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Why does fiction make us feel so emotional sometimes? Rationally, my mind knows that the stories I read aren't true and are all completely made-up, but even knowing this, I can't help but find myself tearing up at certain well-written stories. Is there any reason to feel this way at all or is it all just a waste of emotion?

This raises a concern that goes back to Plato and Aristotle! Aristotle thought the function of art should be to bring us into an emotive state that would be the kind of state we would be in if the events depicted truly took place. "The plot...must be structured... that the one who is hearing the events unroll shudders with fear and feels pity at what happens which is what one would experience on hearing the plot of the Oedipus." Aristotle thought that experiencing a performance of some tragedy --which we know is not a reflection of what took place historically -- can be a way of refining our moral or ethical character and judgment. He thought our ability to make and experience works of art involving possible events --that did not occur in our world-- is a reflection of our greatness as humans. One way to articulate what takes place when we emote over characters in fictions is that the fictional work can be likened to a world. So, there is the world of Oedipus in which the main character kills his...

If every person can interpret a work of literature differently, by linking the depictions with experiences in their life or knowledge they have acquired, how is it possible for literary critics to "analyze" the meanings of works of literature?

This is a great and complex matter. There are a few philosophers of art who come close to an "anything goes" approach to the meaning of a work of literature, but most of us think there are some boundaries in terms of historical context, the intentions of the artists, and most importantly the content of the work of art itself. You might consider a distinction that some find useful between the meaning of a work of art and the significance of a work of art. In terms of significance, a work of literature might have all sorts of features depending on how the work is experienced. Reading Jane Austin might lead me to become a Marxist and someone else to become a Hindu, and so on, but while the book could have such multiple, different significant effects, to get at the meaning of her work we would need to study the plot, characters, England and continental Europe at the time, the English style she used, and so on.... Once we take those factors into account we can see (or I wager we will see) that her work...

If you could recommend one novel for high school students about the subject of philosophy what would it be? I'm looking for a work that is readable, entertaining and raises important philosophical issues as they relate to the Theory of Knowledge. Many people online have recommended Life of Pi or Tuesdays with Morrie. Any other suggestions? Much thanks in advance.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance might fit the bill, though it is a bit more oriented to metaphysics than epistemology / the theory of knowledge. I am not sure it is super entertaining, but C.S. Lewis's book Until We Have Faces is terrific; it is a re-telling of an ancient myth. You might also like novels by Hermann Hesse like Sidartha --it is a re-telling of the tale of Buddha's enlightenment, and is quite moving and rich for stimulating philosophical reflection. There is a new book: Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy, raising all sorts of great puzzles (including epistemological ones) and that could be read alongside of reading Lewis Carroll's classics. You might also check out the Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy book, which unearths interesting philosophy in connection with Rowling's work. Although not out yet, there is a forthcoming Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy book which might be great to read along side short stories and novels about Holmes. Here is another radical idea:...

When I read Shakespeare or Sophocles I feel like I am getting a glimpse into a powerful mythical dimension of fate and synchronicity that those writers seem to have a masterful vision of. However, the mythical dimension of life is more often associated with revealed religion (ie. The Bible, The Vedas, etc) than it is with philosophy. What philosophers have dedicated a central part of their philosophy to explicating those underlying forces of life that are dealt with indirectly in the works of great literature such as Sophocles and Shakespeare? (Aristotle doesn't get deep enough for me but he seems agree that tragedy is about the interconnectedness of forces, Hegel is too hard to read although his ideas about Tragedy being about the conflict of irreconcilable "rights" seems somewhat compelling, Nietzche's take on Greek tragedy confuses me because he is considered an atheist but I don't see how atheism gels with his assertions about Apollonian and Dionysian forces at work in tragedy, Freud sees Oedipus in...

You have asked: who else writes about the mythical dimension of life from a philosophical vantage [point]? Ralph Harper would be good to check out (try his book Sleeping Beauty). He does some interesting philosophical and theological work on fairy tales, but his work does bear on what you might call the mythical (deep use of symbolism that resonates with the kinds of material you would find in the (highly recommended) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (OUP, 2005)). Richard Wollheim might also be good. His writing is difficult (but not as challenging as Hegel!); you might check out The Thread of Life and The Mind and Its Depths. Jonathan Lear is also a contemporary philosopher who is sensitive to mythology (he combines philosophy and psychoanalysis). The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch might also be interesting, as she defends a fairly optimistic, contemporary, secular form of Platonism which may be seen as anti-tragedy. Check out her books The Sovereignty of the Good (1970) and The Fire...

How do novels, plays, or works of music exist? Consider the Iliad. The original copy of the Iliad was lost long, long ago, yet the Iliad continues to exist through its copies. If all original-language versions of the Iliad were to disappear, leaving only translations, one would assume the Iliad would continue to exist. What if all copies of the Iliad in any language and in any material form were destroyed, and we were left with nothing but the memory of the Iliad? Would it then cease to exist, until someone (presumably with photographic memory) decided to write it down again? What if all memory and knowledge of the Iliad were erased, but copies still existed, lying around in old boxes where nobody remembered them? Would it still exist if this were the case? How can we conceptualize the existence of things, like an ancient epic poem, which exist in physical form yet are not dependent on these forms?

These are great questions! Some works of art seem quite anchored in the material world. Arguably, a marble statue like the David is in Florence. But poems, plays, novels, musical compositions, and so on do seem more elusive. Some philosophers who might be called Platonists tend to think that poems, plays, and the like are not themselves physical events or objects. On this view, the Iliad may be thought of as an abstract object that can be acted out, recited, written down, remembered, loved or hated, but the epic poem is not itself a physical thing. I am very much drawn to such a position and have defended it (in a short book called Aesthetics; A Beginner's Guide), but many philosophers resist recognizing abstract, non-physical objects. Such philosophers (who might be called nominalists or conceptualists) might have to identify the Iliad as a complex cultural object that has multiple linguistic and social dimensions. For them, the Iliad's status may depend upon an on-going social practice, but for...

In response to a previous question Sean Greenberg characterized philosophy as consisting of arguments? Is that true? Doesn't much of philosophy consist of description as well and isn't that different from argument? Is a defense of a description (which I think would require an argument) the same thing as the "description" itself? Hopefully that question made sense. Sean Greenberg's response was to a question about whether Shakespeare had a coherent philosophy. Wouldn't the idea that description is philosophy make the idea that Shakespeare has a coherent philosophy more plausible. (Also I suppose a person could use a brilliant philosophical insight without believing it and it doesn't have to fit together in the way Plato's Republic fits together) But then someone might say you can separate the philosophy from the text but I'm not so sure. Certainly something that transcends the text but is still coherently related to the text could be clearly exposited couldn't it? Is there any interest in literary theory...

Perhaps Professor Greenberg should reply to this, but here goes: I suggest that there are at least two ways of defining a philosophy. On one meaning, to have a philosophy is to have a worldview or a conception of yourself, the world, values, and so on. From this point of view, most people have a philosophy Secondly, "philosophy" can stand for the disciplined reflection on world views or ways of thinking about reality and values. The latter can certainly involve description, clarification, and criticism. Probably Professor Greenberg put such an emphasis on arguments is that while philosophy can involve a great deal of exploration and exposition, a great deal of philosophy addresses questions of justification or evidence. Using these distinctions, I think it likely that Shakespeare the person had a worldview and thus had a philosophy, but in the work attributed to Shakespeare there are multiple philosophies or worldview (Macbeth's philosophy seems different from Prospero's) and it would be hard (but...

Was Shakespeare REALLY a philosophical genius? I've read many impressive interpretations of his work from the various literary schools of theory but none of them seem to sort out Shakespeare's philosophical views in a straightforward and clear way. Have analytic philosophers deduced a coherent Shakesperean belief system from his works?

Probably the most recent attempt to engage Shakespeare by an analytic philosopher is Colin McGinn. I believe McGinn gives special attention to Shakespeare's wrestling with skepticism on different levels. I think McGinn is a fine philosopher, but his book has gotten some quite critical attention. Dale Jacquette has argued that McGinn does more to impose a philosophy on Shakespeare, rather than discover one. I suspect it would be very difficult to make a compelling case for a single coherent belief-system or philosophy in Shaekespeare's work as a whole. I suggest his genius lies in his openness to many conflicting currents in philosophy and religion. I am an analytic philosopher who has published an account of redemption in some of Shakespeare's work (this can be found in popular form in a book of "creative non-fiction" called Love. Love. Love, Cowley Press, 2005), but I would only claim to find a view of redemption in SOME of Shakespeare's work, rather than to make such a claim for all his work...

When investigating the relationship between works of fiction (literature, film, TV shows, etc) and social issues like racism and particularly sexism, it seems to me that much debate involves judging the work in question based on *possible* interpretations, rather than those interpretations favored by the author or the average member of the public, which can lead to the work being both praised and scorned by people from the same camp. For example, one critic might say a story presents a strong feminist message because that story tells of a woman in the traditionally male role of a warrior using sword and stake to combat, say, evil male creatures emerging from a cave under the town, showing that a woman is equally capable of being a hero and in control of her life. Another critic might, of the same story, say that it is anti-feminist and sexist because it implies that the female warrior is only powerful because she wields a phallic symbol, and that violence is being justified against beings emerging from...

You have raised THE critical question at the heart of the theory of meaning, and one that is central to the philosophy of art. Also: Clever example! Roughly speaking, there are three main schools of thought on the matter. There are those who put primacy on the intentions of the artist or artists. So, if the story was intended to be what you describe first (feminist), then it does not follow that the work of art is a success, but it would follow that the meaning of the work itself is defined by the creators seeking to show women in a compelling, strong light and the success of the piece might be measured by how well (or badly) that intention is evident. Then there are philosophers who utterly repudiate intentionality and seek to focus only on the work itself. These philosophers sometimes allow for multiple meanings (and even allow that the meaning of a work might change from generation to generation) and sometimes not, appealing to the conventions of the art world to nail down the central meaning...

What is a poem? I'm thinking about this in reference to developments from Modernism on. The writer presents something novel in form with some familiar signs such as appearance on the page, embedded quotations or references, etc. The reader likes or dislikes, but basically accepts. It seems this is a new attitude, less tied to conventional definitions, but is it? Is there still a point to asking, "What is a poem?"

Another panelist should take up this question, but I will start by commending you on appreciating the difficulty of defining 'poetry' given the breadth of sounds and marks that count as poems today. Long gone are the days when 'poetry' could be defined in terms of rhythm, but as we get to the point of having trouble defining boundaries over what is and what is not a poem, we do well to recall that the Greek term (poesis) from which we get in English 'poetry' meant 'to make.' So we may have come full circle. Originally, 'poesis' covered the making of anything; now we may come (sadly or happily) to the same point when almost anything can count as a poem. Even so, there are too alternatives to entertain: define poetry in terms of family resemblence to what is recognized as poetry today. This would mean that a decision whether X (whatever) is a poem is if it resembles the writing of T.S. Eliot, Pound, Edna St. Vincent M, Dylan Thomas (and here follows a long list of poets in the Norton Book of Poetry...

Many people will say that such and such a poem or book or movie taught deep truths but then they never say what exactly they learn and I rarely challenge them since I suspect that they don't know. But I don't think they are kidding me since I have had the same impression from reading a great literary work. So is great literature more like music than actual philosophical discourse in its ability to convey ideas about life?

Very interesting! Consider two options, among others: one is that great literary works might be (as you suggest) akin to instrumental music. Such music may have emotive features (joy, anger, expressions of longing...) that are difficult to put into words and that is why your friends seem a bit weak in terms of their ability to state these deep truths. But secondly there might be deep truths that are not merely about emotions, but one finds hard to articulate because of a lack of vocabulary. Imagine one finds Tolkien's Lord of the Rings very moving and revealing but one cannot quite say why. Imagine (what seems likely) that Tolkien's trilogy raises questions about the ultimate meaning of life and the possibility of transcendent purpose, but that the reader is completely secular and has no vocabulary or training by which to put these matters into words.