I am currently in my forth and final year of an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, and last Friday I handed in my 11,000 word dissertation. It is my very own little contribution to the philosophical conversation and, despite all the late nights in the library, something I really enjoyed writing.
The broad topic was philosophy and literature; more specifically I was looking at how we, as readers, respond emotionally to fiction. It is a rather uncontroversial fact that we respond emotionally to fiction. However I was looking at how this goes further and when a reader is matched with a novel that they find emotionally affecting, and it is read is an attentive way, there is potential for the development of their emotional intelligence.
But what is this emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is a term that was coined by Daniel Goleman in 1995. He uses it to express the awareness of an individual in regards to their own emotions and the ability to communicate, express and deal with emotion effectively. It also refers to being able to get along with others successfully by recognising and understanding their emotions, something that will lead to better relationships, success at work, good personal mental health and good physical health. Goleman claims that emotions matter for rationality as they undoubtedly play a part in guiding our actions therefore emotional intelligence, not just intellectual intelligence (IQ), is important for a successful, rounded and good life.
There have previously been claims that fiction can be beneficial for our emotional and moral development (reasons for which I will not go into just in this short blog post!), however these were only made in accordance with classic, morally serious novels…think Jane Austen, Henry James etc. I took this one step further, claiming that it is not the mirroring of the exact realities of our lives that allows us to relate to those of the characters but the presence of some universal human traits such as free will, morality and emotion itself. These are the things that we relate to and start to recognise as similar even in the most fantastical situation. Fiction allows us a sort of rehearsal for real life; of course it will never be quite the same as feeling emotion in actuality but it can prepare us for dealing with difficult or new emotion, or for helping us to understand why others may react so differently, and hopefully teaching us to be more tolerant.
So this, in a couple of hundred words, is the bare bones of my dissertation. I supplemented my work with examples from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – a fantasy trilogy which, I felt, had some sort of emotional effect on me when I first read them at about the age of 13. One of the most interesting things I found when telling people about the work I was doing was that everyone immediately wanted to tell me about a book that stood out for them, what they had learnt from it, and the effect this had had on them. This was something that I couldn’t really talk about in my philosophy work where the focus is on theory and argument rather than this sort of evidence. Although it did play a part in they way I went on to stress the importance of the individual, their choice of novel and a personal interpretation of it.
So, I thought I would put the question out to the big wide world right here…what is the novel that springs to your mind when you hear this? Do you have one? It might be a novel that sticks in your mind for days on end… and story that has influenced how you live your life, or one that helped you deal with a difficult situation. Maybe your story isn’t a novel, but a film or poem…leave me a comment, let me know what you think :)
For more information on EQ: Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 1995)
For theories on emotion in literature: Jenefer Robinson, Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and its Role in Literature, Music, and Art (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 2005)
Some parts of this blog post have been taken from my own dissertation.