"...we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology." (Noam Chomsky) To what extent would you agree?

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Katedralskolan, Uppsala

IB School Code: 1291

Session: May 2008

Theory of knowledge

Supervisor: Göran Ericsson

ToK Essay

5. “…we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” (Noam Chomsky) To what extent would you agree?

Zack Lindahl

Candidate code: 1291-037

Word count: 1550

Date: 2008 02 10

Zack Lindahl, 1291-037

The novel genre is per definition written fiction. The scientific study of behaviour and the mind, psychology, is based on research methods such as observations, case studies and experiments. At a glance, the main difference between these is that psychological methods are describing human personality through more or less empirical methods. In short, psychology is based on experience. However, despite the label of fiction, novels are often not branded as purely conjecture, but often attempts to realistically display human personality, based on the author’s own experience. The naturalist author Emile Zola explained in his foreword of Thérèse Raquin that his aim was to observe how different personalities reacted to each other. It seems that personality can be showed in both psychology and literature. However, can human personality be reliably portrayed in these media?

According to the quote, the term knowledge will refer to the knowledge about human personality only. Firstly, what is personality? Psychologist would say that it is “a collection of traits that form a behavioural pattern”. They mean that you can observe personality by behaviour; you know when someone is happy if they smile, and that someone is sad or angry if they frown. Therefore, what people do and how people act is what is summed up as personality. As behaviour is visible, you measure personality by observing behaviour. Novels definitely portray human behaviour, but also tend to focus more on the emotions that the characters have, as well as their behaviour. Personality can therefore be termed as the emotional patterns of an individual, and their behavioural consequences. In addition, it is unclear how personality develops. Either human personality is set from birth, as part of evolutionary behaviour patterns that ensure survival, or it is shaped by the environment. Both these factors can and are portrayed in novels and scientific psychology. For that reason, novels and psychology can be considered mediums of knowledge of personality. Nevertheless, the observational method that both use is flawed, as it is impossible to perceive everything, and therefore portray things clearly. Then, to what extent can we gain reliable knowledge of personality through these media?

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The fictional descriptions of personality in literature are subject to a great deal of subjectivity. As a novel is in most cases a non-scrutinized work by a single person that can have a very broad range of characteristics according to the novels sub-genre. The perception of the author, the author’s opinions of behaviour and

Zack Lindahl, 1291-037

the author’s purpose with writing the novel all add to the subjective description. If the subjectivity of novels equals inaccuracy is a different matter altogether. Even though Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s novel Ett Öga Rött is told strictly from the perspective of a ...

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