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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...

I, too, like your example! Let me add three comments to Charles' response above. First, we can distinguish between several different interpretative communities. One of these are 'average members of the public' -- consumers of cultural products who have no specialist training in the area. Another would be professionals, those whose career has been devoted to understanding a certain area of cultural production. A professor of literature, for example, or a film critic. A third group, generally rather small, comprises the makers (the scriptwriter and director of your fantasy story, say). Now, we might want to think that these three groups should agree, or should tend towards or strive towards agreement. But there are good reasons to think otherwise. A Hollywood scriptwriter in the 1950s would have had to bury the left-leaning political message of his film under a thoroughly populist and conventional surface. You might even say that in such a case the author’s intention was precisely not to be understood,...

How useful is it studying literature? The reason I ask is because (at least my high school) English courses seem to miss the target. Let me explain. We read the text. We find the "what's" of the work, what the author is trying to say. And then, instead of going on to evaluate the validity of the author's opinions on the topic we go backwards! We start describing how the author conveys their themes. My answer is: who cares. I'm sure that is not what the authors want us to look at. It's like evaluating how the frame of a painting accentuates such and such, rather than looking at the painting itself. Is it a fault with the nature of the subject of literary study, do I not understand the subject properly, or is it just not for me? Thanks for your time.

You understand the subject correctly, I believe. The study of literature has not always been done in this way, and is not done the same way everywhere. Saying that, the study of the way literature achieves meaning and certain effects, and the relation of these to the social or intellectual climate of the time, is a dominant way of doing things. Thus, for the most part, the study of literature is the study of how literature 'works', and not the validity of any ideas it contains. However, it's not entirely lacking in usefulness! The study of literature might unveil subtle rhetorical ploys used to make an implausible idea seem self-evident; also it might (like history) help us to understand where ideas come from, why they were believed; finally, it might help us to understand the significance ideas have in people's lives, in part by dramatising how the consequences of beliefs or actions play out. All of these things are philosophically valuable.

I have question about the ethics of life writing. What can I (or any other author for that matter) write in an autobiographical work? My life and my autobiography belong to me, so I should be able to decide what I reveal and how, but since they are so entwined with so many other lives, it seems as my autonomy is in conflict with the autonomies of the people in my life and my autobiography. For example: my girlfriend and I used to have a blog together (it’s closed now since we broke up some time ago) where we would write about very intimate things concerning our relationship and feelings and so on. We used nicknames to conceal our identity, so of all of the people who read the blog, only a handful of very close friends knew who were behind it. Although the blog is no longer available online, I have all the posts on my computer. It’s fairly obvious to me that I ought not to show any posts written by her to anyone, let alone reveal her identify to someone. But it’s not that obvious that I ought not to show...

A fascinating set of questions. Let me start by distinguishing atleast two: 1. the issue of 'entwined' lives and their relation toindividual autonomy. 2. The implications of this for 'ownership' ofautobiographies. The first of these is only a problem if we start with theassumption that everything that happens (in the human world) mustbelong to one and only one agent. As the saying goes, 'it takes twoto tango'. You wouldn't have been 'free' to write about arelationship if there hadn't been another person! You were, in asense, co-authors and co-owners of the events of the relationship. The second question is more difficult. In fact, I think theexample of the joint blog is not really appropriate. A blog is in thepublic domain, and is thus not a 'secret'. Your blog has been takendown but then the real moral issue is about respecting the wishes ofsomeone who has changed their mind, and not about my 'ownership' ofmy own life. A better example would be intimate secrets that werenever made...

Why is subtlety ("showing" and not "telling") valued in art and literature?

I think there are actually two questions here. First, the question about the value of 'subtlety'; second, about the value of 'showing' rather than telling. In other words, I'm not convinced that the latter is a definition of 'subtlety'; it seems to me that one can tell with subtlety, and show crudely. So, with apologies, I’ll just look at the showing/telling distinction. We’ll define ‘telling’ as straight-forward, careful, factual (or apparently factual) description. Showing, by contrast, means somehow to make the subject-matter seem real to us, as well as to make it seem important, affecting, and interesting. Since the subject may not be real at all, this involves creating an illusion. Probably the two are not entirely distinct: it may be impossible to show without also telling something. Now, what you call 'telling' is valued in many areas: in journalism, science, history, documentary film-making, and so forth. I suggest that an answer to your question may also be the answer...

Is a poem about nature beautiful because of its form, or is it beautiful because it reminds us of the beauty inherent in nature? Philosophers tend to equate aesthetic beauty with the form of a work of art and our 'interests' get in the way of appreciating the form. However if this is the case why is there not more beautiful poems about rubbish dumps and oil spills.

A great question! There may be a middle ground to the answer. Beautiful natural objects, and beautiful poetic objects, might both be considered beautiful because of complex or harmonious formal properties that evoke certain responses (this is, roughly, Kant). If this is the case, the a beautiful poem about something ugly would function differently from a beautiful poem about something beautiful. In the former case, the beauty would be purely formal; in the latter, it would be in part representational. Again, a great question, although I suspect it might also be misleading. Many well-known poems about nature are not actually about nature in a straightforward sense. Poems are rarely like landscape paintings. (Come to think of it, neither are landscape paintings.)

It seems like a lot of authors of literature have studied philosophy, and mention philosophers in their novels, and use philosophical ideas in their novels. It's almost as if they thought the knowledge of a lot of philosophy was a pre-requisite to writing a good, interesting novel. On the other hand, I can hardly think of examples of the other way around -- famous philosophers having studied lots of literature and talking about it to inform their philosophy. Do you agree that this is the case, and if so, why might it be? Is literature, which some might say contextualizes philosophy by placing it in the context of a world or a character's life, an outgrowth of philosophy? Is it taking philosophy to its logical conclusion, or to its next step?

That's a lot of fascinating questions. I'm not sure, though, that your initial empirical observation is valid. Sure, there have been many novelists with an interest in philosophy; but there have also been many philosophers with an interest in literature. You only have to look at Plato and Aristotle for clear examples. Nevertheless, the relation between philosophical activity and literature generally, and the novel specifically, remains a matter for debate. Some interesting questions in this area are: what is it about literary types of language use that either can serve, or get in the way, of philosophy? Is the idea of a fictional world, narrative or character a useful resource for philosophy or, precisely because it is fictional, an irrelevance? And, in the reverse direction, what literary devices are already, and perhaps inevitably, at work in philosophical writing? What is not very often asked, though, is the question you raise. Namely, whether philosophy completes itself in...