Invoking both a philosopher: Aristotle, and a novelist: Henry James, in Love’s Knowledge (1990) Martha Nussbaum writes of the importance of “perception” for ethical attentiveness and judgment or practical wisdom (phronēsis). This perception is defined as “the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s practical situation.” Such perception works in conjunction with or supplements moral philosophy’s traditional emphasis on rules or principles and categories, for the latter are not sufficient alone to make sense of the novelty of, or interconnected “particulars” in, our experience. Put differently, they cannot, unaided, cultivate a capacity to sensitively respond to new circumstances and situations. Experiential learning with regard to ethical living, in other words, “requires the cultivation of perception and responsiveness: the ability to read a situation, singling out what is relevant for thought and action.”
This emphasis on perception reminded me of an aphorism from Nietzsche:
“Learning to see—accustoming the eye to calmness, to patience, to letting things come up to it; postponing judgment, learning to go around and grasp each individual case from all sides. This is the first preliminary schooling for spirituality.” (Beyond Good and Evil)
While we may cultivate such perception and responsiveness through the emulation of exemplars of ethical goodness should we have the good fortune to intimately know and interact with such individuals in the daily round, literature, and especially novels, at least novels of a certain sort, can likewise and more routinely if not reliably offer us guidance on this score as well for they, in Nussbaum’s words, “exemplify and offer such learning:” “Our experience is, without fiction, too confined and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what would otherwise be too distant for feeling. The importance of this for both morals and politics cannot be underestimated.”
Literature’s capacity to peer, second-hand or at one-remove* as it were, into the lives of others, to cultivate a certain kind of “seeing” characterized by “calmness,” “patience,” the postponement of judgment, the appreciation of different perspectives, and the engagement of our emotions (sympathy, compassion and empathy for example) in a way that complements and motivates our rational reflections and deliberations, these are among the features intrinsic to the act of reading literature of a certain sort that Nussbaum chooses to highlight for its contribution to ethical reflection, moral deliberation and our understanding of virtuous living generally. And fiction, especially the novel, is the focus of her analysis because modern philosophical rhetoric, the mode of writing philosophy, at least for one’s peers in the profession, is constitutionally ill-suited if not unable to cultivate the aforementioned qualities believed to enrich moral thinking and action. Literature’s capacity to widen our horizons in this manner, to help us appreciate various perspectives outside our own experience, called to mind yet another aphorism of Nietzsche:
“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing;’ and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” (Daybreak or The Dawn)
The best literature, for Nussbaum, in effect provides us with more and different eyes. Moreover, Nietzsche’s stress on “more affects” in this regard is repeated in Nussbaum’s discussion of our emotional involvement with the novel, which is shorn of the more intemperate or darker displays of feeling we find in personal encounters, and thus in some sense, with the act of reading we lack the degree of attachment to our emotions found in personal interactions: our emotional engagement with the text is characterized by a kind of detachment congenial to enhanced self-awareness and self-knowledge.
Linda Zagzebski provocatively argues for a “direct reference” exemplarist virtue ethics in her book Divine Motivation Theory (2004) that is of some relevance here. And we might benefit from her proposal even if we choose, as I do, to set aside (or ignore) the theological components of her theory. According to Zagzebski, the “concept of good person arises from exemplars:” “We do not have criteria for goodness in advance of identifying the exemplars of goodness.” Thus, the phronimos, that is, the person who exhibits practical wisdom, “can be defined, roughly, as a person like that, where we make a demonstrative reference to a paradigmatically good person.” The late Robert Nozick wrote about such practically wise and good persons in perhaps his best work, Philosophical Explanations (1981):
“We all know people, I hope, who bring out the best in us, people in whose presence we would be embarrassed to speak or act from unworthy motives, people who glow. In their presence we feel elevated. We are pushed, or nudged further along a path of development and perfection; rather, we are inspired to move ourselves along, in the direction shown. [….] We want to find a way of living whereby our best energies and talents are poured out so as to speak to and improve the best energies and talents of others. We want to utilize our highest parts and energies in a way that helps others to flourish.”
It may very well be the case that we don’t intimately know such people as Nozick describes, or our encounters with them are few and far between. In such instances we can turn to literature as a substitute for live moral exemplars, for “if all the concepts in a formal ethical theory are rooted in a person, then narratives and descriptions of that person are morally significant [as in the narrative accounts, say, of the Buddha or Buddhist arahant or bodhisattva, the Daoist or Stoic sage, Jesus and Christian saints, Gandhi, Sufi saints…].” Narratives are given a priority in an exemplarist virtue ethics, for they’re capable of providing us with “detailed and temporally extended observations of persons.” Of course we need not simply have recourse to the narratives of perfectly good persons of the sort we often encounter in religious literature. Less-than-perfect narrative exemplars found in many novels can model the sort of virtue required “in the messy situations that ordinary, less-than-virtuous persons encounter in modern life….” As Zagzebski reminds us, cultures have traditionally “enshrine[d] the wisdom of exemplars in myths, legends, the lives of saints and heroes, and in sacred literature,” while today we more often turn to personal acquaintances and literature (or even films) for our moral exemplars, although we’re faced, alas, with the unfortunate fact that the post-modern novel represents a “notable decline in the depiction of individuals who are morally better than the ordinary, [as] art no longer has the function of representing moral exemplars.” The primary task of (ethical) literary criticism in the contemporary world might therefore be one of identifying those works of literature, in particular novels, distinctive for their narrative depictions in the broadest sense of moral exemplars (as well as their converse). In Love’s Knowledge Nussbaum invokes works by Henry James, Dickens, and Proust (among others), although we can well imagine other writers perfectly suited to this task: Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Pablo Neruda (a poet), Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khoury, J.M. Coetzee, Ursula Le Guin, Nadine Gordimer, and Margaret Atwood, for example.
We close with mention of one of our foremost political theorists, Robert E. Goodin, who seems to have taken to heart Nussbaum’s thoughts on the role of literature’s capacity to extend and deepen our experience with regard to morals and politics (whether directly or not is hard to say, although he does cite several of her books in a note) in his book, Reflective Democracy (2001). Goodin explains how “deliberative democratic theory” attempts to identify methods and procedures whereby we can correct for uninformed, malformed or distorted, in short, irrational or unreflective preferences of the kind commonplace in modern (mass) democratic societies: “Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being
- more empathetic with the plight of others;
- more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable;
- more far-reaching in both time and space [i.e., not myopic or marked by inconsistent and temporal time discounting], taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples, and different interests”
“is not just that fiction (and art more generally) might, and often does, contain allusions to social, economic, political, and historical facts, and in that way may serve certain didactic purposes. The larger point is that those lessons come packed with more emotional punch and engage our imagination in more effective ways than do historical narratives or reflective essays of a less stylized sort [e.g., much of Anglo-American analytic philosophy!]. ‘Artists,’ John Dewey says, ‘have always been the real purveyors of news, for it is not the outward happening in itself which is new, but the kindling by it of emotion, perception, and appreciation…. Democracy will have its consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication.’ That is not just to say that novelists are more evocative writers than historians or essayists (true though that may be, too). Rather, they fix their focus on the particular—one person, or one action or one period—and they introduce generalities by way of anecdotes, episodes viewed from that particular perspective. That vivid evocation of the particular, in turn, has important consequences for the uptake of works of art. Inevitably, we find it relatively easy to project ourselves imaginatively into the place of some specific (fictitious but grounded) other. It is necessarily harder to project ourselves imaginatively into the inevitably underdescribed sorts of amorphous and abstract others which are the stock and trade of historians and social scientists [and, Nussbaum would add, the real and hypothetical agents of ethical theorizing in contemporary philosophy].”
* This can be understood in several different ways, at least one of which entails recognizing that, in H. Porter Abbot’s words, “as true as it is that narrative can be an art and that art thrives on narrative, narrative is also something we all engage in, artists and non-artists alike. We make narratives many times a day, every day of our lives. And we start doing so almost from the moment we begin putting words together.” For a “philosophy of mind” analysis of the fundamental role of folk-psychological narratives in the child’s acquiring the capacity of understanding intentional actions performed for reasons, please see Daniel D. Hutto’s Folk Psychological Narratives: The Sociocultural Basis of Understanding Reasons (2008).
- Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1983.
- Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
- Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
- Chari, V.K. Sanskrit Criticism. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1990. [I have included this book because I believe the treatment of the emotions one finds in rasa aesthetic theory can best account for the way in which Nussbaum understands the unique manner in which works of literature engage our emotions. As I’ve written elsewhere: In Indian aesthetics, and speaking in this instance with regard to the art of poetry, the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) argued that, properly conceived and executed, a poem’s cognitive content allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying) (svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, “a form of self-contemplation.” Thus “rasa as ‘aesthetic flavour’ comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion” (Harsha Dehejia). This is one way we might makes sense of the psychological and epistemic mechanisms behind Iris Murdoch’s claim that good art “affords us pure delight in what is excellent,” and why “Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.”]
- Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. Shadows of Ethics: Criticism and the Just Society. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
- Hutto, Daniel, ed. Narrative and Understanding Persons. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
- Landy, Joshua. Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Martinich, A.P. and Avrum Stroll. Much Ado About Nonexistence: Fiction and Reference. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2007.
- McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Murdoch, Iris (Peter Conradi, ed.). Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.