You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2004.
The function of literature, the basis of its cultivation by humanity, is clearly not solely a matter of enjoyment. Although it is possible to read a work of literature with profound pleasure, from whence the pleasure derives and its ultimate effect upon the formation of an aesthetic deserve a thorough examination. But the fundamental question of literature is perhaps that of poetic form: what is it for a work to have poetic form? What differentiates a piece of writing with notable poetic form from ordinary discourse, and why do we prefer one to the other? The answers to such questions clearly derive from the character of literature as a whole, the reasons we turn to it for edification and relief; so perhaps a brief examination of literature’s formal status can shed light upon the question of poetic form in particular.
Literature is coextensive with the real. It is not so much that we ought to like it, as that we should like some parts of it given our worldly dealings: if a particular genre suits our fancy, it is hardly impossible that we maintain some practical connection to the subject-matter, if only from a comfortable distance. Broadly speaking, we like literature because we find language to be the omnipresent mediator and divider of our affairs it obviously is, and literature counts as something like “sympathetic magic” with respect to the felicity of our utterances and our place within the whole of speech, a safeguard against the inability of a form of words to have their appropriate purchase upon us. It is true that language and literature are not so easily divided: separating a classical work from the commonplace analogies made to it is hard going, and this is the point.
So it would not be beside the point to specify poetic form as an attempt to imbue a going form of words with a certain character, a stipulation of a discourse’s purchase within the social totality: this is exactly what the aim of all language is, and literature in this estimation turns out to be the conscious cultivation of the arts of language, a notable attempt to impress upon the reading public a certain sensibility in practical dealings. The edification experienced by the reader of literature is coextensive with the practical education of life in general, and to cultivate a taste for the existent is by no means a foolish endeavor but rather a specifically literary activity. With this in mind, it seems that the formal analysis of literature is in fact an extremely pragmatic discipline permitting of many applications to everyday cares: but perhaps we can say that here we have a motive for plot, and leave it at that.
As a faculty of the human mind, reason is rarely studied apart from other cognitive faculties (belief, knowledge, inference). What is reason as separate from making our beliefs square with reality? Reason as a whole can be neatly summarized as the faculty which attempts to make a person’s beliefs square with each other, on the understanding that it may be impossible to judge whether those beliefs are true or not. How does reason go about its task? By imposing higher-order conditions on the content of a belief, such that the way in which that belief can function in reasoning is limited by what it can be taken to be for the purposes of cognition. An example to illustrate this: if I see a man and mistake him for a man of my acquaintance, am I being unreasonable? Yes, if the generated belief has the wrong form as regards its content.
If I could really and truly be mistaken as regards the man’s identity and ascribe the purported beliefs about my acquaintance generated by the encounter to the actual man, that would be reasonable, but if the form of the belief is such that I have derived information from the purported singularity of the actual man which applies only to the acquaintance, then I have failed to maintain the logically hygenic attitude necessary for having a belief about either person. The category of reasonable beliefs is thus constrained, not only by material reality (for we can of course meet both acquaintances and non-acquaintances), but by practices of reckoning with occurrences which invoke not only probability but moral certitude as regards the acceptability of an answer: that is, reasoning which is of a quality to permit practical reasoning.
If I could not form an ethical or moral judgment about an event (witness Mencken’s quote of J.E. Springarn’s quip “this cauliflower would be good, if only it were prepared in accordance with international law” for an example of a spurious moral judgment hiding other deficiencies) I cannot be said to be being reasonable, even in the case of attending to the evidential requirements of a science. For if it is ethically proper to perform an experiment, we have already done all the legwork needed to define the experiment in such a way as to differentiate it from another experiment: we have an object of reasoning in several respects other than glossing the mere recording of experimental data. By contrast, an experience which leaves one without criteria for judging its success or failure from a practical point of view is one too poorly understood to permit of proper reasoning about its results. Reason is, thus taken, a judge of felicity rather than a gauge of experience.