The Epistemology of English

//The Epistemology of English

For some time now I’ve been thinking about how epistemology* – how knowledge is accumulated and divvied up – in English as an academic discipline. While I’m not at all sure that I’ve accomplished anything particularly profound or useful, I’ve identified four distinct areas which I’m calling metaphor, story, argument and pattern. These concepts underlie an understanding of what knowledge is in English. They are, broadly speaking, the lenses through which literature and language can be viewed and by which meaning is made.


Arguably, most if not all thought is metaphorical. Whenever we substitute a concrete meaning to shed light on an abstract concept we are thinking in metaphor. [“Shed light” is a good example: no actual light is being employed, but the quality of shining a light on something concrete makes it easier to see that thing.] Similarly, metaphor makes it easier to understand abstraction. Metaphor – or more properly, tropes (from the Greek tropos meaning ‘turn’) are a ‘turning away’ from the literal towards the figurative. Everyday language is so strewn with tropes that many metaphors are ‘dead’: we longer turn away from the literal when we say or hear “wake up,” “feeling down,” “black mood,” “white hot,” etc. So, while it’s almost impossible to communicate anything complex without metaphor, most often we are unaware of so doing.

Within English, metaphor acts to defamiliarise language, to express something in a new and surprising way. In Literature, Why it Matters, Robert Eaglestone argues that ‘metaphor-spotting’ is a craft. We can train ourselves to see the unfamiliar in the everyday and become attuned to new ways of restating old ideas:

…when you are taught the craft of metaphor-spotting, you are not really being taught to single some flower out from the hedgerow. Rather, by picking that flower, you are having your attention drawn to the whole ecosystem… (p. 42)

Metaphor is – at its heart – about substitution of meaning: this is like that. The ability to use and appreciate figurative language is a crucial aspect of English disciplinary understanding. It not only shapes our ability to think and understanding, it also helps us to better understand ourselves as well as other people in other times and places.


Human beings have a bias towards thinking in narrative. In order to simplify the complexity of the world we frame our understanding in the form of stories with sequential events, characters and themes. We think in terms of cause and effect, heroes and villains and unifying morals which give meaning to otherwise random events. Every time we recount an event from our lives, we cast ourselves as the hero and, while our story may well be truthful, it is also, in a very real way, ‘made up’. We tend to conform to particular ways of structuring stories – chronology, climaxes, resolutions – and by doing so we make ourselves more understandable.

Over millennia, this artificial way of thinking has become increasingly natural but the story of storytelling is an essential component of knowledge in English: the structures and conventions of epic, tragedy, comedy; the various forms in which ‘stories’ are told: poems, plays, novels; the genres, or types, of story we’ve become familiar with (detective stories, romances, quests) and their associated conventions; the way in which narrative is constructed (first and third person, past tense) and the way stories build on and interpret one another (intertextuality) are all ideas which students need to be explicitly introduced to.

Stories can seem a little like dead metaphors – if we’re not trained to spot how they work, we mistake artifice for nature. All the components of stories were, at one time, new and surprising. Greek tragedy grew from epic poetry and Dionysian ritual into a brand new way of telling stories. Originally, actors took the stage one at a time and declaimed their part of the narrative, but then the dramatist Aeschylus – writer of the Oresteia – came up with the idea of introducing a second actor to the stage and thus dialogue was born. A bit later Sophocles experimented with a third actor on stage and gave us action. Today we take dialogue and action utterly for granted, but once they were startling and fresh. According to Natalie Haynes, the writers of Eastenders routinely and deliberately recycle the plots of the Greek tragedies within the context of Albert Square – the characters and setting are new but the plot is taken from Medea or Oedipus.

By examining how storytelling developed from its origins in myth and legend to its modern bewildering array of forms and expressions, students learn to appreciate their place in a conversation that has been unfolding throughout history.


All writing – not just stories – is, by its very nature, artificial. The concept of argument examines the intentions of this ‘artificial’ (as opposed to ‘natural’ conversation) communication and is concerned with the formal structures of thought and expression. Logic, reason, persuasion are all required to communicate with clarity and force about anything we feel to be important. Part of this is developing an understanding of the three aspects of rhetoric: ethos (appeal to character) pathos (appeal to emotion) and logos (appeal to reason).

Everyone uses rhetoric. Even those who profess disdain for the sleights of hand and trickery of flowery speech and using rhetoric: the denial of this mode of expression is just another appeal to character. Everyone uses rhetoric, but not everyone uses it knowingly or well. Once students learn to analyse the ways arguments are structured and made persuasive, they can start to take part in shaping their world in a much more deliberate way. Not only do they become better able to notice and understand the currents that have shaped their own patterns of thought, they can start to ask what would happen if the levers of argument were placed elsewhere and pressure was applied in another direction.

The ability to think logically and analytically relies on an understanding of sequencing ideas and to build a way of seeing, point by careful point. By examining examples of arguments in different times and places we can better understand who we are as well as being better equipped to choose to be someone else.


Human beings are natural pattern seekers. We see creatures in clouds and faces in wallpaper. Our minds are shaped by an ability to make rapid judgements using minimal data and, while this can sometimes lead us astray, it means we can be incredibly efficient at communicating ideas from mind to mind.

This strand of the epistemology of English seeks to explore the various ways we use structure to impose meaning on texts. At its broadest level, texts are structured into books, chapters, sections and paragraphs; plays into acts and scenes; poems into lines and stanzas. But it wasn’t always thus. Ancient texts tend not even to have gaps between words and to find out what a papyrus contains you have to start at the beginning and read through until the end. Over time, as the differences between spoken and written language became increasingly clear, we invented gaps between words, punctuation marks, line breaks, page numbers, indexes and a host of other devices to make it easier to make sense of the written word. This is a way of imposing order on what would otherwise be chaotic.

When we speak we either don’t use patterns or don’t notice the way our speech is patterned. Speakers rarely consider grammar or word order and it’s unusual to spend time considering the patterns of the words we say when considered together. Written text is necessarily artificial because it’s written to be read out of the context in which it was first conceived and communicated. Texts use patterns like assonance, alliteration, rhythm, rhyme, careful word placement and line length to shape the way we interpret and understand them. This is most obvious in poems which are carefully crafted combinations of language and form, but, is equally important, if less immediately apparent, in all forms of writing.

These are difficult, abstract concepts which, when students first have their attention drawn to them, can seem impossible to articulate the reasons for their placement. It takes time for students to become familiar and comfortable to discuss commas and enjambement with the same fluency with which they pull apart metaphor because there’s less to grip on to. It takes training to understand that syntax and structure makes meaning just as much as words and sentences do. If students are taught about these artificial ways of creating meaning they will not only be able to note and interpret their use, but able to employ them in their own writing.

Now what?

These are, I think, at least some of the ways in which English as an academic discipline is different to all others. There may well be aspects I’ve missed and I’d be tremendously grateful to anyone who want to suggest revision or additions.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Barbara Bleiman’s ‘litmus tests’ of literary knowledge:

I’m not sure whether I’ve fully reconciled these ideas about knowing in English with my four epistemological pillars. I almost think that ‘literary knowledge’ is either an additional way of knowing or subsumption of all others. I think she’d argue that the sort of historical, contextual knowledge on which much of literary study depends is perhaps less valid than our personal responses. I may be wrong.** For my own part I’d argue that my personal response is enriched and enlarged by knowing something of the context in which a text is produced and received. Whatever the case, it’s certainly fair to say that contextual knowledge is an important adjunct to the ways of knowing I’ve described above.

It’s also worth stating that none of these epistemological angles presuppose anything about the activity of ‘doing’ English. However, it stands to reason that students will come to understand and, hopefully, master English, through the mediums of reading the work of others, writing their own critical and creative responses and through discussion, dialogue and argument.

* I’m particularly grateful to Molly Janz for talking through and challenging me on the ideas in this post.

** I was wrong. Barbara got in touch to clarify her position: “Context (specially literary & cultural) is v important & can be highly illuminating. But it does need to genuinely shine light on the text. For me Prof Peter Barry’s views are specially helpful & his ideas on adjacent & distant contexts … [For example] knowing about the ‘southern belle’ in ‘Streetcar’ develops your understanding of Blanche. Knowing about romanticism & modernism & recognising shifts between them in ‘Gatsby’ enriches your reading. Knowing about the sublime in relation to the ‘Ancient Mariner’ is illuminating. But it doesn’t take weeks of student research, or hours of teacher input to inject this kind of valuable & rich contextual understanding. Some of our most valued approaches offer contextual background in ways that are closely related to texts, with the text itself at the heart.”

2019-02-07T15:53:11+00:00February 7th, 2019|English|

One Comment

  1. James Brooks February 12, 2019 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    “Surfaces and Essences” by Hofstadter and Sander is an excellent book that explores the value and use of analogy in thought. I would highly recommend it.

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