Why Study Literature?

By Jan Alber; Stefan Iversen et al. | Go to book overview
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Dorothy J. Hale

In the introduction to a 2002 special issue of Diacritics on ethics and interdisciplinarity, Mark Sanders asks us to consider, “What points of contact, if any, are there between the current investment in ethics in literary theory, and the elaboration of ethics in contemporary philosophy?” (3). Yet the question behind this question the one that motivates his selection of essays for the issue is why literary critics and theorists have drawn their ideas about ethics from Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Alain Badiou but have felt little or no need to consult past or present moral philosophers. As Sanders goes on to note, while “in North America and the Anglophone world generally, the tendency in ethics has been to bring moral reflection to bear on questions in political theory”, there “has been relatively little attention among literary theorists to developments in disciplinary philosophy” (4).

Sanders’s observation of this disconnect is particularly intriguing when we consider that the return to moral reflection in contemporary literary theory is in fact a double return: the renewed pursuit of ethics has been accompanied by a new celebration of literature, and it is in the imbrication of these endeavors the revival of ethics leading to a new defense of literature that literary theory and moral philosophy find common ground in the twenty-first century.1 No moral philosopher has been more enthusiastic or more vocal about the positive social value of literature than Martha Nussbaum. But the mere mention of the author of Love’s Knowledge and Poetic Justice seems to take the mystery out of Sanders’s question. Isn’t Martha Nussbaum self-described humanist, avowed liberal, public excoriator of

1 For recent work in moral philosophy on literary value, see Appiah; Diamond; Eaglestone; Levinson; McGinn; Palmer; and Pippin. For new ethical literary theory, see Altieri; Attridge; Bernstein; Buell; Davis and Womack; Gibson; Glowacka and Boos; Harpham, Shadows; Helgesson; Huffer; J. Miller, Ethics, Literature; Newton; Rainsford and Woods; and Spivak, “Ethics”, Critique.


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Why Study Literature?


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