Literature and Understanding : The Value of a Close Reading of Literary Texts book cover
1st Edition

Literature and Understanding
The Value of a Close Reading of Literary Texts

ISBN 9780367337056
Published October 9, 2020 by Routledge
202 Pages

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Book Description

Literature and Understanding investigates the cognitive gain from literature by focussing on a reader’s close analysis of a literary text. It examines the meaning of ‘literature’, outlines the most prominent positions in the literary cognitivism debate, explores the practice of close reading from a philosophical perspective, provides a fresh account of what we mean by ‘understanding’ and in so doing opens up a new area of research in the philosophy of literature.

This book provides a different reply to the challenge that we can’t learn anything worthwhile from reading literary fiction. It makes the innovative case that reading literary fiction as literature rather than as fiction stimulates five relevant senses of understanding. The book uses examples of irony, metaphor, play with perspective and ambiguity to illustrate this contention. Before arguing that these five senses of understanding bridge the gap between our understanding of a literary text and our understanding of the world beyond that text.

The book will be of great interest for researchers, scholars and post-graduate students in the fields of aesthetics, literary theory, literature in education and pedagogy.

Table of Contents



Series Editor Introduction


The Philosopher of Literature’s Dilemma


Chapter One Literary Fiction as a Subgenre of Both Literature and Fiction

Introductory comments



Literary fiction

Chapter Two Literary Cognitivism, Anti-cognitivism and Non-cognitivism

Literary cognitivism

Literary anti-cognitivism

Literary non-cognitivism

The literariness of literary cognitivism

Chapter Three Understanding Others from Understanding Literary Fiction

Introductory comments

Understanding human thought and action

Five senses of ‘understanding’

Close analysis and interpretation

The charge of elitism

The charge of subjectivity

Chapter Four The Cognitive Gain from Reading Literary Fiction as Literature

Introductory comments


Particularity and precision





Aesthetic effectiveness

Close analysis and intellectual virtue

Chapter Five How Understanding Literary Fiction relates to the World beyond Literary Fiction

The standard account of checking literary fiction against the world

Concession to the standard account

Objections to the standard account

My thesis as an alternative model

Truth tracking v truth trailing relations

Concluding Remarks

Appendix: ‘Affliction (I)’ by George Herbert



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J. W. Phelan is Director of Studies in Philosophy at Wolfson College and at Homerton College, Cambridge. His research focusses on many different issues in the philosophy of literature and literary criticism.


"All too often the philosophy of literature locates itself at one remove from its object of study. With a great lightness of touch, Jon Phelan takes his philosophical reflections into the heart of literature. In doing so, he provides illuminating discussions on the nature of literature and of the understanding before giving a comprehensive account of the relation between the two. This book is much to be recommended not only to philosophers, but also to literary scholars and those with a general interest in the humanities."

Derek Matravers, Professor of Philosophy, The Open University

"Phelan demonstrates a familiarity with the work of many philosophers and literary theorists as well as with an impressive body of imaginative literature that includes poetry and drama, as well as fiction. [Phelan's] navigation of so many literary and philosophical texts makes the book both illuminating and enjoyable. His commitment to the fertility and resonance of literary texts from Shakespeare to Lionel Shriver is striking [...] One of the joys of the volume is Phelan's analysis of multiple literary texts, where he lies down ‘in the word hoard’. He delights in drilling into the passages that he chooses and interrogates them with erudition and nuance. [...] [Ultimately] the book is very engaging and contains numerous exciting close readings by the author."

Dr Kevin Williams is Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Evaluation, Quality and Inspection, School of Education, Dublin City University and also Research Fellow at the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies, Ireland.