- Many of the terms we use to assess works of literature are cognitive in nature. We say that a work is profound, insightful, shrewd, well-observed, or perceptive, and conversely that it is shallow, or sentimental, or impercipient. A common thread running throughout this terminology is that works of literature are ascribed cognitive features affecting the value of those works qua literature. Use of this terminology therefore implies adherence to a substantial philosophical theory, cognitivism, the thesis that (1) works of literature have cognitive content, and (2) this content enhances their value as works of literature. Note that cognitivism is not the thesis that literature's value resides in its causing us to acquire knowledge, but rather in its displaying such knowledge. A given work's displaying knowledge does not of course entail that it causes us to acquire it.
- While cognitivism appears consistent with literary critical practice, it is open to a number of objections. In this paper we aim to defend cognitivism and in the process refine it. Broadly, objections to cognitivism deny either (1) the thesis that works of literature contain any cognitive content, or (2) the thesis that such content can be aesthetically relevant in the sense of being relevant to the evaluation of works of literature qua literature. The principal objection is to (2), for it is difficult to deny that no knowledge whatsoever can be obtained from works of art. For example, the Iliad sheds light on values, habits and customs of ancient Greeks, and nineteenth-century Russian novels may inform us about contemporary debates concerning the emancipation of the serfs. It is the relevance of such knowledge to the artistic value of the literature that is in issue.
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