The Utility of Literary Study

I should admit at the outset to a guilty conscience. I should have been a physicist (it was my best subject), but around the age of fifteen was converted to the humanities by an enthusiastic English teacher who had been a professional actor. Plato’s suspicion of the artist survives in me somewhere. When I went to university to read English and history, I thought studying literature would help me be a better person, that it would lead to some kind of moral and ethical wisdom, and that may finally be true, but not in any straightforward or obvious way. It did at least keep me out of harm’s way by making the library the place I most wanted to be, reading books.

Since at least the eighteenth century, our sense of literature, when compared with science, has been characterized at a certain aesthetic extreme. Oscar Wilde’s much quoted statement in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of its best versions: “All art is quite useless.” To be literature, a work of literary creativity must dissociate itself from that which is useful. In this sense, utility and artistic value must be sepa­ra­ted, like Immanuel Kant’s “purposeful purposelessness.”

Yet even with these arguments in mind, we live with the inescapability of literature, and that its greatest examples elicit enthusiastic admiration and, in the reading, great pleasure. One typical lunchtime conversation in my year at IAS was concerned with the significance of Giovanni Boccaccio, drawing in a classical philosopher, an ancient historian, and a literary critic. Another was on the considerable influence of Cornelius Tacitus as a writer. In nearly every Monday lunchtime talk in the School of Historical Studies during the past academic year, the issue of the function of metaphor—one of the most central literary issues— surfaced. The case has recently been made that Kant derived an important part of his philosophy from an encounter with some of John Milton’s lyrics, triggering effectively a revolution in the philosophy of mind.1

The Institute’s Director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, praises modes of free reflection as the spur to scientific innovation (referring I believe to the original Latin sense of scientia, not just the investigation of the natural world but simply “knowledge”). Is this not the mental space that the complexity of great literary art also takes us to? This is where we find complex sequential expression (or the refusal of it), the special equivocatory powers of drama, or the rich verbal ambiguity of lyric tradition. Might there not also be a case for creative renewal and originality in an interdisciplinary encounter of all these forms of knowledge, where the arts of numbers and of words are in a relationship of mutual inspiration? I once introduced an Oxford mathematician to the numerically inflected stories of Italo Calvino, such as in T Zero (first edition, 1967), and he claimed to have gained many ideas from them. Truly great literary scholarship is, like physics, an art of measurement, beginning with the proportions of words and the study of matters like poetic meter, but building into more complex patterns of apprehension.

One important example of the challenge of literature comes from the man who is usually regarded as responsible for redividing the disciplines, and ensuring that “science” in the normally understood modern sense (i.e., the investigation of the natural world) was separated from literature and philosophy. This challenge is to be found in the writings of the “father of modern science” Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban (1561–1626). Latin ingenium for Bacon meant both the nature of a thing (its older meaning) and “wit.” On the one hand, it represents the objects in nature that he sought to understand, and on the other, the intelligence that helped to understand them.

Ingenium is and is not “ingenuity.” As the Oxford literary critic and intellectual historian Rhodri Lewis writes in a most important article: “In particular, it will become clear that in Bacon’s hands, ingenuity represented a range of psychological attributes that demanded sustained attention and cultivation, but that were crucially distinct from those that empowered logical, philosophical, or otherwise discursive analysis.”2 That sounds very much like a kind of inventive or perceptive genius that is not the result of any particular training in the use of thought and language (fam­ously Bacon was against most of the university education system of his day). Ingenium is thus not reason but something else, which, like art, should exist entirely “for its own sake.” Bacon felt that human ingenium had been abused in the name of personal and disciplinary vanity.

One root of the modern English word “invention” was ingenium. It was envisaged as a gift for making connections between apparently different things or ideas, thereby providing an orator the wherewithal to generate metaphors. Inventio (meaning “discovery”) was understood as the ability to find subject matter and was regarded as important as the facility to write eloquently. This is why Bacon had a host of literary admirers, writers who were not experimental scientists but who saw his in­sights as crucial to the definition of their own creativity. Among these were Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, and his contemporary Abraham Cowley, who was equally if not more highly regarded than Milton in their own lifetimes. With regard to poetry and the visual arts, and to quote Lewis again, “Ingenium was the imaginative talent through which the poet, painter, or sculptor was able to imitate, and even to surpass, the created world in his works.” Andrew Marvell put this brilliantly when, in his poem “The Garden,” he described the revelation that arrives from contemplation in a garden as “a green thought in a green shade.” And indeed Bacon actually called the ability to order scientific experiments “literate experience.” He did not see it as fundamentally separate from literary competence. Bacon called “Idols of the Theatre” the philosophical structures (like Aris­tot­elian or scholastic categories) that prevented in his view a true understanding of nature, which may be inchoate and beyond the reach of merely human reason. In Bacon’s view, science (or “natural philosophy” as he would have known it) and literature belong to each other. They are the keystones of human creativity.

It follows from this that I am highly skeptical of a recent move in the humanities that sees the findings of cognitive science as a driving force in humanities agendas—that literary imagination must now be seen as determined by deeply embedded aspects of human evolution.3 I do not believe that culture can be reduced to an effect of biology. I would argue that cognitive science does not seem able to account effectively for a realm of reality that is often captured in literature and that we associate with extreme imagination: inspiration, prophecy, the striking if rare insights that lead to major breakthroughs in understanding. It is therefore com­forting that the recent work of some evolutionary theorists has tried to account for these “genius” moments of great transformation by “rethinking evolutionary theory through the nonbinary and noncentralized imagery of exchange, interactivity, permeability, constructivity, flux, flow, and multiplicity.”4

There were several who came to my talk at one of the Institute’s After Hours Conversations on this topic who wanted to hear about the relevance or vitality of well-known literary categories like character or the representation of complex emotions. The significance of these aspects and qualities I do not at all deny. However, and especially in the current IAS context, where there is no literary specialist among the permanent Faculty (and where a very few literature scholars appear each year in the Schools of Historical Studies and Social Science), I wanted to point to a central connection seen between the scientific (as we would define it today) and literary imaginations. It was a connection seen by one of the greatest theorists of “natural philosophy,” who lived with the sense that literary creativity and scientific inventiveness were part of the same precious mental facility capable of finding the truth of things. For Bacon, learning (as he saw it, conventional) philosophy or going to law school was not—rather it was a kind of idolatry. Without scholars to take care of the complexity of these processes of understanding and their realignment in the fullest way possible, we risk being lost to a kind of disciplinary philistinism, and our collective navigation powers will be fatally damaged. 

1 Sanford Budick, Kant and Milton (Harvard University Press, 2010).
2 Rhodri Lewis, “Francis Bacon and Ingenuity,” Renaissance Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2014), forthcoming; I am grateful to Dr. Lewis for allowing me to cite and quote from his article in advance of publication.
3 The view has recently gained widespread attention in Brian Boyd, Why Lyrics Last: Evolution, Cognition, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 2012).
4 F. Elizabeth Hart, “The Epistemology of Cognitive Literary Studies,” Philosophy and Literature 25, no. 2 (2001): 329.

Nigel Smith, Member (2012–13) in the School of Historical Studies, is Wil­liam and Annie S. Paton Foundation Pro­fessor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Princeton University. He is exploring the articulation of ideas of freedom in poetry and drama written in early Modern Europe in the period 1500 to1700. This article is based on a talk he gave on this topic as part of After Hours Conversations (, an informal program that aims to encourage cross-discipline communication at IAS.