Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 75-86
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Postmodernists sometimes seem to think that they can find,support for their antirationalism and anti-objectivism in the work of Wittgenstein, Davidson, and Kuhn. 1 Even opponents of postmodernism occasionally see its central assumptions as allied somehow to the ideas of these three philosophers. 2 Given the revolutionary character and general difficulty of the thought of these three philosophers, it would be hard to prove that all postmodern readings of their works are ungrounded. Davidson 3 does claim that the concept of reference is merely a "theoretical construct" and, at best, an "inscrutable" one within a holistic Tarski-style theory of a language. Wittgenstein 4 does suggest that rules are not like rails that guide us, but rather that they are holistic constructs out of rule-following action. And Kuhn 5 does argue that revolutionary changes in scientific outlook are not determined by rational scientific method.
Elsewhere 6 I have expressed doubt about some of these specific views, but in this paper I shall not be directly concerned with either the validity of these ideas themselves, or the possible support such views offer for postmodern attacks on reason and objectivity. My concern will be to show that other, quite central ideas of these thinkers are directly inimical to the postmodern campaign against reason and objectivity. Since postmodernism accords with the poststructuralist assimilation of all language to literature, I shall begin with some remarks on literary criticism itself, setting out the foundation for a Wittgensteinean perspective on traditional issues in the field. [End Page 75]
The New Critics wished to regard a literary text as an object with secondary qualities in it. This theoretical assumption was regarded by some metacritics as hopelessly naïve, partly because different readers find different secondary qualities in the same text, and because it was thought that relativity to a subject is incompatible with externality. However, Einstein's theory of the relativity to a point of view of the primary properties of mass and length, which are clearly external properties, shows that externality and relativity are not necessarily incompatible properties. That purely logical point helps to prepare the conceptual ground for a theory of the externality of certain secondary qualities that exist only relative to a subject. Once the general logical compatibility of externality and relativity is established, what is then needed is a reason for thinking that the relevant secondary qualities in certain texts not only could be but also actually are outside us.
Elsewhere 7 I have argued in favor of the externality of the secondary qualia of color by appealing to Grice's causal theory of perception, 8 but my argument there also appeals to the phenomenological givenness of the qualia of color, and hence it would not apply to the aesthetic secondary qualities that concern literary critics. There is, however, another sort of reason to suppose that certain aesthetic qualities not only could be but actually are outside us and in texts. The argument is Wittgensteinean; I believe that it supplies for certain aesthetic qualities that which my argument supplies for certain phenomenological qualities. Very roughly, my argument says that the qualia of color are in objects because that is where the causal story of their existence locates them, and therefore there is no better place to locate them; and, very roughly, the Wittgensteinean argument says that an aesthetic quality such as beauty is in a text because that is where the language game of literary criticism locates it, and there is no better place. For example, we say things like "There is dramatic irony in chapter 4," or "Line 37 is particularly lovely," and if a metaphysician asked, "Where is the loveliness or the irony really?," with special emphasis on the words "really" and "where," then we should answer, "I have already said--it is in chapter 4 and in line 37." If the metaphysician then said, "But different readers find different qualities in the same work--how can there be different aesthetic or literary qualities in the same text?", then we should...