across the board. Instead, it comes in many genres and sub-genres, and plays different kinds of roles in different cultures. One place you might look for more discussion of these issues is a collection of essays on the "philosophy of literature", here:,descCd-description.html. One of the questions that that volume addresses is the question of what kind of knowledge we can get from literature, and how far that knowledge extends. I take it that this is relevant to your concerns because I'm assuming that if you were a journalist writing for a newspaper, there wouldn't be a big issue about whether someone can learn from what you write. So long as you're not making things up, we can learn about what's going on in, say French politics from your articles. By contrast, if a writer writes fiction, how can we learn anything from that?

As I say, I'm wary of generalizations here, but one point that might help is that if you reflect on it, you'll see that we learn from "fictions" all the time: consider the case of my *supposing* something for the sake of argument. I might ask, "What if we arrange all these books alphabetically by author--won't that make it easier to find them?" And we might agree that it will. Notice that what's in the scope of 'what if' is a tiny fiction--I'm not putting it forth as true. After contemplating the question, we can *learn* something, namely that if we organize those books that way, that will save time finding books in the future. I know this is banal, but I think the model generalizes to more complex cases, to wit:

My suggestion is that sometimes in literature, the author is treating his her characters, staging, background, and so on, as all like a comparatively more complex "what if". Huxley: what if we lived on soma, in a society that was totally centrally controlled all the way down to our sex lives..." Then much of the rest of that book is an exploration of the consequences of that question. In light of that exploration, we can see that a certain sort of social formation would be truly terrible. Or Ursula Le Guin: what if people changed gender regularly? How would that affect our relationships with others? And one who reads this learns something about at the very least herself by contemplating that prospect. I'm sure you can think of other cases (*many* more than I could), some of which explore issues about personal relationships, war, morality, death, and so on.

I don't claim that all literature conforms to this model. And I don't claim that this is the only way in which we can learn from someone else's literary work. But your question was, I think, how it's possible to learn at all from fiction, and this is *one* answer. Accordingly, I'm not comfortable talking about "the sense of literature", since I suspect there are very many senses, but one function or value of literature is as a way of sharing knowledge. If this is correct, it would help us understand part of our reason for valuing so highly the sort of work that you do.

Can we learn anything from fiction?

Can we learn anything from fiction?

Yes. Lots.

That's the easy answer. The hard answer isexplaining how we could possibly learn anything true from a series offalse statements. One answer is that good works of fiction use falsestatements to describe deep truths about human nature, emotions,relationships, morality, and the meaning of life. They do so by creating a world of characters and events that does not actually exist but that shares enough common features with our world that we can learn from them. Most importantly, the fictions may share the deep (and general) truths about human nature, etc. with our world, and they may do so because the writer has a deep understanding of these truths.

Fiction also explores the boundaries of the possible and teaches us to think about these possibilities. Philosophy often works in this way. By considering what is possible but not actual we learn something about our world and ourselves. Science fiction and philosophical thought experiments sometimes differ only in that the science fiction tends to be better developed and better written.

How useful is it studying literature? The reason I ask is because (at least my

How useful is it studying literature? The reason I ask is because (at least my high school) English courses seem to miss the target. Let me explain. We read the text. We find the "what's" of the work, what the author is trying to say. And then, instead of going on to evaluate the validity of the author's opinions on the topic we go backwards! We start describing how the author conveys their themes. My answer is: who cares. I'm sure that is not what the authors want us to look at. It's like evaluating how the frame of a painting accentuates such and such, rather than looking at the painting itself. Is it a fault with the nature of the subject of literary study, do I not understand the subject properly, or is it just not for me? Thanks for your time.

You understand the subject correctly, I believe. The study of literature has not always been done in this way, and is not done the same way everywhere. Saying that, the study of the way literature achieves meaning and certain effects, and the relation of these to the social or intellectual climate of the time, is a dominant way of doing things. Thus, for the most part, the study of literature is the study of how literature 'works', and not the validity of any ideas it contains.

However, it's not entirely lacking in usefulness! The study of literature might unveil subtle rhetorical ploys used to make an implausible idea seem self-evident; also it might (like history) help us to understand where ideas come from, why they were believed; finally, it might help us to understand the significance ideas have in people's lives, in part by dramatising how the consequences of beliefs or actions play out. All of these things are philosophically valuable.