Why should it be evident that simplicity and theoretical abstractness are desiderata in a piece of philosophical writing? Couldn’t a text be a work of moral philosophy precisely by showing the complexity and indeterminacy that is really there in human life, and by refusing to make any simplifying theoretical statements? . . . By saying only what can be said and by refusing to say anything simpler, less storylike, than human life is, the novel does make a philosophical claim (about the human truth and, implicitly, about the limits of theory) that could not simply be paraphrased in a nonnovelistic text. (For such a text can so easily claim, in and by its very style, that complexity is reducible, even if its content denies this.)
–Martha Craven Nussbaum (paraphrasing a point made by Cora Diamond) [From the Vol. 15, No. 1, Autumn, 1983 issue of New Literary History]
John Gibson, Fiction and the Weave of Life, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780199299522.
Reviewed by Frank B. Farrell, Purchase College, State University of New York
Analytic philosophy of literature and deconstructionist thought make strange bedfellows, but they join in making matters difficult for the literary humanist. The analytic philosopher, using investigations regarding truth, reference, meaning, knowledge, justification, and the like will press toward a conclusion that literary fiction cannot be about the world and cannot give us knowledge of it. From quite different considerations, in emphasizing textuality and in supposedly undermining notions of representation and truth, the postmodern thinker concludes that literary fictions do not gain their significance through the ways they link up with a non-textual world beyond them. In contrast, the literary humanist wishes to argue that literature involves a cognitive engagement with the world, in ways that matter to our living out our lives as humans. John Gibson wants to give a strong defense of that claim, while at the same time granting considerable strength to the views of the humanist’s opponents.
Gibson is a philosopher of admirable clarity whose discussions contrast favorably with so much work in literary and cultural studies that seems to have little sense of what an argument is. At each point in his presentation, the reader knows just what move is being made in the debate. Gibson requires of his account that it satisfy two conditions at once. First, it should demonstrate that fiction has worldly import and illuminates reality, in a robust sense. Second, it should allow that the fictive stance we take toward literature is different in kind from the kind of stances we take toward linguistic sequences that purport to be assertions about how matters stand in the world. That is, the admirable effect produced by literature must be internal to what makes it function as the special kind of thing it is. One approach might be to challenge the analytic philosopher on what is meant by knowledge; perhaps there are models of what it is to grasp what the world is like that will apply better to fiction than the models now typically imported from philosophy. Gibson, while allowing that possibility, importantly decides to pursue a different strategy. He will grant the skeptic his claim that if fiction is somehow to be about the world, it will not be so in a manner that can be explained through the idea of knowledge. But then how can one prevent the text from becoming an isolationist realm, without tie lines to reality?
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