Reading Between The Lines: An Account Of The Cognitive Gain From Literary Fiction

Phelan, Jonathan (2018). Reading Between The Lines: An Account Of The Cognitive Gain From Literary Fiction. PhD thesis The Open University.



My thesis defends the cognitive value of a close reading of literary fiction which I believe has been overlooked in the philosophical literature. I first outline an account of literary fiction in terms of the standard features of both literature and fiction. The diverse philosophical positions which hold that reading literary fiction ‘improves the mind’ attribute some significance to literariness but do not say how the literary features of literary fiction help to develop cognitive gain. An explanation is required in order to meet anti-cognitivist scepticism. I rule out the view that cognitive gain is irrelevant to our aesthetic appreciation of literature. My thesis locates cognitive gain in the Verstehen tradition and identifies five relevant senses of ‘understanding’ as the cognitive value at stake. The case is made that reading literary fiction as literature stimulates the relevant senses of understanding; in the course of the discussion I meet objections from elitism and subjectivity. I argue that a reader’s engagement with literary devices stimulates the five senses of understanding and supply examples from: irony, particular detail and precise phrasing, metaphor, play with perspective, ambiguity and repetition. Contrary to the contention that dominates the current debate, that a reader gains knowledge from fiction, I argue that it is the way readers gain understanding from literature that is more significant to cognitive value. Finally, I argue that the relevant senses of understanding may be transferred to an extra-textual context and so bridge the gap between understanding the text and understanding the world beyond the text.

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