Harrison Middleton University

The Magic of Reading

The Magic of Reading

We’re excited that you’ve joined the conversation! At HMU, we want to continue the great authors’ conversations in a contemporary context, and this blog will help us do that. We look back to Aristotle and the early philosophers who used reason and discourse to gain wisdom and now we endeavor to do the same every day.


January 27, 2023

Thanks to James Robertson, HMU student, for today’s post.

Learning with Harrison Middleton involves immersion in a world of books and of reading, and is often an experience of enchantment, as now this author and now that nearly captures the heart. There is power in these books, ancient though they may be, and if one is to learn from them, rather than simply to submit to or reject them, it may be fruitful to explore this power, and for now our field of exploration will be the worlds of fiction.

William James contends that a world of magic, one ruled by human will, would be entirely rational, because every event would occur in accordance with intention: “the only fully rational world would be the world of wishing-caps…where every desire is fulfilled instanter”. He recognises fragments of this: “We approach the wishing-cap type of organization only in a few departments of life. We want water and we turn a faucet…We want information and we telephone. We want to travel and we buy a ticket…we hardly need to do more than the wishing—the world is rationally organized to do the rest” (Pragmatism 61). Whether or not the comprehensive control that James imagines is possible, he evidently suggests that such control is the aim of civilisational progress.

Even if such progress may never arrive at a culminating point in our shared, conventional reality, it already exists in the worlds of fiction, for it is the nature of fiction to express human desire and intelligence with utmost freedom. To the extent that characters in fiction exist as individuals, they do so as creations of an author, that is, a relatively omnipotent entity.

This interpretation of fiction finds indirect support in Aristotle’s theory of poetics, for he affirms that an author should favour the convincing over the possible. “A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility” (On Poetics 696). That is, Aristotle holds that the author of a work of fiction decides what is possible within that work. The control of possibility is synonymous with the exercise of magic.

This is not to require fiction to disregard the stable qualities of conventional reality. If Aristotle’s principle holds true for a given narrative, then it is unlikely, although not impossible, that such a narrative will feature qualities that contradict common expectations about reality, or that display internal inconsistency, since, for Aristotle, such capricious behaviour would undermine the credibility of the narrative. In other words, once an author has implicitly established some laws of nature, Aristotle’s principle encourages consistency.

In speaking of the stable qualities of reality, one takes as given the real existence of a shared world, for it is a necessity if readers and writers are to enter their distinctive relationship. However, as Aristotle’s principle shows, the intrinsic nature, or essence, of this shared world, is not decisive in fiction. How, then, can the essence of fiction be discovered? James asserts that the “meaning of essence is teleological…classification and conception are purely teleological weapons of the mind” (The Principles of Psychology 670). That is, “many objects…have properties of such constant unwavering importance…we end by believing that to conceive them in those ways is to conceive them in the only true way. Those are no truer ways of conceiving them…they are only more…frequently serviceable” (Principles 671). So for James, all things (all possible experiences) are defined in terms of the possible future experiences they afford the conceiving person.

The value of this for fiction may gain from an investigation into how James’s doctrine that essence is teleological interacts with Berkeley’s doctrine that essence is perceptual. Berkeley declares that “objects of sense” are “but ideas which cannot exist unperceived” (The Principles of Human Knowledge 422). For Berkeley, every experience is an immediate reality, underpinned by no imperceptible matter. Now for the author of fiction, words are arranged with the intention to provoke specific experiences in potential future readers. It may appear that the physical arrangement of words plays the role of the material substrate that Berkeley denies in nature. However, a fictional narrative comes into existence only when it occurs in some reader’s consciousness. If all copies of a book were burned, or all people who knew the relevant language were to pass away, that narrative would never enter any living experience. It is the intention communicated by the physical marks that enables the narrative to manifest, on the basis of a background of common experience. The relationship between writer and reader may then be seen as one of a temporary and limited entrainment of the reader’s experience. It follows that, with regard to fiction, essence is indeed both teleological and experiential, and that, in this context, Berkeley’s ascription of world-ruling reality to the “will of the Governing Spirit” is warranted (433).

Against this, it might be suggested that a person, or even a device, could arrange words at random, and so produce a novel narrative lacking both intentionality and experiential realisation. Certainly this procedure might yield a potential narrative, one that would not exist for its purported author, since it would not enter their experience. Yet the true author would be the entity who designed the situation that produced the supposedly unintended narrative. The intentions of that individual, however, would necessarily condition the narrative that was so produced, and the experience of any ultimate reader, and so the objection fails.

It seems clear that any reality in which experience is entirely arranged according to a discrete set of personal intentions meets James’s criteria for total rational organisation, and is, therefore, magical. Perhaps we can see now how reading operates; it is to enter, open-eyed, into an enchanted world. This understanding may account for the power of books to transform our thinking, our lives, and our world. It is also a reminder that, although we may not have written this book, this beautiful creative light, it lives when we share our life with it, and more, what light we have we may yet share, for what is a wizard with no apprentice?

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