Is Quine “Literature” Because He Reads All Smooth and Silky?

After our posts about philosophical literature it seemed appropriate to refer to this post from the NY Times on philosophy itself as literature by Jim Holt.

An excerpt:

Now let me narrow my query: Does anybody read analytic philosophy for pleasure? Is this kind of philosophy literature? Here you might say, “Certainly not!” Or you might say, “What the heck is analytic philosophy?

...Whether they are concerned with the nature of consciousness, of space-time or of the good life, analytic philosophers continue to lay heavy stress on logical rigor in their writings. The result, according to Martha Nussbaum (herself a sometime member of the tribe), is a prevailing style that is “correct, scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid” — a style meant to serve as “a kind of all-purpose solvent.” Timothy Williamson, the current occupant of the illustrious Wykeham Chair of Logic at Oxford, makes a virtue of the “long haul of technical reflection” that is analytic philosophy today. Does it bore you? Well, he says, too bad. “Serious philosophy is always likely to bore those with short attention-spans.”

This kind of philosophy, whatever its intellectual merits, doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. And it doesn’t sound like literature.

But what is literature? ...“Lucidity, elegance, individuality”: these are the three essential traits that make a work of prose “memorable and unmistakable,” that make it literature.

Holt then argues the analytic philosophers like Quine do rate as literature ("Quine, whose classic article “On What There Is” can be read over and over again, like a poem.").

Whether or not philosophy counts as literature is dependent in part upon the answer to the question Holt raises: "What distinguishes literature from mere communication, or sheer trash?" In our recent Nietzsche episode, we contrasted the Nietzsche article itself, which was written with literary flair, with the secondary source on it by Maudemarie Clark, which, though very clear and helpful, struck us as written for informational, not literary purposes. From this standpoint, having an elegant, clear style is not sufficient to count as literature, and in fact more florid, obscure texts who mix their message in with some showmanship (Deleuze comes to mind here) would be more likely to fall into the category than more understandable ones.

Interestingly, there seems a distinction to be made between "having literary merit," i.e. being very well written ("like a poem," as Quine is, according to Holt) and "being literature." We typically think of only fiction as literary, or if (as in the case of early Tom Wolfe books, for instance) it's non-fiction, it needs to be written as a story, i.e. like most fiction. We could, though, expand the definition to include anything that's arguably worth reading, even if you already know the information involved: for instance, you don't read a technical manual if you already know how to work the thing it describes, but you might find it valuable to read a work of well-written philosophy or history even if you already know very well the subject that it's about. In that case, the category will include a lot of philosophy (perhaps all good philosophy). The formula presented of “lucidity, elegance, individuality” seems as good as any to sum this up. However, I'm guessing that this is too broad, as it would, I hope, place some of my blog posts and even my more thoughtful emails into the category of literature. Oooo! How fancy am I!

So, no, I'd rather not add the whole of philosophy, and certainly not analytic philosophy, to the canon of "literature," but I'm willing to admit that this is largely a verbal preference of no great import. I don't need such a label to make me feel better about what I'm spending my time reading.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. David Clark says

    I seem to use the word ‘literature’ in three different ways; I’m going to take a few minutes to deconstruct them. Join me, won’t you!

    The first is as an emotive value judgement – x is literature only if I like x. Certainly, I like a lot of fiction and non-fiction that doesn’t qualify as literature, but it’s not possible for something to be literature if I don’t like it. Admittedly, if I’m trying to appear tolerant, especially in mixed company, I’ll agree that it’s theoretically possible for me to misunderstand or misjudge a piece of genuine literature, and thereby overlook it. In practice, however, that would never happen since my aesthetic tastes are so good.

    I also seem to use the word as a social lever. Saying x is literature is saying, “I admire myself for reading x, and you should admire me too.” This usage is sort of positional – if my audience are lay people, I might suggest that Quine is literature, in the hopes of impressing them with my high cultural status and education. If they’re educated philosophers, however, I’d be unlikely to use the word – it would make me seem naif and over-reaching. I’d be especially reluctant to use the word around continental philosophers, since I know they hate Quine, and it’s dangerous to fail to hate the same people your audience hates.

    This also explains why I’m more likely to describe an old book as literature rather than a new one – by reading old books, I’m showing you that I’m not ‘unreliably trend-focused’, not a ‘follower’. Instead, I’m clearly well-read, sophisticated and (probably) rich enough to be able to take the ‘long view’ – I can put this old book in ‘context’, and make a judgement that is ‘reasonable’ and ‘judicious’ – admirable character traits indeed! See, you’d be a fool not to look up to me.

    Lastly, I seem to use the word as an in-group identifier in the culture war. I like literature, and so do Our People. This is part of what makes us moral, and deserving. ‘They’ may read books, but They look down on literature; just another example (if any more were needed) of their immorality and guilt. The word ‘literature’, then, seems to be a bearer of goodness, conferring righteousness on those who associate with it.

    For me, Quine is literature – I like it (which is to say that it fills my emotional needs and tells me what I already believe), it’s obscure compared to more popular reading media, which confers social status on me, and I prefer the people who read authors like him to the people who don’t.

  2. says

    It seems like you can count something as literature when it doesn’t take a head-on approach to the truth.

    Most philosophy is written to be taken as it stands, because, after all, why would you actively try to subvert your meaning when trying to convey something about the truth of a given matter.

    To the degree that a piece of philosophy resists being taken at face value, it seems safe to count it–which is why analytic philosophy always seems to jive so poorly with what we think of as literature.

    The same could be said of film. There’s something at work that makes a bio pic about a real person “literature” (in so far as it would be included in an English departments course on cinema), while a documentary about that same person is not.

    Literature seems to go beyond having sophisticated rhetorical qualities to actually letting go of trying to affect its audience in a precise and singular way.

  3. David Buchanan says

    I’m inclined to take the question as an inquiry into the nature of philosophy and art – or into the possibility of thinking as an art form.

    Can we really get logical rigor and systematic thought on the same page with imaginative creativity and aesthetic sensitivity? Seems pretty likely that the former would betray or undermine the latter – and vice versa. Could the ideal of disinterested observation ever work in conjunction with self-expression? The implication of these questions is that certain philosophical stances would all but preclude the possibility of philosophy as an art form. Despite the fact that some of it is well written, the analytic style of philosophy wants to be in the science department. When Richard Rorty addressed the APA and asked them to finally admit that philosophy is just another genre of literature, for example, he raised some hackles and eyebrows. The substance of their thought hardly seems amenable to artistic forms. The clash between form and substance is so stark is almost funny. A positivist poet? The logically rigorous novelist? The Adventures of Huckleberry Cat or Bachelor Finn? The idea just seems odd, if not funny.

    The existentialists – because of the personal issues and questions they’re working on – can certainly get away with dishing up up their thought in the form of a novel. The content of Pirsig’s philosophy is quite consistent with the form of presentation, an autobiographical novel. Math and logic have their own kind of austere beauty but a work of literature has to have soul (in the Motown sense). According to my shamelessly personal bias, I think philosophy belongs in the Humanities department and it is an Art form if you’re doing it right.

  4. Profile photo of Khary Tafari Robertson says

    I believe the issue of what literature is, is the most pertinent issue to resolve when discussing whether Quine is literature or not. In my opinion the distinction between that which is literature and that which isn’t literature is merely whether the supposition of the exposition of the piece of writing is based in primarily social relevance or empirical relevance.

    That is to say, literature is rhetoric were the subject matter is based on anecdotal experiences and perceptions of the world, and that which is not literature (mostly reference and scientific writing for my purposes) writes with empirical relevance. It is written based on facts of our real world, exposed through writing. In this way autobiographies, memoirs and the like are works of literature because they are written through the lens of the writers experience, thus the conclusions are not empirical in the end, though we can make empirical (historical) statements about them. Similarly, philosophy, as a process of revealing knowledge, would be empirical, as the knowledge resides separate of the philosopher, and the philosopher uses writing and discourse to attempt to quantify it into intelligible language.

    In the case of literature as I have defined it, good literature would just be defined as a certain piece of rhetoric that more adequately speaks to the social diaspora of a region of influence. Good philosophy is more akin to good scientific writing, the better it reveals the natural laws and our interactions with the world, with the more widely it will be received.

    So in reference to the original question in this post, Quine would represent terrible literature, as the social relevance of his righting, in relation to the sphere of influence, is very small. Though I know for a fact that many people have access to reading Quine, and indeed I believe that he has helped greatly in progressing the philosophical view of our time, the social relevance of his righting to the great majority of the people who have access to it is little to none. In terms of philosophical writing, there is great merit to his writing, as i believe he has done a great job of helping to clarify the use of language so that we can use it in a more empirical fashion when using it as a tool to describe philosophical phenomena.

  5. Profile photo of Simon Borrington says

    Just an observation really, but are we tending to confuse, or identify, ‘literature’ solely with fiction? I think literature can extend to biographical writing, for example, which would take a ‘head-on approach to the truth’. There are some philosophers that I really do read for their literary style – Peter Strawson would be one of these. So I guess I might argue that at least some philosophy would count as literature, but it would be style rather than content that might decide the matter for me.

    All the best.

  6. Paul Paolini says

    A good synonym of ‘literature’ in the relevant sense might be ‘art prose’; it’s prose writing in which language is treated, in a sophisticated way, as an artistic medium. As Simon suggests, both fiction and non-fiction can be literature. Also note that not all fiction is counted as literature. Genre fiction is generally excluded. The reason is not that genre fiction cannot be great art but that it’s not artistic in the literary way. Genre fiction is all about the story and language is just the means for telling it. With literary fiction, there’s more of a balance between concern with linguistic beauty and story. Personally, I see literary fiction as a sort of distinct artform somewhere between poetry and genre fiction.

    Literature also includes what might be called ad hoc literature; i.e., writing that was not written for artistic purposes but which has sufficient linguistic artistry to be appreciated as literature. Presidential speeches, letter exchanges among famous people, and old philosophy and science, for example, might fall into this category.

    As to Quine, his writing is definitely not literature proper because his primary intent was not artistic but philosophical, an intent that subordinates artistic concerns to truth, logical rigor, conciseness, etc. But Quine’s writing might count as ad hoc literature, i.e., something of interest from a literary point of view.

    A certain distinction is important here I think. This is between a deep command of the communicative powers of language on the one hand, and artistic purpose on the other. Literature proper joins these two essentially distinct things. Quine had the former perhaps but not the latter, and that is the way in which Quine’s writing may have literary interest.

    • Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

      P.S.: This is an amazing dialogue about literature/philosophy. One of the things I value about PEL, since no one needs to be the final expert (except for personal efforts at times :), i.e., everyone does not have to be a “philosopher”–that leads most to be able to just talk fairly unselfconsciously (not as a “philosopher”) about stuff (=awesome, amazing, unique, freeing and creative).

      So, some have voted that literature needs to have literary intention, literary ability, social rather than empirical relevance, soul, not a head-on approach, etc. With existentialists, it gets interesting since their intent is philosophical primarily, but they choose a literary style, indicating literary intent as well. However, intent is hardly the same as ability, and remains a matter of opinion regarding the literary standing of their works. I suspect that the difference between literature and philosophy will be an ongoing dialogue for some time. Vive, le PEL.

  7. barry says

    Whether it is called “literature” or not, there are works of analytic philosophy that are written as well as some classic novels and are equally enjoyable. For example, Bertrand Russell’s essays and popular books and Kripke’s Wittgenstein: On Rules and Private Language.

  8. says

    I just finished reading “Sophie’s World,” which is a primer on philosophy, yet it is also the most fascinating piece of fiction that really turns your mind inside out at it breaks the fourth wall, recursively no less.

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