E.L. Doctorow: Is fiction an “other way of knowing”?

July 20, 2012 • 5:21 am

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?

192 thoughts on “E.L. Doctorow: Is fiction an “other way of knowing”?

  1. Stories are an important way that humans teach other humans about humans. We learn stuff from stories alarmingly well, to the point where it’s actually a significant cognitive bias.

    Arguing from fictional evidence can rub those of a scientific bent up the wrong way, but I recall such as Christopher Hitchens being a huge fan of people learning about people from good fiction. Of course, he was (amongst other things) a professor of literature. But a mostly very clear-thinking one.

    That said, claiming it’s a substitute for reality is just stupidity.

    1. If I correct understood Hitchens, he definitely thought literature a much, much better source of wisdom, and how to live ones life, and how to best deal with others, etc. than religion, though in that regard he took whatever little he could from the Bible. Re: his reading at his father’s memorial service, “Whatsoever things are beautiful, . . . “, etc. He and Dawkins have positively remarked on the KJV being part of the legacy of English literature.

      Are there one or more Hitchens essays on OWOK (other than what may be “WGING” and snippets here and there in debates when his occasional response was “white noise”)?

      Whatever hymns Hitchens sung in praise of Literature, I can’t believe that he would ever do so at the expense of Rationality. More than once I’ve heard Dawkins say, “I care passionately about the truth.” Surely no less so Hitchens.

      Would that one had The Hitch around to debate Doctorow and his ilk on this issue.

    2. But isn’t it the case that people can learn, from a work of fiction, about historical figures and events because real work was done by historians in the first place, allowing the novelist to include the established history in her novel?

      1. Yes. Fiction is a means of communication. It may give the reader a better personal insight, a better understanding of the historical facts (however provisional they may be), but so may any well-written non-fiction.


    1. “Other ways of gaining understanding” might be a better way to put it: the infuriatingly difficult task of communicating information to humans such that they actually take it in and get the idea. Stories are an extremely powerful instructional form in this regard.

      1. Yep, the OWOK argument seems to rely on shifting the meaning of “knowing” mid-argument.

        First step: say that by ‘knowing,’ you mean something like ‘learning something socially valuable’ or ‘experiencing something that changes how you think.’

        Second: get scientist to argee that, yes, non-science subjects can give you that stuff. This won’t be hard; probably nobody disputes it.

        Third: switch meanings and claim you’ve now shown that other subjects yield the same sort of knowledge science yields.

  2. “what is the “meaning” behind the fact that Joseph Stalin died in 1953?”

    Presumably it is different from the meaning behind the fact that Joseph Stalin died in 1998 (Joseph Stalin being my pet rabbit).

    1. “Presumably it is different from the meaning behind the fact that Joseph Stalin died in 1998 (Joseph Stalin being my pet rabbit).”
      Exactly. Saying that Joseph Stalin died in 1953 rather than 1998 depends on the shared understanding that the Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was an important figure, and your rabbit was not, and so we can assume that reference to “Stalin” refer to the former. Furthermore, “1953” is understood to be the Gregorian Calendar, etc.

  3. As I was reading through your post the phrase “postmodern bullshit” kept popping into my head. And there, toward the end of post, you finally said it. Postmodernists don’t use language as a means of clearly conveying ideas; they use it to create a cloud of fudge, giving the illusion of great profundity.

    1. There is indeed postmodern bullshit, but the postmodernists were not entirely wrong. Language is not simply, as Wittgenstein tried to say in the Tractatus, a record of facts. It is also a way of creating worlds. The danger of obfuscation and confabulation is great. That I will not deny, but to suggest that the possibilities of interpretation do not also indicate the fissile nature of intimate reality is to conceal from ourselves the complexity of human reality, and its understanding (which is also a knowing). I think we need to listen to our story tellers, for they also can grasp the truth — not scientific truth, perhaps, but truth nonetheless. That is is difficult to express in what this truth consists is not a reason for supposing that it is simply bullshit.

      1. I’d suggest that for every storytelling “truth” there exists an equal and opposite storytelling “truth”. And this is why storytelling isn’t conveying knowledge. It may be deeply moving. It may be profoundly altering of how we feel or how we think. But if it doesn’t map with reasonable accuracy to the reality “out there” then it isn’t knowledge.

          1. “Understanding” is a fuzzy word. It can mean empathy (a feeling) just as much as it can refer to having acquired knowledge (an accurate representation of the real world). I put “truth” in quotes because the “truths” of storytelling are considered “right” to the extent that we are emotively moved, not by how closely they map reality. IMO, that ain’t knowledge.

      2. I think we need to listen to our story tellers, for they also can grasp the truth…

        Yes, but they grasp the truth that has already been determined to be the truth by other means. They can help explain or illuminate what is true. They do not determine what is true, which means that fiction is not an OWOK.

  4. I think the problem here lies in the use of the word ‘knowledge’. ‘Knowledge’, ‘belief’, ‘truth’, and other epistemic words suggest that knowledge must be formalised to be real, and that whatever knowledge is must have some sort of correspondence with facts “out there” in the world; but I think Doctorow’s point, though expressed somewhat vaguely — and perhaps this penumbra of obscurity is inescapable — is not an unreasonable one. We learn a great deal about ourselves and others by reading fiction. Our emotions are subtly altered, and our ability to react sensitively to others deepened. Why should we deny that what is happening to us is an accumulation of knowledge?

    Take history, since Doctorow does. History is a reflection on past events. Of course, in one sense, history is about the facts of what has occurred, but if history were simply a catalogue of recorded facts, it would teach us very little. Interpretation is also vital to what history does. Some people think they can cut the Gordian knot by referring here to a distinction between “understanding” and “knowledge”, but I hink that is wrong. When you provide insight into various aspects of popular culture — such as the recent posting of Anne Murray’s rendition of “Snowbird”, what is it you are trying to do? Is there no knowledge here to be gained? I think there is, though it is not the kind of knowledge with which scientists deal. But why should we restrict knowledge to science? Cannot the sensitive understanding of the past, and its interpretation in works of history — which, while critical, and dependent on a knowledge of the facts, are also works of imagination — be classified as knowledge? And if not, why not? Certainly not scientific knowledge as such, but not knowledge at all? I think that is to limit the palette with which the critical mind can work, and it would in fact be an impoverishment of our understanding/knowledge of the world.

    1. I think Doctorow’s point, though expressed somewhat vaguely — and perhaps this penumbra of obscurity is inescapable — is not an unreasonable one. We learn a great deal about ourselves and others by reading fiction.

      I don’t think anyone disputes that last part. I think scientists dispute that fiction provides the same sort of knowledge as science.

      Doctorow is drawing a false equivalency, and he’s hiding it in the word “knowledge,” which we use in several different ways.

      Doctorow might not be deceiving; maybe he’s not trying to claim that fiction can tell us how far away the sun is (or whatever). But certainly, when theologians invoke other ways of knowing, they are trying to make a comparison, an equvalency between science and revelation. That’s deceptive: if these things both provide knowledge, it is only because we colloquially use the term “knowledge” to denote a very wide range of stuff.

    2. We learn a great deal about ourselves and others by reading fiction. Our emotions are subtly altered, and our ability to react sensitively to others deepened. Why should we deny that what is happening to us is an accumulation of knowledge?

      Eric (MacDonald), something like this came up on your site a while back. I’ll repeat part of a comment I made there ( http://choiceindying.com/2011/12/11/obfuscating-religious-bluster-and-the-accusation-of-scientism/#comment-8456 ):

      Some German might help – … maybe you’re describing the difference between “kennen” and “wissen.” I think you “know your own private world” in the “kennen” sense, and it would just be a mistake to use “wissen” there at all.

      That was a good and productive discussion thread all around, on a good post.

    3. Re: Anne Murray’s “Snowbird”:

      I’m not sure what “truth(s)” is(are) to be taken from the song. I find it pleasant, positive.

      (Like several other songs from the summer of ’70, I associate it with the personal unpleasant historical truth of I, a fifteen year-old, having to get up at 4:30 a.m. six days a week to wait tables and deal with the inordinately exacting palates of self-absorbed tourists.)

      It leads one to ask if objective aesthetics exists. (One of those subjects about which, as A.C. Grayling is fond of saying, everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.)

      (Martin Gardner admirably holds forth on this in his chapter, “Why I Am Not an Aesthetic Relativist,” in his “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener.”)

      I can’t objectively prove it, but there’s no doubt in my mind – it is my subjective personal opinion – that some songs are more aesthetically pleasing than others – and “seem” objectively so.

      Compare “Snowbird” with – oh, Ah dunno, what? – Bloodrock’s “DOA” from the early 70’s, for starters? I concede that the “story” and “truth” of “DOA” is the transmission of a dying person’s perceptions/observations of his last minutes. Yep, such a wonderfully enjoyable aesthetic listening experience.

      Does my personal opinion somehow constitute a “truth,” another way of knowing? The fiction of E. L. Doctorow and other novelists seems to constitute their personal opinions.

      The older I get, the more aware I’ve become of how cavalierly humans assert claims/opinions as facts/truths. Science, however provisional, is sanctuary from that. (I’m reminded of a judge reflecting that “The law is a cork floating in a sea of opinion.”) In my older age, I much more appreciate and do math to relax because, unlike with humans, one cannot argue with math (despite one oppositionally-defiant fifth grade gentleman’s assertion that 2 + 2 = 5).

      A relative once opined words to the effect that, since one can never know everything – since the Powers That Be actively seek to keep the Rest Of Us in the dark – one is just as well off to believe that the Truth is whatever one believes it to be.

      (This person is well-experienced in the practical world of Business and Law but otherwise quite intellectually uncurious.)

      Such an opinion is more credible if one first makes his/her best effort to objectively as possible ferret out the “truth” of a given matter.

      I substitute teach a lot in K-5 music. On the guitar I’ll play several different chords for students and ask them to describe them. I play a major chord and ask them if it is “happy” or “sad.” They’re quite quick to say that it is “happy.” The same with a “sad” minor chord. (Major 7th/6ths, minor 7th/6ths, diminished, augmented, etc., evoke more complicated responses “exotic,” “strange,’ “weird,” etc.)

      Are these statements of “truth”? (Or are these responses simply reflecting the deterministic truth of how human brains are wired?) Why should this be? If one plays one-at-a-time the notes composing these various chords, with not the least sense of arpeggiation associating one note with another, one cannot evaluate those individual notes with such subjective, emotional adjectives.


      1. Context is extremely important to the musical phenomenology you’re talking about. A major triad is going to sound utterly different in:

        A 1950s pop song
        Beethoven’s 3rd
        Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde prelude
        Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
        Stockhausen’s Gruppen

    4. I agree that it all depends what you mean by “knowing”.

      I’ll use a different example – knowing how to play the guitar. You can read about how to finger the notes on the guitar and how to strum or pluck, but until you practice it enough for your brain to associate fingerings with sounds, you won’t really know how to play the guitar.

    5. There’s some work on “historiography as art vs. historiography as science” in the philosophy of science literature. (Unfortunately notorious) historian Keith Windschuttle has a good discussion of this (in my view, qua philosopher – I don’t know what historians would think) in his _The Killing of History_. In my view history is no different from any other social science field – very very difficult, and very prone to slipping from the ideals of science, but very necessary. Bunge even analyzes the role of law and law statements within it and concludes that the usual “nomothetic vs. ideographic” notions are wrong.

      As for literature, the way I always regard it is as a repository of messy data, being held for future use. So, it may communicate truth; it may not. Its way of doing so can invoke other great human values (e.g. beauty). However, even if one treats it as a knowledge source it does not follow that anything else is such (e.g. revelation). And, to turn religions into *just* poetry and such is to gut them of their importance to many believers. The supposed historical events matter to them too and those who want to make religion into a poetry slam seem to miss that believers take solace, community interest, etc. “Long ago, in this place …” or “over there”, etc. *matter* to people. As a non-believer I do think any of these events happened (or had the consequences they are thought to have) but I cannot appease by saying “well, it sounds nice!”.

      I’ve heard the same claim about subjectivist philosophy, too. But even the most subjectivist of philosophers (except the charlatans) like Kierkegaard still argues, albeit in a strange way, for the *truth* of the position.

  5. “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.”

    Hmmm, if you replace every claim of history and science with religion one sees just how ricdiculous his claims are.

    Religion undergoes a constant process of revision (aka how people decide what their god “really meant”), and the process is not just a matter of discovering additional evidence to correct the record. Actually it’s not a matter of finding any additional evidence but making shit up as culture changes while religion remains the same dogmatic nonsense.

    However remote in time events may seem to be (and no matter if there is any evidence presented at all or any indication *when* these supposed events occured), every religious judgment is claimed to refer to present needs and situations and is totally up to the human making the claim that religion has anything to do with present needs and situations, with much excuse making happening about how this god was limited to puny humans in the past.

    This is why religion has to be written and rewritten from one generation to another.

  6. This is a vexed topic. The locus classicus is Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ (1451b), on the qualitative difference between history and poetry: ‘the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.’

    Now, any claim for poetry as producing objects of knowledge, it seems to me, must show that, ‘memetically’ poetry, the novel, drama, etc., are representing general truths about how human society works (and not just how individual minds feel). And this is done through a reduction of social complexity toward recognizable universals. If this viewpoint is sound, then poetry and poetics and criticism are valuable as knowledge, not merely as entertainment.

    Bob Bray

  7. Doctorow on 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.

    I smell hypocrisy.

    Who here thinks Doctorow would be the first to squawk if someone wrote a fictional account of him that put him in a bad light, and claimed it was a way of gaining knowledge about him? [raises hand]

    1. Why do you think that Doctorow is talking about the real Richard III? Richard III is both an agent in history, and a character in a play. To learn something about the murderous possibilities of human beings, and limn the shades and shadows of their personality, is already to learn something, if not about the historical Richard III, about human possibilities, and the nature of human evil. (Of course, and quite independently of the play, Richard III could have been quite as black and devious as Shakespeare depicts him.)

      1. And the actual Richard III could have been all sweetness and light. And that’s why the play doesn’t provide any knowledge about the real king.

        What the play does provide knowledge about is how humans might interact with each other in social situations given particular personality configurations. But I wouldn’t want to confuse that with knowledge of what life was like in the fifteenth century.

      2. “Why do you think that Doctorow is talking about the real Richard III?”

        If he isn’t, then why does he claim that fiction is superior to history as a means of discovering information about real events? If he isn’t it really makes it look like he is purposely being deceptive.

        “To learn something about the murderous possibilities of human beings, and limn the shades and shadows of their personality, is already to learn something, if not about the historical Richard III, about human possibilities, and the nature of human evil.”

        That individual human beings may learn something about reality from reading fiction does not equate to fiction being able to discover new information about reality. Fiction is a tool that is capable of conveying information of various kinds to people. Information that has already been discovered by other ways of knowing, namely “using empirical methods that rely on reason, observation, and verification or nonverification by independent observers.”

        Literature is an important, invaluable, tool for expression and communication, but it is not capable of discovering new information about reality.

      3. But he’s making a truth claim. We’re learning about the nature of man through the play writes eyes that he is:

        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.

        Who says he was tormented? He was a solid military commander. There has been raised much doubt surrounding the claims that he killed, or ordered the killing, of his nephews.

        He’s certainly not some kind of sociopath:

        He passed the most enlightened laws on record for the Fifteenth Century. He set up a council of advisors that diplomatically included Lancastrian supporters, administered justice for the poor as well as the rich, established a series of posting stations for royal messengers between the North and London. He fostered the importation of books, commanded laws be written in English instead of Latin so the common people could understand their own laws. He outlawed benevolences, started the system of bail and stopped the intimidation of juries.

        During his royal progress of 1483, Richard refused great gifts of cash from various cities saying he would rather have their goodwill than their money. Bishop Thomas Langton said: “He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince, for many a poor man hath suffered wrong many days, hath been relieved and helped by him, and his commands on his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given to him, which he hath refused. On my troth, I never liked the conditions of any prince so well as his. God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all.”

        Richard III, known to be a pious man, was instrumental in setting up no less than ten chantries and procured two licenses to establish two colleges, one at Barnard Castle in County Durham and the other at Middleham.

        Does this sound like a sociopath?

        He didn’t have a withered arm. He didn’t have a hunchback. Yet ‘literature’ (Shakespeare) tells us otherwise.

        He wasn’t any more of a murderer than anyone who was having to put down traitors and plots against him by those who, eventually, killed him on the battle field.

        He didn’t murder Edward of Lancaster who was killed on battlefield by the Duke of Clarence. His brother ordered the execution of Henry VI.

        He didn’t kill his wife, she died of TB. He didn’t cheat on his wife, despite fathering two by-blows before his marriage, there was never any such scandal during or after.

        But the fictional ‘way of knowing’ would have us believe he was an evil, backstabing, regicide, sociopath who had a tormented soul… In short, a fracking fairy tale as far from reality as possible.

        Now, I’m not a scholar on Richard the III. I only learned about the complete fictional make up of him (via Shakespeare and a few others) due to someone on NPR talking about the BS that surrounds Richard III.

        1. Oops… Premature comment button… Well, better than a crash…

          Anyway, pretty much every thing ‘literature’ has taught us about Richard the III is bullshit.

          Shakespeare had an audience for his plays — a Tudor audience. And Richard was made to suffer, in death, for things he was not in life.

          1. One of the delights of acting is to be able to behave in ways that would be totally outrageous in real life, to say or do things that one would never actually do in real life but would very much like to do (within reason!), and one of the delights in observing plays – or films (I think of Olivier’s ‘Richard III’) – is to be able to share vicariously in such behaviour… In ‘Richard III’, Richard is ‘acting’ throughout, and everybody else is behaving as normally as they can in the circumstances, and it is this fundamental difference that gives Richard that exciting and manipulative ‘edge’ over the other characters that audiences can delight in (it is Richard who takes the audience into his confidence in his soliloquies, not the other characters); and then of course Richard gets his come-uppance at the end: Doctorow’s ‘archetypal tormented soul’ is sentimental nonsense.

  8. 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.

    I don’t know as much about other arts, but a lot of music theory in the last 60 years or so has dealt with attaching music and musical structure to broader issues in philosophy, mathematics, psychology, biology, computer science, and physics.

    A passage taken at random from Brahms’s late music, for instance, will usually instantiate some interesting feature of group theory and/or geometry.

    1. “A passage taken at random from Brahms’s late music, for instance, will usually instantiate some interesting feature of group theory and/or geometry.”

      At the risk of seeming to brag, I have been at various times, and hope I still am, very familiar with all the topics mentioned in this paragraph. But not at all with the claim made in the verb “instantiate”. To be honest, I have very grave doubts about that, and would be interested to be referred to even the slightest bit of real evidence for that.

      My library full of mathematics books, and my CDs including all Brahms’ chamber music and late piano works, eagerly await getting out again!

      I suppose the whole thing has to do with symmetry, so we might hope to find Wigner’s representations of the Lorentz group in one of Brahms’ late piano pieces, and not ‘merely’ in the quantum field theory of the Standard Model.

      1. Ha ha, maybe it’s just “for some value of ‘interesting'” that we might disagree. And I might have used “instantiate” wrong.

        But in any case, modern music theory is based on group theory, combinatorics, graph theory, and topology, generative grammar, etc., and Brahms is utterly rich in examples.

        “Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations” by David Lewin is the classic starting place, as well as Iannis Xenakis’s “Formalized Music,” and there’s a new book by Dmitri Tymoczko about musical topology.

        I should mention that the group and semigroup structures in music tend to be really simple, but in music like Brahms the relationships tend to be far reaching and highly ramified — the complexity is in the structure that emerges from the simple group/semigroup transformations, but not in the group structures themselves.

        1. That is fascinating and exciting, but can music be employed as a method of discovering new information about how reality functions? I don’t get that from what you have described here. What you have described is people discovering mathematical relationships in musical compositions. In this case music is the subject of a method of discovery, not the method employed to make the discovery.

          1. I suppose you’re right — I have been including “art theory” within “the arts,” in much the same way others here have been using lit crit as part of “the arts.”

            But there’s something else I am trying to get at, so here’s another example (I don’t have time to make this less vague but hopefully the gist comes through):

            I think of Sangaku, say, or the various types of pattern in Persian art as in some sense declarative statements of some geometrical truths, or instances of them. In a similar sense, when I compose music, I am making statements about the possible ways to form relationships in some medium.

            I think the point is that it’s the artist who is doing the R&D, whether or not they have a clear or formal understanding of what’s going on. And if the math behind it is already understood, that’s just a fact of history – it would be quite possible for an artist to have made an important (but tacit) discovery as part of the artistic R&D that led to a new branch of math.

            Another analogy: In some sense, we can say that natural selection “discovered” the Krebs Cycle, say, and anything that employs it instantiates the “free floating rationale” (as Dennett would put it) for its existence. Natural selection endorsed it as something that works.

            A clever chemist may have come up with it on her own outside of a biological context and thus shown both that and how it works. This is very different from the problem posed to the biologist before the details of the cycle were known: a biologist already knows that there is some biochemical pathway responsible for some observed phenomenon, and so the biologist’s job is only to show how it works. (Yes, this is overly simplistic!)

            I’m suggesting that in some cases the chemist (or natural selection) here would be more like the artist in my description above, and the biologist more like the theorist.

        2. Thanks for the reply. The “haha” is perceptive if it refers to my sort-of joke about the Lorentz group. I know enough to realize this Brahms stuff would relate to the simple-minded examples of groups taught to 3rd year undergrads, not to a non-compact Lie group.

          But Brahms would hardly qualify under most usages of “modern music”, despite people 120 years ago missing a lot, possibly including the composer himself.

          Modern music criticism suffers from some, but way less I think, of the almost total bullshit associated with Derrida and his disciples in postmodern literary criticism.

          1. Here is one (not “budding”) composer who considers them to be complete frauds. Alas, I fear that I may be in a minority.

          2. Peter,

            I don’t know nearly enough about Lie groups to speak with authority, but recently some music theorists have been showing musical pitch spaces that operate like differentiable manifolds which also have group structure, which I think relates them to Lie groups. I ARE NOT AN EXPERT 🙂

            The manifolds emerge from defining equivalence relations on pitch and generalizing that to a continuous space. Then a piece could be shown to “move about” in one of these spaces — a Brahms piano piece, in which pitch is discrete and not continuous, would move about discrete points in such a space… and then one might find interesting (and hearable) parallelisms in such movements through the space.

            It seems to be a way of generalizing previous music theory which was discrete only and therefore describable just with algebraic structures.

            By the way, when I said “modern music theory” that meant “modern music-theory” rather than “modern-music theory.” But Brahms is more modern than people sometimes think — see this classic:


            (The whole essay isn’t there, but it’s really worth reading if you care about Brahms)

    2. I must agree with darelle.

      It’s just not the case that music is the source of our knowledge about those disciplines/concepts.

      Rather, composers avail themselves of this already established knowledge in order to justify what they put on the page. Especially mathematics (and I’m not sure convincing justification is always achieved).

      Specifically regarding Brahms: might the imposition of such esoteric maths fall into the same category as numerology? Most pieces of music will yield some kind of arcane mathematical description. Most phenomena in the universe do! I wonder the same thing about attempts to describe Schubert’s music as octatonic. Everything I’ve come across by Schubert and Brahms are completely amenable to more or less traditional tonal analysis. Why impose any further (superfluous) systems?

      To be clear, I’m not arguing that the descriptions are necessarily wrong or aren’t there – that they’re a result of apophenia on the part of the analyzer. Some of Brahms’ canons display a fractal-like quality. But was Brahms aware of fractals? Is it necessary to invoke them to understand what Brahms was doing?

      1. Everything I’ve come across by Schubert and Brahms are completely amenable to more or less traditional tonal analysis. Why impose any further (superfluous) systems?

        The traditional tonal analysis has been largely reconstructed in formal algebraic terms. One of the few things that resists such a description is “chord function,” which is maybe best described as a dispositional property of a given sonority.

        Some of Brahms’ canons display a fractal-like quality. But was Brahms aware of fractals? Is it necessary to invoke them to understand what Brahms was doing?

        “What Brahms was doing” and “how Brahms’s music works” are two completely different questions.

        Music theory geekery… apologies:

        Your “octatonic” point is important — nobody has to explicitly know about the octatonic scale, but nevertheless it emerges automatically when you string together triads whose roots are related by minor third. It’s a fact about the music, and it’s also a fact about the group described by 12-tone theory, instantiated in the music. Whether Schubert was aware of this is beside the point, unless you are a Schubert biographer.

        1. I don’t know.

          It seems to me the composer’s intent should be taken into account somehow. In fact, I think one of the things that separates well-written music from poorly-written music is its level of perspicuity: is the composer’s intent intelligible?

          Finding other ways to describe or explain a few bars seems redundant, and, as Schubert undoubtedly intended us to perceive those bars in the context of the entire piece, unsatisfying. I don’t think calling those bars octatonic does much to improve our understanding of their function – of their intended function.

          But, all that writ, I do understand your point. I was essentially making the same point in my last para. Yes, those pitches form an octatonic collection. I just think it’s an unsatisfying and superficial way to analyze them, not least of all because Schubert intended us to perceive the tonal relationships.

          1. As a composer of many years’ experience, I have many times had the interesting experience of having others point out things that occur systematically in my pieces of which I was consciously completely unaware, and nearly every other composer in my acquaintance has had the same experience. Very often the composer’s intent is only a part of the total picture.

            In any event, how do you profess to know Schubert’s intent? Have you been channeling him?

          2. No, making any supernatural claims.

            But as I wrote above, the logic and architecture governing where given pitches go and why is generally pretty obvious (with a little study) in the works of talented composers.

            If, for instance, Bach travels from I to iii, spends some time on iii, then proceeds to V, we can be sure that iii was not the goal – it was a terzteiler on the way to V, the actual goal.

          3. This has happened to me many times before as well. The moral of the story is that constraints are interconnected, and by following some set of constraints explicitly you can generate something which is also constrained by something you never had knowledge of in the first place.

            I’m working on a string octet and just the other day realized the relationship between triangular numbers and the combinations of 2 from a group of things. There are 28 possible duos that can be formed from the instruments of an octet, and 28 is 1+2+3+4+5+6+7. The combinations of two things from a group of eight is (8*7)/2 — which is also the formula for adding the first 7 numbers.

            It’s a totally trivial realization, but if I never actually realized it explicitly, I would still be constrained to a triangular numbers’ worth of possible duos from whatever ensemble I was writing for, and that constraint (such as it is) would help shape my music whether I cared or not.

          4. Exactly! This is why your statement, ‘“What Brahms was doing” and “how Brahms’s music works” are two completely different questions’ prompted me to comment in the first place and gets to the heart of the issue.

          5. Back up a step. What if Schubert’s intent were for us to “taste the rainbow” when we hear his music? Would that mean it wouldn’t do much to improve our understanding of the music if we were to find some tonal relationships?

            My young composition students often have no idea what they’re doing, but they say they’re trying to “express how I felt when…” When I show them how what they’re doing echoes something in a Bach chorale, the added level of understanding of their own music is usually pretty exciting for them.

          6. Ok.

            Perhaps this will better communicate my point:

            You sometimes see analysts describe the appearance of the raised 4th scale degree as derived from the Lydian mode, when in fact it would be better explained as the leading tone in an applied dominant. At a certain level you have to admit that the explanation invoking the Lydian mode technically fits; but it is a) superfluous, and b) not useful in describing what that raised 4th is really doing there. Very much like the numerology I originally referenced and about which many analysts get very exercised, but which has, imo, no real explanatory power.

            It’s entirely possible that the math you refer to wrt Brahms’ music is not superfluous like this. I haven’t read about it. I was only wondering.

            It still seems to me that intent is key in distinguishing well-written music from poorly-written music.

            If a composer intends something as vague and open to interpretation – or even meaningless – as “tasting the rainbow”, I’d say they’re demonstrating a lack of ability.

            It doesn’t make sense to me to venerate composers who inadvertently stumble upon something interesting or leave it to the listener to (post facto) justify /render meaningful his or her creation. Anyone can inadvertently stumble upon things. It’s the intent we respect.

          7. You sometimes see analysts describe the appearance of the raised 4th scale degree as derived from the Lydian mode, when in fact it would be better explained as the leading tone in an applied dominant. At a certain level you have to admit that the explanation invoking the Lydian mode technically fits; but it is a) superfluous, and b) not useful in describing what that raised 4th is really doing there.

            Yes, but this is only because the applied-dominant explanation has explanatory power elsewhere — the model fits the data much more elegantly if you can invoke an applied dominant whenever any scale degree is raised and the surrounding intervallic content matches.

            But I think this gets into a pointless discussion about essences. There are theorists who believe that the Lydian scale is really just a major scale with no functional 4th degree and a 5th degree that sometimes takes a lower neighbor. Schenker’s map of modal mixture works like this a bit, and from his perspective, it’s often the voice-leading motions rather than the specific pitches used that are important in determining “what is really going on.”

            This gives his theory a great deal of explanatory power by generalizing, at the expense of sometimes glossing over important pitch and motivic relationships that may only apply to one or two pieces, or even to one passage within a piece. Bach’s chorales are perfect examples of what something like Schenker will and won’t get you, and why, and it’s important to be able to think in both/and terms rather than either/or terms.

            Very much like the numerology I originally referenced and about which many analysts get very exercised, but which has, imo, no real explanatory power.

            Well, at some level of explanation, the structures you can get from a 7-pitch scale norm are extremely different from the ones you can get from 6-pitch or 8-pitch scales, and it really does have to do with the properties of the numbers. The traditional harmony/voice-leading principles would be impossible for various reasons in an 8-pitch world.

            So it depends on what you mean by “explanatory power.” If you take it to mean “explain a specific compositional decision,” then probably not… except in the sense that it’s working as a tacit constraint way in the background and provides rationales for how the system is constructed in the first place. In this latter sense the “numerology” has huge explanatory power but at significant remove from the surface of any individual composition.

            It still seems to me that intent is key in distinguishing well-written music from poorly-written music.

            There’s still plenty of controversy about this. The most important place to start is Wimsatt and Beardsley’s paper about the intentional fallacy, which anyone who cares about art and interpretation should read:


          8. We’re getting pretty off-topic, so this will be my valedictory comment on this thread:

            I’m not sure just how much in the W&B is applicable to music criticism. I just don’t think verbal creations and musical creations are analogous to a degree that would make claims about criticism of one equally applicable to criticisms of the other.

            But speaking more generally, I think you might be able to describe the “intentional fallacy” as a quasi-deepity. No, we can never really, really know the mind of another person the way we know our own mind, especially if that person is no longer with us – but that’s a truism. OTOH, I think it’s just false that a composer’s intent is completely and necessarily unavailable or imperceptible. I just can’t imagine a music theory instructor saying that, according to the New Criticism, we can’t conclude that, say, the final pitch in a fifth-progression realized with sequential material is an intentional goal. Such a construct would be manifestly intentional. In fact, in my experience, it is usually beginners who insist that such abstract architecture couldn’t possibly have been consciously intended. They’re used to plunking things out in a non-deliberative way and can’t conceive that that’s not how everybody composes.

            I think this whole controversy is a little strange. I’ve thus far been arguing against the New Criticism of W&B, but that doesn’t make me an intentionalist, either. I don’t think that “the beautiful” is simply that which successfully expresses the author’s intent. I guess the criticism I’d want to align myself with would be the “moral criticism” of Coomaraswamy: is the intention itself a good thing?

            But that’s a separate question from whether or not the composer possessed the skill to make her intentions intelligible. That’s my point. I still think that’s key. The creation itself may be beautiful. But if it was inadvertently so I’d have a hard time calling it art. The New Criticism would have us calling all sorts of results of inanimate processes “art.” I’ve always thought of art as a human achievement; something really worth celebrating. Do we really want to celebrate an accident?

          9. Yes, it is off-topic, so I do want to keep this brief (and this can be my last post on the matter — I feel bad for helping myself to the last word).

            In any case, I think we might be closer to agreement than you might think.

            W&B is a classic and whatever one thinks, it must be contended with. Where I’m most interested in intent is where intent gets tied up with forced or strategic moves as they are imposed by the system an artist is working within.

            So again, while it’s one thing — and an extremely important thing! — to say that “the final pitch in a fifth-progression realized with sequential material is a manifestly intentional goal,” it’s another to claim as part of that intention the systemic constraints/rationales that make such an intent possible or strategically advantageous in the first place.

            What I’m trying to argue, in brief, is that these constraints do a hell of a lot to shape compositions whether or not a composer is aware of them, and they should not be ignored or dismissed in accounts of musical structure just because they’re (potentially) unintentional, or because they work so far in the conceptual background.

            Thanks for the discussion!

          10. Monroe Beardsley didn’t have a lot to say in favor of the composer’s intent, as I recall. Personally, I think nothing is to be gained by trying to infer the composer’s intent, particularly if the composer has said nothing about it. Someone asked Beethoven once what one of his new piano sonatas meant, and he supposedly said “Read Shakespeare’s Tempest.” What did he mean? Maybe he might have had it in mind when he got the original idea, but I can almost guarantee you he wasn’t thinking about it as he was putting the work into final form. But more importantly, I think it’s unreasonable for the listener to try to make some sort of explicit connection between the play and the music, for reasons that should be clear.

          11. I suggest reading William Empson’s assault on the New Criticism and the ‘intentional fallacy’. Wimsatt and Beardsley’s account of the poem as ‘aesthetic object’, existing in pure some aesthetic space, whose internal relationships (and not the relationship between poem and world)are the only ones that may properly be discussed, would apply, mutatis mutandis, to a musical piece, too.

          12. @Tim:

            But I didn’t claim that there’s anything necessarily wrong with program music. Only that even if you describe a piece’s program in detail, you still have all your real, musical analytical work ahead of you, if you’re attempting to explain how the music really works. And my point to Krzysztof was that Matt and I were discussing the later endeavor.

          13. Perhaps ‘curt’ is the word you are looking for. ‘Churlish’ usually means ‘rude, in an ill-bred way’. By using the word ‘foolish’, I was simply suggesting that Beethoven’s words shouldn’t simply be dismissed in favour of explanations that purport to describe ‘how the music really works’; one can find plenty of technically competent and imaginatively arid performances of the ‘Tempest’ sonata.

          14. @krysztof1:

            We’ve been discussing whether a particular architecural feature was intentional or not.

            Not wondering how to ascertain what programmatic elements the composer might have intended to accompany the music.

            Beethoven can give his churlish and ambiguous answer regarding program; it doesn’t bear on the questions we’ve been addressing here.

            (And, actually, you’ve broached another of my pet peeves: the primacy people grant to programmatic elements when discussing or even trying to explain/analyse music. Programmatic elements are among the least interesting things to talk about in music, imo.)

            (Now I’m really done.)

          15. Point taken on meaning of “intention” in this context. I probably should have read the comments more carefully. So as to whether some detail or other that appears in the music is something the composer wanted to do, can’t we assume in most cases that it was? The controversial ones I know of usually involve some note or other that seems “wrong”, or maybe a controversial dynamic or omitted repeat. And arguments over that kind of thing can go on for years. Since you’re done with this digression, there’s no need to reply. I just wanted to let you know that my misunderstanding was not because I’m stupid.

          16. Analogies to other art forms aren’t quite perfect, but imagine setting out to write a poem in English consisting of only of rhyming couplets. That’s an intentional choice, as are the words you end up choosing at the end of each line — but since you’ve decided to constrain yourself with the choice of language and form, some things that shape your poem won’t have been up to you, e.g. which words in English happen to rhyme.

            Or, an even more blunt example: if you should decide to draw a picture that has a circle, that is up to you, as is the size and color of the circle. But you don’t get to choose the value of pi — that’s a constraint that will (way, way in the background) influence all intentional choices of any artist who wishes to use circles, whether or not the artist has heard of pi.

            Music is like this too.

          17. Just a further thought (ignore if you wish): A composer makes use of his or her training (even if self-taught) and seeks out creative and original solutions that also make sense to him or her. The quality of a composer’s output is, I think, largely proportional to experience. If that’s true, isn’t the matter of intention largely irrelevant? A greater composer doesn’t write better music than a poor one because she realized her intentions better. The poor one no doubt felt that he did everything he wanted to do in the piece.

          18. Ok, ok. One last comment.for real, this time.

            You might be surprised how many “composers” commit things to paper without really knowing what they’re doing. And you’re right – quality isn’t solely dependant on whether the piece of art is exactly what the creator intended. We can also judge the intent itself.

            @ Matt:
            Of course you’re right. Perhaps we’ve been a little but at cross purposes.I’ve had in mind analytical and critical devices/protocols that are more immediately applicable to a specific piece of music, rather than describing background conditions that allowed the music to be written the way it was in the first place.

          19. Your comment about “composers” often not knowing what they’re doing reminded me of something Milton Babbitt once said–that he never wrote a note without being able to explain exactly why that particular pitch, duration, and dynamic appeared at that particular point in the music. As I recall, though, he left unanswered the question as to whether that fact implied that it was therefore a good piece. (And I’m not arguing that his music isn’t good, of course.) For me, as one who has been a teacher of music theory, hung out with theorists, studied Schenker, and composed quite a bit of music, every composer of integrity has to work in the way that gets him the best possible results. Some persons are more comfortable with trusting their intuition, and when they get it right it can be amazing. Probably Babbitt was arguing that it was a composer’s responsibility to understand consciously the structural constraints imposed upon him by the necessity of style and convention. I agree — but then what is one to do with John Cage? [and now I too am done with this.]

          20. Perhaps you could address Richard Strauss’s ideas on ‘programmatic’ as opposed to ‘absolute’ music, for, outside of some arid purist experiments, I can think of no music that is absolutely ‘absolute’. Beethoven’s hint regarding ‘The Tempest’ is not a mere churlish dismissal: the play and the sonata do share a strangeness of atmosphere; it may or not be that Beethoven was stimulated in the process of composition by Shakespeare’s isle that ‘is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not’, it may or may not be that a similarity between the two pieces came to Beethoven’s mind after he had composed his sonata. It doesn’t much matter; but the hint is not foolish, and draws attention to the imaginative and the physical qualities that are inherent in music, qualities that technical analysis should serve and not seek to replace.

          21. Well, this part of the thread might hold some interest because it won’t seem to disappear!

            Milton Babbitt was my undergrad composition teacher, so I can maybe explain what he was saying. It’s definitely not that endowing each note with an explanation, as it were, thereby endows a work with quality — far from it. He hated pedagogy which said “a good piece must have X, Y, and Z,” and he hated the sufficient-condition converse “a piece which has X, Y, and Z is good” even more.

            He always said that he composed the music he would most like to hear, and that just happened to be music in which every event carried structural weight in as many dimensions as possible, relative to a system. He was always adamant that “composing a system” is not “precompositional” but just part of composition, and he acknowledged that at some very background level, part of that system had already been composed, sometimes just by brute mathematical or physical fact.

            He also talked a lot about the intentional error, and his views on it are conveniently and vividly summarized in the first two paragraphs of his article about his own piece “Relata I.” You should be able to read it here:


            The whole thing is available on jstor:


        2. By the way — even if he wasn’t thinking about octatonic scales, he did some of the R&D necessary for composers who later wanted to use the scales intentionally.

          1. Or, to make an evolutionary metaphor (itself an artistic metaphor…), what may have been an octatonic “spandrel” for Schubert may be “exapted” by later composers.

  9. Why do you think that Doctorow is talking about the real Richard III?

    Because he clearly says he is in his essay. Didn’t you read it? Here’s how the section of Richard starts off: “A Richard III Society in England (with a branch in the United States) would recover the reputation of their man from the damage done to it by the calumnies of Shakespeare’s play.”

  10. I prefer David Gerard’s formulation of “other ways of gaining understanding”.

    That said, you can concede that great fiction is a (slightly unreliable) “other way of knowing” but still claim that religion rests on a category confusion. Religion treats certain transcendental experiences as if they came from immaterial real substantial things outside the person experiencing them. This happens because humans by nature tend to anthropomorphise the world (see faces in the clouds etc.) and this influences their pattern-seeking propensities.

    A rearrangement of the way we think about peak experiences can be made to see such experiences as not coming from a separate God out there, but see that God is an objectification of a complicated set of personal dispositions within ourselves.

    The problem with postmodernism is that it views all views of truth as equally valid (and all motivated by a quest for power). No one truth is better than another. But you can even without postmodernism talk about deconstructing social fictions. So I think Doctorow is in trouble saying “reality is amenable to any construction placed upon it.” but OK in his followup remark “The historian and the novelist both work to deconstruct the aggregate fictions of their societies”.

    I suspect by “greater truth” Doctorow simply means any moral/personal conclusion that goes beyond facts and figures. His rhetoric can be construed to endorse magical thinking and belief in unfounded legends but it need not be, if properly qualified.

  11. Historical fiction may bring us a more complete understanding of human behaviour, but it is not AWOK. It is just more information or insight, about motivations, some of which might be “truths” but others which are completely false. History is facts plus interpretation, and ideally it should be as objective as possible. Fiction doesn’t have that constraint. Would I give up the Illiad for an opportunity to be there to observe? In a heartbeat. However, I acknowledge that even being such an observer would not tell me everything. Even if I were to interview them all, there are still limits. That is where the speculation in historical fiction may help. However, that said, I found the Doctorow piece annoying on many levels – leaving facts “in the dark” is not acceptable. That is “bad history” and unlike Doctorow, I do not believe people do necessarily recognize the difference between good history from the bad.

  12. Jerry, I agree completely that Doctorow’s piece is airhead postmodernism, but I disagree with your judgment of art. Not all art is about “feelings.” A handful of intellectually elite artists bring our attention to important truths they derive inductively from observation of human experience. To point out parallels to your own thinking, Voltaire in Candide, for example, uses satire to skewer the traditional Christian belief in a providential God as well as Leibnitz’s quasi-Christian claim that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” He counters the faith-based claims of Christianity and the deductive reason-based claims of Leibnitz with empirical facts about the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, among numerous other historical events. Voltaire, in short, was an empiricist and trusted inductive reasoning over deductive reasoning.

    Others writers in this category are Homer, Sophocles, and Herman Melville. I’ll focus on Melville because I’m most familiar with him. Melville spent a lifetime falsifying the claims of Christian theologians and philosophers by dramatizing how their beliefs are contradicted by evidence of the objective world. Ahab, for instance, is maddened by theological delusions about God and runs afoul of the indifferent forces of nature symbolized by the white whale. His crewman Ishmael views the whole story with a skeptical scientist’s objectivity and is the spokesman for Melville’s own view. Dozens of other examples of Melville exposing the fallacies in theological and philosophical reasoning are detailed in my book, Herman Melville’s Genius: The Author of Moby-Dick on How to Think About Religion and Other Ideologies. (Disclaimer: I have a PhD in literary studies from Emory University, but my deeper interest is epistemology and I am emphatically not a postmodernist.)

    Melville believed that if a supernatural force oversees human history, evidence for that force can be seen in the objective world, but it never is. He was an atheist in disbelieving in a personal, providential God, but agnostic about the existence of some kind of creative force that might be “supernatural” in the sense of being beyond what we currently understand about nature. His qualified agnosticism might lead you to dismiss him as an accommodationist, but I see his conclusions as intellectually respectable. Like very few other writers, he was a hard-nosed empiricist who used fiction as the vehicle to demonstrate the truths he was trying to get across, and in doing so he created some of the finest literature in America and even the world. Sadly, his views run counter to prevailing opinions in our society and especially in the field of literary criticism, and thus his achievement is not widely recognized. Thanks for the chance to respond.

    1. There is plenty of fiction with rich philosophical implication. It was a couple of short stories by Raymond Smullyan which gave me my first pangs that dualism might be forlorn.

      I also think of how Dennett makes use of the Library of Babel (Borges) in his books. This isn’t AWOK, per se, but another way of suggesting or explaining something important.

        1. My apologies for the technical problem in the link to my site. I also get the “possible phishing site” message. I’m asking for tech help from WordPress staff.

  13. The phrase `another way of knowing’ seems to suggest another way of knowing the same sort of things. That is unfortunate. It is a mistake to expect to be able to reproduce in literal prose the content of something the whole point of which is that it is saying something that cannot be put in simple literal prose. Thank you Eric MacDonald.

  14. My experience has been that historical fiction almost always provides *less* truth. It’s often a better story, but a better story is not a truer story. And facts are annoying things that frequently get in the way of a good narrative, so they’re the first to go.

    I expect historians would look on this article in the same way any expert does on the howlers produced by television shows or movies that broach his or her topic of expertise.

    Hell, just examine the term. Historical fiction. Fiction. If it’s a ripping great yarn but true, it’s still just history. It only becomes fiction when it’s no longer true. When truth succumbs to narrative, it becomes entertainment.

  15. The hypersocial deconstructionism of today illustrates the transcendent meaning of meaning as primarily anti-experiential, in sharp juxtaposition with Gadamerian hermeneutics, so that in applying extra-optimalistic interpolation, we arrive at the inescapble conclusion that fantastical expositionalism, while strictly speaking outside the realm of macro-verification, nevertheless because of Divergence allowed by quantum possibilities (see Chernyakhovsky, et al, 2001), implies that fiction is an “other way of knowing”.

    1. DV might even get tenure at Harvard based on that amusing writing, if he chose his department carefully enough. Or U. Chicago, referring to a recent snippet by Coyne about nonsense blogs from two of his prominent university colleagues. Isn’t there one of those ‘random bullshit generators’ which can be used to at least produce single sentences of that ilk?

  16. I wonder if the confusion isn’t in the overloaded English word “know”. Going way back in the archives of my HS German, they had two words for know… “Weissen” and “Kennen” (Just IMAGINE I’m spelling these correctly and keep going). If you know a friend, it’s “Ich Weisse”, but to know where a book is it’s “Ich Kenne”. Like I said, ignore the spelling and the idea behind might be illuminating in this context.

    1. Er…, actually, it’s the other way round:

      I know a friend = “Ich kenne einen Freund.”

      I know where the book is = “Ich weiss, wo das Buch ist.”

      But why should German words matter? The English language is perfectly capable of rendering the accurate meaning with the help of periphrases. One just has to forsake obscurity for obscurity’s sake.

      An alternative: reactivate the verbs “ken” and “wit”, and restore them to their original meanings.

      1. “D’ye ken John Peel?”

        “But, my good lord, I wot not by what power—”

        They’re still active in some confines!


      2. Oh, and thus Wissenschaft: “the German language term for any study or science that involves systematic research and teaching. Wissenschaft incorporates science, learning, knowledge, scholarship and implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down.”

        Which seems to map to Jerry’s “science, broadly defined” …

        There doesn’t seem to be an idiomatic sense of «Kennenschaft» though! (Are there any native German speakers here that can confirm or rebut that?)


        1. ” . . . .implies that knowledge is a dynamic process discoverable for oneself, rather than something that is handed down.”

          Is this possibly the “Constructivism” which has been all the rage in U.S. colleges of education in the last few decades?

        2. There is indeed “Kennerschaft”, with the exact meaning of “connoisseurship”.

          And yes, I ken John Peel, from countless BBC sessions 🙂

  17. Doctorow does not even really get his OWOK.

    “tormented soul that can never find shelter from the winters of its discontent.”

    You don’t shelter from the “winter of discontent” you embrace it. The winter of discontent is when things are going well for you. Your discontent is at its lowest ebb during winter. Dickie 3 was actually commenting on the fact that things were going much better for the house of York. They were winning. Hence York’s discontent was in a winter hibernation – as in not there.
    Way to get it exactly backwards.

    1. But I can’t read that phrase without thinking of the January sale of camping equipment in a store in Stratford… “The Winter of our Discount Tents” … 

      I’ll get my coat.


  18. “Is fiction an other way of knowing?”


    And I have never been able to read Doctorow.
    And why do we have to choose between The Iliad and the historical record? What (self-justifying) nonsense. My guess is, he’s not selling that well nowadays.

  19. “What we call truth in a fictional world is not a kind of truth. The phrase ‘In the world of the Unicorn Tapestries,’ preceding ‘a unicorn was captured,’ does not indicate in what manner or where or in what realm it is true that a unicorn was captured, or anything of the sort. This is not true, period. ‘It is believed (desired, claimed, denied) that p’ is used not to assert that p is true but to attribute a different property to it, to assert that this proposition is believed, or that someone desires or claims or denies it to be true. Likewise, ‘It is fictional that p’ and its colloquial variants attribute not truth but fictionality to p.”

    (Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990. pp. 41-2)

  20. Some comments have made reference to two German words for “knowing”. To follow up: shouldn’t “knowlege” include the idea that it should be possible to demonstrate or share the knowledge with others, such that it becomes “common knowledge”.

    Mathematicians didn’t consider Fermat’s last theorem to be part of mathematical knowledge, despite Fermat’s claim in the margin that he had a proof ie he knew it was true. Until it could be demonstrated to be true, it wasn’t considered to be knowledge, despite what Fermat said. Why should anything which I claim to be true about myself – eg I like cheeseburgers – but I probably can’t demonstrate to anyone else (should anyone care) be considered knowledge.

    1. Why should anything which I claim to be true about myself – eg I like cheeseburgers – but I probably can’t demonstrate to anyone else (should anyone care) be considered knowledge.

      The standard philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief,” which seems to fit not only technical kinds of knowledge, but everyday knowledge too. Even if you can’t demonstrate to anyone else that you like cheeseburgers (and I don’t think that’s necessarily true), you can still know that you like cheeseburgers.

    2. I don’t know, I think “this tiger likes meat” might be considered an important piece of knowledge for anyone made of meat…. and the tiger can’t even claim that to be true of himself.

  21. Doctorow quotes Nietzsche. Not unexpectedly, he quotes him out of context, and misquotes him. At the very least, he uses a very sloppy translation.

    The source:

    Ein »Ding an sich« ebenso verkehrt wie ein »Sinn an sich«, eine »Bedeutung an sich«. Es gibt keinen »Tatbestand an sich«, sondern ein Sinn muß immer erst hineingelegt werden, damit es einen Tatbestand geben kann.

    Friedrich Nietzsche: Werke IV – Aus dem Nachlaß der Achtzigerjahre

    An anti-Kantian Molotov cocktail, aimed at the “Ding an sich”. The sinew in this morsel: “Tatbestand”, which may translate as facticity, factuality, just facts, ‘actus reus’ in legalese, matter of fact… You get a sense of the rubbery nature of the term. Then there is “Sinn”: sense, reason, meaning, understanding, the whole gamut between telos and logos.

    An appropriately rubbery translation would run like this:

    “There is no ‘object per se’, just as there is no ‘sense per se’, no ‘meaning per se’. There is no ‘facticity per se’, for an interpretation must first be posited so that a fact may be construed.”

    All clear now? Didn’t think so, either.

    May I propose an antidote, one to which I turn with confidence to curb the characteristic nausea that overtakes me whenever Doctorow performs on the printed page?
    J.G. Ballard.
    Specifically, two short stories:
    Notes Towards A Mental Breakdown
    Answers to a Questionnaire.
    There’s more to be learned from them on fiction and reality, construction and deconstruction, than from Doctorow’s collected ramblings.

  22. “..,a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, ‘It is not even wrong.’ ”

    Sadly, so goes Doctorow.

    1. The thing is, Doctorow is wrong, on most counts.

      But it would take an inordinate amount of time, effort, and words — more words! — to take him apart. Is he worth it? I don’t think so.

  23. I think the acronym OWOK should be changed to AMEN = Alternative Means of Extending Nolledge.

  24. I take the phrase “other ways of knowing” to mean other ways of producing or discovering propositional knowledge (knowledge that such-and-such is true). Literature is a way of expressing or communicating knowledge, but not a way of producing it. Science (broadly construed as observation-experiment-reasoning, not just formal science done by professional scientists) is the only “way of knowing.”

  25. Since when is art supposed to make discoveries about the world? We have the empirical method for that.

    Isn’t art more like language than science?

  26. Oh, this post in beyond silly. There is no reason to pit science against fiction. I would never say that Henry James’ (my favorite 19th century author) or George Orwell’s “ways of knowing” were greater or less than science. Pish!

    I’m an atheist, but I am also resigned to the fact that religions will be with us for as far as the eye can see. Science will have to find a way around that (as they’ve been doing). But this business of comparing literature and science is wrong-headed and unnecessary.

    1. It’s not about who’s better or worse. It’s simply that the arts have a function and the sciences have another function. A lab flask isn’t better or worse than a paintbrush.

      Yes, you can read a little disdain in Coyne’s post (art is just about how some guy felt his little feelings at some moment, while the sciences uncover the universe for us), but it’s a minor detail.

    2. There is no reason to pit science against fiction.

      Literature is just a stalking horse. The real issue is whether theology and revelation tell us true things about the world.

      Faced with a lack of concrete accomplishments, apologists have opted to relativise knowledge: the answer is yes, as long as “true” and “world” are taken to be subjective, negotiable terms.

      That would be bad on its own, but whats truly disgusting is how hypocritcal it is. This is just a strategy of convenience; no religious fundamentalist actually believes that their revelation is merely one way of knowing among equals. They merely adopt that rhetoric because they’re losing followers to science. Whenever fundamentalists gain control, that relativism disappears. In historical christian theocracies, truth is not negotiable. Using another way of knowing to discover something that contradicted biblical revelation got you house arrest or execution. Of course, scientists were probably luckier than those who practiced other religious ways of knowing. They got the stake in massive numbers, a lot more often than the natural philosophers of the time.

      1. But that’s what the “liberal religious” have in mind – they are sort of wanting to move their religions *into* the “area” of poetry and such. Insulting to believers of course (see above) but …

  27. Fiction seems a way of gathering data about human thought patterns/processes, by considering what reaction seem plausible to worlds that aren’t.

    A way of “knowing” seems to require identifying what degree a human thought pattern conforms to the experiential reality it allegedly references.

  28. One of the lasting impressions that I got from attending an undergraduate sociology class was that all forms of art (literature, paintings, scultupre, etc.) tell us more about the person/people who created it and the sociological world that they lived in than it does about whatever it is trying to describe. So in a sense, the OWOK people are right but not in the way that they think.

    Hamlet, primarily, tells us what Shakespeare thought about certain subjects. It also gives us some historical insight into the culture that produced and popularized such a work. It doesn’t give us any insight into human nature other than the human(s) who created it, except in some sort of Typical Mind Fallacy sort of way.

    This also applies to other historical documents like the Iliad or the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives us better information about the cultural matrix that produced his work and whatever type of Christianity existed when he wrote his gospel than it does about the historical Jesus or how Christianity began.

    This of course, also applies to more obvious entertainment fiction like Batman. The Batman of the 60s is much different than the Christopher Nolan Batman. They are a product of their times, and studying them in that light gives us a window into the thought-world that created them.

    1. So in a sense, the OWOK people are right but not in the way that they think.

      I always have the same thought when this topic bubbles up. For example, Hitchcock’s movies are “ways of knowing” all kinds of things——about Hitchcock’s movies. That is, a good way to “know” how the shower scene in Psycho was orchestrated would be to watch the scene; likewise, a good way to “know” about the great director’s penchant for using blonde-haired actresses would be to watch Kim Novak in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in The Birds. A work of art generally contains facts about itself, and very often the optimum way to gain knowledge of these facts is to consume the artwork in question. In this sense, everything is a way of knowing——heck, reading the Bible is a way of knowing that Bibles often print Jesus’ words in red ink. Suffice to say, this is not what the OWOK crowd means…

  29. RE: #8 & Aristotle. Knowing what might have happened (possibilities, hypotheses) is knowledge just as much as knowing historical or scientific facts. We should eschew speaking of different ways of knowing or different kinds of knowledge, and instead speak of one way of knowing but knowledge about different kinds of things,eg. knowing what David Copperfield did v. knowing what A. Lincoln did.

  30. Well fiction can certainly present information about the past, but the fiction author doesn’t have to wear the heavy burden of reality.

    A guy can write a book claiming Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires and that the C.S.A. was run by creatures of the night, and can’t really be bashed too much because he’s obviously just telling a story. Historians tell stories too, but there’s have to be right, and even if they are mostly right they will still be subject to scrutiny by other historians with differing interpretations. Through a process of debate and discussion, our understanding of a different time and place becomes clearer and richer based on good, evidence-based interpretations of the facts at hand. And as new facts come to light, the process starts over. History (the study of the past, not the past itself) is really a group effort. Fiction is under no obligation to be.

  31. OWOK is bollocks. Your musical preferences show it. What knowledge from your beloved country music can you share me, given the fact that I think it utterly boring (except Deep Purple’s Anyone’s Daughter)?
    What’s more – I adore Ritchie Blackmore’s solo on Highway Star, but there is no way I can be sure that the “knowledge” I derive from it is the same as he has put in it. Heck, there are even examples of artists understanding their own works of art worse than their admirers do.
    The Laws of Newton though mean the same for every human being all over the world.

        1. Ant — just wanted to let you know that my spouse and I are still laughing about this. Hilarious.

  32. Herman Melville was looking for the truth? I doubt it, unfortunately Melville can’t defend himself. It seems especially strange that another author would make such a claim. I have vague memories of interviews with R. Frost, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and others in which the interviewer would ask some question along the lines of “what is the meaning of…” only to be told that the author doesn’t attach any particular meaning to the verse. One of the more recent such events that I can recall was with Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” – people imagine that the author wishes to convey all sorts of hidden meanings where there really are none and make the ridiculous assumption that the author must be searching for some form of truth where the only objective is to entertain.

    1. There is this Issac Asimov story where someone invents a time machine, and as an historical experiment, gets William Shakespeare to register in a contemporary class on Shakespeare. Predictably, Shakespeare fails.

      I always have the impression that “meanings” attached to most works of literature are in the minds of the critic.

    2. ” people imagine that the author wishes to convey all sorts of hidden meanings where there really are none and make the ridiculous assumption that the author must be searching for some form of truth where the only objective is to entertain.”

      This was essentially Bob Dylan’s response to those who looked for hidden meaning in his lyrics.

    1. “Music is essentially useless, as life is.”

      George Santayana, Life of Reason (1905) vol. 4, ch. 4

  33. We are story-telling animals, but that doesn’t mean that the stories are true. They appeal to our imagination, but we shouldn’t confuse plausibility with truth. The phrase “other ways of knowing” doesn’t mean much unless everyone agrees on what it means to “know” something. It’s not the same as “making sense.” Music, for example, doesn’t communicate knowledge. As a musician myself, I can say that the purpose of music is not to communicate knowledge of the world. Our brains are hardwired to respond to the basic elements of music and fundamental principles of good organization, patterns, etc., thus releasing dopamine at the appropriate moments. I don’t think this is knowledge. I could be wrong, of course.

    1. Re: the release of dopamine. Wonder why a major chord sounds “happy,” and a minor “sad,” not to mention other, different, more complicated emotional responses to other types of chords? Also, the lack of such emotional responses to single tones?

      1. That didn’t always used to be the case, even in the West (and it’s certainly not that simple in South Indian music, say). Zarlino describes a chord with E in the bass, G in tenor, and C on top as a “minor” sound, and a “sad” quality.

        He’s talking about what is now called a “c-major triad in first inversion,” but in his day they didn’t really have a solid theoretical place for chord inversion — they went by intervals. And above the E in the bass is a minor third (the G) and a minor 6th (the C), and so he heard it as a minor sound, possibly with the disposition toward becoming an E-minor triad (E-G-B).

        In any case, attributions of affect like this are almost certainly not universal.

        1. “In any case, attributions of affect like this are almost certainly not universal.”

          Also, there are certain people who just don’t “get” music, right? Emotional response to music is not universal either.

          Insufficient number of, or somehow blocked, dopamine receptors?

          1. Sure. Lots of people don’t “get” poetry either. But see my comment below about the general emotional response to Western music examples by non-Western persons with no experience of that kind of music.

      2. Those are really big questions! Responses to major and minor chords seem partly to be culturally determined, BUT there is research to show that persons from non-Western cultures are able in a very general way to respond to the emotional content of Western classical music. Remember too that chords always appear within a complex of phenomena: rhythm, tempo, dynamics, instrumentation. All these things work together (and sometimes intentionally at cross-purposes) to generate an emotional response in the listener. A single tone without context isn’t really possible because every tone has a timbre, even if it’s just produced by a pure sine wave. It also has to be in a particular octave, which is a context. Our attention is immediately aroused by a musical pitch. Think about the beginning of Wagner’s Rienzi Overture, which begins with a solo trumpet playing A=440. Or the bell that begins AC/DC’s song Hell’s Bells. The open-fifth tremolo beginning Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The beginning to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. All these beginnings set up a primordial state of expectation, the “meaning” of which is determined by what comes next. I don’t think that any of this is addressed by calling our response a “way of knowing.”

        1. BUT there is research to show that persons from non-Western cultures are able in a very general way to respond to the emotional content of Western classical music.

          I would be interested in knowing where to find this research. I say this as someone form a non-Western background who always thought that O Fortuna had to be, for lack of a better descriptor in English, a Vīra Rasa piece.

          1. I’m afraid that I can’t be much help. What I saw was a segment from a documentary on music that was made by PBS. I believe it’s called The Music Instinct: Science and Song. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin are among those interviewed, but I can’t tell you who the researchers were that did this listening test with non-Western persons, or even what tribe on what continent it was. It was pretty low-tech: subjects listened to segments of Western-style music and shown pictures of faces registering emotion, and they were asked to match up the music examples with the faces. That’s how the researchers concluded that emotional content in music might be universal.

            I do sense a problem with that kind of research, though. Would the subjects have had those responses if they hadn’t been shown a set of faces that they HAD to match up?

        2. Actually I did find a couple of recent papers on this topic, who results look encouraging, at least on a preliminary reading. The first one deals with North Indian (technically, Hindustani) classical music, while the deals with South Indian (technically, Carnatic) classical music. The second one it seems, actually set out to test the traditional assignment of the various Rasas to the Ragas.

          1. Well, it’s almost certainly not as simple as the papers seem to make it out to be (and I’m not sure they’re even asking the right questions).

            While it might be possible to maybe get a bit of the emotional gist, I think Westerners bring quite a bit of musical baggage to their listening.

            For instance, take the Hindustani raga Gujari Todi:


            Almost all Westerners will hear the drone, which occurs on the first scale degree, as occurring instead on what is really the third scale degree. This changes the cognitive significance of the surrounding intervals considerably — the 7th scale degree sounds like a flat 3rd and because scale degree 5 is left out of the scale altogether, the sharp 4th scale degree sounds like a flat 7th to most Western ears. This all gives it an almost funky blues/jazz sound that I don’t think an insider to the tradition would hear at all.

            Similarly, the Carnatic Nattai ragam:


            This has a sharp 2nd and sharp 6th which are almost invariably heard in the West as flat 3rd and flat 7th, which again gives what is supposed to have an auspicious, heroic character, a feeling with much more pathos (if you hear it on veena it’s almost reminiscent of country blues).

            Finally, more subtly, I have never met a Western musician who was able to tell what meter this is in:


            It’s impossible to even know how fast it’s going without some considerable familiarity with the tradition. Also, figuring what scale degrees are present is almost impossible for a Westerner because in Carnatic music the concepts of scale degree and ornamentation are intertwined.

          2. Yes, I find it strange that the first paper chose its listeners partly from the members of a Hindustani classical music forum, and partly from the GaTech music department. That sounds like a lot of selection bias right there. The second one (on Carnatic) only has Indian listeners, and claims that about 35% of them self-reported no background in classical music while 65% self-reported very little.

          3. Also, I should probably mention that I am no expert in any kind of classical music: Western, Hindustani or Carnatic, so I didn’t quite follow the comprehensive technical analysis in your post. On my own part, I even find it difficult sometimes even to figure out what rasa a given raaga is supposed to have, unless I can make out the lyrics of the refrain, even though I grew up in India.

            But thanks for the videos: they are amazing.

  34. No time to read the comments…just registering a hear, hear to JAC for a great debunking of that OWOK crap.

    FWIW, I’ve always found Doctorow pompous & pretentious.

    1. Look, just that you like something or find some use for it doesn’t absolutely necessitate that it is ALL THAT IS GOOD AND TRUE FOREVER and is the complete universe within itself.

  35. Arguments like these are often a way to get people to suspend critical judgment.

    After all, would anyone assert that the scientific writings of Isaac Newton contain “truth” without backing that assertion up? Of course, not. In fact, observational evidence since the time of Newton casts several of his assumptions and conclusions in doubt.

    Likewise, Rousseau used the novel form to communicate certain ideas; however, those ideas have to be examined critically just as they would if they were instead written in the form of a non-fiction essay.

    The fact that people sometimes read fictional works and come away with passionate convictions (Protestant evangelicals or followers of Ayn Rand, for instance) is testament to nothing more than the fact that our minds are governed by often irrational passions. It is the job of philosophy and science to temper these passions by subjecting ideas to the tests of logic and evidence.

  36. I came to know a lot after I heard this song. It taught me about the wrongs that African peopled have felt, really felt:

  37. How come OWOK feels like it should be translated as “Other Ways, Obfuscating Knowledge”?

  38. How did you make this about religion?

    What this writer might be getting at, based on these extracts, is that some facts about humanity are known only because the inquirer is himself human. For example, while “gold” can be objectively defined as a chemical element, “money” has a subjective interpretation. We can, however, make informed decisions about money.

    He may also be getting at the “novelist’s” (and others’) insight into truths of the human condition. For example, a mother may consider that she knows that her baby’s tears indicate that he is sad, rather than waiting until a peer-reviewed study has established the statistical significance of lachrymal effusions among the local population of newborns.

    1. You’re using a straw man definition of science. She might also know the child was not sad, but hurt by observing the a surface that had just been touched. Around these parts we generally use our host’s concept of “science defined broadly”, not the lab-coat version.

      And the mom would have done perfectly well in this situation having never read a novel at all. Or being entirely illiterate, for that matter.

    2. I have heard theists attempt to explain religious feeling using music as an analogy; same for New Agers (the usual proponents of “other ways of knowing”) explaining how they just know their woo, man. I actually think it’s not too bad an analogy: something that produces an effect entirely inside a person’s head that can arrest their attention and get them to try to spread the effect to others. And is adapted and recreated afresh for each generation.

  39. Oh what rubbish, truth from fiction.

    Several problems I have are:
    1) The same as with religion. Too much literature simply contradicts other literature. How does one decide which, out of all these opinions, is the ‘truthful’ one?

    2) Even without obvious contradictions, there is an infinite sliding scale of opinions/truths out there, from which everyone can, or rather, has to, cherry-pick whatever they relate to most. What works for one will not work for the other.

    3) Literature is inherently context-dependent (culturally, temporally). What truth can a Polynesian fisherman glean from The Magic Mountain? What could a Mongolian horseman learn from Moby Dick? What can an Inca priest learn from Jane Austin? What would a nazi-sympathiser get from Anne Frank’s diary? I would hold – nothing, at most the extremely basic “truths” for which we don’t need literature.

    Like with religious texts, the only constants are (at best!) the basic basic ones: killing is bad, raping your sister is bad. Not that even religious texts are very consistent here, and I’m sure there is literature that contradicts any basic moral truth at some point.

    But if we, for the sake of argument, grant this point, then behold: we are into territory that science CAN actually explain (evolutionary biology).

  40. One would gather from Doctorow that the ability to distinguish “what is the case”, from “what is just a story” is somehow not intellectually important.

  41. Oh look it’s this thread again.

    WEIT OWOK threads always have two trains running: 1) Debunking the 3-step ploy as shown by eric (lower case), and 2) Comments that disagree with the first two steps eric says nobody disagrees with.

  42. I am surprised and impressed by the number of astute comments posted by musicians and persons familiar with ethnomusicology on this blog!

  43. In the most recent N.Y. Times Book Review, there is an ad: “Writing Creative Nonfiction.”

    “Learn to Write Creative Nonfiction like a Pro”

    Lecture Titles are:

    Welcome to Creative Nonfiction

    Finding the Story

    Honoring the Nonfiction Contract

    Writing Great Beginnings

    Show, Don’t Tell

    Launching a Narrative Arc

    Cliffhangers and Page Turners

    Building Dramatic Sentences

    Rhetorical Devices and Emotional Impact

    Putting It All Together

    Revealing Character in Words and Actions

    Creating Compelling Characters

    Character Psychology

    Getting Inside the Heads of Your Characters

    Using Narrative Perspective

    Shaping Your Voice

    Writing the Gutter – How to Not Tell a Story

    Dialogue Strategies in Creative Nonfiction

    Researching Creative Nonfiction

    How to Not Have People Hate You

    Revising Your Work

    Building Your Audience

    Getting Published

    Being a Writer

    Would lecture titles for “Writing Creative FICTION” look all that different?

    Dr. Coyne, were you much concerned about, e.g., “Character Psychology” when writing “WEIT”? Did you have much luck “Getting Inside the Heads of Your Characters”?

    Does “Honoring the Nonfiction Contract” mean, among other things:

    – tell the truth?

    – present evidence for your claims?

    – don’t present opinions as facts?

    How would E. L. Doctorow write “WEIT”?

  44. How about the sentiment expressed in the quote by Duke Ellington:

    “If it sounds good it IS good.”

  45. All of these controversies become pretty much obsolete once you adopt a concept such as “objective knowledge” for what science (broadly construed) can attain. Whatever fiction, and art in general, generates is not objective knowledge but possibly ideas and concepts—but the closest these come to knowledge is when they take the form of perceptions or feelings. But even then they are a different kind of knowledge: knowledge of internal states. When I look out of the window and say, ‘It is raining’, then that is a statement about my perception. This perception might, however, be mistaken; in order to qualify as objective knowledge, it would have to be tested.

    This distinction is more or less equivalent with Popper’s World 2 and World 3. For a splendid introduction to these and other matters (scientific method and falsifiability, open society, objective knowledge), I highly recommend Bryan Magee’s Popper.

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