Believing in Literature

Tomas Weber reviews Victoria Kahn’s “The Trouble with Literature.”

Believing in Literature

The Trouble with Literature by Victoria Kahn. Oxford University Press. 208 pages.

THE RELATION BETWEEN belief and making is a troubled one. Anybody who has ever banged their fists on the table in an angry appeal to the unimpeachable sovereignty of scientific facts in response to somebody who says they don’t “believe” in global warming because the facts are “made up” has felt this. The widespread assumption is that something that is fabricated should not invite belief.

This is a strange supposition, as the opposite is true. In fact, it is pretty well established that the close relation between believing and making is constitutive of scientific truth. The “scientific revolution” of the early modern period could be characterized as involving a sense that knowledge was the achievement of human practices. Knowledge became the result of experimental activities, of finely balanced arrangements of witnesses, instruments, objects, and processes. As we know from thinkers like Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, facts are in no way diminished by their reliance on fabricated networks — this is precisely how they gain their strength and their credibility.

Faced with the climate denialist, instead of appealing to facts as if they had nothing to do with human activity — as if they were theologically true — it may then be more convincing to explain the many beings and processes that underlie our knowledge of the earth’s changing climate: ice core drilling equipment, oxygen isotope ratios, peer review, the ancient snow which fell on Greenland, fossilized calcium carbonate shells off the Portuguese coast … Good scientific knowledge is well made, because being well made is the precondition for reliable, persuasive information.

But while there has been a substantial amount of work on the way scientific knowledge occupies this tension between belief and making, there has been comparatively little research on the central role of literature in the development of the idea that belief is fabricated. Indeed, we might think of literature as the opposite of scientific fact — one is dreamy and the other concrete. Yet as Victoria Kahn makes clear in The Trouble with Literature, her Clarendon Lectures from 2017, literature and scientific knowledge share two key qualities: both can inspire belief and both are, fundamentally, “made up.”

Early modern literature was marked by a revival of interest in classical rhetoric. The aim of rhetoric was, of course, to use language to fabricate belief. For the early moderns, this posed a problem for religious faith: if belief is fabricated, the outcome of rhetorical dexterity, it becomes difficult — though not impossible — to maintain that faith is a divine gift of grace. From there, it is only a small step to the idea that religion itself is invented by human minds.

It is this “trouble” that Kahn traces in her book. Through that story, she ultimately offers a transhistorical definition of literariness: literary texts fabricate belief, but they also raise belief as a question, troubling it, reconfiguring its meaning. And although Kahn herself does not go so far, The Trouble with Literature might also prompt us to wonder what role literature plays in the organization of contemporary categories of knowledge.


Why has the role of literature in the shifting status of belief received so little attention? For Kahn, it is down to the fact that dominant approaches in literary studies in the 20th century served to occlude the relation of belief with literature. “Literariness” was defined in a way that minimized any association with rhetorical invention. Broadly, from Roman Jakobson through deconstruction, a text’s literariness was lodged in its capacity for self-reflection, for self-referentiality, its capacity to comment on or to subvert itself. Or, alternatively, the literary was characterized as that which produces a singular, noninstrumental aesthetic experience in the reader. Literature’s isolation from the world — and from any concrete purpose, including inspiring or challenging belief — was seen as its raison d’être.                                                                                                      

These understandings of literariness are deemed insufficient by Kahn — both too general (self-referentiality just seems too common a quality to adequately capture the distinctness of literary texts) and too limited (confining literature to its noninstrumental effects jettisons the many political, cognitive, or otherwise practical effects of literature). Unsatisfied, Kahn turns to classical rhetoric. Not only did Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian fail to condemn rhetoric and deception as Plato did, but, for them, persuasion was understood as a deeply social and political activity. These philosophers saw the “probable knowledge” offered by literature, its believability or verisimilitude, as inseparable from practical reason and from questions of how to live: the choices made by characters who find themselves in believable situations offer readers an ethical education.

Hobbes is a powerful case study. For Hobbes, literature’s potential to encourage subversive belief posed a danger to the commonwealth. At the same time, literature has a central role in Leviathan because it develops an ultimately theatrical and poetic vision of political representation and sovereignty. The figure of the sovereign is artificial. Born from imaginative, linguistic, and rhetorical invention, as well as contractual relations (which are also linguistic), the sovereign creates the commonwealth and “represents” the multitude — in a theatrical rather than logical sense. The centrality of language to the emergence of the figure of the sovereign may seem at odds with his criticism of revolutionary rhetoric. But it is, of course, highly consistent: language is dangerous precisely because it is so powerful. The transformative capacity of human making provokes anxiety. It still causes trouble.

In Kahn’s reading, Hobbes’s ultimate goal was to transform the language of belief into the language of contract: belief must cut its ties with individual religious faith to become synonymous with public contractual promises. The implicit question, of course, is whether it is possible to subscribe to a vision of belief as fabricated and still maintain one’s religious faith.

Milton’s late poetry was built around this question. As interpretation came to take the place of authority as the grounds for faith in the Reformation, belief became more potent. For Milton, to believe in something could no longer be equated with a detached acknowledgment of a state of affairs or with the taking of a theoretical position. Belief, rather, must be rooted in activity. As something made, belief is inseparable from poetic making, and it was with the resistances and tensions of poetic language that Milton attempted to work out his own salvation.

Both Hobbes and Milton turned to linguistic invention to dramatize the inseparability of making from believing, and both attempted to convey to their readers the high stakes and potentially troubling consequences of this close relationship for politics and religious faith.


From Hobbes and Milton, Kahn moves to modern aesthetics. It is a more or less direct journey from the idea that belief is fabricated to the idea that reality itself is constructed, that it is of our own making. With Kant, the mind is understood to provide the underlying structure of the world and its natural laws. Toward the end of his career, however, Kant became increasingly concerned with explaining the relationship between the natural world, the realm of causal laws, and human freedom. If the mind gives us the laws of nature, which part of us is associated with freedom? For Kant, it was the imagination, that region of the mind engaged in noninstrumental contemplation and free play. From the understanding of belief as fabricated, then, emerges the possibility of aesthetics as a singular and independent form of experience, separate from more instrumental or structured modes of cognition.

In Kahn’s view, modern aesthetics also sowed the seeds for the eventual surpassing of philosophy by literature. Kahn then turns to Kierkegaard, for whom Kantian philosophy, concerned with uncovering the universal, rational structures of the mind which supposedly underpin reality, was inadequate to make much sense of faith, which he saw to be an intensely personal, individual, and aesthetic experience. Belief, like aesthetic experience, cannot be rationally explained. And if belief is predominantly personal and nonrational, the form most suited to attending to faith would be the form most able to remain faithful to the distinct contours, rhythms, and dynamics of individual experience. That would be literature.

The expectation that literature should be faithful to experience is a particularly modern one. Initially, this idea seems quite distinct from the Renaissance idea of literature as a tool for producing belief. However, they are closely linked. After all, the demand that literature should faithfully reflect experience shows that literature remains a tool for producing belief. Belief in what? Well, in salvation sometimes, but more often literature is expected to remain faithful to that which is believable or plausible, or to the strangeness of experience, or to its everydayness.

Kahn’s thesis is presented in a remarkably concise book which offers productive avenues for future thought. Instead of plotting the story of literature and belief as a circle — or as a return from the Renaissance idea that literature produces belief to modern aesthetics, and then back to literature as a privileged mode of fidelity to experience — Kahn invites us to consider literature as a motive force behind the changing nature, across modernity, of belief itself.

An important consequence of this argument is that it offers a historical and theoretical framework for responding to the question of what literary texts do and the ways they occupy the world. If literariness is grounded on the question of the relation between making and belief, then texts are always relational — they are directed toward provoking transformations of various kinds in readers. Rather than mere products of the imagination, or vessels for subjective expression, or blank slates for projection, or sites for the performance of self-referentiality, literary texts are driven to fabricate and reflect upon belief.

Crucially, however, the production of belief should not be understood in the narrow “marketplace of ideas” sense where literary texts would simply encourage readers to agree with propositions. Instead, we might more productively understand literature as engaged in the active and affective soliciting of forms of commitment, as engaged in the grasping and transforming of readers, and as engaged in the invention of new ideas about what it means to believe in things. Literary texts, in Kahn’s view, offer a space not only for working out what we believe in and for coming to believe in new things, but also for reflecting on and altering the nature of belief itself.


Tomas Weber completed a PhD in contemporary French philosophy at the University of Cambridge. He lives in London.

LARB Contributor

Tomas Weber completed a PhD in contemporary French philosophy at the University of Cambridge, following a degree in English literature and an MPhil in comparative literature. He lives in London where he works in human rights law.


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