Literature and Analysis

I’m increasingly understanding an important distinction in the intent of authors, which I’d like to share in half-baked terms for you to pick apart. Bear in mind this is just a model I’m finding useful at the moment.

I have, to this point, assumed that all descriptive non-fiction is analytical. That is, a non-fiction text is authored to say what it means. And so one can judge the meaning and the worth of a work by reading it and understanding it. This is a useful assumption. Because it mostly is true. Some works may be better written than others, may use language more artfully, and be easier to get drawn in. But ultimately a writer says what they are trying to say.

But I’m increasingly understanding another kind of authorial intent. That, for the sake of classification, I’ll call literary. In these cases what is written is largely irrelevant. The point is to provide the reader with an aesthetic experience, of language, of concepts and of their relation. The text itself may be explicitly meaningless, untrue, or downright offensive. But that doesn’t matter: the point is to experience the brilliant artistry of the author.

So I read Kant, for example, analytically. And he makes a couple of excellent, excellent arguments. Unfortunately he takes 500 pages to do it, and says lots of things on the way that make no sense whatsoever. So I find I don’t much like Kant. And I talk to philosophers who are Kant fans and they have no desire to discuss the analytic points I’ve discerned. To them Kant isn’t making great arguments about Epistemology, he is a literary artist, exploring the language and dynamics of the philosophical form. I see the same thing in some theologians. It might be possible to write a theology completely devoid of any analytical insight, but that provides a transcendent aesthetic experience.

Does that make sense? If so, when literary works can sound like they’re making analytic points (but either terrible ones or ones that are obviously wrong), how do we tell the difference? How do we tell the difference between intentional meaningless, conceit, and general cluelessness? My gut reaction is to cry that the literary emperor has no clothes, but the small vestige of intellectual humility I have left gives me cause to pause.



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13 responses to “Literature and Analysis

  1. reminds me of my two favorite TED talks. First is “The Myths that Mystify” and the second which is “We are the Stories we tell Ourselves.”

    i side with the literature approach. i see you as the analytic (not entirely, but for brevity’s sake). both have their pluses and minuses but both are necessary, IMHO. what we can’t do is draw lines in the sand and yell and rattle sabers and i see that happening with my right wing, conservative types and the “new” atheists like Dawkins and such. it makes me sad.

  2. Absolutely — I strongly agree. Heck, I even agree analytically.
    I have always felt this way about Kant. An atheist friend of mine just spent 8 months with 4 other guys getting together every week to read and discuss Kant. I was invited at the beginning but had absolutely no desire to waste my time.
    Likewise with all the very many theologies you are drawing an analogy to.
    But I will tell my friend about this post and see if he wants to respond — as see if his response carries any analytic content.

    Good post, well written. Thanx

  3. Really important post, Ian. Your distinction is useful for every subject and not just theology.

    “how do we tell the difference?”

    well, a good well-rounded education, and practice in critical thinking?

    Bookstore categories can give some hints — “Autobiography”, “Politics” and “Spirituality” are all primers to beware the literary content. Anything in an advertising medium needs to be read carefully. Which now, well, means everything I guess…

    Although it is not standard, any book cover that puts the author’s name above the title could be a clue that author-experience has trumped analytical content.

  4. Ian

    @zero – thanks for the links. I love TED talks, but I confess I’ve only seen a small proportion. Your point, I think I am getting. That if something is intended as literature, then there is no point decrying it (and its fans) for it not being analytic. Kind of like shouting at a truck-manufacturer for building lousy sports cars.

    @sabio – Thanks! 8 months of Kant – I don’t blame you for running a mile!

    @andrew – Thanks for the compliment. One of the frustrations is that I read stuff that seems to me to be obviously analytic. The person goes through the motions of trying to say something, building an argument, and so on. But when it turns out that argument is crap, the author (more often their advocates) uses the ‘literary’ angle as a kind of bait and switch. Kindof the way some religionists turn their own physical, rational claims into claims about the spiritual world, as soon as you point out their error. And then, in both cases, there’s often a little flash of condecention, as if to say “ah, gee, you and your quaint modernist notions….”

  5. Brandon


    I am the fellow that Sabio mentioned. Also, for clarification, I read the First Critique in depth. I’m also familiar with (and reject) his moral philosophy.

    I feel I have to make my perspective clear before I go on: Kant was a figure in the history of philosophy, writing at a certain time and responding to a certain set of questions. These questions may not have been solved per se, but they affect us differently today. And so of course one has a point that his arguments are not philosophically relevant in more pressing (fashionable?) sense. Wittgenstein contends that philosophical problems are never solved, but are rather “dissolved” as the rest of the world unfolds. The question I think we have to ask when we decide to take up a historical figure is “what impact did they have on the then-unfolding development of the issues in question?” To that end, I think it is generally recognized that Kant played a very significant role. Inspired by Hume, he fused rationalism and idealism, forging a very philosophically influential third alternative. Having said that, I’m not sure I quite agree with some of the points you’re making – especially in taking Kant as a valuable literary writer. For one, the general vibe I get is that Kant is considered to be a rather bad writer in the stylistic sense. I’ve joked that reading Kant is like reading through the manual to a microwave. His writing is so incredibly dry and technical, it is impossible for me to even reconcile the word “literary” the impression of Kant that I am left with after closing the book. And even in a broader thematic sense of the term, I have to disagree. Kant considered himself to be doing nothing less than a hard-core science, even though we do not quite view it that was in retrospect. He wanted to kill metaphysics, and historically speaking he did a pretty good job at helping to reign in the questions we ought to stop asking. I don’t want to go into detail, because this is already getting over-long, but there were many places in the CPR where Kant would have modern day materialists cheering from the sidelines. In particular, in the transcendental dialectic.

    Your point: “And I talk to philosophers who are Kant fans and they have no desire to discuss the analytic points I’ve discerned. To them Kant isn’t making great arguments about Epistemology, he is a literary artist, exploring the language and dynamics of the philosophical form.” I have to admit I was completely taken aback by this statement. I mean, Kant gave us synthetic a priori knowledge and worked out the noumental/phenomenal distinction(!). Granted, if one doesn’t want to play the game of philosophy, that’s fine – but for a philosopher to say that he was not making great (read: historically influential) arguments in epistemology… I don’t really understand that at all.

    Nice to meet you, Ian. I feel a little bad at this point, because I really didn’t address any of your thematic points but instead went on at length about how I believe Kant differs from them. This may or may not be of value to you, so please take with a grain of salt.

  6. ” Kind of like shouting at a truck-manufacturer for building lousy sports cars.”

    haha! yeah! the problem being, as i stated before, there are those on the literary side that want to act like it’s analytic. they are just as misguided as the analytic types who want to say that the literary side holds no truth at all. both are frustrating to me here in the radical middle. for example; i feel the best possible metaphor for our post-9/11 world came in the form of the updated Battlestar Galactica series on SciFi. it was able to give the atmosphere and feel to the situation that analytics just couldn’t seem to capture. the best literature IMHO knows the analytics and uses them as the creative basis to leap from.

  7. Ian

    Ah but there is the rub, I think, zero. Because I am very, very happy to have truth communicated through art. Through fiction, even through non-fiction that is candid about what it is doing. So BG as a great statement of post-911 truth? Sure okay, I don’t watch it, but I have no problem with that claim. But BG is fiction, and it is clear it is so.

    When a theologian writes aesthetically they write about God is such-and-such, which means this-and-that. There is no convention that they say “hey, what I’m about to say isn’t supposed to correspond to reality – I’m trying to get at some kind of aesthetic sense”. It comes across as a person making claims about God. Which, if I’m right, it isn’t.

  8. i guess it all comes down to what they mean by God. if the theologian is writing about some big daddy/being in the sky, then yeah, i rub against it too. i don’t believe in that god, in that sense i’m an atheist. if they are writing about the “ground of being” as some aesthetic sense that may or may not take an active role in our lives* in some sort of massive feedback loop, then yeah, i’m on that level.

    so i think i read you right and agree to an extent. where i rub is having such rigid boundaries. “this is fiction and this is science.” one is just a story and the other is truth. in my mind, truth is related to, but not dependent on fact. for example: BSG really gives me a way of looking at our post-9/11 world and giving truths about it in an indirect way. the fact of gravity doesn’t really mean all that much to me, it just is. i don’t find any great truth in it and largely ignore it save for when i’m lamenting that i can’t dunk a bball like i used to.

    last night we had our bible study. i gave an alternate interpretation of Mark’s “Legion” story and really pissed a few people off. i told them that when imagination wanes, that’s when doctrines get rigid and we argue over really stupid things. i see this happening, as stated before, with the religious and science fundamentalists. gotta have both IMHO. i get that i’m more on the big picture and i struggle with the details. i’m really happy to have you and Sabio and others around that raise up the details that would elude me and the circles i run it. so thanks!

    *of course i side on the “may” yet remain rather agnostic to how that all works. i’m just after the meta-truths like nonviolence, servant-leadership, and the like that i think are true and divine ideas as they are so NOT human.

  9. Ian

    @Brandon – thanks for taking the time to comment, and welcome to the blog!

    Kant as a writer – This all stems from the aftermath of my reading the two critiques, particular Pure Reason. My experience was as you suggest: one of being frustrated with his clunky writing, various non-sequitirs. But really appreciating (what I saw as) his central arguments. In Critique of Pure Reason, for example, the synthetic a-priori, I felt that I got. It was argued, and made sense to me. I liked Kant’s model that allowed him that argument too, that chimed with how I saw the world, and knowledge in particular.

    But then, voicing my frustration with the fact that this argument was distributed among what I either couldn’t fathom or decided was meaningless, I spoke to two friends who are academic Kant scholars (i.e. tenured philosophy profs). Admittedly both approach Kant from a more existential academic tradition. But it was their nonchalance about any epistemological message in Kant that motivated that statement.

    I suspect this might be part of the distinction between the analytic philosophical tradition (I didn’t read philosophy, but the philosophy electives I took as an undergrad were distinctly analytical in nature) and the European tradition (which my friends are more situated in). Which in turn is probably just another way of stating the distinction I’m trying to make in this post.

    I’m glad, however, that as someone who clearly knows a ton more about Kant than I do, that you seem to be directly allied to my intuition. That Kant was trying to do hard-core epistemology. And succeeding, albeit hampered by his tortuous style (the latter imho, of course).

    I feel a little bad at this point, because I really didn’t address any of your thematic points but instead went on at length about how I believe Kant differs from them.

    Actually you’ve made me very happy! I can stop feeling like I am fundamentally a Kant imbecile!

  10. Ian

    Incidentally Brandon, my comment about not much liking Kant is really related to the difficulty I have in reading him. As opposed to, say Hume, or Nietzsche, or even Kierkegaard (who clearly does act literarily at times).

  11. Ian

    Wow zero – I so wish I could spend an evening chatting with you. There’s about three different threads in that last response I want to dive into where you’re at!

    Just to clarify, I don’t think that stories aren’t ‘truth’. I don’t have a ‘science’ vs ‘art’ dichotomy. I think there are semantic complications, but Hamlet is at the same time both true and fictional. Kierkegaard (since I just used that example) I naturally read as very literary, because he writes like that. My problem is with art that thinks it is science.

    the like that i think are true and divine ideas as they are so NOT human.

    That was the money-quote for me. I’d love to explore this more, but I fear we’d completely derail this post if we do.

  12. “Just to clarify, I don’t think that stories aren’t ‘truth’. I don’t have a ’science’ vs ‘art’ dichotomy.”

    i know, and that’s why i keep coming back! 😀 i think we’re on the same place on this issue coming at it from different starting points.

  13. “some religionists turn their own physical, rational claims into claims about the spiritual world, as soon as you point out their error. ”

    Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You want emotionally invested people who begin with their own conclusion and then work towards it analytically to just admit when they’ve been mistaken? That could be a devastating blow to the ego, as well as to any argument or conclusion they are invested in (especially for academics 🙂 ).

    I mean, there are entire schools of rhetoric built on how to avoid admitting to being wrong!

    I get your point, Ian, and think think it is of immense importance. But we have a tough slog ahead if we are going to get persuasive people to consciously notify us of their intentions. Our minds almost unconsciously flip between ‘story’ and ‘science’ too easily, to use the words of your conversation with z1g. Are you asking for a fundamental shift in how people present themselves? If so, well yes that would be very cool. We’re certainly due, and I’m in.

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