The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Second response to the anti-cognitivist

I will now turn to Premise 1 of the anti-cognitivist argument, also described earlier in Step Three. Premise 1 said:

1) If literature were able to teach us anything important, it would teach us knowledge: that is it would give us true beliefs, justified in the right way.

Possible Response

This seems false because it ignores a further possibility, namely: literature might be able to teach us things which are important, by giving us understanding rather than knowledge. Specifically, it might give us understanding of why people might commit particular actions.

Here is an argument to suggest that literature can give us this sort of understanding. It is loosely based on an article of mine called ‘Fiction and Psychological Insight’.

  1. One way to understand a particular kind of action is to see what the agent (the person who carries out the action) finds desirable about that action: to understand what the agent wants to achieve by that action, not just in the sense of knowing that the agent wants such-and-such; but rather by understanding what seems desirable to the agent about the action.
  2. Literature can describe the ‘internal’ point of view of a character committing a certain action – her mental states such as desires and beliefs – and thereby show what seemed desirable about that action to the character.
  3. To show what seems desirable about a particular action to a character in a literary work is to show what could seem desirable about that sort of action to a real person in the real world.
  4. Understanding about what could seem desirable about an action, were one to commit it, is a kind of understanding of actual people and their psychological possibilities.
  5. This is an important kind of understanding, which we can gain from literature. Hence the anti-cognitivist conclusion is false: literature can teach us things which are important.


Support for Premise 1

For instance, imagine a case where an agent is doing something apparently incomprehensible: she is covering her face in mud. To understand this action, we want, not just to know what she wants to achieve by covering her face in mud, but also what she finds desirable about this action. Imagine if she tells us that she wants to cover her face in mud because she wants to make her face the same colour as the riverbed. That information alone would not help us understand her action. We still want to know why she wants to make her face the colour of the riverbed. But imagine instead that she tells us she wants to cover her face in mud because she wants to improve her skin by the application of this mud. This helps us understand her action, because we understand what is desirable about having nice skin. We don’t seek further explanations, as we might in the case of the answer about the riverbed. We understand something about her.

Support for Premise 2

Support: consider the case of the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison. Arguably this novel describes to the reader what is desirable to the main character, Sethe, about killing her children. It is desirable to kill her children because she will save them from the horrors of slavery, also described in the novel. Generally, many works of literature explain apparently inexplicable actions in this way.

Support for Premise 3

For instance, in understanding what DID seem desirable to Sethe about killing her children in the novel Beloved, we come to understand what COULD seem desirable to a woman about killing their children, in the context of being threatened by slavery.

I think that premises 4 and 5 are also easily grasped as true. Therefore, premises 1-5 seem to constitute a good argument for why we can learn from some literature, and so some art, generally, after all.

Go to…

Step One

Go to…

Step Two

Go to…

Step Three

Go to…

Step Four

Go to…

Step Five