In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Philosophy of Literature

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies and General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Metaphysics and Ontology of Fiction
  • Imagination and Fiction
  • Truth in Fiction
  • Interpretation
  • Authors and Intentions
  • Emotions and Literature
  • The Paradox of Tragedy
  • Literature and Cognition
  • Literature and Morality

Philosophy Philosophy of Literature
Jonathan Gilmore
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0213


The philosophy of literature addresses the most fundamental questions about the nature of literature as an art. Some of these questions address the metaphysics and ontology of literary works: What, if anything, essentially distinguishes literary works of art (such as epics, novels, drama, and poetry) from other kinds of writings, such as scientific reports, historical treatises, religious texts, guides, and manuals, which may happen to be written in a literary manner? Also, what kinds of things are literary works of art that seem to exist over time in some way independently of any of their particular printed editions? Other questions address our ways of engaging with literature, such as: What norms govern our interpretation and understanding of such works? Is the meaning of a work fixed, or does it change with the changes in the contexts in which it is read? Can we have a genuine emotional response to the characters, events, and states of affairs represented in such works even when we believe that they are not real? Finally, some questions address the value of works of literature: Do they offer any distinctive form of knowledge or insight? Can their cognitive and moral merits and defects count as artistic merits and defects? Philosophy of literature is not alone in pursuing these questions, for literary history, criticism, and other modes of scholarship address these concerns, as do readers when they reflect on their own and others’ practices of attending to works of art. However, the philosophical approach to literature, while often productively drawing on the empirical study and first-order analysis of literary works, tends to adopt a more systematic, theoretical, ahistorical, and foundational approach than commonly found in other fields. Also, while the philosophy of literature tends to address the nature of literature as an art, it has been profoundly shaped by work in other areas of philosophy far from aesthetics such as analytic metaphysics and philosophy of language, which since their inception have addressed such topics as the metaphysics of fictional characters. More recently, there has been an exciting cross-fertilization between philosophical approaches to literature and developments in cognitive science, particularly in areas devoted to the study of emotions and imagination.

Anthologies and General Overviews

The most current and representative anthologies in the philosophy of literature feature articles written by contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. Davies and Matheson 2008 and John and Lopes 2004 offer comprehensive but only partially overlapping sets of major essays. Each volume helpfully organizes its articles around particular topics or problems and would serve as an excellent introduction to the field as a whole. Kearney and Rasmussen 2001 is a broad selection of 19th- and 20th-century Continental philosophers on literature and art in general. Waugh 2006 collects informative essays on important developments in Continental philosophical approaches to literature and contemporary literary theory. Davies 2007 and Lamarque 2009 offer sophisticated and even-handed introductions to major themes in the philosophy of literature while persuasively advancing the particular philosophical views of their respective authors. Stecker 2005, a clear and concise introduction to the philosophy of art in general, includes careful reconstructions and criticisms of some of the major positions in the philosophy of literature. Lamarque and Olsen 2004 is one of the most comprehensive and useful collections of influential articles in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, several of which are devoted to topics germane to the analysis of literature.

  • Davies, David. Aesthetics and Literature. London: Continuum, 2007.

    Balanced survey of some of the major positions in the analytic philosophy of literature. Subtly adjudicates among competing views. Particularly useful for clear nontechnical accounts of the metaphysical, semantic, and epistemological questions in the field.

  • Davies, David, and Carl Matheson, eds. Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Literature: An Analytic Approach. Toronto: Broadview, 2008.

    Features essays by leading philosophers on the metaphysical, epistemological, affective, and evaluative aspects of literature. An extensive introduction to each section of articles introduces the central topic and helpfully explains how the various authors’ views relate to one another.

  • John, Eileen, and Dominic McIver Lopes, eds. Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Features many of the most influential essays in the field organized into several sections determined by topic, such as ontology, emotion, metaphor, and interpretation. Each includes a brief but useful introduction and a short literary work demonstrating the applicability of that section’s philosophical questions.

  • Kearney, R., and D. Rasmussen, eds. Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    Essays by thirty philosophers exemplifying romantic, modernist, and postmodernist approaches to art, many addressing literary topics. Each section begins with a brief introduction to the arguments of the essays contained therein and to the cultural or philosophical context in which they were written.

  • Lamarque, Peter. The Philosophy of Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.

    One of the best introductions to the field. Carefully distinguishes philosophical approaches to literature from those of other disciplines and identifies the main strands of argument in the major theoretical debates over literature as an art. Carefully and charitably reconstructs other philosophers’ views while advancing the author’s own systematic treatment of fundamental questions in the field.

  • Lamarque, Peter, and Stein Haugom Olsen, eds. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    Comprehensive anthology of many of the most influential analytic articles in the philosophy of art. Contains forty-six articles devoted to both general themes, such as the ontology of art and aesthetic properties, and more specific problems indexed to literature and fictions. Concise introductions with suggestions for further readings begin each section.

  • Stecker, Robert. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: An Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.

    A tightly argued analysis of major topics in the philosophy of art, including those that pertain to literature. Lucid explanations and often incisive criticisms of the arguments of several prominent theorists.

  • Waugh, Patricia, ed. Literary Theory and Criticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    A very informative collection of essays by several contemporary authors addressing the major trends, concepts, and figures in 19th- and 20th-century literary criticism and Continental literary theory, with some earlier historical material.

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