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Literature and Ideas

Submitted to: Sir Omar Khan

Submitted by:

Arbaz iftikhar
In this section, Wellek and Warren talk about the sort of ideas literature comprise of; the origins of ideas
and to what degree these ideas are consolidated into literature. They try to emphasize on two main
points by reiterating and negating arguments of different authors. They question the significance
of philosophical content in a piece of art and they also objected the over-intellectualization in
judging literature. Different authors and poets have different perspectives about the importance
of an idea in literary work. . Wellek and Warren narrate the point of views of different scholars
including Lovejoy, Rudolf Unger and Dilthey etc. They object the Lovejoy’s method of ‘History
of ideas’ because it only deals with unit ideas and ignores the great system. A.O Lovejoy
compares philosophy and ideas, and evaluates ideas, as philosophy in dilution. On the other
hand, Rudolf Unger makes a list of four problems and concludes that these problems are the
source of ideas for the author. Wellek and Warren criticize the approach of Unger and say that
the problems he has enlisted are philosophical and ideological, and there are other problems
that belong to History of sentiments and sensibility. They also discuss concepts from German
Philosophy like Weltanschauung and Geistesgeschichte. In Weltanschauung, literature is
classified under three headings which is unsatisfactory because it ignores the individuality of
writer. They, further regard Geistesgeschichte problematic because the concept is grounded on
illogical presuppositions. In the end Wellek and Warren concludes that literature should not be
judged on the kind of ideas which it entails but by its degree of integration and artistic intensity.

There are two schools of thought about Literature and ideas. One considers that literature is a
form of philosophy: literature is ‘ideas’ wrapped in form. The other, Wellek and Warren say,
considers the previous claim as over-intellectualization and exaggeration .They say that ideas in
literature are stale and writers do not do any kind of real thinking. Even those poems which are
famous for their philosophical content deal with common problems like fate and mortality.

Many literary theorists have tried to study these questions. One of them is the American
Scholar A.O Lovejoy respects. A.O Lovejoy draws a binary among History of ideas and history
of philosophy. He considers Philosophy, a view to pursue idea through all modes of thought and
regards it a study of great systems. While, History of Ideas is inclusive and considered to be
breakup into units for small thinkers to study individual motifs. Lovejoy calls ideas, philosophy
in dilution. . However, Wellek and Warren say that this delimitations is not convincing because
it would be one sided to study only component part while not considering the whole system.
Moreover, Love joy’s method ignores the division of literary and historical studies by
nationalities and languages.

Literature can be used to reflect the history of philosophy .This is because the writers in a
particular time get influenced by the philosophers and the prevailing ideas .They might get
inspired by the philosophies and admire them. The ideas get incorporated into their work. For
example, in the writings of Shakespeare, there are traces of Renaissance Platonism. Among the
Romantic poets, Coleridge expounded the views of Kant and Schelling. Similarly, there is
influence of Kant’s ideas on the writings of Wordsworth.
If the philosophical ideas are incorporated into literature then, according to Wellek and
Warren, the questions about writers own creativity and his ability to understand the philosophy
(which he adopts) arises. However, Wellek and Warren question the criterion to judge a piece
of poetry on the bases of its philosophical contribution and on the misinterpretations in the
functions of philosophy.
A clear approach was expounded by Rudolf Unger in response to excessive intellectualism of
philosophical approach. Wellek and Warren agree with the argument of Unger, that literature is
not philosophical knowledge translated into imagery and verse, but it expresses a general attitude
towards life. The questions with which the poet deals are also the subject matter of philosophy.
Moreover, a poet also answers themes of philosophy but poetic mode of answering differs in
different ages and situations. .Unger postulates that writers can derive their ideas from mainly
the problem of fate, religion, nature and man .However, Wellek and Warren say that if we
analyze Unger’s list we come to the conclusion that some of these problems are simply
philosophical while other are history of sensibility or sentiment. Ideas can be derived from
sentiments, but the history of sentiments is problematic and can give rise to considerable
difficulties because; sentiment is elusive and uniform at the same time. It has no constructed
scheme, convention or fashion. Whereas, the individualistic point is less vulnerable to isolation
die to excessive intellectualization.
Wellek and Warren then discuss Weltanschauung, a concept expounded by German
philosophy, used widely enough to include philosophical ideas and emotional attitudes. Dilthey,
under Weltanschauung, divides the history of thought into three main types: positivism,
objective idealism and dual idealism. The first group explains the spiritual by the physical world,
second as expression of an internal reality and third as independence of spirit against nature.
These types are also associated with general psychological attitudes of intellect, feelings and will
in sequential order.
Dilthey associates specific authors with these types. He associates Balzac and Stendhal to the
first type , Goethe to the second and Schiller to the third .However , Wellek and Warren argue
that all typology of this sort leads only to a rough classification of all literature under three or at
the most five or six headings . They further say that in this type of classification the complete
individuality of the poets and their works is ignored or minimized .Further, it assumes that a
writer has to choose one of these three types according to his temperament. The implication is
that every poet in itself is a type, thus there are so many types which cannot be reduced to
these three types.
Geistesgeschichte, a term in the history of ideas, derived from German Geist meaning ‘spirit’
expounds this method that each period has its time spirit and aims to reconstruct the spirit of
the time differences. Meissner uses this method and defines the spirit of an age as a conflict of
antithetic tendencies and peruses this formula through all human activities. He says that the
material is divided into contraries as expansion and contraction, sin and salvation etc. The same
method of contraries is used by Korffs.
Wellek and Warren criticize Geistesgeschichte by saying that these contraries exist in all ages
and different schemes of contraries can be applied to different ages. He further criticizes that
the individuality of the writer gets intermingled with the stylistic concepts such as classicism
and Romanticism and becomes vague.
Wellek and Warren say that this parallelism between philosophy and history is objectionable.
They say that this method is inapplicable to English Romantic Poetry which flourished during a
time when English and Scottish philosophy were completely dominated by common-sense
philosophy and utilitarianism. Even at times when philosophy seems to be in close contact with
literature then the actual integration is far less than it is assumed by German Geistesgeschiche.
It propagates a false conception of individuality ignoring the basic constants in human nature,
civilization and art because it is based on contraries and analogies. So, Geistesgeschichte, due
to its uncritical presupposition becomes an immature concept.
Wellek and Warren strongly criticize the concept Geistesgeschichte expounds and regard it
premature due to its excessive reliance on contraries and analogies. They emphasize that,
concrete problem must be addressed which is not yet or adequately solved: The question of how
ideas actually enter into literature.
The problem relating to ideas is obviously not what ideas do in work of literature, but when these
ideas become symbols and myths. In Novels of Dostoyevsky, the drama of ideas is acted out in
concrete terms of characters and events.
Still, the question of superior works of art on the basis of philosophical contribution prevails.
Wellek and Warren propose a conclusion on two bases; firstly, philosophy and ideological
content in proper context only serves to enhance the artistic value, secondly, over-
intellectualization is constantly on verge of overt allegory.
Sometimes, figures and scenes not only represent but actually embody ideas. Image becomes
concept and concept image. The critique by Croce in second part of Faust says ‘when poetry
becomes superior in this manner, superior to itself, it loses rank as poetry’. So, philosophical
poetry is simply like any other poetry unless it reveals some mystical meaning. Poetry is not
substitute-philosophy; poetry of ideas is like other poetry not to be judged by value of material
but by its degree of integration and artistic intensity.