Experiencing lyric poetry : emotional responses, philosophical thinking and moral inquiry

Dissertation, University of Warwick (2013)
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Abstract

To date, the most substantial accounts of our engagement with literature have focused on prose-fiction, in particular the novel, drawing on issues of plot, character and narrative in explaining our understanding of literary works. These accounts do not consider how the poetic features of a literary work may affect our reading experience and how this contributes to the meaning of the work. In this thesis I show the philosophical importance of the experience of reading poetry for the role it can play in inquiry, in particular, how such an experience can facilitate philosophical thinking and active inquiry. Adopting a reader-response view of our engagement with poetry, I argue that the experience of reading lyric poetry can make a valuable contribution to philosophical inquiry by enriching our conceptual understanding. The reading experience helps us to forge explicit awareness of our concepts and the networks of associations and beliefs that determine our use of them. Understanding poetry necessarily requires attending to the unity of form and content, and the particular perspectives on offer in the poem. This complex whole sustains perspectives and emotions where character and narrative are lacking. I argue that the perspectival nature of our reading experience is important for philosophical inquiry into aspects of human life. Encountering the perspectives of the poem helps to activate our own perspectives through our emotional and intellectual responses, bringing into focus what we value. I apply this argument to the moral domain, arguing that poetry can facilitate moral inquiry in particular by exposing moral significance in our concepts, helping us to feel what is at stake, and by testing our moral understanding. The way in which the poetic examples discussed engage us emotionally, imaginatively and cognitively (through the reading experience) help us address moral questions from distinctive and valuable perspectives, which provide us with moral insights of value in philosophical inquiry.

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Karen Simecek
University of Warwick

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