What is the relationship between logic and modern literature? At first sight, the conjunction seems almost contradictory, but in the words of Susan Howe, “there always was and always will be a secret affinity between symbolic logic and poetry.” In recent years, scholars have begun to chart a series of surprising affinities, not just between logic and poetry, but between logic and literature in all its forms. The disciplines have a shared grammar and vocabulary (mood, tense, figure, implication, denotation, connotation…), with mutual borrowings and cross-fertilisation. There are deep-rooted connections between logical and literary form, which have helped shape works in both these fields, particularly since the formalisation of logic in the mid-nineteenth century. And there are numerous reciprocities between developments in modern logic and those in modern literature, from symbolic logic and Symbolist poetry to the role of AI in computer-generated poetry.
N. Katherine Hayles
Andrea K. Henderson
Robert B. Pippin
Indeed, logic plays an important role in the work of many Anglophone authors across the period, including Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Lewis Carroll, Edwin Abbott, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, T. S. Eliot, Laura Riding Jackson, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, Iris Murdoch, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Susan Howe, Anne Carson, and J. M. Coetzee. As well as responding to logic, it has been argued that late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century writers reacted against the new logic, spurring nonsense literature, Dada, Surrealism, and a modernist aesthetics of vagueness. Conversely, Logicists like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell sought to formulate a symbolic language free of contradiction and ambiguity. Yet Russell turned to fiction after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the interplay of logic and literature is equally complex in thinkers like Ada Lovelace, Victoria Welby, C. S. Peirce, G. E. Moore, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
There are also intriguing intersections between the emergence of analytical philosophy and the professionalisation of literary criticism in the early-twentieth century, with critics like T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and William Empson straddling the divide. At that time, Wittgenstein became a dominant figure in British philosophy, and he remains a central figure in studies of logic and literature: critics have explored post-WWII poetry and poetics in the wake of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and the last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in the literary qualities of his writing. Of course, Wittgenstein is not unique in this regard; logic and literature have important places in the philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Bachelard, Heidegger, Derrida, Deleuze, and Badiou (to name a few), all of whom have proved productive for literary critics, both as lenses through which to read literature, and for the rhetoric of their work. This critical interest suggests that “literary logic,” in both its senses, is a central concern for interdisciplinary studies of literature, science and mathematics, particularly when readers are invited to reflect on the role of logic in mediating knowledge between these disciplines.
Of course, developments in modern logic and literature are part of much broader socio-political and historical shifts, and the manifold connections between them deserve further attention. In 1959, the novelist and scientist, C. P. Snow, identified a dangerous split between the arts and the sciences that threatened the future of humanity. Following Snow’s logic, one might consider the wars and climate crisis we’re facing today as, partly, a consequence of that split. Yet one could equally argue that literature and logic have been growing ever closer over the last two centuries, with the emergence of new literary media and new forms of production in the digital age. The potential for binary algorithms to produce original works of art in a posthuman epoch raises urgent and far-reaching questions about our relationship to technology, to each other, to other species, and the planet we cohabit.