Literature As A Form Of Public Imagination

I had never paid much attention to the philosophy of literature and the roles literature could play in the public sphere until someone told me how in Plato’s Republic poets were dismissed for arousing thoughtless emotions that cloud the citizens’ judgments. According to Plato, poets did merely interpret and represent things of this world and not the Forms (or ideas) that make up the most fundamental or essential kind of reality. In Plato’s eyes, the world exists of an ‘eternal world’ and a ‘material world’. The former is the realm of ideals and perfect forms. It possesses all objects of knowledge and is more real than the material world. The material world, on the other hand, is a reflection of the eternal world. They are the shadows in the Allegory of the Cave. See this video for an introductory explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave which illustrates Plato’s Theory of Forms:

In short, Plato believed that poets did not represent reality and with their words and phrases they could corrupt the youth and incite passions instead of the faculties of reason. Hence they should only be permitted into the polis if they could speak philosophically. This story caught my interest as it introduced me to the intersection of philosophy and literature. Then one day, which is now two years ago, I was directed to a paper of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum entitled ‘The Literary Imagination in Public Life’ (1991). The paper discusses how literature can have any meaning in our individual and public lives. What I will do in this post is put forward the main ideas from Nussbaum’s paper which have caught my interest.

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and its critique of utilitarianism
By analyzing and drawing parallels between the world in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our world, Nussbaum argues that literature is subversive. Literature can incite dreams and imaginations of new political and economic possibilities, thereby leading to public deliberation. She sees literature as “the enemy of a certain sort of economic thought” (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 879) – one that is purely rational and calculative, one that cannot account for the subjective goods of society. She gives an interesting argument why “literary forms have a distinctively valuable, and ineliminable, contribution to make” (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 880). According to Nussbaum, Hard Times is essentially a critique of the over-rationalized utilitarianism of Dickens’ days and its critique can be extended to the rational choice theory as practiced by neoclassical economists (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 881). Utilitarians believe that the proper role of social science is to immerse in the cold world of hard facts and calculations. When Mr. Gradgrind, a notorious headmaster in the novel, expressed the quality of his personality he said:

A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir – peremptorily Thomas – Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 883)

Nussbaum identifies the following four characteristics of the utilitarian mind:

1) It reduces qualitative differences to quantitative differences;
2) Data from individual lives are counted to reach the total or average utility;
3) It is determined to find a clear and precise solution for any human problem;
4) It takes acting in one’s self-interest as the fundamental theory of human motivation. (Nussbaum, 1991, pp. 883-887)

In short, according to Nussbaum, the utilitarian mind is “blind to the qualitative richness of the perceptible world” (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 888). What then is the contribution of Hard Times or more generally the contribution of literature to our public life?

Literature incites public imagination
Nussbaum writes that Hard Times depicts the harsh realities of the characters in the novel that are living in a utilitarian world. It portrays social agents and their emotional and practical relations to the problems of their world. A feature of novels is that they have a greater capacity to give pleasure while being morally critical. Novels give colour to reason and it portrays human beings within lively human settings – something that cold science cannot do. The most important characteristic of novels is that it allows fictional characters who resemble us to approach social choices with imagination. For instance, the people of Coketown in Hard Times

wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths, of common men and women! They sometimes, after fifteen hours’ work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own. They took De Foe to their bosoms, instead of Euclid, and seemed to be on the whole more comforted by Goldsmith than by Cocker. (Nussbaum, 1991, p. 891)

Reading into fictional lives will hence lead to wonder on our part, and hopefully our imagination of political possibilities will eventually disrupt the status quo and improve the human condition. Is its subversive potential not the reason why many literary works have been banned?

Nussbaum, M.C. (1991). The Literary Imagination In Public Life. Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change, 4, 22, pp. 877-910.


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