Learning from fiction: a philosophical and psychological study

Gregory Currie and team are searching for empirical evidence to support more detailed theories about the different kinds of learning fiction may promote.

For most of us, children and adults, a life without fiction would seem a poorer one. That we enjoy fictions, and that many of them deserve our delight in the creativity they display, is hardly in doubt. Some of us go further and argue, sometimes passionately, that we learn from fiction, an idea often at the basis of defences of literary education and funding. What is it that we do or might learn from fiction? What kinds of fiction are we most likely to learn from? What kinds of evidence can we find to support these claims about learning? These are the questions I aim to address in this project.

While research in this area is not new, it is divided between two camps. There is a long tradition within the humanities of respect for ‘literary’ fiction, taking its inspiration from Homer, Shakespeare, Eliot, Tolstoy and their modern successors. This tradition has focused largely on interpretive and philosophical work that ranges from the close analysis of texts to broad accounts of narrative and its relation to thought, action and morality. The other, more recent strand takes the value of fiction to be a thoroughly empirical question to be addressed by the methods of contemporary experimental psychology.

Senso-motoric eye glasses allow observation of natural eye movement patterns during reading and social situations. Photo: Heather Ferguson

Though the concerns of these two groups overlap in places, there has been strikingly little in the way of conversation between them. Philosophers and literary theorists have, for example, often made claims about the capacity of fiction to enhance our empathic skills, to increase psychological ‘insight’, to improve our attitudes or to exercise our imaginative capacities. By and large they have not sought evidence for these claims, even though there is now an increasing body of relevant experimental research. At the same time this experimental research often lacks a developed framework for thinking through the benefits of potential forms of learning, rarely considers complex literary works,  and has trouble identifying stable, long-term effects on people’s thought and behaviour. 

The project unites the traditions within a programme of experimental and theoretical work, each informing the other. I want us to achieve more robust, finer-grained empirical results, and more detailed and better-supported theories about the different kinds of learning fiction may promote. To that end I will be working with two distinguished scholars: the psychologist Heather Ferguson, whose development of cutting-edge experimental methods will improve our understanding of learning from fiction, and the philosopher Stacie Friend, who has a track record of integrating empirical research into theoretical arguments about fictional literature. Together we hope to demonstrate the value of an interdisciplinary approach to learning from fiction.

Professor Gregory Currie
University of York
Research Project Grant