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Joseph Margolis LITERATURE AND SPEECH ACTS The trivial truth that literature employs language has been fastened on regularly and repeatedly to spawn a remarkable variety of misconceptions. Most famously, in the context of aesthetics, it has led to the untenable thesis that all art is language,1 and to the more pointed claim that works of art somehow affirm propositions that may be linguistically rendered and straightforwardly judged true or false. It has also embarrassed a good deal of theorizing about the nature of aesthetic experience and the aesthetic orientation, and has led to preposterous views about the aesthetic status of the literary arts and the exaggerated importance of words in literature. These developments are reasonably well known, partly because they form a venerable portion of the history of aesthetics, partly because the doctrines at stake take so many apparently persuasive guises—even in our own time. There are other views, however, also largely based on the example of literature, that are at once useful because they are corrective of other abuses and are in their turn prone to newer mistakes that bid fair to become fashionable. The ambivalent corrective I have in mind may be marked by the thesis that a work of art is an utterance of some sort. In effect, the thesis stresses the distortion that results from pretending to address art relevantly solely in terms of the palpable properties of some object or product—more or less on the model of examining a perceptually accessible physical object. Attention is required, on the theory, to the act or agency of the artist by which the work is "uttered," in a sense quite close to that in which a forger is said to "utter" a bad check: by this simple strategem, we are led to see that biographical, historical, intentional considerations are instructive about a work of art in an essential way and that the properties of an artwork cannot possibly be restricted to its merely sensory or sensuous features (if indeed, admitting conceptual art, a particular work has any such features at all). The proposal, therefore, is at least a heuristically useful one. Whether it ought also to be enshrined as definitional of 39 40Philosophy and Literature art is another question altogether, qualified partly by its being entirely possible to save the corrections without the thesis, partly by the debatable force of definitions themselves. A rather specialized but utterly misleading and unpromising version of the utterance theory maintains that literature as such, as well as such particularly important distinctions within literature as fiction, poetry, and metaphor, may be perspicuously defined or distinguished in terms of a speech-act model. We must be careful here. The general thesis that the phenomenon of language cannot be adequately analyzed apart from contextual considerations bearing on speakers' intentions, shared assumptions and background beliefs between speakers and hearers, and the actual histories of conversations and the like has now been abundantly confirmed by a variety of theorists—including, prominently, J. L. Austin, P. F. Strawson, H. P. Grice, John Searle, Keith Donnellan, George Lakoff, and Zeno Vendler. Still, the general concession that familiar syntactic and semantic studies of the phenomenon of language omit an entire dimension of language, as Austin so ably demonstrated, has rather little to say about the distinctions normally debated in the context of literary theory and the appreciation and criticism of literature. (This may well seem paradoxical. The argument has yet to be supplied.) But since the application of the speech-act model to literary analysis shows some tendency to attract advocates, it may be useful to draw explicit attention here to the inherent limitations and difficulties of the enterprise. Obviously, if language must be analyzed at least in part in terms of the context of performing speech acts, it will be impossible to ignore altogether the speech-act dimension of literary utterances. The question remains: what can and what cannot be illuminated by means of the speech-act model? Precisely how restricted a general speech-act model is—that is, one not restricted just to literature—can be seen at a stroke simply by noting that the meanings of sentences (i) cannot be equated with what speakers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 39-52
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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