The Predictive Power of Literature

In writing an answer to Mitch, I got long-winded. So, not wanting to hijack my own thread as I so often do others’, here is a post.

Some did not buy into post-modernism because they found it ignored one of two assumptions against which they tested theories: 1) some truths are eternal (that is why few such thinkers are religious and few of the religious were attracted to post-modernism) and 2) an intrinsic human nature is at once individual to us and characteristic of all of us. The latter leads to a belief nurture will only bend our strong selves rather than define them.

I suspect this helps explain why ag departments & rural areas are the least likely to vote Republican, which has somewhat incidentally & perhaps even bizarrely become a stand-in for such resistance. The Po-Mo ideas (or at least what nurtured them or was an offshoot of them) are more often associated with politically leftist groups. Current political parties battle other ways of looking at the world. While sometimes arbitrary, many differences stem from the new “blank slater’s” belief man is malleable. For instance, they emphasize “root causes” not of human nature but of nurture.

So, the red/blue divide is the site of a proxy war. Some, for instance, find man more and others less accountable for climate change. Some doubt the grandiosity of man’s acts; they are aware of how puny man is next to nature (without & within). On the other hand, they believe man is more responsible for choices involving crime because they believe the intrinsic self can make choices not governed by extrinsic nurture.

Obviously, theories governed by these assumptions do not give us the predictive power that the hard sciences let alone engineering deal with on a regular basis. But traditionally, literature has helped us understand ourselves, our human nature–displayed in various ways but prompted by ancient virtues & vices, loves & hates.

A modern, secular thinker, Pinker feels a strong allegiance to the academic world & its values (& certainly remains on that side in many of his positions on proxy issues). Nonetheless, he comes back to those old truths because of their predictive power. He finds the “blank slate” to be “an anti-life, anti-human theoretical abstraction that denies our common humanity, our inherent interests, and our individual preferences.” It, too, posits a disproportionate power in man acting in this world but less on man’s intrinsic soul. The blank slate leads to the hubris of Utopianists. While they believe man can shape the next generation, they are less likely to feel awe (as those coming out of the British & American Enlightenments so profoundly did) at the intrinsic merit & God-given rights of each. For many of those Enlightenment figures as for nineteenth century Americans, that merit was the “divine”; for Christians it was the Christ within.

Fittingly, Pinker argues that the Judaeo-Christian tradition got human nature right, that all those stories in the Old Testament help us understand the eternal nature of the human. It is no accident that the concluding chapters in The Blank Slate examine literature, moving between the ancient Greeks & contemporary writers. He explicates a work by Singer, where we find “real human beings with all their follies.” And he finds in its conclusion: “a scene that has the voice of the species in it: that infuriating, enduring, mysterious, predictable, and eternally fascinating thing we call human nature.”

2 thoughts on “The Predictive Power of Literature”

  1. Literature as predictive truth is an excellent and useful concept. If you want, you could make an argument that predictive truth is the core of tragedy. Refusal to acknowledge the truth while failing to refute it constitutes hubris.

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