Jan 10, 2008

Does a Fish Have Utility?

Quick Note:

A lengthy, twisting, and turning discussion of whether humanities have any “utilitarian” purpose has erupted at the New York Times. The discussion among Times readers, which circles around widely varying definitions of the word “utility,” followed upon the publication of a short opinion piece by Stanley Fish, that famous, erudite, genially argumentative, and endlessly inventive literary theorist. Much of the discussion has direct bearing on the writings and ideas of Yvor Winters, who defended a theory of literature that was in some wide, generous sense one of utility (depending on the definition of that term, of course), which Fish opines the humanities do not have:

The premise of secular humanism (or of just old-fashioned humanism) is that the examples of action and thought portrayed in the enduring works of literature, philosophy and history can create in readers the desire to emulate them. Philip Sydney put it as well as anyone ever has when he asks (in “The Defense of Poesy,” 1595), “Who reads Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wishes not it was his fortune to perform such an excellent act?” Thrill to this picture of filial piety in the Aeneid and you will yourself become devoted to your father. Admire the selfless act with which Sidney Carton ends his life in “A Tale of Two Cities” and you will be moved to prefer the happiness of others to your own. Watch with horror what happens to Faust and you will be less likely to sell your soul. Understand Kant’s categorical imperative and you will not impose restrictions on others that you would resist if they were imposed on you. [¶] It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.
And yet, Fish, strangely, goes on to talk about how the humanities increase knowledge, without admitting that increasing knowledge is a “utility” of some sort. The piece and the discussion can be found at:


Winters wrote extensively, even repetitively, about the purpose of art and literature, the art’s final cause as he put it (employing the terminology of Thomistic philosophy). He wrote a good deal about literature’s final cause in a long essay entitled “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (found in The Function of Criticism). It’s one his best but most difficult and bothersome essays, since its overall objective was to demonstrate the superiority of poetry over other forms of literature as a means of communication (a conjecture which has never been properly reconsidered by anyone in the Stanford School, either in defense or approval). Here are a few of Winters’s comments on the “utility” of literature, which stand as some of the most profound words he wrote:

For what, after all, is a poem, if we approach it in my own innocent state of mind? It is a statement about an experience, real or imagined. The statement must follow the experience in time: Donne, for example, could not have written "The Ecstasy" while engaged in the experience described. The poem is a commentary upon something that has happened or that has been imagined as having happened; it is an act of meditation. The poem is more valuable than the event by virtue of its being an act of meditation: it is the event plus the understanding of the event. Why then should the poet be required to produce the illusion of the immediate experience without the intervention of the understanding? Perhaps the understanding is supposed to occur surreptitiously, while the poet is pretending that something else is occurring. But what is the value of such deception? Is it assumed that understanding itself is not a "real" form of experience?

The rhetorical question that ends the passage had an answer so obvious in Winters’s mind that no further comment on final cause was required at this point. But this passage is only a brief sample of Winters’s thoughts on the central topic. This “Problems” essay has much more on final cause (and by extension “utility”), in addition to all you can find in countless other essays of varied occasion and purpose. Check out Stan Fish’s very short opinion piece and sample the massive reader comment. The discussion brings about an opportunity to reflect deeply on one of the fundamental ideas of Yvor Winters.

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