- Does Tom Think Squire Allworthy Is Real?
This volume, a thematically interconnected collection of essays originally written over the last two decades, might more aptly have been called Points of View on Literature and Fiction. The current title suggests that the perspectives in question are fictive, which they most certainly are not. They are those of the logician, the metaphysician, the humanist, and the critic. Peter Lamarque’s own philosophical point of view is analytical, and his perspective on things literary is explicitly humanist. As a philosopher, he makes no claim to being a critic. But he does offer a philosophical justification of humanistic literary criticism. The book contests poststructuralist and postmodernist antihumanisms in literary studies—and, for that matter, in philosophy. Perhaps its most striking ambition is to reconcile the logician and the literary critic, whose dealings with fiction are often, as Lamarque notes, “incommensurable” (p. 56).
The main tenets of Lamarque’s literary humanism are not unfamiliar. He believes that, though it is hardly inevitable, our imaginative engagement with literature allows us to learn and to become better, more moral, persons. He believes that, ceteris paribus, it is better to have read the “great texts” than not. He acknowledges that this sounds “old-fashioned.” So it does. An introductory formulation states that “works of literature, through the medium of fiction, can serve the end of [End Page 433] advancing, helping to develop and understand, exhibiting through their themes and vision, matters of general, perhaps universal, human interest” (p. 3). These works “can engage seriously with issues that matter in the real world, and, in stirring the imagination, can clarify thought and enliven perception” (p. 3). In itself, the fictional does not offer these benefits, and thus has no immediate claim to merit or interest. Literature, on the other hand, “involves the expectation of value,” and any work that does not reward such an expectation “fails” (p. 200).
Perhaps it is humanism rather than literature that needs defense. The humanist’s promises are extremely abstract. Meant, no doubt, to reassure us that time spent reading literature is not wasted, they promptly worry about which expectations (and whose expectations) offer appropriate standards for evaluation. Given Lamarque’s insistence on the autonomy of the literary and his sensible recommendation that we give up the idea that literary criticism is in the vanguard of sociopolitical change, one still wants to know more about how literature informs our actual engagement with the world. It would be nice to see just how the literary stirring of imagination—rather than, say, the scientific, political, sociological or philosophical stirring of imagination—can bring about the desired results.
But there is another, and not at all old-fashioned, side to Lamarque’s work. He endorses interpretationalism, since he argues that truth in fiction is going to turn out to be truth relative to an interpretation. He also endorses multiplism, which—as Michael Krausz has recently argued (also in a volume from Cornell)—does not necessarily follow from the presuppositions of interpretationalism. 1 He defends the view that literary properties and other aesthetic qualities are emergent. And Lamarque is a constructivist, though not one of the still fashionable sort for whom Derrida’s quotation of Rousseau’s remark, il n’y a pas hors-texte, puts paid to the idea that, say, genes and molecules and suchlike might themselves name nonlinguistic features of our world.
Put schematically, Lamarque would say that the logician looks at the form of fiction, while the critic looks at its substance. While formal logic is certainly explicitly concerned with the form of arguments, I do not think that “form,” from the logician’s perspective, is anything but a homonym of “form” in the sense required for consideration of poems, plays, films, novels, and so forth. One of my criticisms of Lamarque is that despite his own obvious concern with literary form, this bifurcation of territory between logician and critic is at best seriously misleading, [End Page 434] and has unfortunate consequences for his central topic, the fictionality of fiction. Lamarque proposes that literature provides...