The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

First response to the anti-cognitivist

In Step Three I presented for critical consideration an argument which tried to show that literature cannot teach us anything important. In this section I am going to present objections to that argument. Specifically, I’m going to object to premises 1) and 2).

Premise Two

I’ll focus on premise 2 of the anti-cognitivist argument first. Premise 2 said:

2) Literature does not give us true beliefs, justified in the right way.

Remember that I offered two possible sources of support for premise 2 of the anti-cognitivist argument.

Support One

The function of literature is not (normally) to make claims or assertions, but rather to ask the reader to entertain in imagination certain scenarios, without considering whether they are true or false or not.

Possible Response

This premise assumes that if a piece of literature has the function of asking the reader to entertain a certain scenario in imagination, it can’t simultaneously have a different function: that of presenting the reader with a claim or assertion, that is supposed to be believed as true. But this doesn’t seem right. It seems that some sentences or passages within literary fictions simultaneously might have a dual function: they might ask the reader to a) imagine those sentences are true b) believe those sentences are true. For instance, the opening sentences of the novel The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell, say that

‘The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map’.


J.G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978, p.3


It seems perfectly possible that Farrell, in writing these sentences, wished the reader a) to imagine they were true (along with whatever else the fiction asks the reader to imagine – a story about a family called the Blacketts who lived in Singapore in 1937); and b) believe that they are true (though not to also believe the story about the Blacketts, which was wholly invented by Farrell). So in that case, these sentences have a dual function: to bring about imagining in the reader AND belief. And if that is right, then the fact that these sentences ask the reader to entertain in imagination a scenario about Singapore does not mean that the sentences don’t also make a claim which could be true or false, and which is being presented as true and to be believed by the reader.

One might worry that even if in some sense, a sentence or passage from a literary work functions both to invite the reader to imagining and to invite belief, it is not in fact possible for the text to fulfil these functions, on the grounds that it is not possible for someone to imagine something to be true and to believe it at the same time. But in response to this worry, first, note that strictly speaking the possibility of imagining and believing both at the same time is not required in order to refute point i): one might first imaginatively engage with the opening sentences from The Singapore Grip, and then believe them, and one would have still done as work apparently invited the reader to do.

But second, note also that in any case it does seem possible to imagine and believe something at the same time. Take the following case, based on a description of an experiment carried out by the psychologist Alan Leslie (see the Further Resources section for the reference). Some children are having a pretend tea party. They have some empty toy cups and an empty toy teapot. One of them pretends to fill one of the cups with tea. She then pretends to drink all the tea from that cup. So now there is something she both imagines (I am assuming that pretending implies imagining) and believes, at the same time: namely, that the cup is empty. Perhaps then this is what some literary passages like the opening sentences of The Singapore Grip ask us to do: imagine them, and believe them, at the same time.

Support Two

For literature to provide knowledge, it is not enough that it makes claims which are in fact true – the true claims must also be justified. Even if literature did make claims or assertions, it could not make justified claims or assertions. Take the example of the opening sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: ‘Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. This looks like a claim. But it is not yet a justified claim. For this claim to be justified, it would have to have been produced in a respectable way e.g. via observation of a large enough sample size of families. It is not clear that literary authors do this sort of empirical research when they write their books.

Possible Response

It is false that authors of literature never do any research into empirical facts. Consider historical novelists such as Pat Barker or Hilary Mantel who often write fiction heavily infused with historical facts about certain times, places and events. Pat Barker has written a famous trilogy of novels about the First World War (the Regeneration Trilogy); Hilary Mantel has written about Tudor figure Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII (Wolf Hall) Both novelists are well-known for doing lots of research into archives and other historical sources of information to write their works. This seems to make many ‘claims’ they make or imply in such novels look well-justified.

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