Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail)[ * ]

"The Hamlet of Albany":
Reflections on James O. Young’s Art and Knowledge

Ira Newman


This paper deals with the cognitive theory of fictional literature advanced in James O. Young’s Art and Knowledge.  While agreeing with Young’s views on how reading fiction can improve the capacity to use moral and psychological concepts in richer and more subtle ways, I take issue with Young’s emphasis on characters as tokens of general personality types.  While this is sometimes the case, it is not always so.  Often characters (such as Hamlet) are best viewed as nonreducible paradigms that establish idiosyncratic conceptual patterns for classifying actual people, rather than as embodiments of general properties that characters and actual people are both seen to share.


James O. Young has outlined a number of suggestive approaches to the longstanding project of determining if, and how, knowledge can be acquired from the arts—and, in particular, from the most promising member of that group, fictional literature.  For my commentary I could easily have drawn on four or five of Young’s interesting lines of inquiry, as he develops them in Art and Knowledge. [1]    But given the need for brevity, I have chosen instead to devote my attention to one line: and that is characterization in fiction, and how it enhances our cognitive powers in dealing with people and situations in the actual world beyond fiction.  I find much to agree with and applaud in Young’s formulations on this issue; at the same time I do have some reservations that I will voice.

Let me begin with an anecdote.  On a winter day in early 1992, the Governor of New York State was reported to have had a plane packed with campaign workers and warming up at the state capital’s airport in Albany.  It was simply awaiting the boarding of its final passenger, the Governor himself, who in about an hour would find himself in New Hampshire, to embark on a series of state primary elections that would hopefully culminate in his nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President in 1992.  Yet something funny happened on Mario Cuomo’s way to the nomination.  Although this rising Democratic star for much of the 1980s held a clear lead over the other aspirants, for reasons unknown he simply failed to board the plane that would launch his presidential career, confounding supporters and opponents alike about his motives, his qualms, his plans, and his philosophies—both personal and political.  This was not the first time Cuomo had backed out of presidential politics; yet it was probably the most dramatic—and exasperating—example of a penchant for thinking and resolving to act, yet ultimately failing to do.  In a colorful manner, the reporters and pundits had dubbed him the “Hamlet of Albany” and this latest episode left no doubt about the aptness of this wicked appellation as a way of characterizing his puzzling behavior. 

Now here in this wonderful mixing of literary fiction with life we have the ingredients for one of James Young’s lines of analysis.  What I will do is to reconstruct, from several ideas in his book, what I think is one model of learning from literary fiction advanced there, and the one I think that best applies to this case.  I will do a bit of dubbing myself, and dub this model The Model of Conceptual Reclassification.  Here is one place in his argument where Young  presents this model.

Just about everyone who is morally mature knows that the concept of officiousness, or bossiness, is used to characterize a kind of moral fault in human behavior.  But not everyone is equally adept at knowing when and how to apply this concept to actual situations, where it is not always obvious that the concept applies.  And so Young writes:

I may, like Emma Woodhouse, believe that certain sorts of actions are kindly, justifiable and helpful.  In Emma, Jane Austen represents these actions in such a way that I may come to see that I was wrong about them.  I may realize that, like Emma, I have been officiously interfering in the lives of others.  In this case, I do not learn that something is wrong with officiousness.  I knew that all along.  Instead, I acquire the ability to recognize that the concept of officiousness applies to a range of actions I had hitherto thought unexceptionable (p. 95).

What Young is suggesting here is that much of what we learn from fictive characterizations is how to use concepts from our moral and psychological vocabularies in richer and more subtle ways than we did formerly.  Our repertoire of conceptual guidelines may simply be too thin in directing us, on all occasions, to apply our concepts in as apt and faithful a manner as they could be.  So, much as case studies in law or business education serve to test and refine conceptual guidelines in those areas, well-articulated imagined cases of personal and social behavior may do the same in fictional literature. 

I think Young is entirely correct about this.  His insight has actually led me to think further about how this form of conceptual reclassification logically works in many cases, and so—as a way of lending support to his analysis—let me offer a thought of my own.  One reason why the application of psychological and moral concepts can become so intricate (and unpredictable) is that it is not always evident how certain first-order traits acquire the second-order traits that qualify them.  For example, helpfulness (as a first-order trait) can be realized in a number of different ways, each involving a second-order trait (and a corresponding trait-concept) of its own.  Thus helpfulness can be realized begrudgingly, or arrogantly, or benevolently, or penitently (say, as a way of relieving guilt), or vengefully (as a way of getting back at someone, for instance), or respectfully, or sensitively, or—finally—officiously (as an act of overbearing control).  Good examples, such as the case from Emma, can show us some of these possible second-order modifications, and may cause us to reappraise our conventional classificatory habits.  Specifically, we learn from Emma that not all forms of helpfulness are, as Young says, “unexceptionable”: when helpful actions are realized in an officious (or meddlesome) manner—as in Emma’s case they are—they should elicit the criticism that they are morally faulty in some way.

And so it goes for my Hamlet case.  If it is the case that I am aware of indecisive behavior from many sources, both conceptual and empirical, then what I am not so readily aware of is the variety of second-order traits that can qualify indecisiveness.  Thus as a first-order trait, indecisiveness can be realized (second-orderly) either in a cowardly manner (out of fear of taking a stand, for instance), or in a cunning manner (due to some large scheme it may serve), or honestly (where one has genuinely looked at all sides), or acutely, or irresolutely, or spinelessly, or stupidly, or whimsically, or neurotically, and so forth.  And one’s moral appraisal of indecisiveness can then be tailored, in a sensitive manner, to each of its various second-order  realizations: some will be praiseworthy and some, not. 

Now admittedly one’s preferred interpretation of the highly contested drama Hamlet may favor one of these second-order views over another.  But whatever that view might be, the ultimate cognitive benefit derives simply from the fact that I am able to recognize one of these possible second-order attributes of indecisiveness.  And when I apply the attribute to Mario Cuomo, I am simply extending to a living situation itself the fruits of a recognition derived from my encounter with the artwork.


It is at this point, however, that I begin to depart from Young’s main line of approach.  Throughout the book the focus is almost exclusively on characters as clusters of general traits, or characters as tokens of general personality types—an Aristotelian approach that Young acknowledges can be traced back to the Poetics (p. 36).  For example, in Bleak House Dickens’s Mr. Chadband is viewed as a representation of a sanctimonious “character-type” whom, Young volunteers, he “can see every Sunday morning on television” (p. 50).  Or Skimpole (from the same novel) “represents persons like Skimpole: lazy people who affect an unworldliness, but who live comfortably at the expense of others” (p. 37).  Now perhaps this may be a useful way to think of what E. M. Forster has called the flatcharacters in a fictional work, or those characters that are represented with only one or two simplified traits—the snooty butler, the fawning lackey. [2]    Perhaps many of Dickens’s characters, each coming on the novel’s “stage” to perform a self-characterizing routine, are flat in this way.  (Not to mention the patently simplified characters in Aesop’s fables: the rash hare, the persevering tortoise, or the too-clever-for-his-own-good fox [p. 37].) 

But these are nothing like what Forster calls the roundcharacters of fiction: those complex, convoluted personalities whose traits are numerous, diverse and often inscrutably contrary to one other.  These round characters—Hamlet constituting a paradigm case, obviously—call for a different line of analysis: they are not so much clusters of general traits that are separately possessed by classes of other persons, as unbreakable webs of traits whose idiosyncratically intertwined networks have few if any counterparts in other individuals.  Speaking of these characters, Arthur Danto asks:

Who knows such people in real life?  Next to them, people are pale and adimensional.  They have a life of their own, and it is this to which we refer, I believe, when we speak of the reality of a character, or the reality of the world created by the fiction master. . . These are worlds alongside the real world, not worlds which have the world itself as model. [3]

Now Danto is not making an ontological claim here about some form of odd existence to be attributed to these fictional characters and their worlds; but in his own inimitably stylish voice, he is expressing a logical claim about the structure of what we are thinking of when we conceive these characters and their worlds, as well as what we mean when we speak of them.  Whatever their capacity to be generalized as types of traits or types of personalities, their distinctive status is to function as nonreducible, or atomic, individuals. 

Thus Hamlet is not simply an indecisive person whose generalizable trait of indecisiveness is shown to have, say, a neurotic (second-order) aspect.  No doubt he can be viewed this way—and with cognitive profit.  But he is also a conjunction of complex, and progressively particularizing, characteristics:  an indecisive man who sometimes acts quite decisively (as when he kills Polonius);  a morally sensitive thinker who shocks us by his callous and cruel manner (as when he gleefully sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths);  a philosophical reflector who cannot fathom his own personality;  a solitary meditator caught in a social drama of crime and punishment; and on and on and on.  In other words, a highly individualized person of his own, whose personality becomes more and more specific (and rigid) as the sequence of representing scenes that comprise the play unfolds. 

And so when Mario Cuomo is linked metaphorically with Hamlet, it may be not because some clearly formulated trait has been lifted from Shakespeare’s characterization, given a well-known linguistic label from a natural language such as English, and attributed to a type of person of whom Cuomo and Hamlet are both tokens.  It may be because Hamlet, in all his idiosyncratic complexity, is himself a paradigm against which Cuomo is conceptually framed in some as yet obscurely understood ways.  Clarifying what those ways are becomes an ongoing project—in fact, part of what the very linking of Cuomo and Hamlet conceptually directs us to initiate, as we contemplate both who Hamlet is and who Cuomo is.  It is enough for that project to get off the ground simply, at its outset, to reclassify Cuomo, in a holistic sweep of the brush, as hamlet-ian.  And thus a word normally used as a subject term to name a character in a play by William Shakespeare—namely Hamlet—now strengthens the cognitive tools at our disposal as a result of its metamorphosis into a predicate term: “Cuomo is hamletian.”  The effect is to add a new concept to our psychological and moral vocabularies, thereby carving the world into one more conceptual shape, bearing the promise of new opportunities for scrutiny and discovery: in other words, for learning.

So to conclude.  I do not wish to diminish the importance of the generalization approach that Young offers.  Fictional characters—even round characters such as Hamlet—can surely illuminate how general-trait terms apply to types of behavior and personality.  Many times that form of philosophical analysis is the most accurate at revealing what is taking place in an audience’s cognitive development.  What I am saying, however, is that such a form of philosophical analysis is not sufficient to cover the full complement of ways in which our powers of conceptual reclassification grow under the influence of our experiences with fictional literature.  Sometimes a truer picture emerges when we resort to a highly individualized and nonreductive approach toward fictional characters: and that is one where characters are viewed as indivisible paradigms to which actual people are connected in thought, rather than embodiments of general properties that actual people and characters both share.  So my observations have more to do with offering a supplement to James Young’s thought-provoking analysis, and surely not a refutation of his valid—and genuinely helpful—insights on these challenging matters.

[1]     James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London and New York: Routledge, 2001); all references will be cited in text, in parentheses.

[2]     E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (San Diego: Harcourt, Harvest Book, 1955), pp. 67–78.

[3]     Arthur Danto, “Imagination, Reality, and Art,” in Art and Philosophy, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1966), p. 233.

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