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Literary Analysis and Skepticism

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Good tidings, fellow literate human. Seth Kurtenbach, here.  As an undergraduate, I double-majored in English and philosophy; two humanities disciplines.  I am currently in grad school for philosophy, but I’m in the process of transferring to the computer science PhD program. This transition from the humanities to science/engineering has lately had me reflecting on the value of the humanities disciplines.  A wise and just eye doctor once while making small-talk mused that grad school must be designed to make one hate his/her discipline.  In my experience, this is partially true, as I developed a topsy-turvey love-hate relationship with philosophy.  As a soon to be former humanities person, I’d like to note some of the wonderful things about the humanities that I discovered over the course of my studies.

I have for several years had a severe case of science envy.  As an English major and novice philosopher, I looked at the benefits science confers on humanity in terms of knowledge and technology, and then looked for analogous benefits in the humanities and found none.  Philosophy surely cultivates in one a deep respect for truth, and the desire to search for it, but I failed to see how philosophy contributed to humanity’s knowledge in the same way that science clearly did.  In science, things are tentatively settled, frequently with great confidence, by empirical observation.  Likewise, the study of literature failed to yield similarly tangible knowledge.  I wanted to participate in a field that paid for itself by its fruits.

Carl Sagan and other science advocates didn’t help!  So much ink and youtube data dedicated to celebrating science, and rightfully so, and hardly any for the humanities.  Who speaks for the humanities?  Massimo Pigliucci and youtube user SisyphusRedeemed do well to support philosophy, but what of the other humanities? Specifically, what about English?  On the back end of the so-called Science Wars, has English lost all intellectual value?  Maybe Post-modernism in some (all?) respects, but certainly not the entire discipline… right?!?  I feared as much.

So, I gravitated away from English, and toward the most rigorous and science-y corner of analytic philosophy: logic.  I’m glad I did.  I love logic.  But while in grad school, I’ve several times noted to myself that I miss analyzing literature, and discussing it with peers.  It was the activity itself that I enjoyed, the sharpening of my intellectual skills on a fictional whetstone.  It was an opportunity to reason about the best interpretation of data without the pressure of being factually wrong in the same way one can be wrong about a scientific fact.  It is the intellectual sandbox, or the sparring ring.

Upon due reflection, I think I see the value of the humanities.  I think they are basically why I am a skeptic.  With proper pedagogy, it can tend to make other students skeptical as well.  I recall the results of a relatively recent study, which indicate that the humanities and social sciences tend to make one less religious.  All the time playing in the sandbox, sparring in the intellectual ring, makes one better at asking questions and evaluating claims.  I’m not claiming it’s the only discipline that does this, but I think it does this really well because of its availability.  Sadly, not everyone finds science intrinsically interesting, so for those people the most they are likely to get out of a science class is the memorization of facts and procedures. Almost everyone is interested in good literature, good stories.

Also, at the beginner and intermediate level, most of the science learned is established scientific doctrine.  Novices learn the science that the vast majority of scientists are in agreement about.  There is little to be disputed, doubted, questioned.  However, any plot point, character decision, or literary technique can be questioned by anyone.  With the guidance of a teacher, students learn to examine things from multiple angles and converge on a best interpretation of the “data” (the ‘textual evidence’ as it’s called in the business).  The student develops the ability to think critically and ask substantive questions.

The study of literature develops the qualities of reflection and introspection.  In order to evaluate literature, a student must examine the impact it has on him or her, and deeply reflect on this.  This ability to reflect deeply on material and introspect about one’s thought processes is valuable for many domains beyond the classroom.  It is a transferable skill that the student gains.  The development of this skill is valuable for the student, and having students with this skill is valuable for society.  More reflective, introspective citizens tend to make better decisions on the large scale, I suspect.

Interpreting the elements of a story often involves reasoning abstractly about symbols.  To reason abstractly is to identify the properties of a particular that do not depend on  its concrete details.  For many non-mathematicians/logicians, this is the first and  best opportunity to develop the skill of higher-level thinking.  The books How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster are excellent training manuals of sorts.  They also serve as excellent examples for how literary analysis develops these higher-level thinking skills.

Higher-level thinking is a valuable skill because reasoning well requires the ability to identify the general principles and forms that underwrite particular claims.  Of course, the study of logic does this explicitly, and identifies those very principles of good reasoning, but the study of literature serves as a sandbox to practice reasoning from particulars, to general principles, and back to particulars again.  This also develops the ability to consider potential counter-examples to general principles, as it familiarizes one with the relation between the two.  For those who do not explicitly study logic in high school or as undergrads, the study of literary analysis may supply the fundamentals skills they’d otherwise be missing.  And again, good literature is often far more interesting to people than formal logic.

Analysis and skepticism go hand in hand, in my humble opinion.  As the graphic illustrates, analysis involves breaking things and studying the pieces.  The things and their constitutive pieces need not be material, but may be things like concepts, ideas, abstract principles, etc.  When someone makes a claim, a skeptic breaks that claim down and looks at the pieces, and then decides if there are good reasons supporting the pieces.

Studying literature helps one practice analysis.  A story is a thing, and a reader’s job is to break it down into pieces and then reassemble them in such a way as to yield meaning.  A good teacher helps the student refine this ability of breaking stories down and studying the pieces.  They call the process a “close reading.”  Again, we see that studying literature serves as a sandbox for developing skills that are important for areas of one’s life beyond school.

Strangely, the value of literary studies does not derive from the academics conducting their research, but from the teachers imparting skills to students.  This is a striking disanalogy with the sciences, where a great deal of the value comes from the discoveries of academic research, in addition to the development of future scientists’ skills.

I suppose a case could be made that when an English professor publishes a book that analyzes the themes of Chaucer, he or she is creating a product that’s available to a larger audience than a semester’s classroom.  However, I think this is false, because most of the books written by professors, which constitute their “research”, are intended to be read by other academics.  Often, the intended audience is not the public at large.  Thus, the research conducted by literature academics are not directly valuable to the public.

However, one can think of academic publications as an opportunity for professors to practice the skills they teach amongst each other, in more challenging sandbox of sorts.  This ensures that their skills are highly refined, and justifies acknowledging them as experts of their fields.  However, if they are only conducting research, and rarely or never teaching, then they seem to be completely valueless.

To summarize, the fruits of English as a discipline come from the skills it develops in students, rather than any increase in humanity’s factual knowledge-base.  I think the study of literature develops the skills one needs in order to be a good skeptic.  Being a good skeptic is not just about knowing scientific facts.  It is primarily about developing a certain set of intellectual virtues and applying them in one’s everyday life.  Literature serves as a sandbox in which to develop these very skills, and the more students play in this sandbox, the better for them and society as a whole, I think.  So, as long as one focuses on teaching, rather than research, English professors may consider theirs an academic discipline that pays for itself by its fruits.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

3 comments on “Literary Analysis and Skepticism

  1. Ken
    March 26, 2012

    I almost fully agree, but wish to offer a small counterpoint. I believe the humanities, philosophy specifically, give us an opportunity to learn to grasp the abstract and imagine. Einstein said that imagination was more valuable than knowledge, and I believe that the reason was that if one has a powerful imagination one can run simulations of scientific ideas in their heads. He was himself fond of thought experiments, and some of my favorite t-shirts are inspired by the thought experiments of Einstein and Schrödinger.
    Thought experiments are highly valuable in the development of a mental model for the universe. Any good scientist should have such a model in their minds, and always be prepared to adjust that model based on new information. Poor scientists resist changes to their mental models (I suspect) due to their inability or unwillingness to build a new model in their minds. This, to me, is the most enjoyable part of science. Discovery gives the opportunity to adapt our mental models, and this sometimes takes longer to do than making the discovery in the first place, but to those who have strong imaginations, it is a delight to awake and see the world through new eyes.
    Literature and philosophy make what is at first simply entertainment and storytelling into an exercise for the imagination. Even in the most absurd of fantasy if a universe is established with a set of concrete rules, as long as the plot obeys those rules than the mind learns to create templates for universes.

  2. rocketkirchner
    March 27, 2012

    Seth , very good article . And timely too. often as a Christian when i am in conversation with Atheists who want to knock the Bible , i have to keep reminding them that we are talking about Theocratic Literature that like Homer and Dante is masterpeice.
    Literature with such brilliant nuance so as to provokes us to ask the right kind of questions . Questions of what it means to be human , instead of wasting time with seeking to disprove or even prove inspirational texts of any era.

    Masterpeice literature does help in being a skeptic , but the door swings both ways . not only being a skeptic in the existence of God but also a skeptic in the existence that we can in our own finite minds and selves figure out the mystery of this vast universe. Literature can undermine our unbelief and our faith . It can also inspire both . it is art, and art deals in an area that cannot be pinned down . ..but confronts us ”at an angle ”. Both science and religion need this angle to keep them honest and smack them both upside the head.

  3. Jeremy Winn
    March 28, 2012

    As a former music major, I can relate to your personal crisis about the value of the humanities. I began to view the humanities as a pyramid scheme, where students could only [at least while pursuing financial security] become teachers. This was a primary reason that I entered the health education field… to do something with more obvious social utility.

    So I have some things to say about the humanities from the perspective of the social sciences. The first is that to those in the social services, especially education, the humanities have distinct value. Philosophy, as you elaborate, teaches us how to think, and operates as an underlying element in values education. The sole goal of education is not merely promoting knowledge of disciplines for the development of career skills, but to produce good people. Learning about history and other cultures broadens perspectives of what being a human is like– they allow us to explore unrealized possibilities for ourselves and others. In doing so, we gain a more intimate understanding of the human experience, which is essential to shaping that experience for others.

    Naturally for these qualities to be successfully imparted to the student, one must possess the skills of an excellent educator. In academia in particular, there is a stark absence of effective teaching practices. While all disciplines would likely benefit from more pedagogy, for the humanities, who primarily become educators, I believe it is particularly important. Not only might it increase the value of the career, but provide valuable interdisciplinary perspectives to future professionals. i.e., As goes from knowledge of the humanities to other disciplines, so goes knowledge from behavioral sciences to the humanities.

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This entry was posted on March 26, 2012 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach and tagged , , , .
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