Gregory Currie

Stories and What They (Don’t) Teach Us




** What follows is only a brief excerpt. The full text is available in Conversations on Art and Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2017).**




Hans Maes: According to Quintillian, irony is that ‘in which something contrary to what is said is to be understood.’ Nowadays, almost two millennia after Quintillian, irony is still often defined as saying one thing but meaning the opposite. But despite its long pedigree, you take issue with this view. Why?


Gregory Currie: There are ironic questions, as with “Have you won the Nobel Prize yet?” What would be the opposite of that? Am I really asking whether you have not won the Nobel Prize yet? What would be the point of asking that?


Hans Maes: So, how would you explain what irony is?


Gregory Currie: What is really going on is that I am pretending to ask whether you have won the Nobel Prize, thereby demonstrating my contempt for anyone who would seriously ask that question. This helps to explain the tendency for irony to be extended in dialogue. Others might continue “He hasn’t, but I believe he is being nominated this year”, “Yes, he’s got a good chance of winning”, and so on. The conversation has become a game of pretence.


Hans Maes: A great example from Middlemarch is when the young mother Celia is talking confidentially to her baby boy – ‘that unconscious centre and poise of the world, who had the most remarkable fists all complete even to the nails, and hair enough, really, when you took his cap off, to make—you didn’t know what:— in short, he was Bouddha in a Western form.’ Irony is the perfect tool to reveal the silliness of such a point of view. But since irony requires the capacity to engage imaginatively with another’s perspective, even though one may think it defective, an ironic exchange can actually also indicate closeness in understanding. This is illustrated in Jane Austen’s Emma where the irony of the exchanges between Mr Knightly and Emma suggests that they understand each other much better than anyone else in the village of Highbury. A lack of irony, by contrast, is a frequent feature of those characters, like Mr Woodhouse, whose faults, great and small, arise from thinking everyone must see the world as they do. It’s only a small step from these observations to the claim that irony might be a very important but perhaps underrated tool or quality for philosophers to have?


Gregory Currie: Socrates seems to have been well supplied with it. An ironic perspective helps prevent you from taking your own ideas too seriously—surely a good thing for a philosopher.


Hans Maes: In Nothing to be Frightened Of the writer Julian Barnes compares irony to an infrared camera for filming in the dark and showing characters when they are not aware that anyone is looking. An apt comparison, but also a surprising one. After all, while it’s easy to think of ironic statements or instances of ironic narration in literature, it is not that easy to find good examples of ironic pictures (not to be confused with pictures of ironic situations). Why do you think irony is more difficult to achieve in a pictorial medium than in a linguistic one?


Gregory Currie: Yes, genuine pictorial irony is rare, and it is rare because it is difficult to achieve. It is difficult to distinguish, on the basis of the picture alone, whether the picture is genuinely ironic in the communicative sense we have been discussing rather than merely a picture of a situation deemed to be ironic, meaning that it is a situation in which a norm is violated in a certain way (that way is not easy to spell out, but that’s not my problem). Trying to make a picture unambiguously ironic in the communicative sense often destroys the lightness of touch essential to effective irony.


Hans Maes: What would be an example of ironic narration in film or on TV? Would David Lynch’s Blue Velvet qualify as such? Or The Simpsons perhaps?


Gregory Currie: My favorite examples are from Hitchcock. I have discussed The Birds at length but there are other good examples, such as The Lady Vanishes in which the director is constantly doing things that undermine the project of making a serious movie. Just as one might say, while lashed by rain, ‘What a lovely day,’ Hitchcock so often seems to be saying ‘Well here we are making a serious and convincing movie about international intrigue.’ This effect is much less evident in Foreign Correspondent. But note that we often call works in any media ironic for a different reason, namely that they celebrate the use of irony by suggesting that a tendency to irony is a positive personality trait. I think that is what people often mean when they call Jane Austen an ironic writer. In TV West Wing represents that sort of irony without being in the least ironic in the self-undermining sense.





Julian Barnes says that he chooses literature over philosophy because it ‘did, and still does, tell us best what the world consists of. It can also tell us how best to live in that world, though it does so most effectively when appearing not to do so.’ (Nothing to Be Frightened Of) Paradoxically perhaps, but there are quite a few philosophers who seem to share his view, at least to a certain extent. While some will tout literature’s credentials as a source of propositional knowledge (knowing certain facts about the world), others recommend it as a source of experiential knowledge (knowing what it is like to be in a situation), and still others consider literature to be a source of practical knowledge (knowing how to act and live in the world). Martha Nussbaum, to name just one prominent philosopher, belongs the latter group. The novels of literary masters like Henry James, she argues, present us with scenarios that make vivid the details and intricacies of moral problems, while giving us the opportunity to think them through without the pressure of time or the distortions wrought by personal interest. As such these novels help us to move beyond the simple moral precepts that so often prove too rudimentary in real life, and by making us more sensitive to the particularity of ethical judgment, they enhance our ability to navigate through the messy and complex world of human relations.


Readers of Narratives & Narrators could be forgiven in thinking that Currie is very sympathetic to the idea that we can learn from literature in these various ways. Good narratives, he writes, ‘often challenge us to experience their events in unfamiliar ways. We may see that as morally enlarging, either because it reveals merit in a point of view to which we were previously insensitive, or because it helps us understand, from the inside, the attractions of a distorted way of seeing things.’ Later on in the book, when he discusses the example of Mr Beluncle, V.S. Pritchard’s novel in which the central character is a small-minded and selfish religious zealot who is nevertheless made sympathetic to some degree, he concludes that ‘Pritchard puts the brakes on our natural tendency to enjoy roundly condemning Beluncle’s character, behavior, and way of life, and by so restraining us he helps us understand the forces behind such an existence.’ And about the gentle exercise in empathy that is Emma Currie writes: ‘Jane Austen gives us a sense of what it is like for Emma to review her responsibility in the disastrous matchmaking she attempted between Harriet and Mr Elton.’


In recent work, however, Currie has shown himself to be much more of a sceptic in relation to the cognitive value of literature. In ‘Creativity and Insight’ (2013) he compares people who claim that literature is educative to smokers who claim their habit is good for them and insists that we ask for hard evidence in both cases. To be sure, people have the impression that they learn something from literature, but that is not enough for Currie: ‘Would science produce highly explanatory theories if it was constrained merely to produce theories that people felt were explanatory? That is the way of magic and astrology.’ (2013) In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement (2011) he even goes so far as to suggest that ‘we give up the idea that what is going on in literature-land is true learning, and make do with the pleasures of pretended learning.’ As such, the literary canon could function as a form of cognitive pornography (his words).


Hans Maes: These charged comparisons – pornography, astrology, smoking – seem to indicate that you are now seriously doubtful of the cognitive potential of literature. But such doubts are largely absent in Narratives & Narrators. Am I right in thinking that you have changed your mind on this topic?


Gregory Currie: I have changed my mind in this way: I used to believe firmly in the cognitive potential of literature but now I am much more confused. I think we can agree that literature can induce cognitive change; but change is cheap: a change might be an increase in ignorance. Can literature induce learning? What decides that question? Not, presumably, whether or not you can get true beliefs from literature—you can get true beliefs from epistemically hopeless sources like fortune tellers. Reliability presumably has something to do with it. We can ask whether literature is a reliable source of true beliefs but then the natural response is “Which literature?”, “What sorts of beliefs?” I find it difficult to know how best to answer these questions. But I am working on it.


But truth is only one aspect of the question. People are constantly telling us that we don’t learn true propositions from fiction: we gain skills, abilities, sensitivities, a knowledge of what certain kinds of experiences are like. Again, I think that is a very problematic claim, though it might turn out to be true.


Hans Maes: One way to cast doubt upon the claim that people learn from great literature is to argue that people typically cannot say what they have learned, or if they can, it turns out to be completely banal or trivial. This criticism has always struck me as somewhat unfair. Not just because it wrongly assumes that the knowledge gained from literature must be propositional knowledge, but also because it ignores the still widespread practice of people to memorize and quote lines from novels and poems. The insights contained in those lines are often anything but trivial or banal. As Matthew Pearl observes (and demonstrates) in The Dante Club, a good book will often reduce ‘to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy that floated in all men’s minds, so as to render it portable and useful, ready to the hand.’


Gregory Currie: I agree. We should not, as I have said, focus exclusively on propositional knowledge and we should not disregard literature’s capacity to distill and make memorable an idea which one perhaps already has in some inchoate form. Some people say that this isn’t new knowledge, it is just repackaging existing knowledge (if it’s knowledge at all, that is). But at least some repackaging surely counts as giving us new knowledge; clarifying our thought gives us a new, clearer proposition to consider, and reconceptualizing can be thought of as doing the same thing, for there is a perfectly good sense of proposition according to which change of concept means change of proposition. So propositional knowledge is not irrelevant to the case for learning from literature after all.


Hans Maes: You have drawn attention to recent research that shows how both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are disproportionately represented in highly creative groups. Isn’t it odd, you then go on to ask, that we tend to credit a certain group of individuals with a deep insight into human nature and are not discouraged by the fact that they are highly prone to mental disturbance of precisely the sort that is marked by difficulties in the area of understanding other minds? But a defender of the cognitive value of literature could reply that even with these findings it is still left open how and to what degree any individual writer’s powers of discernment are impaired. I don’t think you give an example of an author getting things seriously wrong because of some presumed mental disorder; and the authors we have mentioned so far, Jane Austen and George Eliot, seemed to have been well-balanced individuals with a healthy and highly penetrative mind.


Gregory Currie: That’s right. I would never argue that this evidence discredits the claims of all literature to provide knowledge. I simply think we need to be careful and be aware that some great writers might be great partly because they have colorful, arresting views of human motivation that are also in important respects distorted; indeed they may be interesting because they are distorted (Dickens comes to mind). Interesting plots are rarely like the events of real life, why should the characters’ psychologies be different?





Hans Maes: The great 19th century novels often tell stories of people whose actions are strongly guided by certain traits of character. Think of Mr Darcy’s pride in Pride and Prejudice or Dorothea’s benevolence in Middlemarch. However, recent experimental work in psychology suggests that character may play a surprisingly insignificant role in human behavior. And if it turns out that there is no such thing as character, we cannot credit those novels for giving us insight into character. What kind of experiments are we talking about and how decisive is the evidence?


Gregory Currie: The experiments typically make seemingly trivial changes to people’s circumstances—like making sure people find a dime in a phone box—and seeing how much that influences their tendency to be (or not be) benevolent. There are people willing to say that the evidence suggests that there is no such thing as character; Gilbert Harman is one. I don’t believe that. I do think it suggests that the effects of character are over-rated in folk psychological thinking, and certainly in much of literature.


Hans Maes: Here’s one way to defend the cognitive value of literature against this sort of evidence. Novelists, unlike psychologists, are not supposed to give us a general theory of human psychology or nature. What they do instead is explore possibilities. And the fact that situational factors often impact on motivation, as described above, does not preclude the possibility of individuals whose motivation to act derives mainly from their traits.


Gregory Currie: It would be asking a lot of literature to insist that it provides theories—which I take to be coherent and systematic bodies of propositions. It would be something to show that literature gave us isolated bits of insight. However, what sorts of possibilities are we talking about here? Not, presumably, metaphysical or conceptual possibilities. What is possible in that sense is not going to help us to understand human psychology at all. We want possibilities that are (something like) “within the range of plausible human behaviors”. Can literature give us that? I am not sure. What an artist’s imagination will say is possible in this sense is one thing, what really is possible is another. Think of physical possibility. Suppose we did physics by imagining how bodies would behave under forces; we would be stuck with impetus theory or circular inertia. Is imagination better when it comes to psychology than when it comes to physics? Perhaps it is; after all, some argue that imagination developed exactly for mind reading purposes in which case we would expect it to be to some extent reliable. But two things worry me. The first is that literature often presents situations which are rather unusual and where an imagination system designed to predict averages of behaviour might not do very well. The second is that authors often, perhaps usually, seek to produce surprising psychological responses from their characters and these may well be very unlikely in reality.


Hans Maes: Okay. But let me try another line of defense then. Not all 19c novelists seem to subscribe to the notion of a character trait as a disposition that is unchangeable and insensitive to situational factors. Take George Eliot. As Mr. Farebrother says to Dorothea in Middlemarch: ‘character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.’


Gregory Currie: Yes. It is more or less an axiom of literature that character is responsive to circumstance. Perhaps Casaubon’s character is shaped partly by the failure of his project. But very often the situational factors picked out in literature are there, once again, for surprise and for literary effect; they correspond badly to the kinds of situational facts most likely to affect people’s behavior.









References and Further Reading:



Gregory Currie’s Narratives and Narrators: a Philosophy of Stories was published by Oxford University Press in 2010. I found inspiration for a few of my critical questions in excellent reviews of this book by George Wilson (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69, 2011: 331-333), Catherine Abell (Philosophy in Review 31, 2011: 324–326), James Harold (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2010), and Corin Fox and Mitchell Green (Analysis 71, 2011: 800–802). Currie’s approach, with its emphasis on communicative intention and pragmatic inference, is indebted to the work of H.P. Grice (H.P. Grice, Studies in the Way of Words. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, which includes the long-delayed publication of his influential 1967 William James Lectures). For objections and an altogether different approach, see for instance Peter Lamarque’s ‘Aesthetics and Literature: A Problematic Relation?’ Philosophical Studies 135 (2007): 27–40 and the book that Lamarque wrote with Stein H. Olsen Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.


Following E.M. Forster, Currie holds that ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is not a narrative, but ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is one because here there’s a suggestion of a causal connection (E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. London: Edward Arnold, 1927). In ‘Narrative Explanation’, Philosophical Review 112 (2003): 1–25 David Velleman challenges this idea, claiming that what is essential is an arc of development the audience finds emotionally satisfying in certain ways, independent of how events are represented as being connected. So, Velleman argues, let the queen laugh at the king’s death and later slip on a fatal banana peel and the audience will experience the resolution characteristic of a plot. Velleman also developed a narrative account of the self in ‘The Self as Narrator’ in Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005): 56-76. Other such accounts can be found in Marya Schechtman, The Constitution of Selves (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997) and Jerome Bruner, Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). Galen Strawson is probably the best-known critic of narrative theories of the self: ‘Against Narrativity’ Ratio 17 (2004): 428-452.

Graham Priest’s story about a box that is both empty and not empty can be found in ‘Sylvan’s Box: A Short Story and Ten Morals’, Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic 38 (1997): 573-82. Julian Barnes’s Nothing to be Frightened Of (London: Jonathan Cape, 2008) is cited twice in this interview and contains a wealth of reflections on death and dying, literature and philosophy. The same can be said of Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club (New York: Random House, 2003), though in certain respects the two books could not be more different. Among the classic novels mentioned above are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Emma (1815), Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (1847), George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72). Currie has become increasingly skeptical about the cognitive value of literature and art and writes about this in ‘Creativity and Insight’ in The Philosophy of Creativity: New Essays, eds. Elliot Samuel Paul and Scott Barry Kaufman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), ‘Literature in the Psychology Lab’, Times Literary Supplement (August 31 2011) and ‘Does Great Literature Make us Better?’ New York Times Opinionator (June 1, 2013), For more research (and skepticism) about character traits, see J. Doris, Lack of Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Gilbert Harman, ‘Scepticism on Character Traits’, Journal of Ethics 13 (2009): 235-42. In preparing this part of the interview I have benefited tremendously from a talk Robert Stecker gave at the University of Kent entitled, ‘Currie Contra Fiction: Cognitive Science and the Cognitive Value of literature.’ Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The Adventure of a Clerk’, which comes recommended by Stecker, is included in the volume Difficult Loves (London: Vintage, 1999). The cognitive value of art and literature is a topic that is also addressed in my conversations with Levinson, Robinson, and Freeland. Finally, Bernard Williams’ acerbic justification for taking examples from literature can be found in his book Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993): 13.