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Old 03-24-2011, 08:40 PM   #1
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What is Knowledge

Prior the modern commercial markets almost all books, fiction or nonfiction, were didactic or mimetic nature. They were didactic in that they were written to instruct, educate, or enlighten. Epic poems can be said to be mimetic (think mimic) in that they provide examples for people to imitate or mimic. In Ancient Greece, for instance, with any event or problem you encountered you would try to think of some comparable scene or passage in an epic poem, and then you would try to act as the character from that scene or passage would act in your situation. It's similar to how Christians try to determine what they should do in any given situation by asking, “What would Jesus do?”

These older works, mostly prenineteenth century, can be considered knowledge, or at least means of conveying knowledge, because they tried to show people how to live, or at least give examples. But most modern works are written with no such purpose in mind. Most modern works are written to entertain; they are written for escapist purposes.

So the question is, should fiction that is not didactic or mimetic be considered knowledge? Of course, your answer to this question will depend on your definition of knowledge, so it would be helpful to give that as well.
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Old 03-24-2011, 11:12 PM   #2
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Originally Posted by spellbanisher View Post
Most modern works are written to entertain; they are written for escapist purposes.

So the question is, should fiction that is not didactic or mimetic be considered knowledge? Of course, your answer to this question will depend on your definition of knowledge, so it would be helpful to give that as well.
We are at the end of the post-modern era, and are glimpsing the new era, to which we have yet to name.

In the postmodern times, it did not matter what purpose a work was intended to convey by its creator, all that mattered was what the interpreter gained from the work. In the new era...

EVERYTHING IS INSTRUCTIVE IF YOU ARE WILLING.

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Old 03-24-2011, 11:26 PM   #3
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Knowledge is collection of integrated and organized facts, ideas and beliefs acquired through experience gained by a person's senses which allows the possessor to use it to improve his life experience.

I made that definition. So, fiction is also knowledge if it teaches you experiences in different scenarios, BUT gain speed is very slow → non efficient path to gain knowledge.

That's why textbooks are designed, so that they can be utilized to gain knowledge in an organized manner and with completeness.
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Old 03-25-2011, 12:16 AM   #4
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I disagree with your premise, particularly because I think that your definition of mimetic is so broad that it applies to modern literature just as much as it applies to ancient literature.

*All literature* (or all literature with characters, anyway) provides examples for people to imitate or mimic - this is as true of the Iliad as it is of anything by Jane Austen or J.K. Rowlings. But the Iliad was certainly not written to provide heroic models for people to imitate, as the characters are really pretty flawed...Harry Potter or Miss Bennet are much better role models than Achilles, who spends a lot of time sulking in his tent while his fellow countrymen are out doing the fighting. It is not designed to "show people how to live."

And it's even harder to see who we would imitate in "The Clouds" or "The Frogs" - there aren't really any good models there, either. I really think that the only point of these works was for entertainment, and not to show people how to live.

And I think that this pattern largely continues to the modern period - I don't think that there are a lot of good models in The Decameron, for example (and certainly not the monk who teaches the girl how to "put the devil back into hell"); and while I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, I don't think that his play are explicitly moral works at all. You will find much more morality in a Star Trek novel than in either Shakespeare or the Decameron, as far as that goes.
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Old 03-25-2011, 03:55 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Giggleton View Post
We are at the end of the post-modern era, and are glimpsing the new era, to which we have yet to name.

In the postmodern times, it did not matter what purpose a work was intended to convey by its creator, all that mattered was what the interpreter gained from the work. In the new era...

EVERYTHING IS INSTRUCTIVE IF YOU ARE WILLING.

Well, I really haven't given a definition of knowledge, but I do think that it has to be objective. In other words, for something to be considered knowledge it has to be accessible to everyone. A law of physics is knowledge because it does not change according to a person's experiences. In the same way you could say that their were clear lessons that didactic fiction meant to teach to all its readers, which is why it can be considered a form of knowledge or a means of conveying knowledge. You can take things out of a work of didactic fiction that the author never intended; you can analyze the work for its historical context or its biases or whatever it revealed about its times, but that is interpretation, which is not quite the same as knowledge, although it can lead to the creation of knowledge.
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Old 03-25-2011, 03:56 AM   #6
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Knowledge is collection of integrated and organized facts, ideas and beliefs acquired through experience gained by a person's senses which allows the possessor to use it to improve his life experience.

I made that definition. So, fiction is also knowledge if it teaches you experiences in different scenarios, BUT gain speed is very slow → non efficient path to gain knowledge.

That's why textbooks are designed, so that they can be utilized to gain knowledge in an organized manner and with completeness.
I like your definition of knowledge. I do not, however, agree with your argument that fiction is a less efficient method of conveying knowledge than a textbook. Many people learn and retain information better when it is conveyed as part of a meaningful narrative. A story can sear images and metaphors in your mind that can make knowledge unforgettable. The narrative gives makes the knowledgeable meaningful to the mind; it shows how the knowledgeable is consequential, how the knowledge can potentially effect real events and real change. For some people textbooks convey information better, but I do not think that is true for a lot of people. In other words, I think most people learn better through stories than they do through more directly informative means. This is especially true for people who think in terms of thinks, people, and events, rather in abstract terms like definitions, ideas, and concepts.
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Old 03-25-2011, 04:02 AM   #7
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textbooks make me fall asleep. or maybe that's just me if i read historical fiction, any author worth their salt would do his/her research (for the setting, i mean. of course, since it's fiction, the events might be altered in a certain way, but prior knowledge would of course alert me to that ) and make it real to me, and in a way i am able to learn a bit of history in an enjoyable way

i have encountered a few, rare textbooks that were written in a not-so-boring way and instead in a sort of a good conversation.

yeah, i probably confused everyone now
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Old 03-25-2011, 04:34 AM   #8
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I disagree with your premise, particularly because I think that your definition of mimetic is so broad that it applies to modern literature just as much as it applies to ancient literature.

*All literature* (or all literature with characters, anyway) provides examples for people to imitate or mimic - this is as true of the Iliad as it is of anything by Jane Austen or J.K. Rowlings. But the Iliad was certainly not written to provide heroic models for people to imitate, as the characters are really pretty flawed...Harry Potter or Miss Bennet are much better role models than Achilles, who spends a lot of time sulking in his tent while his fellow countrymen are out doing the fighting. It is not designed to "show people how to live."

And it's even harder to see who we would imitate in "The Clouds" or "The Frogs" - there aren't really any good models there, either. I really think that the only point of these works was for entertainment, and not to show people how to live.

And I think that this pattern largely continues to the modern period - I don't think that there are a lot of good models in The Decameron, for example (and certainly not the monk who teaches the girl how to "put the devil back into hell"); and while I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, I don't think that his play are explicitly moral works at all. You will find much more morality in a Star Trek novel than in either Shakespeare or the Decameron, as far as that goes.
You are correct, Andrew, and there were a lot of wholes in my argument. However, Epics were mimetic works. The ancient Greeks did not mimic their heroes because they were perfect, anymore than a person today will emulate a rap star or celebrity because she thinks that person is perfect. It was fundamental that humans were flawed, and that was especially true for epic heroes. Epic heroes were humanity ramped up to its highest and purest levels, so if ordinary people are flawed, then the heroes would have epic flaws. Epic heroes were not gods, but the truest form of humans. Anyways, the ancients did not think critically about their heroes anymore than we think critically about our heroes today.

This paradigm changes, however, when the Greeks transition from an oral culture to a written culture. It is difficult to have critical thinking in an oral culture, because you cannot critique an issue, analyze it, break it down, look at it from a variety of angles, and debate that issue on a factual basis if there is nothing written down. Even if you did try to critique something that was said, it could always be countered that you misremembered; even that probably did not happen. What usually happened, as documented by Thucydides in his history of the Pelopennesian war, was that peoples recollections would alter and change to stay consistent or to confirm the facts. Critical thinking and written culture go hand in hand, although ironically, there is some evidence that suggest that Socrates might have been illiterate.

I cannot speak of the Clouds and the Frogs, which I have not read. I have read the Oedipus trilogy and Lysistrata, so my knowledge of Greek drama is woefully inadequate. But the nonfiction accounts that I have read about the Ancient Greeks all say that drama was a way of presenting and critiquing important political and social issues of the day, of presenting these issues in a common forum for all to see. Even if Ancient Greek was not didactic, it was still probably a form of social commentary.

There is also a strain of literature that would be considered low brow, like the Decameron or the Canterbury Tales and going all the way back to the Golden Ass. But even the Decameron is considered an allegorical work. According to Wikipedia ( I know, not the most authoritative or reliable source) the "Decameron provides a unity in philosophical outlook. Throughout runs the common medieval theme of Lady Fortune, and how quickly one can rise and fall through the external influences of the "Wheel of Fortune"." However, it does say that the the purpose of the Decameron was not to educate, but to satirize works like The Divine Comedy and their methods of education.

It is true that Shakespeare was not a didactic writer. But he was also not a book writer. This could also be said about the Greek playwrights; plays usually are not written with the same purposes as books. They are not written to be timeless works to be preserved for posterity, but to be contemporary and often ephemeral works. The very nature of a play is that it only lasts while it lasts, and then you go about your business, whereas a book is something that you return to again and again, or at least it was before commercial markets made reading more of an extensive (reading lots of books) and consumerist activity than a intensive (studying the same books over and over again) activity. Eventually Shakespeare was published in book form, but that was not in his lifetime, and it was mainly done because people believed that Shakespeare had something to teach people.

My chronology, I will admit, is off. I said that the phenomena of the preponderance of novels and books being written purely for entertainment purposes began in the nineteenth century, whereas it was more of a twentieth century phenomena. Most of the books written in the nineteenth century were didactic (Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell), philosophical (the Russian novelists), or were social commentary (Dickens, Mark Twain). When I wrote this I was thinking of the emergence of the commercial book market, which was in the nineteenth century, although it really took off in the early twentieth century. There were books in the nineteenth century that were written purely for sensationalistic or escapist purposes that were geared mainly towards working class adolescent boys; these were called penny dreadfuls, which would be succeeded by comics and perhaps today by video games.

In the twentieth century two trends do emerge on the high and low levels. On the high levels there is modernism, which eschews the values and purposes of preindustrial literature, and instead seeks to capture reality as it is rather than trying to instruct people on how reality should be. On the low end we get escapist fiction, which certainly existed before the twentieth century, but it was in the twentieth century where a escapist fiction became the primary mode of fiction.

Escapist fiction encompasses a set of attitudes, which I think most people would be familiar with. First, it prides itself on not being "preachy," and on not having anything to say. It usually is not political in nature, and it eschews any position that might alienate readers or be controversial. In this attitude it is asserted that literature has nothing to teach us, that the ultimate measure of any book is the pleasure it gives. Furthermore, this attitude contends that the only standard for a book except the market standard. This is the attitude that says everything is subjective (and therefor there can be no knowledge), and that anyone who believes otherwise is a snobbish elitist. It is an attitude that believes that things like politics and philosophy are best left to nonfiction books.

Nevertheless, I do believe that all literature has some moral message, even if that message is that the good guy wins in the end. Every story at some level has a moral or a message, even if that message is that ultimately nothing really makes much sense.

There is mimesis in our culture, as there probably is in any culture, but I think our heroes for the most part are in movies, television, and music than they are in books. In my own experience it was my peers wearing bagging clothes, sagging pants, and mimicking the speech and attitudes of their favorite rappers.

You are right that there are still lots of forms of didactic fiction in our times, among them being your example of Star Trek. However, there is generally cynicism and disdain for any fiction that is didactic in nature. It is considered the height of pretension for any fiction writer to try to teach, or to think that he has anything to teach us(although South Park seems to get away with it). It is okay to mock and lampoon, but not to teach. This trend however, may be very recent, i.e. Post-1950's.

As far as mimesis in character driven books, there is some merit to that. But there is a distinction between a character driven book and a plot-driven book. In the latter the characters are barely human; they exist merely as props to further the plot, almost like dummies on a roller coaster ride. I never considered that in the case of the former these characters were written to be imitated; I always thought of them as character studies, or as explorations of human nature. But I could be very wrong about that.

In sum, I concede that my definitions are flawed, that entertainment driven literature existed before the twentieth century, and that mimetic fiction could still be alive and well today. I still think, however, that the balance has drastically changed, so that today the preponderance of literature is not didactic or mimetic in culture. I am not saying this is a good or bad thing. Still, all this talk of didacticism and mimetism may be superfluous. I still contend that pretwentieth century works for the most part can be considered knowledge because they had objective(objective in that they are the same for everyone) lessons and morals. I still contend that the principal purpose of reading before the twentieth century and especially before the nineteenth century was for spiritual, moral, and intellectual edification, whereas as fiction reading today is done mainly as a palliative or as an anathesgic. Others may disagree, and I welcome disagreement as reasons are given. The initial question I think is still valid, although it needs to be revise and expanded upon:

Is literature knowledge? If it is, why? If it is sometimes, at one point does it become knowledge or cease to become knowledge? Or is it not? If it is not, then what is its purpose? I apologize for the length of this reply.
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Old 03-25-2011, 05:15 AM   #9
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These older works, mostly prenineteenth century, can be considered knowledge, or at least means of conveying knowledge, because they tried to show people how to live, or at least give examples. But most modern works are written with no such purpose in mind. Most modern works are written to entertain; they are written for escapist purposes.
"Most." If one out of a hundred, or even a thousand published books contain substance that lifts the human spirit (and other such flowery stuff), that still leaves a lot of good books out there for a thoughtful reader. It still exists.
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Old 03-25-2011, 01:12 PM   #10
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Well, I really haven't given a definition of knowledge, but I do think that it has to be objective. In other words, for something to be considered knowledge it has to be accessible to everyone. A law of physics is knowledge because it does not change according to a person's experiences.
Objectivity does not exist. Unless you are speaking to the instantaneous infinite universe, but even then we can never really be sure.

Knowledge is in the mind of the interpreter. Knowledge is everywhere and everything, why would you every try to limit knowledge's scope??

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Old 03-25-2011, 01:46 PM   #11
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Uh, yes, objectivity does exist. The second law of thermodynamics is always the second law of thermodynamics, no matter what the experiences of an individual person are. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. And some works have objective morals; it is clear in 1984 that Orwell is trying to condemn and show the evils and perils of totalitarianism. The notion that no objectivity exists is postmodernist bunk. Subjectivity does not change the object, it merely means you experience the object in your own way. Your subjectivity may cause you to hate or to love 1984, it may cause you to misunderstand the work, but it does not change the reality of the object any more than getting a problem wrong on a math test changes the fundamental laws of mathematics.
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Old 03-25-2011, 02:28 PM   #12
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While there is certainly trash-fiction that falls into your no-knowledge category I would argue that an author who performs research and integrates that into a story is imparting some knowledge to me, say law enforcement procedures in the "courtroom drama" genre.

You are welcome to argue the inefficiency of such education but I would counter argue that much (not all) of our formal education is worthless because the real world does not operate as it was presented in academic circles.

Besides, if there are only twenty-odd themes in literature then each story is somewhat mimetic, giving us a new epic.
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Old 03-25-2011, 03:07 PM   #13
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Uh, yes, objectivity does exist. The second law of thermodynamics is always the second law of thermodynamics, no matter what the experiences of an individual person are. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. And some works have objective morals; it is clear in 1984 that Orwell is trying to condemn and show the evils and perils of totalitarianism. The notion that no objectivity exists is postmodernist bunk. Subjectivity does not change the object, it merely means you experience the object in your own way. Your subjectivity may cause you to hate or to love 1984, it may cause you to misunderstand the work, but it does not change the reality of the object any more than getting a problem wrong on a math test changes the fundamental laws of mathematics.
Postmodernism isn't bunk, far from it. The theories of the postmodernist era have allowed us to abandon theory itself and move into the new era.

I agree that objectivity does exist but only if you take into view the entire universe. But the universe might be infinite, which makes things a little weird.

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Old 03-25-2011, 03:08 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by Penforhire View Post
While there is certainly trash-fiction that falls into your no-knowledge category I would argue that an author who performs research and integrates that into a story is imparting some knowledge to me, say law enforcement procedures in the "courtroom drama" genre.

You are welcome to argue the inefficiency of such education but I would counter argue that much (not all) of our formal education is worthless because the real world does not operate as it was presented in academic circles.

Besides, if there are only twenty-odd themes in literature then each story is somewhat mimetic, giving us a new epic.
Excellent points. But I do not know what education you speak of, since I never said that formal education was the most efficient method of conveying knowledge.

You make a great point about well researched works. They are very valuable to historians, especially cultural historians, who often find these works more relevant in understanding and reconstructing cultures than works that are considered classics.

Nevertheless, I don't know if what these books convey is considered knowledge. It really depends on your definition of knowledge. I tend to think that knowledge is universal, like a law of nature or a moral or philosophical system (meaning, you may change what system you follow or create your own, but a specific philosophical system never changes). However, I may be confusing knowledge with truth or wisdom. Still, I think there is a difference between knowledge and information.

Your last point is interesting. I took a literature class whose theme was the recurrence of epic themes throughout history. First we read the Epic of Gilgamesh, then we watched that episode of Star Trek where Jean Luc Picard discusses Gilgamesh with an alien, and then we read Dracula, Snow Crash, My Year of Meats, the Calcutta Chromosome, and a graphic novel called Pride of Baghdad, showing how all of these works were in some ways recreations or reincarnations of the Epic of Gilgamesh.
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Old 03-26-2011, 06:11 PM   #15
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I mentioned formal education only because I thought it would be a common response. I did think your "knowledge" connotation is close to how we think of formal education.

From your extended discussion I imagine you would really enjoy Robert Pirsig's books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals). He delves strongly into related topics. I liked Zen more than Lila, maybe too much 'telling-not-showing' in Lila.
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