How Philosophers See The Arts And The Rest Of The Humanities


I can only speak for myself, but being trained by a philosopher, I often feel I was exposed to an expectation of argumentative rigor that, to be perfectly frank, I can’t say I always find in the field of political theory proper. But this can result in drawbacks. Philosophers sometimes look at the rest of the humanities in the way that social scientists look at social theorists. Philosophers often treat their analytic chops as equivalent to social scientific data processing so sources from literature and music or theater, for example, are seen as too mushy to be useful for moral theorizing, which is another silly and tragic attitude.

That is Christopher Lebron, who this coming fall will be taking up a position as associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina).

The interview covers Lebron’s life, education, work, and views about things ranging from video games to racism. He received his PhD in political science at MIT under Joshua Cohen; that and his subsequent appointments in political science (at Virginia) and philosophy and African-American studies (at Yale) grant him some perspective on philosophy. For example: “I must say, for all the shit the discipline of Philosophy is given, that field has been very kind to me and my work. Not uniformly, of course, but I have felt welcomed there, in addition to political theory, though not necessarily in political science proper. That discipline still has serious race problems.”

I do get the sense that he’s right that many philosophers, particularly those in the analytic tradition (broadly construed), tend to view the arts and other humanities as “too mushy to be useful”—not just for moral theorizing, but for philosophical work more generally. And I agree that this is a loss. But part of the problem may be a lack of exposure to analytic work that makes use of literature and the arts (as tools of inquiry and sources of insight, not just as subject matter), and to lack of training in how to do this well.

If so, it would be useful to hear about:

  • articles and books in analytic / Anglo-American style philosophy that make substantial and effective use of literature and the arts

and

  • courses at the graduate level that train philosophy students to make use of literature and the arts.

If you know of examples of either of these, please share them. Thanks.

The whole interview with Professor Lebron is here.

Henri Matisse, “Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance'” (detail)

guest
37 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Daniel Greco
3 years ago

Lots of Martha Nussbaum’s work would seem to fit the bill. To take just one example, in various places (papers, also a book: The Fragility of Goodness) she makes extensive use of classical literature, especially tragedies, in the context of staking out a position in a very recognizably analytic philosophical debate about the existence and nature of normative conflict (I’d say “moral dilemmas”, but that’s a bit misleading, since she doesn’t think all the interesting cases are neatly classified as moral).Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
3 years ago

If only there were an entire subfield devoted to philosophical problems stemming from the arts!

Oh, wait…Report

DocFE
DocFE
Reply to  Michel X.
3 years ago

I presume your “oh wait…” refers to aesthetics?Report

Arnaldo
Arnaldo
3 years ago

When I took an advance Seminar about Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, our end of semester assignment was to make a critic of the metaphycis of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius a short story by Jorge Luis Borges according to main arguments of the Investigations.Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  Arnaldo
3 years ago

That is beyond question the coolest assignment of which I’ve ever heard. Excellent. Report

Sam Clark
3 years ago

Apologies for blowing my own trumpet, but my work makes substantial use of autobiography as a distinctive kind of reasoning about selfhood and the good life. See e.g. my ‘Pleasure as Self-Discovery’, Ratio 2012; ‘Under the Mountain: Basic Training, Individuality, and Comradeship’, Res Publica 2013; and ‘Mill’s Autobiography as Literature’ in MacLeod and Miller eds, Blackwell Companion to Mill. Report

Golguber
Golguber
3 years ago

There’s a certain kind of mining of literature (or fiction more broadly) that is very, very common in analytic philosophy, especially moral and political philosophy – literature as the source of examples. See Miranda Fricker’s use of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ and ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’, or Philip Pettit’s use of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, for instance. I get the feeling that they’re intended to be less abstract than some trolley problem-style thought experiment, while still allowing the author to steer away from messier ‘real-world’ examples.

I don’t want to say that this represents a serious engagement with the arts by philosophers. It clearly doesn’t. But, for what it’s worth, it’s certainly the kind of engagement I see most often. Report

JCM
JCM
3 years ago

Analytic aesthetics does not, for the most part, represent the sort of serious engagement with the arts I suspect Lebron yearns for. (There are exceptions, almost all partial and inadequate, though Stephen Mulhall and Alasdair MacIntyre are a cut above.) I don’t know what subfield Michel X is referring to; if he is referring to analytic aesthetics, I would recommend against people interested in what Lebron is interested in turning to it: it has been and remains much more interested in taking its methodological cues from ‘core’ philosophy and science than from the arts, and its attempts to incorporate methodologies endemic to the arts–irony, allusion, metaphor, ambiguity, showing rather than saying, all that–are reliably amateurish. However, there are also the disciplines of continental philosophy and literary and art criticism, fields which have strong traditions of incorporating artistic techniques into their theoretical works in fundamental ways. And O joy: there are already plenty of primers for these disciplines! This said, Justin is to the best of my knowledge right that none of them are directed toward analytic philosophers, and if this is right, then it is indeed a serious lacuna; speaking from my own experience at any rate, gaining an understanding of artistic methodology has been and remains exceptionally difficult, despite my coming from a musical background and having a lifelong love of literature. The asinine but superficially eloquent rejection of these disciplines by high-prestige analytic philosophers has not made the learning intellectually or psychologically easier.

For what it’s worth, though, I find Mulhall, Cora Diamond, some critical race and feminist theorists (especially those working on intersectionality), and Terence Blake (see esp. his blog posts on Zizek and the characteristics of continental philosophy, and on Foucault/Chomsky), to list some things somewhat at random but that have been helpful in my own case, to do a good job of opening up these disciplines to me. I would love to hear of more stuff.Report

SG
SG
3 years ago

Eleanore Stump in her magisterial “Wandering and Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering” makes use of literature.Report

Imola
Imola
Reply to  SG
3 years ago

Thanks for bringing my attention to a book that sounds so rich and interesting!Report

ejrd
ejrd
3 years ago

Peter Goldie’s ‘The Emotions’ makes constant use of art and literature in the service of argument (there’s a long, sustained, section that quotes Musil’s ‘The Man Without Qualities’ at length, for example). I recommend reading both Goldie’s book and Musil!Report

Michael P Wolf
Michael P Wolf
3 years ago

The description above seems to fit Rorty’s _Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity_, which heavily features looks at Orwell, Nabokov and others. Maybe not analytic enough for some, but others can make that call.Report

S_G
S_G
3 years ago

The author I have in mind probably doesn’t fit the criteria staked out here, of an analytic philosopher that “makes use of literature and the arts (as tools of inquiry and sources of insight, not just as subject matter)”, but I have always admired the work of Arthur Danto for his seamless back and forth between keenly analytic reasoning and examples drawn from literature and the arts. Plus, his style is just superb. And I am here not even primarily talking about Danto’s later philosophy of art for which he is rightfully famous but his earlier work in philosophy of science and philosophy of history.Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
3 years ago

I’m not all-too-sure about what would differentiate between “subject matter” and “tools of inquiry and sources of insight”, but I think of the following in regards to your question, Justin: Morris Weitz, Kendall Walton, Noël Carroll, Jukka Mikkonen and Heidrun Friese (among others). Also, Wiley has two excellent anthologies: 03’s on the Analytic tradition’s thoughts and 05’s with a broader yet still much more Anglo-American emphasis. (Also, as with the other sub-subfields of the critical philosophy, I seem to notice a very recent surge of Analytic-inspired investigations into Kantian aesthetics.)

Answering your request is a reminder that there definitely is a relative lack of such studies in the Analytic tradition.

I also note that while many of us are providing for the first request, your second is notoriously left hanging. This is unfortunate.Report

Paul Weithman
Paul Weithman
3 years ago

I am not a student of philosophy and the arts but have always thought Peter Kivy’s work on the philosophy of music was insightful, deeply informed and as rigorous as one could wish. Almost thirty years ago, my late colleague Phil Quinn published a very moving and powerfully argued essay on Shusaku Endo’s novel SILENCE. Called “Tragic Dilemmas, Suffering Love and Christian Life”, it appeared in the JOURNAL OF RELIGIOUS ETHICS 17,1 (1989): 151-83. I returned to the essay earlier this year after seeing the Scorsese film based on Endu’s novel and found it to be as good as I remembered. Others who have seen the film might be interested in Phil’s piece; so, too, for those interested in how a philosophy article can carry on sustained engagement with a literary work. I would happily email a copy to anyone who wants it.Report

Annette990
Reply to  Paul Weithman
3 years ago

Hello Paul, if you are willing to email me a copy of the article ‘Tragic Dilemmas, Suffering Love and Christian Life’, I would be most grateful. [email protected] Thank you!Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
3 years ago

Kristin Boyce (Mississipppi State) writes about literature and dance as philosophy. (Full disclosure: former student of mine.)

http://www.philosophyandreligion.msstate.edu/faculty/krsitin.phpReport

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
3 years ago

There’s lots of superb analytic aesthetics and analytic philosophy that draws on art. Dominic Lopes’ “The Aesthetics of Photographic Transparency” changed how I think of photography in part because of his deep understanding of the art. For my money Kendall Walton’s On Photographic Realism is one of the finest philosophy articles I’ve read, and builds the case through nuanced engagement with artworks. And there are many more. The problem is that aesthetics is virtually non-existent as a hiring area and aesthetic theory in other disciplines has very little engagement with it — to the detriment of the other disciplines. In my experience people who work in aesthetics in the analytic style are much more open to theory in other disciplines than vice versa.Report

Eric Walker
Eric Walker
3 years ago

Joan Weiner (Indiana) wrote an article called “Theory and Elucidation” in which she engages with the novel The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Weiner uses the novel to explain what Frege might mean by the word “elucidation.”

David Bell, in his “The Art of Judgment,” describes in striking phenomenological detail his encounter with a Jackson Pollock painting. The exercise is in the service of explaining what it is to sense meaningfulness without sensing a specific meaning — one thing Kant meant in the third Critique by “purposiveness without a purpose.”

I know I’ve come across many others, but I just can’t recall them right now. I’m sure they’ll come to me, of course, once this thread has long been exhausted.Report

Robert Gressis
Robert Gressis
Reply to  Eric Walker
3 years ago

Robert Pippin has written some stuff on Hitchcock, Westerns, and film noir that I expect would fit the bill. Report

Levon
Levon
3 years ago

The field of comparative literature essentially provides all of the things being sought here. Report

recent grad
recent grad
3 years ago

Bernard Williams and Raimond Gaita are both pretty good here, I think.Report

Simon A. Lee
3 years ago

Martin Warner (Warwick) has written excellent works in this vein. See his Philosophical Finesse (Clarendon, 1989) and The Aesthetics of Argument (Oxford, 2016).Report

Dan Weiskopf
3 years ago

Few examples of the sort of work asked for are coming to mind, though Felicia Ackerman’s essays on Morte D’Arthur should probably count. While the text is, obviously, part of her subject matter, by writing about it she opens up a range of questions about life and ethics that would otherwise remain closed, or at least very hard to raise cogently. Crucially, these concerns are not then torn loose from their literary surroundings and elevated to the realm of theory. This is often how philosophers engage with artworks: they probe them just deeply enough to extract some tasty morsel and then toss them aside like empty oyster shells. This is how I would classify attempts to use narrative fiction as simply a more entertaining form of the philosophical thought experiment, for instance; it represents the most common, and most superficial, way of treating art as a “source of insight” (viz., as a colorful example).

I’d guess that there are two reasons for the failure of philosophy to engage with art in more intimate ways. First, given its stringent conventions of argumentative rigor and clarity, there is little room for artworks as such to exist within the confines of analytic philosophical writing. Artworks aren’t arguments. Nor, with some exceptions, do they contain arguments, even “implicitly”. And when they do, those arguments aren’t anything that philosophy recognizes as rigorous by its own lights. Hence the accusation of “mushiness”, which is really just blindness to the fact that there are other, equally legitimate, practices of rigorous making in the world.

Second, most philosophers aren’t trained in the techniques of reading and looking that are necessary to engage deeply with artworks. The discipline has a fairly limited set of rhetorical and interpretive tools at its disposal, though other fields, such as rhetoric, literary and art criticism, and art history, have developed them extensively. If philosophers want models for how to bring their arguments, and their writing, into the closest possible contact with artworks themselves, that’s where I would send them.Report

Kate Norlock
3 years ago

I recommend checking out Peter Brian Barry’s _The Fiction of Evil_ (Routledge, 2016). Let me plug his work by quoting from PhilPapers: “examining a wide range of works from renowned authors, including works of literature by Kazuo Ishiguro, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Oscar Wilde alongside classic works of philosophy by Nietzsche and Aristotle. By considering great texts from literature and philosophy, Barry examines whether evil is merely a fiction. _The Fiction of Evil_ explores how the study of literature can contribute to the study of metaphysics and ethics and it is essential reading for those studying the concept of evil or philosophy of literature at undergraduate level.” https://philpapers.org/rec/BARTFO-23Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
3 years ago

I highly recommend the fascinating Dialogues on Disability interview that I did with Jesse Prinz in February 2016. In the interview, Jesse talks about a wide range of subjects, including his upbringing in a family of artists and his art training and how these features of his life inform his research and teaching in aesthetics and other areas of philosophy.

You will find the interview with Jesse here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/02/dialogues-on-disability-shelley-tremain-interviews-jesse-prinz.html
Report

Chuck Mathewes
Chuck Mathewes
3 years ago

I’d encourage anyone interested in this to read Michele Lamont’s interesting book, HOW PROFESSORS THINK, which is a fascinating snapshot of the different disciplinary standards of “excellence” operative in the humanities and social sciences today. Here’s a link to it: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674057333
Oh, and of course a thinker like Bernard Williams would be an interesting example of someone who combined analytic philosophical rigor with a broad interest in literature and the arts. Others might include Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum and Robert Pippin.Report

Charles Pigden
Charles Pigden
3 years ago

Well here’s an article of mine written in a reasonable approximation to the analytic / Anglo-American style that make substantial use of literature and as a tool of enquiry rather than an object to enquire into (though whether the use is ‘effective’ is for others to judge) :

Pigden, Charles (2012) ‘A Sensible Knave? Hume, Jane Austen and Mr Elliot’ Journal of Intellectual History, 22.3, 465-480.

I argue that Jane Austen shows that Hume’s ‘sensible knave’ problem is worse he thinks once you recognise that class and gender privilege can insulate the knavish from the consequences of their wrongdoing. It’s not just with respect to injustice that a selfish and unfeeling person might reasonably regard him or herself as the gainer by vicious conduct.

I also regularly teach a 400-level course on the Why Be Moral? question featuring literary examples of amoralists and ‘great man’ ethicists (that is characters who think that superior people are *entitled* to transcend the ordinary limits of good and evil) including Wilde’s Dorian Gray (an amoralist), Laclos’ characters Valmont and Mertueuil (amoralists) , Dostoevsky’s characters Raskolnikov and Stavrogin (the one a ‘great man’ ethicist, the other an amoralist), Shakespeare’s characters, Falstaff and Prince Hal/Henry V (the one an amoralist, the other a Machiavellian ‘great man’ ethicist), and concluding with Jane Austen’s Mr Elliot, a ‘Sensible knave ‘ who is successfully vicious without being technically ‘unjust’. My overall point is that there are psychological costs to being non-moral but that they are costs that some rational people might be willing to pay.
Report

Timothy Stock
Timothy Stock
3 years ago

I find the framing of the question interesting. Nomy Arpaly, for example, loads “Unprincipled Virtue” with great examples from literature. So there are good answers to this question, and I like this thread. But I also want to indicate that engagement with art, poetry, etc. is very often the demarcation line between what we could lump under “Continental philosophy” and what Anglo philosophy otherwise considers philosophy proper. On the other side it would be unthinkable to exclude literature, poetry, art, film and architecture from philosophical investigation. The examples abound. Levinas makes wonderful use of everyone from St Euxpery to Dostoyevski. There are books on Kierkegaard’s debt to Shakespeare (not to mention the Danish and German theatre), and then there are the cases of Sartre, Nietzsche, Bataille, who saw no clear dividing line between philosophy and other forms of literary and imaginative expression. (And those efforts saw great appreciation of philosophy: the poet Gottfried Benn referred to Nietzsche as the greatest “Sprachgenie” since Goethe, for example.) What concerns or interests me is perhaps what happens to philosophy when it presupposes itself as isolated from or immune to the fact of its literary, imaginative or creative aspects. I guess I see the question another way, which is that disengagement with art can be a pose, a marker of rigor, and thus art, etc., become the casualties of a desire for philosophy to isolate itself. Imagine trying to read Adorno or Benjamin without taking literature seriously … it’s simply not possible. And for all haters and imitators of Derrida he was an exceedingly brilliant philosopher in his own right, whatever his textual dalliances. And that other tradition is in some senses alive and well, and not just as some sort of post-modern or critical artifice … Graham Harman would be a nice example (he teaches at a school of architecture, in fact…)Report

Hadi Adanalı
Hadi Adanalı
3 years ago

Lewis Carroll comes to mind. Although he is not considered technically an analytical philosophers due to his seniority, his writings, particularly “Alice in Wonderland”, can be studied in connection with the problems of philosophy of language and logic in the analytical tradition. The usage of “nobody”, “six impossible things before breakfast”, “believing a contradiction”, “Cheshire cat” that looses its substance before its attributes are all excellent examples for discussion in the class also in thinking about philosophical problems. Also the book “Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser” by eds. Irwin and Davis is a good example how analytical philosophers can make use of the literary materials still remaining in the purview of analytical tradition. He is, I believe, one of the most frequently quoted authors in analytical philosophy. Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Public philosophy books routinely use literature as a source of examples and intuition pumps. Analytics are represented in these books to about the same proportion as in Anglo-American philosophy in general.

On a different but related point, the more that a work of philosophy relies on outside knowledge of a work of literature, the less penetrable the work of philosophy is liable to be for those not familiar with the work of literature. Given that philosophy is already too filled with cliques that don’t understand each other’s work (analytics and continentals even speak different languages and tend to publish in different journals!), that could be a real problem. Any insights gained through literature would likewise be difficult to convey to humanity outside philosophy departments, unless they, too, are familiar with the work of literature. That isn’t in itself to say that such work with literature isn’t important and valuable, but it strikes me as a big potential disadvantage.

On the other hand, if using the work of literature doesn’t require background knowledge of the work of literature, it becomes harder to imagine what the work of literature contributes that wouldn’t be contributed more simply by a fresh hypothetical situation.Report

Timothy Stock
Timothy Stock
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

On the different but related point: Is this not a general problem? The more a work of philosophy relies on experimental psychology … the more a work of philosophy relies on symbolic logic … the more a work of philosophy relies on physics … the more a work of philosophy relies on political theory, theories of moral agency, baseball, etc., etc., etc.? The worry here is that literature (and I could also include history, as also, broadly speaking, an interpretive enterprise rather than analytic one) receives an undue burden as being extra-philosophical while other domains of inquiry do not.

I guess I’m not clear why literature presents a “big potential disadvantage” above other domains. This line of thinking, in the very least, shifts grounds away from the plausible case that there is a “big potential disadvantage” in any reference to something requiring background knowledge. And it cannot be the case that we should seek for philosophy to be free of background knowledge, because that is basically what I encounter in my first year undergraduates.

I think what is more likely is that there is a tacit ranking of what background knowledge could be relevant to contemporary philosophical concerns, and that literature simply ranks quite low amongst a certain set of philosophers.

It’s easy to describe philosophy as cliquish, but surely the fact of cliquishness is itself evidence that philosophy has an inescapable methodological condition of limiting its purview by way of reference to specific other material or domains? Or simply by articulating itself in a certain language, at a certain point in time, etc.?Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Timothy Stock
3 years ago

Yes, there is a general problem here and it is a general problem that is not taken seriously enough. The more that a philosophical work relies on background knowledge to be understood, the worse, all else being equal. This includes knowledge of philosophical jargon. It is true, as you say, that “it cannot be the case that we should seek for philosophy to be free of background knowledge” but that’s compatible with acknowledging that all else being equal, it is better not to require background knowledge than to require it.

That being said, literature is especially problematic. I’ll take science as the paradigm to compare literature to, because I think the difference is clearest there.

Firstly, it is likely that there are many truths that can only be learned through science. It seems unlikely, on the other hand, that there are many truths (apart from truths about literature) that can only be learned through literature. Indeed, any truth contained in literature presumably had to be learned from some non-literary source before it was written into a work of literature.

Secondly, it is possible to be familiar enough with science to be able to grasp what is going on in most philosophy papers relying on science. Literature isn’t like that because one may read many works of literature while having no knowledge of the plots, characters, and situations in a book one has not read.

Thirdly, one can often draw on scientific results without having much background in science, because scientists can speak with authority to us on scientific matters. So for instance, a non-scientist can easily take it on authority that the Earth revolves around the sun, while grasping few details and having little knowledge of how scientists know that the Earth revolves around the sun. On the other hand, if a work of literature provides philosophical insight, one must presumably read the work of literature to get that insight. If the insight can be provided by a quick summary of the literary work, then it isn’t clear what advantage the literary work could have over a fresh hypothetical. Indeed, using the hypothetical sounds simpler and easier.

Likewise, it is often possible to teach some basic science in order to make a paper understandable. Insight drawn from a work of literature, on the other hand, generally requires either reading or summarizing that work of literature.

I’m not going to comment on your suggestions that “I think what is more likely is that there is a tacit ranking of what background knowledge could be relevant to contemporary philosophical concerns, and that literature simply ranks quite low amongst a certain set of philosophers” because I made no claims about why literature isn’t more drawn upon in philosophy. The speculation moved beyond the question of what we should do to what we think philosophers have done as they have done.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Ugh. Last line should be “WHY we think philosophers have done as they have done”, rather than “what we think philosophers have done…”.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Oh, one last point before I stop spamming. Information that stays within a clique can provide no benefit to those outside the clique, nor can it be critiqued by those outside the clique, even when, as is so often the case in philosophy, work in one clique has direct bearing on work in another clique.Report

Timothy Stock
Timothy Stock
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
3 years ago

Well, I’m tempted to simply let this response stand, and let other’s decide the merits of your position. I’m not convinced. In particular I don’t see how science is especially comprehensible to those outside of science, beyond simple examples like planetary orbits. I’ve witnessed enough confusion when parsing evolution, for example, or various naive claims to quantum physics, or even evidentiary warrants in various popular studies in epidemiology, to think there will always be plenty of science that is ripe for misunderstanding and abuse. Most people don’t understand that the percentage of precipitation in weather reports, however objective, doesn’t refer to their personal chance of being rained on. On the alternate thrust of your argument (not going point-by-point, if you’ll forgive me), I don’t understand why an introductory reading of Aristotle’s “Poetics” wouldn’t prepare most non-literary types for a rich discussion of what the basic modes of literary expression (such as character and plot) have to offer, for example, in a discussion of psychological or moral agency. Mostly I don’t think the science vs. non-science dichotomy (especially when used as a marker of something like accessibility or clarity) serves philosophy well. But perhaps we do agree that the problem of jargon, etc., is under-discussed.Report