The Proposal of the World: On the Role of Fiction in the Search for Truth

Robert Duffy, Fordham University


What is the cognitive value of fiction? That is, how does reading fiction help us to understand the world and ourselves better? A complete answer to this question must account for three things: first, the full power of fictional literature, including the power that inspired Socrates apparently to ban certain literature from the perfect polis; second, the humanist intuition that we see the world more clearly from reading literature; and, third, the fact that fiction is precisely fictional and therefore seemingly not about the extra-fictional world at all. Existing attempts to answer this question fall into three camps. The first claims that fiction has no cognitive value. The second, that fiction hones certain kinds of skills or clarifies knowledge that we already have, and thus prepares us to think more clearly about the extra-fictional world. The third, that fiction configures a way of encountering the world in our pre-reflective experience, especially in terms of the value and significance of things for our lives. In this dissertation, I consider and reject the existing views. First, the argument that fiction has no cognitive value, as represented by Jerome Stolnitz, assumes an overly narrow conception of cognitive value as equivalent to truth, as well as an overly narrow conception of truth as merely the correctness of propositions. Second, the view that fiction sharpens our cognitive skills, as represented, for example, by Hilary Putnam and Noël Carroll, undermines both the humanist intuition and the Socratic intuition. Third, existing “figurative” views, especially those of John Gibson and Lamarque and Olsen, tend to treat the enriched cognition of value and significance as an “optional extra” not related to the search for truth. This dissertation draws on Martin Heidegger’s conception of truth as disclosure, and the hermeneutical theories of Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer, to argue that fictions are cognitively valuable when they are true, in the sense that they configure a way of seeing the world that is not merely an optional extra, but integral to the search for truth. For the search for truth aims not only at having correct beliefs, but at experiencing the world and living our lives in light of the way things are.

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Recommended Citation

Duffy, Robert, "The Proposal of the World: On the Role of Fiction in the Search for Truth" (2020). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI27957626.