“Reading literature and doing philosophy” by Dawn M Wilson

Dawn M Wilson discusses the differences between reading science, literature and philosophy. Philosophy is usually read in similar sense as science, and Wilson argues that it should rather be read in similar sense as literature, and she uses the writings of Wittgenstein to support her point. She writes “[T]he imaginative activity of reading literature is to be seen as a model for understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophical method. My claim is that the way we read literature can help us to understand the way that Wittgenstein wants us to do philosophy.”

Some appetizers from the text:

– “When reading science we assume that the sentences say something, we take for granted the specific context of application that is required, and we only worry about whether what the sentences say is true or false.”
– “In literature we do not make this assumption and instead look to see which context of application, if any, makes sense of the language. We imagine unlimited models of discourse for comparison without having to say that the sentence is reducible to a true claim. ”
– “When we are doing philosophy we should look at our language in the way that we do when we are reading literature, rather than the way that we do when we are reading science. We must be active, imaginative and pluralistic rather than inactive, dogmatic and monistic.”

“The task of philosophy is not to say something, but to see clearly what can be said. ”

(Recently I’ve been thinking a lot in terms of Jungs typology. And this description of the task of philosophy makes it sound like a task for an introverted intuitive mind. One can wonder, is philosophy really an introverted intuitive business?
I think, several ways to answer that question. But we may note Wittgenstein himself was strongly introverted intuitive (that I’m quite certain of).)

“For Wittgenstein, all philosophical problems are confusions arising from a failure to see clearly whether sentences have sense. They are brought about because we look at sentences and assume that they say something. This is easily done because we confuse forms of expression that has a similar appearance and assume that the application is the same”

“In the case of philosophical problems, as soon as we see that the utterance says nothing then the problem disappears, because the problem was nothing more than the confused idea.”

Reference and further reading:

Dawn Wilson – Reading literature and doing philosophy

Earlier I posted a review on an article by Carter Kaplan, “Games critics play”, which seems to me have a lot in common with this article. Both are in the borderland of philosophy and literature, discusses how to encounter a text appropriately, and uses Wittgenstein to support their points.

One famous scholar who treats Wittgenstein in a context of history of literature is Terry Eagleton. Here is a link to a nice essay by Eagleton Wittgenstein’s Friends
I specially liked the part about Wittgenstein and the Bakhtin brothers.


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Literature and art, Metaphilosophy, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “Reading literature and doing philosophy” by Dawn M Wilson

  1. sekhar says:

    Nice blog

  2. Marcus Todd says:

    This seems right. At least it seems right that reading Wittgenstein requires something different than other philosophers. What does it mean to read dogmatically? Is this what you think is haunting analytic philosophy?

    • Dandre says:

      What it means to read dogmatically…well I’m not sure if I can give further clarification, but what comes to my mind: It is to just read from a certain perspective, legitimating only one interpretation, which may be something far from what the author had in mind.
      In fact, I’m just about to publish a new post, suggesting that what might be a problem of (analytic) philosophers is that they tend rely too much on “thinking” and too little on “intuition”. Perhaps a solution could be to use more imagination!

  3. Pingback: Task of philosophy is to use ”introvert intuition”? | Recollecting Philosophy

  4. What you have here is part of the dispute over what philosophy is or should be. Traditionally, philosophy dealt with basic questions about life, knowledge, and ethics. Where it impinged on life, philosophy sought to provide wisdom on how to live or how to deal with particular ethical or moral issues. It was entirely rational.

    Dawn M. Wilson’s position is the modern one that has reduced philosophy to a branch of philology. To philosophize in the modern sense is to argue endlessly (and pointlessly) over the interpretation of texts. Wittgenstein believed that all philosophical disputes arose from disagreements over the definitions of terms: Wilson’s “… a failure to see clearly whether sentences have sense.” Of what use is this degree of hair-splitting to anyone other than ivory-tower scholars? It is every bit as bad as the religious scholars arguing over how many angels you can fit on the end of a pin. Philosophy on these terms has lost its utility and led people to take up more accessible, but extremely foolish (even completely irrational) belief systems.

    For example, to someone looking for answers, of what use is “The task of philosophy is not to say something, but to see clearly what can be said.” As endlessly fascinating as this imaginative speculation may be to those with nothing else to do, it serves no practical purpose in the real world. It is as they say, merely academic.

    • Dandre says:

      Well, I do not see it the same way as you do. To philosophize in Wilson’s sense is not to argue endlessly. In fact, it’s not so much about arguing at all.

      • I am going to mount a friendly challenge to your thinking about philosophy, Dandre. Please do not take this as a hostile act.

        In a previous reply to Marcus Todd, you talk about reading dogmatically. Are you not arguing over the interpretation of texts? The idea is to knock down an interpretation because *someone* thinks it may not be what the *author* intended. Unless this *someone’s* interpretation is identical with the author’s (unlikely), we now have three interpretations in play.

        Then you want to bring in intuition (instinctive knowing) which will most assuredly result in far more interpretations for any given text than you have already. Lots more to argue about there! Moreover, how does one justify an intuitive interpretation of a text when the interpretation is instinctive and therefore unconscious? Are you going to take up Jacque Derrida’s position and claim that all interpretations are valid and an author has lost control of the interpretation of his work the moment he publishes? If so, what would be your objection to a dogmatic interpretation?

      • Dandre says:

        I am thankful for your comment, Thomas. I can sound harsh myself, and can react with antipathy to others, but I do not want any harm in the end!
        As I see it, we are still much talking from different perspectives. About arguing, I’m not much of an arguing person. I consider possibilities, I ask questions, I give suggestions, I present new perspectives, but rarely do I argue.
        And Wilson’s idea about philosophy, as I see it, is much the same. When you say Wilson’s position is turning philosophy into a branch of philology – I’d say the point is very much the opposite. Philology is a science (researching/thinking/arguing discipline) – and Wilson suggests to turn philosophy away from this.

      • Dandre says:

        To your question, about reading dogmatically. I just tried to reply to his question as best as I could, that is explain what I think it means to read dogmatically. There was no value judgement in it. I remember feeling rather silly doing this, as I don’t think my answer was of any further help for him.

        When it comes to justification of interpretations, then one is forced to use ones judging functions – that is thinking (looking for what appears “coherent”) and feeling (looking for what appears “good”). I believe both thinking and feeling is important. What’s not coherent, nor good or useful – would be example of bad philosophy!

  5. Don’t feel silly about your answer to the reading-dogmatically question, Dandre. Your response was precise and entirely correct. I’m sure Mr. Todd found it very useful. In fact, I describe dogmatic readings in the same way.

    • sekhar says:

      Unless word is digested none can either feel or experience said picture.This can happen only through art form like song,dance,drama and literature.Where as science requires some sort of physical form.Philosophy can be understood through narrative pictures without which remains a technical jargon.
      One should keep in mind either doing science or reading philosophy that words are abstract entities all by themselves.Their meanings derived function in an indirect fashion but can never show real as is since meaning is a modified version of originally intended.

      • If I understand you correctly, Sekhar, you are saying there can be understanding only when what is presented is concrete (capable of being perceived by the senses) rather than abstract (existing only in the mind). A “narrative picture” would be like a bridge between the abstract (words) and the concrete (a perceivable scene built by imagination). Do I have it right?

        If I do have it right, then I agree with you. Cognitive research has shown that “geniuses” always have some way of concretizing their ideas and theories. Einstein’s image of riding a beam of light through the cosmos would be a fine example.

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