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In defense of literature

Last week I had an unfortunate conversation with a student from the Secular Student Alliance. We had our conversation about the nature of the divine: I claimed that forces can exist beyond a human’s realm of perception (our five senses) and he believed if something is not scientifically quantifiable then it does not exist. His argument deteriorated into a criticism of anything speculative and, by extension, theories in general.

His arguments deteriorated further into a criticism of any academic discipline not based in empirical, scientific data. He then claimed the English department at SCSU must be disbanded because art is simply decoding what the artist was “trying to say” and literary theory and English professors just get in the way of this.

This pessimism is not only grotesquely false, it is shamefully pervasive in the student body. I unfortunately must have this argument on a regular basis, as any outspoken social sciences student will as well. Indeed, too often people rashly assert that if studies do not produce a tangible, practical effect on the world then they are illegitimate.

Art does not “try to say” anything, it is ambiguous by nature and thus lends itself to an infinite number of possible interpretations. Art and literature do not have a “deep hidden meaning” to be decoded from a poetic language or artistic style.

And if art and literature have infinite number of interpretations, we need our professors to provoke questions that will lead us to new understandings of the work, and to gain insights and contexts we wouldn’t have ordinarily known.

But what exactly is pragmatic about literature? What purpose does art serve? How does someone outside the University benefit from my study of Romantic literature?

Art gives us a version of our world that is distanced from our own reality so as to show the defects and perfections of it.

A psychologist can’t study their own psyche, they must study the mind of another; on a larger scale, humanity can’t study itself, it must study a distanced version of itself.

The art of literature is more than a cute story with a beginning, middle, and end, it is a philosophizing of morality, of good and evil, and of the human condition. Thus, both art and literature help us understand ourselves, and their academic study gives us a clearer, fuller understanding of them.

But sadly, the job of defending poetry and the study thereof will never end. Critics of art, literature, and, more broadly, culture, will never achieve their goal, nor will they ever cease trying to limit the influence of art. Defending the legitimacy of poetry is a tradition that goes back at least as far as the 18th century, and realistically much farther.

Art and literature lacks pragmatism. That is, it is idealistic as opposed to practical.

They don’t build bridges or cure diseases—their effects on humans can’t be measured using our five senses. It is fitting, then, that the Atheist would be the strongest critic of art and literature, for the Atheist does not accept things that cannot be measured by humans.

Listening to an Economics student philosophize about the nature of art and literature in society is just about the equivalent of reading Richard Dawkins writing about theology.

People need to be more humble about their academic disciplines.

We don’t all understand each other’s ways of finding truth in the world, but how can you say that the thousands of scholars and intellectuals, their millions of hours studying, are all false and illegitimate?

All forms of academic study are worthy of praise and none should be subtracted—what we need is more academic disciplines, more ways of finding truth about the human condition, not less.

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Literature student in the English department

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  • Benjamin Seghers

    Well, this might come as a disappointment to the author, but back as my time as a student at SCSU I was not only a student of economics, but also an active member of the Secular Student Alliance. Surely, then, my opinion on the subject matter at hand will lack merit, be full of arrogance, and lack the humility required of my academic discipline–at least, in the eyes of the author. But let me at least try to defend the importance of art, literature, empiricism, and science within society, however arrogant I might be in attempting so.

    You see, some atheists (such as myself), while understanding the critical importance that scientific realism plays within contemporary society, believe that literature, art, and philosophy are also important aspects of our culture and should not be dismissed. To say that art does not exist because it lacks objectivity is a non-sequitur. However, it is equally nonsense to state “the Atheist does not accept things that cannot be measured by humans.”

    Atheism is no more than an epistemological stance on the nonexistence of deities, or otherwise on the lack of empirical evidence required to believe their (or its) existence. It is, more broadly, the rejection of the supernatural, an embrace of healthy skepticism, and an admiration of those things natural. It is not, under any rational description, a rejection of the subjective. It does not, by its definition, dismiss the role that, say, art or literature plays in shaping culture. An individual atheist may very well take the subjective stance that art is unimportant, lacks merit, or should be dismissed as illegitimate. But that says no more about atheism than it does about SCSU because the individual was a student of the university.

    I agree with the author that things like art and literature are important aspects of the human condition, full of interpretations and expressions that help define and shape culture. In fact, I believe so strongly in the importance of art and literature that I dismiss the author’s view that it lacks pragmatism. To wit, I believe it serves an as important agent in social change. For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped inspire the abolitionist movement, created a far-reaching consciousness, and reinforced the moral principles upon which civil society rests. Or take the rebelling slaves in Haiti who took very seriously the literature of “American Revolutionaries,” including the idea that “all men are created equal,” helping create the first real slave revolt in the hemisphere, possibly the world. And the role that art has played in propagandizing efforts is still a widely discussed topic. So, yes, I find art and literature, while ultimately a subjective experience, to be very pragmatic and influential on culture.

    That said, one cannot also deny the importance of science and empiricism. Science if the foundation from which cures and medicine, technology, understanding of the cosmos, agriculture, architecture, and so many other things come. We owe modern society to it. It is not from mysticism and the supernatural that we get these things. It comes from careful observation of the world around us and coming up with rational explanations that are open to testing. It is from this that we gain knowledge in epistemological sense. And it is from this understanding that the atheist rejects the demands of theism.

  • Benjamin Seghers

    BTW, I just watched this TED video and thought it was fantastic. It’s about how art can be used to changed the world. The speaker calls art an “enabler.” It was really an inspiring speech. You can watch it here:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/jr_s_ted_prize_wish_use_art_to_turn_the_world_inside_out.html

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