Sunday, November 17, 2013


120. Does reading literature make people better?

In item 5 of this blog, on free will, I argued that we do not have full free will, we do not have full conscious control over unconscious impulses, but we do have some conscious influence. We can consciously simulate the effects and outcomes of possible actions. While this may not determine the choice of action it may affect it. When we consider how bad smoking is for our health, this may not keep us from smoking, but it may still affect the impulse to do so.

In item 92 I argued that reading fiction helps to develop empathy and the ability to simulate the consequences of acts. Fiction is about possible worlds, and the reader must suspend disbelief.

The Belgian philosopher Patricia de Martelaere argued against this view. She claimed that it is a ruse to maintain the old, failing philosophical view of meaning in terms of reference to things in the world. She claims that the very term fiction is misguided. The claim of the reference view is that with our words in language we can access ‘reality’; that literature is not about this reality and hence must be ‘fictive’.

De Martelaere claims, correctly, that we cannot claim to ‘represent reality realistically’. We use language not to mirror reality but to form it conceptually. Presumed ‘reality’ is already fictive. In literature we simply go a step further, adding ‘more of ourselves’, in deliberate imagination.

While I agree with this, I still think that it is useful to think of literature as being about possible worlds rather than what we see as reality. It makes a difference whether we violate reality because we cannot do otherwise, in language and thought, or do so deliberately, in phantasy.

De Martelaere claims, correctly in my view, that in reading fiction we do not take more distance from protagonists but less. In real life we have good reasons not to identify with others. We might suffer from it in various ways. Our identification may not be reciprocated. We may have to follow it up with sacrifices. We look away from miserable people lying crumpled on the sidewalk, from personal tragedies we encounter, and from global hardship and terror displayed on TV. We identify more easily with Madame Bovary, or with Othello.

I still think that reading fiction (I maintain that term, notwithstanding de Martelaere’s criticism) entails a suspension of disbelief , but, and here I agree with her, that it also entails a suspension of distance, and leap of identification, at no cost or risk.

Because of that we can experiment, intellectually and morally, with emotions, motives and actions, at no cost and risk, using literature as an exercise in simulation and empathy.

Does the development of empathy make people better? There is warm and cold empathy. Warm empathy is accompanied with feelings of compassion, remorse, and shame, arising in the amygdala, deep in the brain. Cold empathy is a purely intellectual, dispassionate insight in how people think and feel, in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, in a disconnect with the amygdala.  

It is a feature of psychopaths, and of other people who remain calm and lucid under danger, violence, risk or what to other people would be stress. Think of surgeons, heroes, and investment bankers. Empathy is for better or for worse.