Argumenta – Journal of Analytic Philosophy

This article defends literary cognitivism, the view that literature can convey genuine propositional knowledge, in the form of propositions which are (i) true (ii) justified and (iii) have aesthetic value because they convey such knowledge. I reply to familiar objections to this view, and reformulate it as the thesis that literary knowledge is a form practical knowledge that is only derivatively propositional. I attempt to apply some ideas to be found in Stanley’s and Williamson’s conception of knowing how. Literary knowledge is a kind of practical knowing how of propositions involving demonstrative practical modes of presentation. This conception has often been criticized, rightly, for relying on a notion of knowing how that is too intellectualist. But in the case of literary knowledge, where we never get direct knowledge of experience or practice, and where our knowledge is always mediated by the properties of form and style, this drawback is actually a virtue.

Although nobody would deny that we learn a lot from reading literary works, as soon as one tries to say more precisely what it means to come to know something from them, the answers become elusive. There is after all a long tradition in literary criticism according to which the aim of literature is to bring us knowledge of the world and of human nature. It is often called “literary humanism”.


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