Sunday, May 15, 2016

Volume 20.1

Thesis XII
A Philosophical Review
Volume 20 • Number 1

Special Issue: Philosophy and Literature

February, 2013

INSIDE THIS ISSUE                           

Commensalism: Philosophy and Literature              
Jacob Wheeler 

Metaphysics and Metaphors 
Avery S. Finnivan

Real-World Application with Directed Motivation
Brandon Gaudet

Blood and Oxygen 
Nicole Kristin Braden

The Aims of Higher Education 
Seth Kershner


Commensalism: Philosophy and Literature
Jacob Wheeler

The primary relationship between philosophy and literature is that the former exists as a necessary but insufficient condition for the quality of the latter.  For a work of literature to be a work of quality, it must possess and exhibit philosophical themes.  This relationship, however, does not function in the reverse; the few benefits that philosophy can garner from literature come at too high of a philosophical price.  I shall address these two claims in the order by which I have introduced them.

All words have meaning.  While they may not possess inherent meaning (a debate for a different location) they certainly all have meaning by the event of their consumption.  As such, literature, while necessarily an aesthetic venture, cannot divorce itself from the meaning of its own medium: words.  Therefore, the quality of the literature is inexorably tied to the quality of the meaning of the words.  The epitome of quality meaning is manifested by the thorough analysis and explication of philosophical themes.

While literature benefits greatly from philosophy, philosophy does not enjoy equal benefit from literature.  While literature may, by virtue of greater aesthetics and emotional involvement, improve the dissemination of ethical philosophy, it lacks the proper tools to frame correctly and support its philosophy.  Philosophical pronouncements of its conclusions, but ought to spend the majority of its efforts explaining the line of reasoning, the premises, and the inferences.  Literature can embed the conclusion by support of an anecdote, but not much else.

One of the very facets that does make literature engaging is the emotional involvement it has the tendency to evoke.  This very facet can make literature a dangerous medium for the dissemination of philosophy.  While philosophy does not and ought not to deny the emotional side of life, emotions can and do obscure clear, rational thought, the basis of even moral claims.  There is a possibility, then, that the emotional component of literature could militate against the contemplation of a work’s philosophical content.

Note to Readers

Thesis XII: A Philosophical Review is published biannually as an open forum promoting respectful philosophical exchanges among students, faculty, and the public.  Submissions reflect a diversity of disciplinary perspectives, philosophical approaches, and topics.  Those new to the discipline are especially encouraged to participate.

Address all correspondence to:

Dr. David K. Johnson, Editor
Thesis XII: A Philosophical Review
Department of Philosophy, IDS, and Modern Languages
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
North Adams, Massachusetts  01247 

Telephone: (413) 662-5448.
Associate Editor: Dr. Matthew R. Silliman
Special Guest Editor: Nicole K. Braden

It could be noted, though, that my argument may better be addressed against literature replacing philosophy, that I have not truly argued against a supplementary relationship.  Perhaps the benefit of literature is the ability to process and analyze case studies of ethical theory which may provide important context for the abstractions of philosophical writings.  Literature may not be virtuous enough to replace philosophy, but just enough to augment it advantageously.

There is merit in this position and through this lens, literature may on occasion be able to provide such support.  The articulation of certain scenarios in which certain ethical principles are actualized provides very little support for those principles; an enumeration of a few anecdotes does little to provide justification for thought or behavior.  Literature needs philosophy, but the converse does not follow.

Jacob Wheeler is an alumnus of MCLA

Metaphysics and Metaphors
Avery S. Finnivan

Literary and artistic style can enhance the efficacy of philosophical writing.  This is a somewhat controversial claim, as for many years the style of writing academics deemed best for philosophical works has been straightforward, regimented, unornamented, and often technical.  While this approach to philosophical writing clearly has merits, I think that adding literary or artistic ornamentation provides no obstacle to the clarity of such works, and can actually increase their effectiveness in a number of ways.

First and foremost, the addition of aesthetic value to philosophical works can help capture and keep readers’ attention.  Whereas an unornamented, purely factual presentation of an argument can seem dry or boring to many readers. Colorful descriptive terms, multitudes of metaphors, or amusing literary techniques like alliteration adds interest to any written work.  As such, these features will help keep readers interested in a text, and thus more able to understand and agree with, or object to, the text’s central argument.

Certain literary techniques (such as simile and metaphor) can also convey ideas more concisely than unornamented, non-literary writing.  For example, rather than taking several paragraphs to approach and explain a complex ethical concept (such as the morality or immorality of voluntary euthanasia) from many angles, using a simile (voluntary euthanasia is like drowning a child in a bathtub, whereas waiting for a patient to die is like standing by while a child drowns in a bathtub) can convey the vital points of the concept with far more efficiently.

These techniques can also increase the vibrancy or clarity of a concept.  Colorfully describing the death of a pig in a slaughterhouse can prevent people from romanticizing it or dismissing it as a necessary, or relatively insignificant evil.  Using simile or metaphor to compare the death of a clam to the death of a carrot can stop readers from attributing anthropomorphic feelings (or, in fact, any feelings) to an animal which does not possess them.  Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’ provides a shining example of metaphor and imagery aiding in the explanation of a complex philosophical concept [].

As a last point in favor of this argument, I think that aesthetic value is a worthwhile achievement in its own right.  As such, so long as it has no negative effects on the functionality or content of a piece, writers should attempt to incorporate it.  Even if it does have some negative effects, its positive effects may outweigh these, shifting the overall scale in favor of including the aesthetic elements in question.  Art, in and of itself, need not have any point other than to be aesthetically pleasing; as such, artistic or literary style does not need to add anything other than aesthetic value to a work in order for one to be justified in including it.

One common objection to the incorporation of literary or artistic style is that it can make messages more difficult to understand.  Supporters of this argument claim that metaphor and simile introduce unnecessary vagueness into philosophical works, that alliteration and vivid language can distract a reader from the core substance of a philosophical argument [].  This argument is difficult to deny, as many readers have surely encountered cryptic metaphors which evaded their understanding, or alliterations that they found annoying rather than attractive.

However, while the above objection does sometimes hold true, it is not always the case.  So long as one is careful when using literary and artistic style, there is nothing wrong with doing so.  Badly executed literary techniques often cause the problems I mention above; the techniques in themselves are no more inherently problematic than power drills are inherently evil because they sometimes cause harm to their users.  Certainly, authors of philosophical works should not write in artistic style exclusively – that would undoubtedly engender confusion and frustration in readers – but they should not entirely bar such style from entering their writing.

Others might argue that incorporating literary or artistic techniques can bring emotion into a previously reason-based argument, eating away at the argument’s value until it is no more than a piece of propaganda.  Most people accept that art, or even non-artistic aesthetic appreciation, is closely tied to emotion; it could be that introducing artistic or literary style to a work of moral philosophy obscures the reasons at the base of the work's ethical argument, replacing it with an 'ethics of care' format.  While some philosophers support the idea of care-based ethics, the consensus appears to be that reason is overall far superior as a basis for argumentation [].

I respond to this final objection by admitting that it is partially true; yet it does not have to be so, and incorporating emotion does not invalidate reason – it simply should not substitute or obscure reason.  Good philosophers, when reading a philosophical argument, will identify and set aside any emotion present; if the resulting argument cannot hold water based on reason alone, it will not convince them.  If, however, the argument is logical and rational with or without the emotion, then the addition of emotion need not negatively affect the argument at all.

Avery S. Finnivan is a student at MCLA

Real-World Application with Directed Motivation
Brandon Gaudet

The primary relationship between philosophy and literature is one of frequent overlap generally resulting in mutual benefit. Literature usually benefits from containing strong philosophical ideas, and philosophy usually benefits from being incorporated in literature and from containing literary devices. It seems easy to find philosophy’s place in literature, but it is more difficult to find literature’s place in philosophy.

It appears strikingly obvious that literature often contains philosophical concepts. Most works of literature hint at various moral ideas, or have plots wherein characters attempt to right wrongs. The best works of literature contain strong and agreeable, or controversial, philosophical notions. The New Testament is a good example of literature that contains strong and (mostly) agreeable moral concepts, whereas the Old Testament exemplifies a work containing controversial philosophical ideas.

While discussing the value of literature for philosophy, some argue that incorporating philosophy into literature, while beneficial to literature, is harmful to philosophy. Proponents of this view claim that literature serves to make philosophical ideas cloudy and unclear, or only to hint at truths while never stating them outright.

While it is true that literature sometimes clouds philosophical ideas, it also generally appeals to more people. As such, any philosophical concepts contained in literature are likely to reach a larger audience. Additionally, literature, unlike philosophical treatises, has a strong emotional appeal. Emotion sometimes serves much better than pure reason appropriately to move someone to act in agreement with any philosophical idea. The benefits of increased audience size and greater emotional charge outweigh the potentially negative value of slightly clouded ideas.

While discussing the value of literary devices in philosophy, some argue that adding these devices is detrimental to philosophy because it adds emotion to a previously reason-based argument.

This objection supposes that the emotional aspect of literature is not beneficial, but negative. However, emotion is frequently a sufficient motivator to call people to action. Generally, logical, reason-based understanding is not sufficient to motivate people to act a certain way. Logic and reason-based argumentation are necessary conditions for acting morally, but are not often sufficient alone to motivate people to act.

In short, literature benefits from philosophy because works that include philosophical ideas are more likely to be successful, as people will be more drawn to the real-world content and meaning of such books. Philosophy benefits from being included in literature or having literary devices because its ideas will likely receive a larger audience, and because the emotional appeal of literature helps people to realize the value of philosophical ideas and motivates them to act in accordance with those ideas.

Brandon Gaudet is a student at MCLA

Blood and Oxygen
Nicole Kristin Braden

The primary relationship between philosophy and literature is their symbiotic role in understanding as well as appreciating human nature and the world around us. It is similar to the relationship between the heart and the lungs. Our blood carries the oxygen we need to the rest of our bodies, including our lungs and heart. They both are necessary to the survival of the entire entity, and neither of them could keep functioning in the absence of the other[1].

Literature needs philosophy in order to impact our understanding of ourselves and the universe. If we picture the heart as literature, and philosophy as lungs, we see that blood without oxygen is empty and cannot keep the organism functioning. Though it may have other purposes, such as providing entertainment (just like blood can also close wounds), it is not sufficient for understanding human nature.

Philosophy needs literature in order to impact our understanding of ourselves and the universe. If there is no blood to carry the oxygen from the lungs, the oxygen is never transported to where it is most needed. Similarly, philosophy cannot reach very many people without the literary form.

Literature and philosophy are two of the many cornerstones to understanding ourselves and the universe. We need the lungs and the heart to be functioning at their best to live with the highest quality. We cannot fully understand ourselves and the universe without reading -- and without reading philosophy. We could live with only one lung, or a heart that works at only a certain percentage of its capacity, but our lives would be much worse for it. With the same result we could live without parts of literature and philosophy, like poetry and epistemology.

One may object to this that if both are inherent in each other, one only needs to focus on one to gain a full understanding. However, they both give us different perspectives and approaches to similar topics, some of which work better with certain ideas than others. The heart cannot procure oxygen and lungs cannot pump blood. If there is not enough blood to carry the oxygen, or if we have too little oxygen in our blood, we become anemic.

A more cynical objection may be that there is no point to trying to understand ourselves and the universe, so we do not need literature or philosophy. This is perhaps the hardest objection to answer. One could always reductively ask what the point of it all is. However, I believe that I can confidently reply that human beings will always encounter situations which rip them out of their blissfully ignorant state. The loss of a loved one or even the encounter with love itself will force individuals to think about themselves, their role in the world, and the world around them. We invented literature and philosophy precisely because we cannot help but contemplate these things.

Nicole Braden is an alumna of MCLA.

The Aims of Higher Education

Seth Kershner

What is higher education for, in the end?  What is its ultimate aim? 

These are questions of enormous relevance today, as state governments struggle to support public higher education in the midst of an historic recession.  This bleak situation has motivated some to reevaluate the role of the University.  More and more we hear politicians and others talk about how colleges and universities need to produce fewer Liberal Arts graduates and more from job-specific disciplines.  According to this line of reasoning, we need to stop offering majors in such fields as Modern Languages (all but eliminated at SUNY Albany) or Philosophy (on the chopping block at a number of schools), so that administrators can put more money into developing professional training programs in “growth areas” like Gaming and Homeland Security.  To sum up: the proper response of colleges and universities to an unprecedented economic crisis is to jettison the Humanities, and become more and more aligned with corporate interests.  Well, that’s one possible response to a recession and record rates of poverty.  But there is another, one that starts with the question, What if we were to conceive of colleges and universities as active participants in the struggle against poverty?  One philosopher who contributed a great deal to answering this question was Ignacio Ellacuría (1930-1989). 

Ellacuría – a Jesuit philosopher, theologian and university president – was a Basque born in Spain.  However, for most of his adult life he lived and worked in El Salvador.  During his decade-long tenure as president of the Universidad Centro Americana (UCA), he molded the region’s most prestigious university into a tool for criticizing ruling elites and uncovering the causes of El Salvador’s widespread poverty.  Ellacuría himself wrote numerous articles promoting the idea of a negotiated, non-military solution to the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992).  His advocacy eventually cost him his life and the lives of five other Jesuit intellectuals (along with a housekeeper and her daughter) when a U.S.-trained Salvadoran army battalion carried out a massacre at the UCA in November 1989. 

Ellacuría’s champions in the Anglo-American philosophy world are few and far between, which is likely due to the fact that the bulk of his philosophical work has never been translated into English.  However, it is worth mentioning Steven Gamboa (Cal State, Bakersfield) and David Gandolfo (Furman University).  Gamboa has written several articles on the thought of Ellacuría and sees in the Jesuit’s political philosophy a much-needed antidote – one more rooted in the “real world” of power politics and oppression – to the work of Nozick and Rawls[i].  Gandolfo has written – among other articles – a useful comparison of Ellacuría with Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire.[ii]

In the remainder of this article I would like to just outline one key aspect of Ellacuría’s thinking on the question of the university: the poor and oppressed as “the horizon of university activity.”  This aspect touches both on the ultimate aims of the university as well as its inherently political function.  Ellacuría rejected the supposed neutrality of universities when he spoke at an UCA seminar in 1976: “There is no a-political university because the university is an historical reality and consequently conditions (and is in turn conditioned by) its historical context.”[iii]  Thus, if the university 1) can never be a-political, 2) is situated in a deeply divided society, as the UCA undoubtedly was and as our own arguably are at the moment, and 3) if – as David Gandolfo argues – “not to take sides is automatically to side with the dominant side”[iv] – then those leading a university will either make a conscious decision to make the poor and oppressed the horizon of their activity or allow the university to be the plaything of the most powerful in society. 

Making the poor and oppressed the focus of university activity means that students – often seen as consumers who want a good return on their investment – must relinquish any say over the direction of the university.  “If this [university] community reproduces the interests of the reigning social system and of the dominant elites … if students are coming to the university campus in order to secure a dominant and profitable place in an unjustly structured society, we find ourselves with a serious constraint on the ideal of the university’s mission.”[v]  A university that responds to the needs of the poor would not be content simply to train students to take up positions in an unjustly structured society.  The objective would be to maintain the university as a “place of freedom,” by which Ellacuría meant freedom to critique the unjust distribution of wealth and power, and to formulate viable solutions to the problems of the poor.[vi] 

Students who object to academic institutions seeing them as mere consumers- or workers-in-training, and who believe that colleges and universities should be more creatively engaged with the problems of the world we live in, would do well to turn to Ignacio Ellacuría for inspiration.  And among the many good reasons to learn Spanish, one that should stand out for philosophy students is the opportunity to read his works in their original language.

Seth Kershner is an alumnus of MCLA and adjunct professor of Spanish.

[1] We do have other vital organs. Similarly, there are other disciplines (i.e. science, music, anthropology, and others) which are vital to our understanding.

[i] Steven Gamboa, “Realism and Utopia in the Political Philosophy of Ignacio Ellacuría,” presentation online at
[ii] David Ignatius Gandolfo, “A Role for the Privileged? Solidarity and the University in the Work of Ignacio Ellacuría and Paulo Freire,” Peace & Justice Studies 17, no. 1 (2008): 9-33.
[iii] Ignacio Ellacuría, Escritos universitarios, UCA Editores, San Salvador, pp. 94-95.
[iv] Gandolfo, op. cit., pg. 16
[v] Quoted in Hector Samour, “Universidad para la liberación: la proyección social de la UCA,” online at
[vi] Gandolfo, op cit., pg. 15

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