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I have question about the ethics of life writing. What can I (or any other

I have question about the ethics of life writing. What can I (or any other author for that matter) write in an autobiographical work? My life and my autobiography belong to me, so I should be able to decide what I reveal and how, but since they are so entwined with so many other lives, it seems as my autonomy is in conflict with the autonomies of the people in my life and my autobiography. For example: my girlfriend and I used to have a blog together (it’s closed now since we broke up some time ago) where we would write about very intimate things concerning our relationship and feelings and so on. We used nicknames to conceal our identity, so of all of the people who read the blog, only a handful of very close friends knew who were behind it. Although the blog is no longer available online, I have all the posts on my computer. It’s fairly obvious to me that I ought not to show any posts written by her to anyone, let alone reveal her identify to someone. But it’s not that obvious that I ought not to show...

A fascinating set of questions. Let me start by distinguishing atleast two: 1. the issue of 'entwined' lives and their relation toindividual autonomy. 2. The implications of this for 'ownership' ofautobiographies.

The first of these is only a problem if we start with theassumption that everything that happens (in the human world) mustbelong to one and only one agent. As the saying goes, 'it takes twoto tango'. You wouldn't have been 'free' to write about arelationship if there hadn't been another person! You were, in asense, co-authors and co-owners of the events of the relationship.

The second question is more difficult. In fact, I think theexample of the joint blog is not really appropriate. A blog is in thepublic domain, and is thus not a 'secret'. Your blog has been takendown but then the real moral issue is about respecting the wishes ofsomeone who has changed their mind, and not about my 'ownership' ofmy own life. A better example would be intimate secrets that werenever made public, and where the question of making them public neverpreviously arose. Only then does the problem of my freedom to do whatI like with the events of my own life arise in a pure way. However,the answer to the first question suggests that there is no paradox insaying that the events of your life belong to you and to otherpeople.

So, I think you are right to feel moral qualms. Events of therelationship (such as writing a diary) are co-owned, even if you didthe writing, and thus you have a responsibility to your ex-partner.Of course, the purpose behind disclosure might matter (making publicthe diary as part of a legal proceedings of some gravity, forexample, might be morally compelling). Certainly, I would askpermission.

Do you think _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ is categorically a

Do you think _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ is categorically a philosophy book, or because it's a novel, it cannot be in that classification? Marty C.

To add to Kalynne's answer, once you have identified a work of philosophy "broadly speaking," a useful thing to do is to reflect on whether or not that specific work is likely to meet your specific objectives for engaging with philosophy -- that question can be much more useful, I think, than simply understanding whether a given work can rightly be categorized as a work of philosophy.

Reading and reflecting on Pirsig, working your way through an introductory text, browsing within the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and reading a set of specialized journal articles on a narrow topic each involve engagement with philosophy under one or another conception of what philosophy is, and each offer different opportunities for learning and growth. As you read around, you will get a sense of which types of texts offer which kinds of opportunities, and you may also get a better sense of which opportunities matter the most to you.

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

My answer to this is a firm "Yes". Novels, for example, "tell the

truth" better than any other written material, with the exception

things like diaries and letters, unless you think of the relevant

passages of diaries and letters as though they were mini-novels. But

diaries and letters are no better at telling the truth in the

appropriate sense than the skills of their authors. What sense is the

sense in which novels (or more generally imaginative writing) can "tell

the truth" better than any other "Areas of Knowledge", as you call

them? (I imagine that you might have the sciences in mind.) The sense

is one in which telling the truth has to do with getting the details of

a description absolutely right, and getting the overal balance and

colour and mood of what one is describing absolutely right. Here

psychology for example (which might be thought to give "tell the truth"

better than the novel) is no better than the sensibility (the

eighteenth and nineteenth century word) of the individual working

psychologist. And psychology as a whole can be worse, because its

collective or institutional scientific structure blots out the most

personal and individual aspects of its subjects' lives. 'What an

intelligent man knows is hard to know', as Goethe observed. But I agree

with Kalynne Pudner that there is a rich and rewarding philosophical

literature that exists exactly on this topic. My philosophical guides in

the area, who share the view I have sketched above, are Iris

Murdoch and Vladimir Nabokov.

Can poetry be used to express deeply philosophical ideas?

Can poetry be used to express deeply philosophical ideas?

Poetry can certainly be used to express profound ideas and attitudes concerning (for want of a better expression) 'the human condition'. These ideas can affect the reader's soul in a powerful way, helped along by the captivating power of the medium itself. And examples of poetry that might be regarded as 'philosophical' in this sense are innumerable. Indeed, one might make a case for claiming that it's the norm rather than the exception, and that this is the primary aspiration of most of the greatest poetry in history, from Homer to Dante to Sylvia Plath.

But does this really count as philosophy? For some people, this is precisely what the best and most important kind of philosophy consists in. For others, however, and particularly within English-speaking academia, philosophy is more a matter of highly technical and abstract theories about the structure of reality, the nature of cognition, and things of that sort. And yet, as it turns out, those kinds of theories have been explored in verse form too. One might compare this with the way in which philosophers from Plato to Berkeley to David Lewis have opted to present their ideas and arguments in the form of witty dialogues. Either approach brings, among other potential advantages, that of simply engaging the reader more effectively than yet another dry prose treatise might.

For an example, consider Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, an epic poem in six books from the first century BC. Lucretius set out and argued for, among other things: an atomistic physics, a plurality of worlds and extraterrestrial life, a theory of natural selection, a materialist account of the mind, a vigorous critique of religion, an account of the origins of human society out of a state of nature, a study of meteorology, and, believe it or not, a discussion of sexual positions. And all in Latin verse. Admittedly, that was then and this is now. Professional philosophers and scientists tend not to express themselves in verse any more -- I can't think of any recent examples (though perhaps others might). But, even into the early modern period, they were still doing so. See, for instance, the book-length philosophical poems, Nosce Teipsum by Sir John Davies (1599) or Psychodia Platonica by Henry More (1642). Some of the scansion and rhyme might have been a bit dodgy, but these authors did nevertheless feel that verse was an appropriate medium for the expression of serious metaphysical and epistemological theories and arguments. There's certainly no incompatibility between the poetic medium and even the most technical kind of philosophy.

My question is about poetry's relationship with the languages from which it is

My question is about poetry's relationship with the languages from which it is constructed. Many words from the vocabularies of natural languages are onomatopoeic (where words sound like sounds they describe: 'bang!'; 'crack'; etc.) and some argue that other words 'sound' like the objects they describe. In one of his novels' insightful footnotes, Terry Pratchett proposed that "There should be a word for words that sound like things would sound like if they made a noise, he thought. The word "glisten" does indeed gleam oilily, and if there ever was a word that sounded exactly the way sparks look as they creep across burned paper, or the way the lights of cities would creep across the world if the whole of human civilization was crammed into one night, then you couldn't do better than "coruscate"." (Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett, pg 207) Whether or not these observations can be considered correct is the first part of my question. Although "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet", it seems...

The project of "improving" "the" language is one that has captured the imaginations of many people over time, but it seems to me to be a foolish one to undertake. Let me explain, by explaining my use of scare quotes.

First: "the" language. There's no such thing. If you look at speakers of so-called "English," you'll find that they will differ in their vocabularies, in their grammars, and above all, in the emotional and aesthetic associations they attach to their words. What binds us together is merely the fact that we can to a significant degree understand each other's verbal behavior. But the engines of linguistic change are perpetual motion machines. Slang, idioms, metaphors, abbreviations, invented words -- they all pop in and out of existence, and they're all good. Amidst all this variety, talk of "the" English language is nothing more than abstract idealization -- useful for some scientific purposes, perhaps, but not to be thought of as literally true of human linguistic activity.

Second: "improve". You can't improve a product until you know what function it's supposed to perform. Your suggestion -- that we invent words whose inherent properties resemble the things they refer to -- is presumably intended to improve language's capacity for expressing thoughts. Well, maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't. There's some reason to think that communication goes most smoothly when the referential properties of the linguistic medium are purely conventional -- when nothing about the word itself causes us to linger in thought about the relation betweent the word and the object. But in any case, it looks like people who find need of more evocative connections simply contrive them. That's how "sunny side up" became standard restaurant talk for "fried egg that has not been turned over in the pan." On the other hand, the number of such originally fresh expressions that have become dead metaphors suggests that the pressure of the communicative function causes the erosion of the meaningful associations. I recently overheard a child asking a grownup what he meant by the expression "broken record." And how many people can explain anymore what it is literally to "upstage" someone?

But in any case, language has myriad functions, and improvement in one area need not bring improvement in some other. Furthermore, human beings appear to be extraordinarily resourceful in adapting language to their particular purposes. One of the things language does, for example, is although us to express our understanding of social nuance. Not only do we observe linguistic conventions that encode social relationships -- consider the use of "titles" like "Mr." "Ms." "Dr." -- but we all recognize different norms of verbal expression appropriate to different social circumstances. We use different language when playing with children than when arguing with our mates than when attending a funeral. Moreover, we all recognize that styles change -- new linguistic forms are always developing, and old ones are decaying. Artists who work with language do what artists always do -- they exploit the inherent properties of their medium to create things with aesthetic interest. People interact with other people who speak differently than they do, and pick up some of their expressions. Scientists discover new things, and have to name them. Teenagers need to speak in a way their parents cannot understand. Politicians must contrive new euphemisms to obscure new crimes. With all these means available to use for adapting language to our news, what requires improvement?

Is there wisdom which actually cannot be fully expressed except in poetry or

Is there wisdom which actually cannot be fully expressed except in poetry or literature or art? Or is addressing philosophical questions in such an "artistic" manner just a way of jazzing up an argument which could have stood cut-and-dried, anyway? Is there anything Homer could teach us which Plato could not?

As Nicholas suggests, it partly depends upon what you mean by 'wisdom'. Many philosophers (and others) have been attracted to the idea thatart provides a kind of experientially-based 'insight' that pureargumentation cannot supply. One possibility here is that there are properties or propositions that we (or at least, most ordinary people living fairly ordinary lives) can only become acquainted with through art. This might be because the art provides a kind of substitute experience for a reality most of us will never experience (e.g. slogging through the fog of war), or because the art provides an experience that simply does not occur in real life (e.g. the sublimity of a symphony). Another possibility is that art provides us with a perspective on, or a mode of presentation of, properties or propositions that we might already be independently acquainted with; but that this perspective or mode of presentation leads us to appreciate the familiar propositions in a more profound and intimate way. Thus, Crime and Punishment might lead us to appreciate the truth of the cliche that "crime doesn't pay." Finally -- what to me seems intuitively closest to the notion of wisdom -- some people think that engaging with art can train our cognitive and emotional faculties to respond to real life in a more mature, nuanced manner. Thus, Martha Nussbaum (cf. esp. Love's Knowledge) suggests that novels are uniquely equipped to help us appreciate and negotiate the complex, highly context-laden challenges of ethical action because they provide us with a rich, experiential engagement with complex and ethically challenging characters and situations, in a context where our perceptions are not clouded by self-interest as they typically are in actual life, and where the author actively helps us to see things in an ethically responsible way.

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

Can literature "tell the truth" better than other Arts or Areas of Knowledge?

It's an interesting question. I note that you don't ask whether literature can "establish" the truth, or "discover" the truth, or "distinguish" the truth. It's also interesting that you ask about "truth" and not "knowledge" or "wisdom"--though you do seem to suggest that literature is one among a number of other areas of "knowledge." And what of "tell"? What does it mean exactly to "tell" a truth? And what of "better"? What can it mean to "tell better" or "tell worse"? Of course, one question I'd have at the outset would be what you consider literature to be. I take it that you mean fiction and poetry. But of course some also would speak of biography, journalistic writing, history, film, song, and what has become known as "creative non-fiction" as literature, too. Philosophers like Stanley Cavell have explored the question of whether or not philosophy might be read as a kind of literature, whether it might even come to regard itself as literature.

So far as it goes, I am inclined to say that literature (or literatures) can tell the truth better in some particular contexts, for some particular purposes, where the criteria for "better" are somehow related to those contexts but ought not be thought of as better always and everywhere. For example, a literary account of falling in love with someone might be able to "tell" the truth about falling in love, at least about a fictitious character's falling in love. That truth might be "told better" than, say, the way a psychological or biochemical description would tell it. For some purposes in some contexts the literary way of telling might be better (e.g., in private contexts, for purposes of empathy or entertainment or detail or understanding "what it's like" personally). But the more scientific descriptions might be better in other contexts and for other purposes (e.g. the purposes and contexts of scientific investigation, psychological therapy, etc.). Perhaps one might think of different "areas of knowledge" as different musical instruments. The saxophone, the piano, and the electric guitar can each play (or tell) a C sharp. Does any instrument play the C sharp better than another? Each certainly plays a C sharp with a different timbre, a different sonority, a different "feel"; but that's not to say that any is always and everywhere better, that it's unqualifiedly better. Different instruments will be better suited to play the same note in different contexts.

Perhaps one might say that there are sounds (truths) that only each instrument can produce (tell). I think that's true. So, perhaps while one can't say that literature is able tell the same truth unequivolcally "better" than other "areas of knowledge," one can say that there are certain truths that only literature can tell. And, alternatively, there are other truths that only other areas of knowledge can tell.

Can you create a fictional object that knows more than you do? For example,

Can you create a fictional object that knows more than you do? For example, suppose I imagine a man, Physicsman, and I imagine that Physicsman knows all the laws of physics. I conceive him to be someone who knows all of the laws of physics. But does he know all the laws of physics? I mean, I don't, and he's my creation. Plus, if I tried to describe, in explicit detail, Physicsman articulating the laws of physics, unless I got lucky (guessing or whatever), I'd end up making him say stuff that's false, I expect. Something related: can fictional objects know *anything*? Is, "Obi-Wan knew that Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side," true? If it is, how?

Part of the answer to your question is that fictional objects don't exist: in that sense you don't create them. What you create is a kind of specification, like 'a person who knows all the laws of physics'. The specification is real, but there is no real person who fits it. But this isn't the whole answer, because even though we can't create something just by specifying it (or else we would all be rich), it can still seem mysterious that we can even specify a person who knows something we don't know. How can we even come up with the specification in this case? But that is a cool thing about specification: there is a sense in which you can specify a fact you don't know. I don't know the score of the last Red Sox game, but I have no trouble specifying that score: I do it simply by means of the expression (or thought) 'the score of the last Red Sox game'.

Why is subtlety ("showing" and not "telling") valued in art and literature?

Why is subtlety ("showing" and not "telling") valued in art and literature?

I think there are actually two questions here. First, the question about the value of 'subtlety'; second, about the value of 'showing' rather than telling. In other words, I'm not convinced that the latter is a definition of 'subtlety'; it seems to me that one can tell with subtlety, and show crudely. So, with apologies, I’ll just look at the showing/telling distinction.

We’ll define ‘telling’ as straight-forward, careful, factual (or apparently factual) description. Showing, by contrast, means somehow to make the subject-matter seem real to us, as well as to make it seem important, affecting, and interesting. Since the subject may not be real at all, this involves creating an illusion. Probably the two are not entirely distinct: it may be impossible to show without also telling something.

Now, what you call 'telling' is valued in many areas: in journalism, science, history, documentary film-making, and so forth. I suggest that an answer to your question may also be the answer to the question of why these types of activity are not normally considered 'art'. The most famous answer comes from Aristotle. In his Poetics Aristotle argues that poetry (which we’ll have to take to stand for all art and literature) is ‘more philosophical’ than history, because the former deals with ‘universals’ while the latter deals with factual particulars. Roughly, he means that poetry has meaning or significance beyond its narrow setting; history is just a record of what happened. So, a play about Oedipus might have something to tell us about the nature of man, of knowledge, of faith, or of destiny. It might also have an emotional impact that a telling of the story would not. (This is probably an impoverished view of the discipline of history, by the way.)

One, but only one, of the reasons that poetry (and art) can do this is because it tends to show rather than tell. The meaning and significance of poetry is clearly related to the effects of showing discussed above.

My English teacher used to say that a poem can have deep meaning beyond that

My English teacher used to say that a poem can have deep meaning beyond that originally intended by its author. It's a pretty comforting and even intuitive idea, but I wonder if it can really be true. Locke, for example, said that words necessarily represent only the ideas of the speaker - does this imply that all poetry and literature necessarily entails a single, "correct" interpretation? Is it incoherent to suppose that one's personal reading of a poem has any real link to the words on the page? -andy

This is a very good quesiton, and a very hard one. My own view is that your teacher was right, but that there are limits to how far the point can be pushed. Poetry, of course, is characterized by the extensive use of metaphor and other figures of speech. So just consider metaphor. Can a particular metaphor mean something beyond what its author intended? I find the question to be somewhat ill conceived, because it seems to suppose that the author of the metaphor had some paticular interpretation of it in mind, and that's not at all obvious. In my limited experience writing poetry, that certainly hasn't been my experience; and, as is often pointed out, metaphor comes in for pretty heavy use in philosophy itself. (Thus Quine, more or less: The lore of our fathers is a dull gray cloth, black with fact and white with convention, but nowhere quite black or quite white.) It's not that there's something very specific I want to say and could just as well say prefectly literally. Rather, the metaphor itself just seems right somehow, and I know, of course, that my reader will have to work with the metaphor herself. In that sense, it seems to me as if I essentially birth the metaphor which then assumes a life of its own. (Aha! a metaphor!) Now, of course, the fact that there needn't be one "correct" way to interpret the metaphor doesn't mean that anything goes, and if someone tries to tell me that Pablo Neruda's "Do Not Go Off, Even For a Day" is actually about the horrors of Iraq, then, well, as I said, there are limits.

As for Locke, few nowadays would endorse this kind of view.