- The Trouble with Truth
Lamarque and Olsen have written a surprisingly old-fashioned book. For one thing, it is carefully argued and altogether willing to sacrifice the sensational for the painstakingly difficult. Because its style is sometimes reminiscent of the careful labored philosophy of Oxford in the sixties, there are many who will yawn, others who will grumble at the very idea that arguments can be sound or unsound, and assertions true or false. As a result, the book, which is a wholesome antidote to pretentiousness in literary theory and philosophy, runs the risk of being ignored by those who most need it.
The story of the book is easily told. It begins with an excellent and accessible account of fiction (Part 1) which is used to dissect the pretensions of postmodernist literary theory—most especially the tendency (as the authors see it) to regard all discourses as fictional (Part 2). Although fiction and literature are identifiable as such “only within the context of certain practices,” each belongs to its own distinctive practice and should not be confused with the other. Even so, just as a proper understanding of fiction requires that we adopt the right “stance,” literary value can be apprehended only by taking the conventionally [End Page 350] prescribed stance—the “literary stance”; one which cannot be explicated in terms of the concept of truth. Theirs is a no-truth theory of literature that purports to distinguish literature from philosophy, and to offer an account of literary merit in terms of “universal values” that transcend particular cultures (Part 3).
Needless to say, the value of this book does not only reside in the story it tells. Since it is a philosophical work and forms part of the practice of philosophy, the book is concerned with the development of our understanding, and not with the development of an intriguing narrative. In short, the value of the book—and it has considerable value—resides in careful analyses and well-developed arguments, in the understanding it promotes, in its engagement with other positions on the topic, and in its commendable clarity. Presumably, then, its value is to be determined by adopting not a “literary stance,” but what, following the authors, we could call a philosophical stance. Put thus, we see at once that whatever else this book achieves, it also invites reflection on philosophy as a practice, and on its relation to what the authors regard as the practice and the institution of literature.
But why can’t philosophy develop and deploy narratives? The short answer is that it can, and that some philosophers have done as much. 1 And it is arguable, too, that there are philosophical tracts that would be much improved by doing so. But most traditional Anglo-American philosophy does not incorporate narratives. This, it seems to me, has much to do with fashion. As presently conducted, Anglo-American philosophy is a practice that emphasizes truth and reason to the exclusion of narrative and literary adornment. And so, in this respect, it is very different from literature—or at least this is what Lamarque and Olsen propose to argue. For according to the “no-truth” theory of literature that they defend, “the concept of truth has no central or ineliminable role in critical practice” (p. 1), and it is simply false that literary works “have the constitutive aim of advancing truths about human concerns . . .” (p. 368).
The argument that follows is a responsible and perceptive philosophical treatment of the relationship between fiction, literature, and truth. Fiction, we are told, cannot be explained as a type of language, nor can it be explained in terms of the truth-value of its sentences. Rather, it must be explained as a rule-governed practice, “central to [End Page 351] which are a certain mode of utterance (fictive utterance) and a certain complex of attitudes (the fictive stance)” (p. 32). Fictive utterance and response depend on the practice of fictive story-telling which is mastered at an early age (p. 33). In...