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Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 373-374 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0072

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Meaning and Interpretation: Wittgenstein, Henry James, and Literary Knowledge, by G. L. Hagberg; xi & 178 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, $27.50.

The idea of studying Henry James and the later Ludwig Wittgenstein together is attractive, although there is very little stylistic similarity between them. Wittgenstein writes like a novelist, James like a philosopher. Wittgenstein is intensely interested in the real language of real people; most of James’s dialogues bristle with a peculiarly Jamesian stiltedness. But both writers focus on the exquisite, extensive subtleties of language and of linguistic interaction, subtleties that tend to make uselessly crude such notional entities as facts, meanings, or ideas, and so of an epistemology based on such entities. The extremely fine grain of James’s analyses of his characters and of their analyses of each other already commits him philosophically to agreeing with Wittgenstein’s central insight that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life”: to James’s characters life consists in interpretation of each other’s language. Those characters have the deepest lives who come to the greatest subtlety in their investigations of what determines the deeply overdetermined linguistic moves made by other minds.

Hagberg’s book is disappointing, however. The exposition of Wittgenstein is unexceptionable but hardly novel, and as for James, Hagberg has confined himself to four stories, considerable to be sure, but hardly the novels. Hagberg gives creditable readings of these stories, especially “The Lesson of the Master” and “The Figure in the Carpet.” But he treats James’s stories more as demonstrations of his philosophical point—that there is an analogy between language games and works of art, also an analogy between our attitude towards a person and our attitude towards a work of art—than as works of art themselves. This would be fine if he didn’t keep asserting that they are examples of what they address: perhaps they are, but Hagberg makes them out primarily as didactic. Thus in “Figure” he finds a clear and direct argument that one ought not look for some propositional content as the point or secret of a work of art and thus a fortiori of a story like the one under consideration. [End Page 373] Hagberg is right, of course, but he reduces the story to a moral in just the way he claims it warns us to avoid.

In his treatment of “Lesson,” he writes with real insight about the ambiguities of the master’s motivation in that story, and argues convincingly that the motivation may be opaque to the master himself, but then retreats from the insight thus won by treating ambiguity itself rather literal-mindedly, as a sort of resultant of several unambiguous vectors. Although the comparison of ambiguity to seeing aspects is fascinating, Hagberg’s analysis would be inevitably enriched by treating The Golden Bowl, where Adam Verver remains essentially ambiguous. Hagberg’s readings falter because his sense of language-games is too flat: he doesn’t take into account (although he claims to) their genuine variety. For Hagberg, unlike for Wittgenstein, games always have well-defined moves, and so ambiguity becomes a move. But what if it’s ambiguous whether it’s a move or not?

Perhaps Hagberg’s account of “The Tree of Knowledge” is least in the spirit of Wittgenstein. In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes, “I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking” (Part II, section xi). But Hagberg, in a taxonomy of kinds of knowing, takes it for granted that I can know what I am thinking (pp. 153, 169): again, this is a way of reducing ambiguity to a question of the intent of a “move,” and not grappling with its fundamental elusiveness.

Meaning and Interpretation is a learned and helpfully provocative book, often written with great verve, but its value is more in the questions that it broaches than in the answers it offers. Raising questions is the proper Wittgensteinian and Jamesian activity: the book demonstrates by its own examples that offering definite answers may neutralize the power of the questions.

William Flesch
Brandeis University