The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

What can we learn from art?

Some philosophers have thought that we cannot learn anything important from art. These philosophers are sometimes called ‘anti-cognitivists’. At first glance the anti-cognitivist position seems surprising. Note that this is a general claim about all art; so it only needs one counterexample of a case where we do learn from art, to show that the claim generally is false. And there seems one obvious case of an artform where, on the face of it, we can learn important truths.

This is the case of literature. Think of great 18th and 19th Century novels and short stories by authors such as George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Don’t they give us insight into historical circumstances, and more importantly, into human beings? Or perhaps more familiarly, think of some of the stories you have read in English at school. Haven’t you learnt some things about human nature from them? Yet, some philosophers have argued, despite these appearances, in fact we cannot learn anything important from literature. In this section, I will present some of the arguments of people who have thought this. If their arguments are convincing, it will show that even in the most apparently promising case of an artform teaching us important truths – literature – in fact, this artform is not a reliable tool for learning. This will strongly suggest that art generally is not a reliable tool for learning (because this was supposed to be the most promising case, and it turned out not to deliver).

The claim that one cannot learn anything important from art needs to be interpreted in a particular way to look persuasive at all. Obviously the claim isn’t that we can’t learn anything about art from art. An anti-cognitivist could not deny that for instance, looking at an abstract blue painting by Van Gogh can give one the knowledge that Van Gogh used blue paint in at least one of his paintings; or that reading a novel by Jane Austen called Emma gives one knowledge that one of Austen’s characters was called Emma. Rather the anti-cognitivist wants to claim that art, including literature, can’t teach us anything important about the bits of the world that are not artworks – people, historical events, scientific facts and so forth.

Here then is an argument which tries to show that literature cannot teach us anything important about the bits of the world that are not artworks. It is loosely based on certain points made in an article by Jerome Stolnitz (see the Further Resources section for the reference).

Anti-Cognitivist Argument
  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. (For more on the nature of knowledge please see step one of the Knowledge section)
  2. Literature does not give us true beliefs, justified in the right way. Therefore:
  3. Literature cannot teach us knowledge, therefore:
  4. Literature cannot teach us anything important.


Comment on anti-cognitivist argument

In this argument, premises 1) and 2) look like the premises doing most of the controversial work.

Here are two possible grounds of support for 2). (Remember, I am not offering these because I believe them or because I want you to accept them. I am offering them for your critical consideration only. You should ask yourself whether you think they are true or not, and why).

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.

Support Two

As acknowledged above, 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 the right way to confer justification e.g. via observation of a large and varied enough sample size of families. It is not clear that literary authors do this sort of empirical research when they write their books (or that Tolstoy did).


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