What Is Literature?

The reading of all good books is indeed like a conversation with the noblest men of past centuries who were the authors of them, nay a carefully studied conversation, in which they reveal to us none but the best of their thoughts.

- René Descartes, Discourse on the Method

Podcast of the Day

Great literature such as Dostoevsky's novels, Shakespeare's plays, and Kafka's stories are often claimed to convey important truths about the human condition. Peter Lamarque is sceptical about this way of discussing literature. He explains why in this episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast.

Listen to Peter Lamarque on Literature and Truth

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

You agree with me, I expect, that exposure to challenging works of literary fiction is good for us. That’s one reason we deplore the dumbing-down of the school curriculum and the rise of the Internet and its hyperlink culture....

If someone now asks you for evidence for this view, I expect you will have one or both of the following reactions. First, why would anyone need evidence for something so obviously right? Second, what kind of evidence would he want?...

There is a puzzling mismatch between the strength of opinion on this topic and the state of the evidence. In fact I suspect it is worse than that; advocates of the view that literature educates and civilizes don’t overrate the evidence — they don’t even think that evidence comes into it. While the value of literature ought not to be a matter of faith, it looks as if, for many of us, that is exactly what it is.

Continue reading Gregory Currie's short article: Does Great Literature Make Us Better?

Further Reading

‘What is literature?’... This is a difficult question. Theorists have wrestled with it, but without notable success. The reasons are not far to seek: works of literature come in all shapes and sizes and most of them seem to have more in common with works that aren’t usually called literature than they do with some other works recognized as literature. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, for instance, more closely resembles an autobiography than it does a sonnet, and a poem by Robert Burns – ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ – resembles a folk-song more than it does Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Are there qualities shared by poems, plays, and novels that distinguish them from, say, songs, transcriptions of conversations, and autobiographies? - Excerpt from Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

Related Topics

Philosophy | Poetry

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.