On “Miscellany”

by Akeel Bilgrami

Akeel_Bilgrami_5 The notion of a miscellany fetches no particular interest, except in the light of its contrasting ideal of integrity. I don’t mean integrity in the moral sense–a person’s action keeping faith with her principles– but in the stricter sense of things being of a piece, being integrated rather than miscellaneous.

The intellectual pleasures offered by literature tend to be inherently miscellaneous, while science and philosophy are marked by a drive towards integrity, towards eliminating the element of miscellany. For someone given to both literature and philosophy, as I have been from an early age, each of these contrasting satisfactions can provide a sort of relief and release from the other.

It is often asked: what is the difference between imaginative literature and other sorts of intellectual endeavor? Are there any kinds of knowledge uniquely available, say, from novels and poems? Why do we read them when we could read books in psychology, sociology, moral philosophyespecially if these are illustrated with vivid examples of ethical, psychological, and social experience? There are many possible answers to such a question, and I want to explore only one of them, the one that has to do with the contrast between the miscellaneous and the integrated.

But first I need to address a larger theme –the special forms of knowledge that can accompany emotions. More often than any other form of intellectual enterprise, the writing of a poem or novel is expressive rather than ratiocinative; and the notion of expression places special significance on the states of mind we call emotions. We tend to say: we ‘express’ emotions, while we ‘present’ our thoughts. We could say that we ‘express our thoughts’ when we speak them, but that use of the word ‘express’ is innocuous. It might just as easily be replaced by the verb ‘present.’ But if we try to make the same substitution when we talk of ‘expressing our emotions,’ a crucial remainder is left out. That remainder is what gives a special character to literature. We can present and represent and study the emotions in our psychological and philosophical and other treatises, but we don’t, at least not without bending genres, express them there. It is not merely that the language is more literary when emotions are expressed rather than presented –a different set of expectations is created in the reader because a different set of pleasures is offered.

This is not the tired duality between rational thought and irrational emotions. As T. S. Eliot saw, that dualism is disastrous for literature. For one thing, expression should not be assumed to require spontaneity, as the multiple revisions that lie under the surface of serious literature demonstrate. More important, in expressing one’s emotions, indeed in possessing them, one is in fact often given a way of perceiving what one thinks and what one’s intellectual and moral commitments are. But it is a very special way of perceiving them.

Let me illustrate this form of perception with an analogy.

It is plausible to think that pain is a way of perceiving different parts of our body. We perceive our body in the usual ways. One can put a finger on a tooth and perceive it by touch. One can go to the mirror, unfurl a lip, and perceive a tooth visually. But one can also perceive it more internally and less voluntarily by (and here we have no felicitous way of putting it because we have no simple verb like ‘seeing’ and ‘touching’) ‘paining’ it. A toothache, then, is a form of perception of one’s tooth.

Something like this is true of emotions, though the perceptual target is thought, not the body. Take anger at someone’s harmful actions towards oneself. Aristotle said that anger presupposes that someone has done one harm. But that is not always right. Very often, one’s understanding that someone has done one harm is not all in place before one feels the anger. Rather, one’s anger at him is one’s way of perceiving that he has done one harm. That is why, when literature expresses emotions, in doing so it articulates nothing less than the writer’s and readers’ thoughts, their norms, their commitments, and their understanding of themselves and others around them. A work in philosophy or psychology also articulates all of these things, but it does not, at least not typically, do it in this expressive mode. If Plato’s dialogues sometimes seem to refute such a claim, it is only because when they do so, they have turned into literature. Far from refuting the claim, they confirm it.

So, the perceptual function of emotions and the expressive aspects of literature go hand in hand. Such a view of things, allows one to see literature as special, as standing apart from other cognitive endeavors such as philosophy and science, while at the same time –because it insists that emotions are a way of perceiving our own thoughts— it disallows the duality between feeling and thought. To understand what is special about literature is not to delegate the emotions to literature while retaining thought for philosophy and science. The idea is to find in the distinctly expressive function of literature, a refusal of that tired dualism.

The recognition that literature promotes a special kind of perception illuminates the contrast between miscellany and integrity. Modern science generates a general intellectual tendency to subsume particular phenomena, under general laws. We acquire this disposition from an early age. When a child dissects a tadpole in a school laboratory, she is taught that the interest is not in that creature, but in coming to an understanding of the anatomy of tadpoles in general, of all tadpoles. Were she to rest with the thought that she has come to know something just about that particular tadpole, she would be seen to suffer from an intellectual defect. (My friend Stelios Vasilakis insightfully reminds me of the recent turn to the particular in genetics –we seek now to identify the genetic make up of each particular person. But here too, I think, the sights are eventually on finding the general links between particular genetic configurations and disease or endowment. The interest is not intrinsically particularistic.)

The point is not simply to bring particular objects under general laws –it is also to bring lower level laws under more general laws of the more fundamental sciences. To be sure, the dream of bringing the laws of all the special sciences under the laws of physics has fallen prey to skeptical questions, but the retreat from grandiose claims has not discredited the tendency to subsume specific under general. It still is often considered desirable, even within this scepticism, that the lower level generalizations of, say, psychology, will at least eventually be brought under generalizations in biology; and so on. And, in any case, it is enough for the point I am making to notice that when any phenomena resist subsumption of this kind, this is considered to be something of a defeat. Successful subsumption remains the implicit hope. If the world’s recalcitrance prevents it, that is nothing to celebrate. Failure prompts a disappointment that reflects the nobility of the aspiration.

Philosophy aspires to something similar. I spent some eighteen years thinking towards the writing of a book called “Self-Knowledge and Resentment,” which argues that four different questions in philosophy were, at bottom, really the same question. The four questions were, “What is the place of freedom in a deterministic universe? What is the relation of mind to body or more particularly to the central nervous system? What makes self-knowledge different from all other knowledge? And what is the place of values in a world of nature? I tried to show that these apparently miscellaneous questions–long viewed as vexing mysteries for philosophy–were really one mystery. “I Love a Mystery” is not a slogan for philosophers. We think that if we have reduced four mysteries to one, that is a form of progress.

Such an urge for intellectual integration is by no means restricted to science and philosophy. One finds it in the law as well. For years there was puzzlement and debate and controversy about pornography. It still continues, but not long ago it was suggested that the entire question be subsumed in the legal system under a law or principle of higher generality, the principle of free speech, the first freedom. This brought a kind of clarity about how to think about pornography. It was not as if the controversy had been laid to rest. But the subsumption made clear that if one was now opposed to the publication or sale of pornography, one was taking on the universal applicability of a much more general law of the land, the principle of free speech. Some year ago there was a quite ludicrous controversy in my university, which provides a gorgeous illustration of the point I am making. There had been a report in newspapers all over the world that my late colleague Edward Said had thrown a stone near a recently liberated site in Lebanon in the direction of a building far away housing some Israeli guards. He was with his son, and he did so in order to let off steam and express some satisfaction at the liberation of an area, which the occupying Israeli forces had evacuated. Some professors and students at Columbia University demanded that action be taken against Said for a violent public act, suggesting that he even be asked to leave the university. There was a lot of discussion and much controversy was exchanged in the student newspaper. Now, even if one thinks as I do that the demand was idiotic and that the whole fuss was farcical (though I am sure it did not seem particularly farcical to poor Edward Said who was harassed –as he so often was — by the most disagreeably malicious and false propaganda about it), it was interesting to see what a lot of calm and clarity was brought even among those making the preposterous demand, when the Provost wrote in the newspaper to say that Said’s throwing the stone is to be subsumed under the principle of free expression. A similar subsumption with similarly clarifying effects was made when the controversy about abortion was subsumed under more general laws of privacy. Now, of course, I know that the term ‘law’ means something very different in science than it does in legislation. One’s function is to explain phenomena, the other’s to regulate society and provide for peaceable governance. But that is why I find it, in a sense, even more remarkable and interesting that –despite this distinction between these two notions of ‘law’– we have this proclivity for integration built into both.

Literature has no such aspiration. A literary person, were she to find a tadpole alluring, would likely visit her attentions upon that one creature. Love, a theme more common than God (and not always unrelated) in literature, is typically the love of someone. A poet may have general opinions she presents about the nature of love and about which qualities are lovable and which not, but when she is not in this way being a philosopher manqué in passing, when she is most doing what a poet does, her work is expressing or conveying the expression of the love that someone has for another. That is the link between the expressive aspects of literature that I began with and the inescapable miscellany of particulars that litter a literary work, particulars that in science or philosophy would be viewed as confusion, clutter, failure.

When the two large claims I have made–the frequently expressive rather than representational cast of literature, the particularity and miscellany of its landscape compared to the generalizing integrations of other intellectual pursuits—are each seen as owing to the other, they are mutually and surprisingly illuminated. And even considered independently they are more complex than they seem. One loves another person in her singularity; that is a banality. But it is also misleading. To say that one loves someone in her singularity has misled philosophers into thinking that one does not love someone for her qualities because, after all, others might have those qualities (her intelligence or her independence, or her wit). But the idea of such a singular loved object is absurd. If someone were to tell me that she loved me, not because of any qualities I possessed, but just simply the superlatively singular ME, I think I would feel a little left out of it.

How can a proposition that seemed so obvious and banal so quickly become false and absurd? The issues are thorny. As I have it so far, we have something of a dilemma. On the one hand, we need to find a way of thinking of the objects that literature focuses on as being individuals with qualities. If we failed to do that we would be landed with the absurdity I just mentioned of extreme deixis, the ME without qualities, which could not be loved by anyone, any more than that love could be expressed by anyone in a novel or a poem. But then, on the other hand, this raises a difficulty: if the loved one is loved for the qualities that she possesses, then others too can possess those qualities, so we are in danger now of losing the singularity. What one needs is a way of thinking of individuals as possessing qualities but we need also to find those properties to be inseparable from the individual who possesses them. This is not to say that no one else can possess the qualities I possess. It is to say something rather more fine. Even if others may possess the qualities that I possess, my qualities are to be thought of as in some deep way tied to me in a way that disallows them to float free from me. Thus ‘quality and individual’ form a coupling that cannot be pried apart, at least not while emotions and writing are the subject. You pry them apart at the risk of changing that subject, from literature to philosophy or psychology. Literature, unlike philosophy and other such disciplines, alone deals with the miscellanies of individuals, so conceived, resistant to integration under more generally conceived qualities (that is, qualities pried apart from their rooted location) that other individuals also possess.

Another way of saying this is to say that literature cannot conceive of its subjects and objects as the sort of things that become obsolete. They cannot be surpassed or replaced. If they become obsolete, that is because they are not good literature, not because literature conceives of them that way. This contrasts with a familiar utilitarian way of thinking about value: some object possesses some property that we value, but the property is something that floats free from the object, so that if another object comes along which has more of that quality or value, then it replaces (and should replace) the initial object. When one conceives of value in this way, when one allows it to be free of the object in which it inheres, one has sanctioned a utilitarian conception of value –one has planned for obsolescence. Literature does not conceive of its objects in this way because it does not conceive of value in this way. Its objects are not so singular as to make their qualities irrelevant. But they are nevertheless objects whose qualities are conceived in such a way, that the objects which possess them cannot be replaced in the name of improvement, and therefore cannot become obsolete. By contrast, objects as studied by the sciences are of interest only because of the qualities they share with other similar objects, so that one can come to understand, in a far more cognitive sense of understanding, truths about the nature of objects of that general kind.

This distinction is reflected in a central fact of our existence: someone cannot feel regret –as he might, for instance, if he ceased to love someone he once greatly loved– if he ceased to believe what he once believed to be true, say, that the earth was flat. It is the nature of cognitive truth, the kind of truth that is pursued in natural and social science, that one applauds the shedding of one’s false beliefs. I may say, “I regret the passing of some of my Communist beliefs”, but that really is shorthand for saying other things –that I regret the passing of the kind of person I was when I once held those beliefs to be true, or the kind of life I led when I held them…Someone might say, “I liked things better when I believed that the earth is flat” but that too does not speak to the cognitive element of truth and falsity, it too is shorthand for saying things like, “I felt things were more reassuring psychologically in this or that respect, when I thought that the earth was flat”; it does not mean that I regret that I have come to believe something that is true and ceased to believe something that is false –though, of course, if I value truth less than I value that feeling of reassurance, there will be some sort of regret. Perhaps my point should be put in the form of a conditional: To the extent that one values truth in the cognitive sense (that science and philosophy pursue), then to that extent, one cannot regret the shedding of a false belief. To regret the loss of a false belief would be to fail to understand the nature and point of inquiry into truth, as cognitively conceived. Literature, typically, has no particular mind for truths, conceived in these cognitive terms, truths suited to presentation and representation rather than expression. That is why literature so often contains expression of regret for loss. One would have to search hard in philosophy for such a thing and would find it only where it is most self-consciously styled on literary forms –perhaps on confessional sites, as in Augustine or Kierkegaard.

It is a fond thought that literature, in giving us pleasures that are miscellaneous –rather than the satisfaction of the deep integrities of scientific and philosophical thought– is like life itself. It is natural to think that the pleasures of life are indeed miscellaneous, more like those of literature than of philosophy because literature is an outgrowth of life while philosophy is an abstraction from it. But if literature is inherently miscellaneous, and if miscellany depends on singular objects tied to qualities that preempt obsolescence, then life all around us seems to resist any resemblance to literature. Take a look at Shanghai or Mumbai. Whatever euphoria those places generate, it is unlikely that they will retain much of their miscellany. And, we are told, that it is Shanghai and Mumbai that reflect the lives in our ‘global’ future, not Varanasi, not Rome.

That puts a great burden on literature. It is an increasingly rare conserving site. Unlike life, literature cannot remain literature if it plans for the obsolescence of its objects. For this uniquely attractive form of conservatism (I honestly don’t know of any other attractive form of conservatism), it is hard not to feel grateful.


Akeel Bilgrami is the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.