Logic and Literary Form

organized by Charles Altieri, Jeffrey Blevins, and Daniel Williams


Literary formalism, formal logic: were ever two areas of study so alike and yet so different? Both advocate structural over practical or historical methods in the analysis of language. Both appeal to such methods to study how permutations of words and symbols affect the meaning of sentences and longer strings of language. Both assess linguistic structures and their effects in light of shared concepts like “form,” “symbol,” “predication,” “abstraction,” and “reference.”

Yet to borrow a distinction from the early modern philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal, logic would seem to work largely according to l’esprit de géométrie, resolving language into the protocols of reason and mathematics, while formalism acts more along the lines of l’esprit de finesse, exploring literature’s imaginative resistance to such technical protocols and to reductions by means of paraphrase or symbolic redescription. Logic and literature do, in fact, share many methodological symmetries and points of historical contact. Through the centuries there have been poets, novelists, and artists who took up the tools and methods of logic for creative reuse, as well as logicians and mathematicians who turned to literary concepts and categories for philosophical expression and clarification. Despite these connections, a disciplinary chasm has long separated literary formalism and formal logic.

Our conference on Logic and Literary Form promises to bridge this chasm by convening scholars working at the interdisciplinary juncture of literary studies, philosophy, and the history of science in order to investigate the historical, conceptual, and analogical connections between literary and logical form. The conference will include a range of subfields from literary history to philosophical aesthetics, and will transect several periods from medieval developments in logic, rhetoric, and grammar through the articulation and rigorization of symbolic logic in the 19th and 20th centuries. The conference will feature keynotes by a literary scholar and philosopher, and a poetry reading.

We will identify discrete affinities and resonances among different areas of logic and literature, tracing historical interactions and reciprocal influences between literary and logical writers. We will consider what the cross-fertilization of ideas and practices has meant for these fields in the past, and might mean for literary and philosophical disciplines, and the humanities more broadly, in the present. What could philosophical logic gain from literary accounts of form, and vice versa? Can we compare literary modes of close reading and interpretation to logical systems of inference? Does logical paradox redound upon literary ambiguity? How do reciprocally useful terms like “figure,” “mood,” and “tense” help us think across literary and logical concerns? Is there any way to reconcile logic’s apotheosis of reason and rationality with literature’s stress on imagination and affect? Given the prevalence of logical syntax in the architecture of digital technology, can a rapprochement between logic and literary form offer new ways to think about data and information, and the place of humanistic inquiry therein?

We convene this conference amid a wave of scholarship addressing historical and theoretical commonalities in literature and logic. Literary scholars have begun charting rich histories of influence between writers and logicians of all periods, even as theorists have started correlating logical and literary notions like truth, precision, probability, and signification. Meanwhile, historians of science are mapping forgotten networks of exchange among discourses like mathematics and aesthetics, while logicians are tracing the intellectual kinship and methodological reciprocity of artistic, mathematical, and logical definitions of form. Spanning these conversations, our conference undertakes an interdisciplinary effort to extend and enrich this current surge in research connecting formal logic and literary formalism.


This event is co-sponsored by the University of California Humanities Research Institute, Humanities and Social Sciences Association, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute, English Department, Division of Arts & Humanities, Sidney and Margaret Ancker Chair, Division of Social Sciences, Smith-Zadeh Chair in Engineering, Townsend Center, Arts Research Center, Center for British Studies, Rhetoric Department, Philosophy Department, Comparative Literature Department, Chairs in English, and Graduate Colloquia in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

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