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The Heart of What Matters. The Role for Literature in Moral Philosophy,by Anthony Cunningham; x & 296 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Despite Socrates's rejection of the written word as a source of insight in the Phaedrus, a number of theorists have in recent years sought to find a role for literature in critical thought. Anthony Cunningham's The Heart of What Matters joins a list of works that includes Richard Rorty's Contingency, irony and solidarity, Richard Posner's Law and Literature, and Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice. Whereas a number of these previous books have sought to articulate a public role for literature, Cunningham is more concerned with private philosophical reflection, specifically with the ways in which literature might help us reflect upon Socrates's dual questions "How should I live?" and "What sort of person should I be?" (p. 9). It is, nevertheless, appropriate to mention Cunningham's work in conjunction with these other texts because The Heart of What Matters faces a number of similar problems arising from what it means to read literature with an eye towards generating critical thought.
The first part of the book consists of three chapters in which Cunningham sets out his conception of ethics, the role of a convincing ethical theory, and his account of what it means to "read for life." This last chapter is, by his own admission "fairly sketchy and theoretical" (p. 69), but he attempts to compensate for this in the second part where he offers—as a means, perhaps, of "showing by doing"—detailed, philosophically motivated readings of literary works by three authors: Kazuo Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. Like many of those who write about literature and ethics—including Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum—Cunningham's conception of ethics is "Aristotelian in spirit" (p. 5), as such it is no surprise to find that his "primary targets" in ethical theory are "Kant and Kantian ethics" (p. 4). Kant's theory of morality and indeed its various modern formulations—formulations Cunningham critques in some detail—are, he says, simply insufficient for capturing the nuances of our lived experience. Theories that focus on some underlying principle of morality are, he suggests, too abstract to help us answer Socrates's questions about the best way to live. By contrast, literature can, Cunningham argues, provide us with insight into the complexities of modern living. In a passage that is strongly reminiscent of Poetic Justice, Cunningham asserts that literature can "filter moral experience by heightening our attention to what should be morally salient and by directing us away from less crucial elements that can distract us from more important things" (p. 84). Similarly, in a passage that further echoes Nussbaum, Cunningham suggests that "literature can help us diagnose by taking us places that are difficult and even impossible to visit, much less understand in actual experience" (p. 85). Central to his overall argument is the suggestion, also common to Nussbaum and Rorty, that the [End Page 459] "right kind of novel" can "help us refine our moral vision by giving us a studied opportunity to practice seeing and appreciating diverse ethical lores" (pp. 84-85). It is, however, this suggestion that reading is some sort of moral exercise that proves problematic for almost all work on literature and philosophy.
If literature is indeed a way for us to practice exercising our moral powers, then it is not clear why philosophers such as Cunningham, Nussbaum, and Rorty lavish so much attention on their own reading of texts. Reading about reading is not, I wish to suggest, the best way to exercise this moral capacity: it is rather like expecting to benefit from watching somebody else exercise. Instead of offering us a theory of reading which might allow us to engage in this exercise ourselves, Cunningham simply gives an account of his own experience. In this way, the subtitle of Cunningham's book, "The Role for Literature in...