The Course of Reason

Literary Analysis and Skepticism

April 6, 2012

Good tidings, fellow literate human. Seth Kurtenbach, here.  As an undergraduate, I double-majored in English and philosophy; two humanities disciplines.  I am currently in grad school for philosophy, but I’m in the process of transferring to the computer science PhD program. This transition from the humanities to science/engineering has lately had me reflecting on the value of the humanities disciplines.  A wise and just eye doctor once while making small-talk mused that grad school must be designed to make one hate his/her discipline.  In my experience, this is partially true, as I developed a topsy-turvey love-hate relationship with philosophy.  As a soon to be former humanities person, I’d like to note some of the wonderful things about the humanities that I discovered over the course of my studies. have for several years had a severe case of science envy.  As an English major and novice philosopher, I looked at the benefits science confers on humanity in terms of knowledge and technology, and then looked for analogous benefits in the humanities and found none.  Philosophy surely cultivates in one a deep respect for truth, and the desire to search for it, but I failed to see how philosophy contributed to humanity’s knowledge in the same way that science clearly did.  In science, things are tentatively settled, frequently with great confidence, by empirical observation.  Likewise, the study of literature failed to yield similarly tangible knowledge.  I wanted to participate in a field that paid for itself by its fruits.

Carl Sagan and other science advocates didn’t help! So much ink and youtube data dedicated to celebrating science, and rightfully so, and hardly any for the humanities. Who speaks for the humanities? Massimo Pigliucci and youtube user SisyphusRedeemed do well to support philosophy, but what of the other humanities? Specifically, what about English? On the back end of the so-called Science Wars, has English lost all intellectual value? Maybe Post-modernism in some (all?) respects, but certainly not the entire discipline… right?!? I feared as much.

So, I gravitated away from English, and toward the most rigorous and science-y corner of analytic philosophy: logic.  I’m glad I did.  I love logic.  But while in grad school, I’ve several times noted to myself that I miss analyzing literature, and discussing it with peers.  It was the activity itself that I enjoyed, the sharpening of my intellectual skills on a fictional whetstone.  It was an opportunity to reason about the best interpretation of data without the pressure of being factually wrong in the same way one can be wrong about a scientific fact.  It is the intellectual sandbox, or the sparring ring.

Upon due reflection, I think I see the value of the humanities. I think they are basically why I am a skeptic. With proper pedagogy, it can tend to make other students skeptical as well. I recall the results of a relatively recent study, which indicate that the humanities and social sciences tend to make one less religious. All the time playing in the sandbox, sparring in the intellectual ring, makes one better at asking questions and evaluating claims. I’m not claiming it’s the only discipline that does this, but I think it does this really well because of its availability. Sadly, not everyone finds science intrinsically interesting, so for those people the most they are likely to get out of a science class is the memorization of facts and procedures. Almost everyone is interested in good literature, good stories.

Also, at the beginner and intermediate level, most of the science learned is established scientific doctrine. Novices learn the science that the vast majority of scientists are in agreement about. There is little to be disputed, doubted, questioned. However, any plot point, character decision, or literary technique can be questioned by anyone. With the guidance of a teacher, students learn to examine things from multiple angles and converge on a best interpretation of the “data” (the ‘textual evidence’ as it’s called in the business). The student develops the ability to think critically and ask substantive questions.

The study of literature develops the qualities of reflection and introspection. In order to evaluate literature, a student must examine the impact it has on him or her, and deeply reflect on this. This ability to reflect deeply on material and introspect about one’s thought processes is valuable for many domains beyond the classroom. It is a transferable skill that the student gains. The development of this skill is valuable for the student, and having students with this skill is valuable for society. More reflective, introspective citizens tend to make better decisions on the large scale, I suspect.

Interpreting the elements of a story often involves reasoning abstractly about symbols. To reason abstractly is to identify the properties of a particular that do not depend on its concrete details. For many non-mathematicians/logicians, this is the first and best opportunity to develop the skill of higher-level thinking. The books How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster are excellent training manuals of sorts. They also serve as excellent examples for how literary analysis develops these higher-level thinking skills.

Higher-level thinking is a valuable skill because reasoning well requires the ability to identify the general principles and forms that underwrite particular claims. Of course, the study of logic does this explicitly, and identifies those very principles of good reasoning, but the study of literature serves as a sandbox to practice reasoning from particulars, to general principles, and back to particulars again. This also develops the ability to consider potential counter-examples to general principles, as it familiarizes one with the relation between the two. For those who do not explicitly study logic in high school or as undergrads, the study of literary analysis may supply the fundamentals skills they’d otherwise be missing. And again, good literature is often far more interesting to people than formal logic.


  • Break Apart
  • Study the Pieces 

Analysis and skepticism go hand in hand, in my humble opinion. As the graphic illustrates, analysis involves breaking things and studying the pieces. The things and their constitutive pieces need not be material, but may be things like concepts, ideas, abstract principles, etc. When someone makes a claim, a skeptic breaks that claim down and looks at the pieces, and then decides if there are good reasons supporting the pieces.

Studying literature helps one practice analysis. A story is a thing, and a reader’s job is to break it down into pieces and then reassemble them in such a way as to yield meaning. A good teacher helps the student refine this ability of breaking stories down and studying the pieces. They call the process a “close reading.” Again, we see that studying literature serves as a sandbox for developing skills that are important for areas of one’s life beyond school.

Strangely, the value of literary studies does not derive from the academics conducting their research, but from the teachers imparting skills to students. This is a striking disanalogy with the sciences, where a great deal of the value comes from the discoveries of academic research, in addition to the development of future scientists’ skills.

I suppose a case could be made that when an English professor publishes a book that analyzes the themes of Chaucer, he or she is creating a product that’s available to a larger audience than a semester’s classroom. However, I think this is false, because most of the books written by professors, which constitute their “research”, are intended to be read by other academics. Often, the intended audience is not the public at large. Thus, the research conducted by literature academics are not directly valuable to the public.

However, one can think of academic publications as an opportunity for professors to practice the skills they teach amongst each other, in more challenging sandbox of sorts. This ensures that their skills are highly refined, and justifies acknowledging them as experts of their fields. However, if they are only conducting research, and rarely or never teaching, then they seem to be completely valueless.

To summarize, the fruits of English as a discipline come from the skills it develops in students, rather than any increase in humanity’s factual knowledge-base. I think the study of literature develops the skills one needs in order to be a good skeptic. Being a good skeptic is not just about knowing scientific facts. It is primarily about developing a certain set of intellectual virtues and applying them in one’s everyday life. Literature serves as a sandbox in which to develop these very skills, and the more students play in this sandbox, the better for them and society as a whole, I think. So, as long as one focuses on teaching, rather than research, English professors may consider theirs an academic discipline that pays for itself by its fruits.



About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.


#1 Marcelo (Guest) on Friday April 06, 2012 at 9:32am

I think science demands more hard-work. While you can pretty much build a thesis on a particular subject in social sciences based on your opinion about it, in science you are absolutely entangled with reality. Things are as they are, not as you would like them to be. Science discoveries, and the polished mathematical theories behind them, are wonderful. But the day-by-day of a scientist is very laborious. Furthermore, in the current "market of science", you are forced to produce results. Sometimes your will and love to discover truth is shadowed by the necessity to do it. In any case, I can't imagine a purpose more rewarding than the pursuit of truth.

#2 johndbraungart on Saturday April 07, 2012 at 7:34am

While I agree with the main premise that: "the fruits of English as a discipline come from the skills it develops in students, rather than any increase in humanity’s factual knowledge-base," I'm afraid that the sandbox analogy, while useful for your argument, is never-the-less an incomplete picture.

If the main purpose for studying the discipline of the language arts was merely to prep someone for the more respectable task of processing information effectively, there would be no incentive to keep adding to the literary canon. However, there is an advantage to producing and consuming new creative writing which goes beyond the sandbox analogy. As the model (or perhaps archetype)for all the other communication arts, the language arts are engaged not only in the interpretation of information, but also in the creation of new modalities for comprehension. Neither is the literary canon merely a vehicle for communication, or a practice-tool for reasoning; rather it is the product of a disciplined engagement with the language arts. And a disciplined engagement with the canon actually changes one's conscious awareness for the possibilities of meaning.

As a point of comparison, it would be like saying the efforts of scientists in the lab are merely a sandbox for the discovery of facts; whereas the efforts of scientists in the lab are actually inseparable from the meaning of their discoveries. The disciplined engagement with language arts is inseparable from the raising of consciousness which allows people to achieve a comprehension of new ideas. It is not merely a means to an end, or a vehicle for transmitting something superfluous to itself; it is a discipline in which one must be engaged in order to reap full benefits.

I'm not a scientist, but I can go into a lab and (under the guidance of a scientist) perform an experiment to achieve a result. But, I'd hardly be able to claim that I knew what I was doing because I got a result. Similarly, I can go to my computer, medicine cabinet, or car, and immediately reap the benefits of science despite my relative ignorance of the discipline.

Someone who is not seriously engaged with the language arts as a discipline can (and presumably does) use language all the time. He can go to his local library or bookstore, and pick up a book from the philosophy, fiction, or any other section, and immediately begin reaping the benefits of those who know the discipline better than himself, whether he's seeking entertainment or information.

We tend to take the discipline of the language arts for granted since it serves so well as a platform upon which most other disciplines rest. It even seems to serve those who merely have a fleeting comprehension of it. It is absolutely indispensable as being simultaneously a product of and a contributor to the practice of critical thinking; but I think it should be obvious that this doesn't make it merely a means to an end.




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