Volume 15, issue 2 (June 2017) : 263-289|
The New Propositionalism
Bernard Harrison and John Gibson
Rubric A: Literature and Philosophy
Rubric B: English Poetry
This essay explores the philosophical foundations of the concept of literary humanism: the idea, roughly, that works of literary fiction offer a distinct form of epistemic insight into social and cultural reality. We develop our account by way of a critique of Richard Gaskin’s recent defense of literary humanism, according to which literary works achieve their cognitive significance by referring to linguistically structured propositions that provide the link to truth and reality. Against this, we urge a broadly Wittgensteinian model of literary humanism that rejects the metaphysics of the proposition and in its place casts literature as having special ability to reveal the irreducibly cultural grounds of meaning. We conclude with a reading of W. B. Yeats’ “A Prayer for my Daughter,” which illustrates the claim central to a Wittgensteinian model of literary humanism: in certain works of literature we gain insight into the nature of those sense-bestowing cultural practices in virtue of which we make our world meaningful.