Philosophical Conversations (January 2020)

“No matter how much experience we may gather in life, we can never in life get the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us. Only the arts and sciences can do that, and of these, only literature gives us the whole sweep and range of human imagination as it sees itself.”
(Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination, Indiana University Press, 1964, p.101)

For your consideration:

Is the study of literature a particularly good way to cultivate our imagination?  Better than other areas, such as social studies?

Please join the conversation below. (This page provides links to previous topics and discussion.)
4 replies
  1. Dr Tim Waddington
    Dr Tim Waddington says:

    An interesting prompt here. While one in no ways wants to deny the power and importance of literature in transporting us far beyond the here and now, indeed in stimulating the heart and mind to grand questions and feats of imaginative flourish, I must confess a rather significant unease with any claim beginning with “only”, let alone one like the prompt above that doubles down with a second, even more exclusive, “only” as well.

    Whether coming from literature or history, social sciences or their ’harder’ empirical cousins, art or philosophy, or most any other field of human endeavour, the range of human creativity and expression is equal parts impressive and staggering. It is the surrounding culture, writ large, in relation to which we negotiate, understand and more fully come to ourselves.

    As a not terribly scientifically literate individual (a strange sort of qualification for the argument I’m putting forward here), I will confess that the two most imaginatively stimulating books I have read in the past two years were Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” and Kuhn’s “The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions”, both of which I sat down to read cover to cover over two successive summer breaks (next year Joyce’s “Ulysseys”) and both of which both bent and then stimulated my mind towards, to me, amazing realizations and fantastic possibilities.

    Literature plays a profound role in the stimulation of human imagination and futurity, no question. The question as to why why Sam so hated Green Eggs and Ham is as instructive now for a happy life as it ever was. However, whether literature is even the ‘best’ of all the disciplines in the promotion of imaginative thought and wonder seems as much a matter of brain chemistry and sheer preference as much as any statement of fact.

    Given the absolute double qualifier of ‘only’ in the original prompt, surely it must be rejected, for “all absolutes are wrong”, … or at least likely to be wrong-minded.

    Submitted with respect and friendship for your continued consideration.

  2. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Tim,

    I would rather take “only” to mean “distinctively,” though I suspect he really meant it when he said “only.”

    But as a person who is rather illiterate in literature, my question as to Frye’s words concerns “the dimension of experience that the imagination gives us.” What is the distinctive dimension that the study of literature can give us in cultivating our imagination? Does reading, say, a literary work on a war produce significant difference in cultivating our imagination from reading newspaper and research articles on the same war?

  3. Kieran Egan
    Kieran Egan says:

    I suppose, as usual, it comes down in some degree to what one means by imagination. In Frye’s sense, imagination is best embodied in the kind of literary works that he most valued and on which he spent a productive life studying and teaching. Anyone who has done even a moderate amount of “handiwork” around the house, and tried to build even a small shed, or tea-house, and who reflects on the astonishing cleverness of the tools and techniques developed to make such work easy, can only wonder at the ingenuity that has gone into designing screws, working out wood-frame building, creating smooth clean walls with plasterboard, tape, paste, and paint, etc. Watching the most recent Spacex rocket take off, its first stage return to land on a boat deck at sea, and deliver is payload into a precise orbit, can similarly only wonder at the massive ingenuity that has led from imagining the possibility to making it happen in reality. That is, in any sphere of human activity, one can see stunning imaginative achievements. The design of screws or space vehicles may come from minds enriched by reading Frye’s preferred books or appreciating our finest art, but I suspect they much more rely on imaginations that get caught up with specific ideas, areas of knowledge, romantic possibilities of the material world, and so on. (“Learning in Depth” is designed to stimulate such engagements with the material world.) I always think that if the world’s finest literature is what brings to life “the whole sweep and range of human imagination”, and delivers all that this can do for our sympathy and compassion and understanding of others, then university English departments must be the closest places to paradise on earth. In my experience the opposite seems to be the case; English departments seem often to be riven by petty jealousies and narrow-minded vituperative battles, and it’s the maths departments or sciences that better display the humanistic achievements Frye identifies as the fruit of enriched imaginative life. Well, hardly a conclusive argument, but I think Frye’s point talks well to his own convent–the world he was familiar with–and maybe massively underestimates the many other rich forms of imaginative experience humans can gain in other areas of intellectual activity. Keiichi asks us what is the distinctive dimension that the study of literature can give us in cultivating our imagination. I suppose I’d want to say simply, maybe redundantly, it’s a literary dimension. This has its delights and values, but many other dimensions of human imaginative engagement have their varied distinctive forms, and give their own forms of delight.

  4. Keiichi
    Keiichi says:

    Thanks Kieran,

    Frye wrote somewhere in his book that imaginative experiences we gain from reading literary works teach us tolerance by enabling us to detach ourselves from our beliefs and actions. He is, then, saying that the imagination educated in literature is transferrable to social and moral imaginations. This seems to resonate with Maxine Greene’s point in the earlier post, that exposure to art, though it needs training in how to see or read works of art, is the best means to educate social and moral imagination. I doubt the “best” part, but if, though this is a big “if” particularly after reading your post, art can teach us something beyond simple appreciation of works of art, do you think exposure to art, including literature, makes us more sensitive to what’s not apparent to, perhaps, what Howard Gardner calls the law professor type of mind, that is, logical and discursive thinking?


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