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For a better democracy, read more fiction

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 30, 2013 11:54 AM

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The political divide in America can be seen as a geographical problem: Red and Blue Americans disagree deeply because they don’t live near each other, don’t work together, don’t bump into each other at the grocery store. And when you don’t share experiences with someone—when you lack a common perspective—it’s easy to think of their opinions as arbitrary and wrong.

The influential philosopher Richard Rorty, who died in 2007, spent the last decades of his career thinking, in a way, about this problem. As a thoughtful essay in the latest issue of the culture magazine Eurozine explains, Rorty underwent a radical transformation as a thinker. By the end of his life he’d given up hope that reasoned debate was capable of bridging sectarian divides; but where reason failed, he thought that fiction might succeed.

The moral power of fiction has been in the news recently. Last April Ideas ran a piece about how fiction “enhances our ability to understand other people” by training us, through the seduction of narrative, to inhabit others’ perspectives. Much of the research confirming this idea has been done by psychologists; what makes Rorty’s work so powerful is that it provides a philosophical explanation for how fiction reorients our beliefs about the world.

To understand Rorty’s arguments about fiction, you need to first understand his abandonment of reason. As a young professor at Princeton in the 1960s, Rorty made a name for himself in the intensely logical field of analytic philosophy. Over time, however, he began to doubt that pure, objective, reason existed. Instead, he came to see reason as a social construct: Your sense of what is “reasonable” depends largely on the community you’re a part of. (Or, as Rorty put it, “the community is the source of epistemic authority.”) People who belong to different communities—with different ideas, experiences, and values—will hold different standards of reason. That is why, for example, it’s nigh impossible to use reason to bring together an atheist and an Evangelical.

But fiction might do the trick. The Eurozine article retraces Rorty’s thinking like this: To create a more inclusive society you need to expand community boundaries; you can’t use reason to expand those boundaries because reason itself is parochial; fiction, however, has the power to cross communities and make strangers intelligible to each other; and once a community has been enlarged, it becomes possible for the members of the expanded community to practice politics together using shared standards of reason.

The power that Rorty ascribed to fiction led him to conclude that the novel is "the characteristic genre of democracy.” And indeed, if there’s an opening in the literary fiction market right now, it might be for a novel that translates across the partisan gap. That may seem like a lot to ask of a story, but Rorty, who admired Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would have said that fiction has moved bigger mountains before.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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