Asher talks literature, ethics in new book

Professor of philosophy and English Kenneth Asher gave a talk on his most recent book, Literature, Ethics and Emotions, on Saturday April 15. The book explores how literature contributes to our ethical understanding. (Annalee Bainnson/Assoc. Photo Editor)

Professor of philosophy and English Kenneth Asher gave an enlightening talk on Saturday April 15 regarding his new book Literature, Ethics and Emotions

Published in both England and the United States, in Literature, Ethics and Emotions Asher explores the question of how literature contributes to our ethical understanding—where philosophy cannot. In his book, he explored the works of several writers to argue that literary scholars should locate the answer to this question in the history of moral philosophy.

Of note, discussions in an English class often deal with dissecting the behavior of characters or—in the case of poetry—dissecting the “implied stance of the speaker,” according to Asher. Asher argued that both can be classified as a discussion of ethics. 

He believes that emotions are central to our ethical code and that literature can provide us with important emotional understanding.  

“Do we project ourselves into the other? Do we try to imagine what it would be like if we were in their shoes?” Asher asked. “Or do we undertake the more strenuous attempt of trying to imagine what it is like for the other to be in their own shoes? If the latter, does this entail a kind of arrogance on our part: the presumption that we actually could know?” 

Asher dedicates chapters of his book to authors such as D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and George Bernard Shaw. He uses these modernist writers to explore how literature provides emotional understanding in practice.

“A reader’s response ought to be more spectatorial, one more of third-party understanding based on a regulated emotional response, rather than the tight identification that empathy as a kind of mirroring seems to encourage,” Asher said.

Where other philosophers tend to focus on the novel, Asher explores lyric poetry in Literature, Ethics and Emotions. The discussion examined Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” which explores the idea of the objective correlative, or a set of objects, situations or events that act as a formula for an emotion that the poet hopes to evoke in the reader. The phrase “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons” from Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” illustrates this. 

“So, perhaps our question might be recast to ask whether literature can alter character, with character understood to be the stable agent of action patterns,” Asher said.

The development of character—when construed as such—is a slow, arduous process of intellectual and emotional discrimination for which the growing child relies on parents, teachers and more broadly, cultural norms, according to Asher. 

“Gradually, one learns to detect the morally salient and what sort of response—both in kind and degree—is appropriate. The role of literature is to refresh and refine this set of responses,” he concluded. 

Asher certainly provided an interesting exploration of the nature of literature, the effect of media on our ethical and emotional responses and the ways in which literature can bring us together through the ethics and emotions embedded in written works.