The phrase “other ways of knowing” (OWOK) has been used to justify the value of things like literature, art, music and, especially, religion, in telling us truths about the universe. “Other,” of course, means “ways other than science,” and here I construe “science” as “using empirical methods that rely on reason, observation, and verification or nonverification by independent observers.” Now it’s clear that disciplines like history, archaeology, and even sociology have the capacity to tell us true things about the world, but I have my doubts about the arts. Either they can present some facts (like the facts peppering historical fiction like War and Peace) that we can independently verify, or they can give us an idea of what someone felt like in a particular situation (as with Gabriel at the end of Joyce’s The Dead). The latter, though, is not a “truth” in the normal sense, but a rendition of emotions: a way of seeing but not knowing.
Finally, literature may help us resonate with the feelings of others, perhaps teaching us something about ourselves. Edward Casaubon’s futile academic endeavors in Middlemarch may, for example, make us realize that our own academic labors are a waste of time. I suppose that in such cases one learns something, but it’s something about oneself, not about the universe as a whole. One may feel a commonality with the rest of humanity, or at least with a few specimens, but that’s more of a feeling than a bit of knowledge, and at any rate that feeling is not something one can verify empirically. Am I really one with the universe? If so, in what way that we don’t know already from science? (That feeling of oneness, by the way, is a major stimulus for religious belief).
Such feelings and emotions derive from music and painting as well, but I don’t see them as the kind of “knowledge” proclaimed by OWOK advocates as a justification for religion, or as some way to make common cause between religion and science. Surely statements like “Jesus Christ came to save us from our sins,” or “You are committing a grave sin by engaging in homosexual acts”—which are results of the “ways of knowing” that come from faith—can’t be compared at all to the results of science.
Nevertheless, both believers and accommodationists continue to tout the OWOK doctrine. One of them is the celebrated author E. L. Doctorow (his books include Ragtime and World’s Fair), who has justified OWOK in a new essay in The Atlantic, “Notes on the history of fiction. ” It’s not a good piece: to me it seems muddled, confused, and full of portentous statements that don’t mean much. Nevertheless, you might have a look. His theme is how historical fiction actually gives us a better handle on truth than history itself. He begins with a bold statement:
But who would give up the Iliad for the historical record?
Well, maybe a historian might, or anybody interested in what really happened. Doctorow’s justification is that fiction can bring out dimensions of a character that are inaccessible to the historian. So, for example, he says that this is the lesson we learn from Shakespeare’s Richard III:
We gain the knowledge, only half admitted in our strange fascination for this immensely vital, vengeful, murderer of men, women, and children, that his is the archetypal tormented soul that can never find shelter from the winters of its discontent.
But surely this isn’t knowledge in any conventional sense; it’s a device of fiction. And if Richard really was like that, well, it would have to be checked not against fiction, but against real historical facts. Doctorow then adduces works like The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick to show that the fiction of that era really was engaged in finding truth:
Common to all the great nineteenth-century practitioners of narrative art is a belief in the staying power of fiction as a legitimate system of knowledge. While the writer of fiction, of whatever form, may be seen as an arrogant transgressor, a genre-blurring immoralist given to border raids and territorial occupations, he is no more than a conservator of the ancient system of organizing and storing knowledge we call the story. A Bronze-Ager at heart, he lives by the total discourse that antedates the special vocabularies of modern intelligence.
Since “modern intelligence” includes science, this would seem to be a denigration of the OWOK thesis. Indeed, earlier in the essay Doctorow notes that religious stories of earlier times were perceived to be true despite not describing anything factual.
But then Doctorow begins his defense of historical literature as a way of knowing:
A proper question here is whether his faith in his craft is justified. Whereas the biblical storytellers attributed their inspiration to God, the writers since seem to find in the fictive way of thinking a personal power—a fluency of mind that does not always warn the writer of the news it brings. Mark Twain said that he never wrote a book that didn’t write itself. And no less an enobler of the discipline than Henry James, in his essay “The Art of Fiction,” describes this empowerment as “an immense sensibility … that takes to itself the faintest hints of life … and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” What the novelist is finally able to do, James says, is “to guess the unseen from the seen.”
But what we have here, at best, is a “guess,” not knowledge: a way of using one’s imagination to describe what things might have been like. But were they really that way? And then Doctorow mounts a defense of OWOK that I simply can’t understand:
Of course the writer has a responsibility, whether as solemn interpreter or satirist, to make a composition that serves a revealed truth. But we demand that of all creative artists, of whatever medium. Besides which a reader of fiction who finds, in a novel, a familiar public figure saying and doing things not reported elsewhere knows he is reading fiction. He knows the novelist hopes to lie his way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage. The novel is an aesthetic rendering that would portray a public figure interpretively no less than the portrait on an easel. The novel is not read as a newspaper is read; it is read as it is written, in the spirit of freedom.
This is almost doublespeak, and the operant word here is “revealed truth,” which is, of course, the “truth” of religion. And really, “lying one’s way to a greater truth than is possible with factual reportage”? What, exactly, does that mean? It’s curious, and telling, that Doctorow gives not one example of such a “greater truth”. (The OTOW crowd never does.)
So why does history fail to come up to historical fiction? Because Doctorow sees genuine history as subject to at least as much interpretation as is fiction:
The presumption of factuality underlies the amassed documentation historians live by, and so we accept that voice. It is the voice of authority.
But to be conclusively objective is to have no cultural identity, to exist in such existential solitude as to have, in fact, no place in the world.
I have no idea what that last sentence means. Doctorow goes on:
Historians research as many sources as they can, but they decide what is relevant to their enterprise and what isn’t. We should recognize the degree of creativity in this profession that goes beyond intelligent, assiduous scholarship. “There are no facts in themselves,” Nietzche says. “For a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning.” Historiography, like fiction, organizes its data in demonstration of meaning.
Well, I’d take issue with the statement “for a fact to exist we must first introduce meaning” (what is the “meaning” behind the fact that Joseph Stalin died in 1953?), but perhaps I don’t grasp Nietzsche’s meaning. Nevertheless, deciding which facts are relevant and which aren’t is surely somewhat of a subjective exercise, but it is not the same as making stuff up, which is what writers of historical fiction do. And one can check the assertions of historians, at least some of them. We may not be able to verify sweeping historical claims about, say, why one religion became dominant over others in some parts of the world, but we can at least make attempts to check facts. And in that sense history converges with science.
Doctorow uses a trope familiar to theologians: the claim that science (history in this case) is unreliable because interpretations and “facts” change:
Recorded history undergoes a constant process of revision, and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. “However remote in time events may seem to be, every historical judgment refers to present needs and situations,” the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce says in his book History as the Story of Liberty. This is why history has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.
This verges on the postmodern claim that there is no objective truth, and so one “way of knowing” is just as good as another. And yes, science does revise its “truths,” because in science all truths are provisional. Nevertheless, some of those truths are highly unlikely to change with time, or be rewritten. A water molecule will always have two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the Earth is indeed orbiting the Sun, and humans are more closely related to chimps than to mice. So it is with much of history. History is rewritten, but that doesn’t make it useless as a way of understanding what happened. Teddy Roosevelt did exist, and the Germans were defeated in World War II.
In the end Doctorow descends into pure postmodern madness:
The novelist is not alone in understanding that reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.
The historian and the novelist both work to deconstruct the aggregate fictions of their societies. The scholarship of the historian does this incrementally, the novelist more abruptly, from his unforgivable (but exciting) transgressions, as he writes his way in and around and under the historian’s work, animating it with the words that turn into the flesh and blood of living, feeling people.
I doubt that many historians would agree with that first sentence unless they’re complete idiots. And “animating the historian’s work” by making up stuff is hardly equivalent to the labors of real historians, who do interviews with independent witnesses to history, check and cross-check documents, and engage in other kinds of empirical work.
Again, in his whole essay Doctorow gives not one example of a “greater truth” found in fiction that is not found in history. He simply makes a claim and fleshes it out with fancy references to literature. He fails to make his case, and fails in a long, rambling, and pompous way. And his failure to establish OWOK for history goes double for religion, since we can’t even verify religion’s foundational claims. How can we know if God is a loving fellow if we can’t establish the fact of God?