Literature involves a cognitive engagement with the world

In a review of John Gibson’s Fiction and the Weave of Life (Oxford), Frank Farrell writes:

Analytic philosophy of literature and deconstructionist thought make strange bedfellows, but they join in making matters difficult for the literary humanist. The analytic philosopher, using investigations regarding truth, reference, meaning, knowledge, justification, and the like will press toward a conclusion that literary fiction cannot be about the world and cannot give us knowledge of it. From quite different considerations, in emphasizing textuality and in supposedly undermining notions of representation and truth, the postmodern thinker concludes that literary fictions do not gain their significance through the ways they link up with a non-textual world beyond them. In contrast, the literary humanist wishes to argue that literature involves a cognitive engagement with the world, in ways that matter to our living out our lives as humans. John Gibson wants to give a strong defense of that claim, while at the same time granting considerable strength to the views of the humanist’s opponents.

* * *

Gibson requires of his account that it satisfy two conditions at once. First, it should demonstrate that fiction has worldly import and illuminates reality, in a robust sense. Second, it should allow that the fictive stance we take toward literature is different in kind from the kind of stances we take toward linguistic sequences that purport to be assertions about how matters stand in the world. That is, the admirable effect produced by literature must be internal to what makes it function as the special kind of thing it is.

* * *

The form of worldly engagement in question will not offer truths but will concern the ways we invest human reality with meaning and significance. It will bring to light the consequences, and the import, of aspects of reality. It relates our beliefs to forms of human activity and to social practices that extend across time. It does not give us a new bit of knowledge but makes us alive to the value and significance of what we know. It is constitutive of the take we have on the world rather than a mimetic duplication of reality. It allows us to fit what we know into the weave of life, into the fabric of our embodied social existence.


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