1st Edition

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

By Jon Phelan Copyright 2021
    202 Pages
    by Routledge

    202 Pages
    by Routledge

    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.



    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




    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.