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Text in the Natural World

Topics in the Evolutionary Theory of Literature


Laurence A. Gregorio

The study of literature has expanded to include an evolutionary perspective. Its premise is that the literary text and literature as an overarching institution came into existence as a product of the same evolutionary process that gave rise to the human species. In this view, literature is an evolutionary adaptation that functions as any other adaptation does, as a means of enhancing survivability and also promoting benefits for the individual and society. Text in the Natural World is an introduction to the theory and a survey of topics pertinent to the evolutionary view of literature. After a polemical, prefatory chapter and an overview of the pertinent aspects of evolutionary theory itself, the book examines integral building blocks of literature and literary expression as effects of evolutionary development. This includes chapters on moral sense, symbolic thought, literary aesthetics in general, literary ontology, the broad topic of form, function and device in literature, a last theoretical chapter on narrative, and a chapter on literary themes. The concluding chapter builds on the preceding one as an illustration of evolutionary thematic study in practice, in a study of the fauna in the fiction of Maupassant. This text is designed to be of interest to those who read and think about things literary, as well as to those who have interest in the extension of Darwin’s great idea across the horizon of human culture. It tries to bridge the gulf that has separated the humanities from the sciences, and would be a helpful text for courses taught in both literary theory and interdisciplinary approaches to literature and philosophy.

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Chapter 6. Ontology


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The topic of an actual ontology of literature based on evolutionary thought is the most difficult of all to approach in this study, not for its necessarily abstract nature, but for the historical fact that philosophy, aesthetics, semiotics, linguistics, anthropology and psychoanalysis, among others including literary study itself, have all had their say in defining the literary enterprise’s nature and relations of being. To add an evolutionary perspective is to build onto an already large edifice, but it will be necessary to do so in order to establish evolutionary theory’s place in the process that defines an aesthetic phenomenon like literature. Dating back to Aristotle, the study of poetics has turned the gaze of metaphysics on that peculiar phenomenon of the literary—narrative fiction, lyric, theater—viewing it under many different lenses and philosophizing as to its inherent characteristics, processes, functions, and effects, and distinguishing it from all other forms of communication and signifying.

I propose to offer a very idiosyncratic glance over the history of Western thought on poetics, not by any means with the intention to assemble a comprehensive survey of the philosophy of literature. Instead I wish to focus briefly on certain selected facets of the literary enterprise widely held to be integral components or traits of the literary, but which will also detail one path through thought and theory that in the end suggests the wisdom of an evolutionary take on the question. ← 107...

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