Summer Seminar 2017, August 21-23
‘What the Humanities Contribute to the University’
How Literature Embodies Unique Epistemic Value:
A Case Study of Ignorance, Knowledge, and Understanding in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Edith Wharton’s Summer
Dr. Rik Peels
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Some adherents of scientism, such as Alex Rosenberg, claim that the natural sciences deliver epistemic values such as knowledge and understanding, whereas, say, literature and literary studies, merely have aesthetic value. Many of those working in the field of literary studies oppose this idea. But it isn’t clear at all exactly how works of literary art embody knowledge and understanding and how literary studies can bring these out. After all, they are pieces of fiction, which suggests that they are not meant to represent the actual world. I argue that literature and literary studies nonetheless contain, confer, and bring about non-trivial knowledge and understanding in a variety of ways: they confer moral propositional knowledge, they question certain misguided concepts and hermeneutical frameworks, and they deliver non-propositional insight and understanding with respect to meaning, virtue, and significance. I also defend the view that literature has a couple of unique tools that make it especially suited to pursue and reach these epistemic values. In the course of the argument, I refer at several junctures to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Edith Wharton’s Summer, two novels that criticize dominant moral and social norms and paradigms, and in which the main character herself goes through of phase of (often harsh) knowledge acquisition.
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