Socrates claimed that the poets were not wise since anyone standing around could explain their work better than they could, and this idea that wisdom with respect to literature consists in being able to tell what it means continually recurs throughout Plato (he dedicates a whole dialogue – Ion – to the point). The platonic claim (henceforward “the platonic” account) caught on, and has been a permanent axiom of Western intellectuals since.
There is nothing wrong with saying “work X shows us blahblahblah”, but the platonic claim is something in addition to this. If wisdom about literature is to have the philosopher tell us what it means, then literature is an opaque riddle in need of some priest-interpreter, that is, that the poem is an incomplete work of philosophy or science. The Platonic interpreter goes through the book seeing nothing but symbols. When we’re told that Moby Dick is all about man’s relation to God or the Lord of the Rings is about nuclear weapons we’re all supposed to react as if the veil has been pulled back and the whole secret of the book has been revealed. Notice that this is the opposite of saying “Moby Dick teaches us blahblahblah”, for saying this leaves open the possibility that the book is never exhausted by the interpretation. It also gives the novel primacy, for it makes it a teacher as opposed to a stupid riddle that would be lame and hidden without a philosopher. (For a clear example of the difference between the two modes of interpretation of Moby Dick, compare R.C. Sproul’s platonic interpretation to James Wood’s claim that the novel manifests things in a mode wholly different from the scientific and discursive mode.)
To make a point that has should be manifest from my tone, I think the Platonic mode of interpretation is false. What’s more, its dehumanizing and it completely distorts the actual relation between philosophy/science and literature. So what then is the right relation between science and literature?
Both philosophy and literature manifest something, and so far as this goes they both teach. But the goal of the manifestation is not the same: the scientist desires simply to know whereas literature seems to intend the very operation of actually knowing so far as it completes our being (this completion is experienced as pleasant, but to say that literature intends pleasure isn’t precise enough). And so in one and the same thing – knowledge- the scientist seeks a sort of pure objectivity whereas the poet wants this pure objectivity as perfective of the person in his operation. The manifestation of literature is pure and continuous vision – serene, motionless, and active; the manifestation of science and philosophy are nothing but a step-by-step knowing. This is why the manifestation of literature is a wordless “Ah!” or “that’s dead on”, while the manifestation of science and philosophy can walk you though all of its steps (except, of course, for the first and last one).
Given their different goals both require different tools. Since manifestation is more perfect in the measure that one thing harmonizes a multitude and shows it clearly, literature and science need a different sort of unity that manifests a multitude with clarity. While both make a universal so far as they manifest many things with one thing, literature does this by making a concrete thing, science by making an abstract one. F=ma tells you something about every force, Othello tells you something about every jealous man. The literary universal, however, exists only in a larger context or world; for while we can know the equation without knowing the whole of physics, Othello (the character) can only be known within the larger world of Othello (the play). Aristotle is right that a character is a sort of person concretely realized, but he never develops this idea that this very concrete realization can only exist within the larger world of the literary work. Details like plot and setting are not the same as the literary world – they are nothing but abstractions from the concrete world that constitutes the literary work. It is this world that the author sees and has the power to describe in all of its wholeness.
World is obviously a metaphor. In one sense I mean only that it is the place of the characters and their action, but I also mean that it has a wholeness and completion of itself, and that nothing we take from it is ever quite as real as the world itself. Just as nothing in the actual world is ever exhausted by any one thing we might take from it, so too nothing in the poetic world is exhausted or even proportionate to some moral or lesson we might take from it. This is why Othello is not a symbol for jealously – because his being is not exhausted by any one thing he causes us to know. The poetic world is not an incomplete thing waiting for a philosopher to interpret it, rather it is our interpretations that are always partial and incomplete. The poet isn’t even trying to make some proposition or set of propositions known, but to give someone a uniquely manifestive world which manifests the actual world. It should be clear by now why Plato could never recognize the literary universal- its very concrete existence was contrary to his firm conviction that the most real should be modeled after an abstract idea. Aristotle did much of the groundwork to locate the literary universal as a bona fide logical entity – that is, as something perfective of the intellect as such, just as science is.
To sum up, literature and science are both ways of organizing experience in order to manifest something about the world. Both make a universal, though the division between these universals is radical and irreducible. To try to reduce one to the other is not only false but dehumanizing since it cuts off all access to reality that can arise from the poetic universal. The poetic universal simply does a better job at showing the reality of intellect and intuitive vision, and to miss this will make science a step-by-step walk from nowhere to nowhere. Again, when we stress the step-by-step advance in knowledge, we inevitability see ourselves as having gone further than those who came before us in history, whereas when we see the world through the poetic universal it becomes impossible to think that we are in any way presumptively better than those who came before us. The need for both of these universals is what we are fumbling around for when we divide the sciences from the humanities and insist on the necessity of both (note how badly we butcher the distinction when we put philosophy – to say nothing of Plato – in the “humanities”.)