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Metaphor and knowledge in literature


To: Walter F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Metaphor and knowledge in literature
Date: 9 March 2007 12:11

Dear Walter,

Thank you for your email of 1 March, with your essay for the Associate program, 'Knowledge in Literature'.

My first impression, from reading this, is that you have combined together two completely separate essay topics.

There is the topic of metaphor, and the various theories that have been put forward to explain how metaphor works. Then there is the topic of knowledge through literature, responding to the sceptical challenge that literature is incapable of communicating knowledge which could not have been better conveyed in a more straightforward way.

One way of reading this essay is simply as a report of 'work in progress'. You have taken a lot on board, learned a lot about these two areas, and this is the result of your research to date. That would be absolutely fine, so far as it goes. Eventually, you might hope to produce two essays from this starting point, one on metaphor and one on knowledge in literature.

It occurred to me, however, that there is an interesting philosophical question here in the connection between metaphor and knowledge. More precisely, how is it possible to convey knowledge through metaphor? Surely, anything that can be said using metaphor can be better said in non-metaphorical language?

This seems to parallel Stolnitz's criticisms of the view that literature can be a source of knowledge (although there is no indication whether Stolnitz considers the specific question whether metaphor can be a source of knowledge). Could it be that an answer to the question about metaphor and knowledge might be used as the basis for a response to Stolnitz?

First, is it possible to convey knowledge through metaphor? One work which you haven't referred to is Lakoff and Johnson 'Philosophy in the Flesh' which argues that metaphor is pervasive in language, to the point where it is hardly possible to find any terms which do not have a metaphorical component.

Leaving aside that radical claim, it could still be argued that a significant portion, perhaps the most significant portion of human knowledge arises from conceptual innovation. The capacity to produce and understand metaphors is essential to the human ability to innovate conceptually, and indeed there is no other way to do this. We have to take the understandings that we have and use these - through various methods of metaphorical extension - to create new understandings. In a sense, there are no new ideas under the sun. Everything we discover, every new idea that we form, is based on ideas that we had before.

This presents the startling prospect that one might see the 'creativity' of such thinkers as Newton or Einstein, as the same kind of thing - from a sufficiently lofty perspective - as that of Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Henry James. This is literature as a source of 'new' insights, extending language in ways which could not have been predicted.

Your case for knowledge from or through literature is based on the idea that we can learn 'what it is like' to be in a given situation. Coincidentally, my wife was telling our youngest daughter Francesca, who is nearly 12 that she really ought to read 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. The book has been wrongly smeared with the 'Uncle Tom' image, while it is in fact a deeply sympathetic and valuable document of a time that has now passed. This is the writer as reporter, picking up on aspects of reality that no-one else has taken the trouble to notice before, and conveying these to the sufficiently sensitive reader.

However, bearing in mind what I have suggested about metaphor, I would question whether this is the only way that knowledge can be conveyed through literature. This seems to emphasise the 'documentary' aspect of literature at the expense of the aspect which 'explores possible worlds' (for want of a better term). Exploring possible worlds is not confined to science fiction, although science fiction writers have undoubtedly contributed to human knowledge by this means.

The documentary author tells us, 'this is how it is' (or 'this is how it was') while the exploratory author tells us, 'this is how things might be'. A novel examining human relationships could belong in either of these categories.

It could also be argued that taking both of these categories together still leaves a large swathe of literature still unaccounted for. I am thinking of authors who indulge in flights of fancy which go well beyond the literal, whether it be literal documentation or literal speculation; literature which is closer to poetry, which exploits the human capacity to be gripped by a story, however improbable, to convey a vision whose meaning cannot be expressed in literal terms.

All the best,