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Berel Lang PLOTTING PHILOSOPHY: BETWEEN THE ACTS OF PHILOSOPHICAL GENRE When Hegel wrote that philosophy's Owl of Minerva takes wing only at the falling of dusk, he did not mean that philosophy is always tardy, only that it comes late in the day. It may, however, seem both late and tardy to call attention now to the role of genres in philosophical writing, and still more beside the point to assess the importance of philosophical genres to our philosophical and not only to our literary understanding. Even if we find a way past the varieties of aesthetic nominalism for which any allocation to genres is a snare and a trap— recall here Croce's declaration of"eternal war" against the obscurantism of genres1—we confront the growing skepticism of literary theory as it now disputes not only the formalism presupposed in the taxonomic distinctions of genre, but also the mimetic or representational function of discourse more generally.2 If texts as such can no longer rely on a mimetic ground, it would be impossible for the formal features ofgenre, rooted in the then archaic distinction between form and content, to represent a literary (or indeed any kind of) idea; that is, it would be impossible for them to be philosophically significant. This difficulty only intensifies, of course, for philosophical writing: philosophy, we learn, ought no longer to delude itself with hopes for success as a "mirror of nature" (in Rorty's phrase of opprobrium),3 and it would then be delusion added to delusion to believe that the genres of philosophical discourse might, at another remove, mirror an object which philosophy had mistakenly been supposed to represent in the first place. That original "representation" turns out now to represent nothing at all—and Plato's attack on the deceptions ofart thus discovers a new and finer object in philosophy itself: his indictment of art at least 190 Berel Lang191 supposed that there was something for art to be deceptive about. On this postmodernist account, then, there could be no philosophical point in plotting the course of philosophical genres; and indeed there could hardly be any other point except perhaps for antiquarians intent on finding a place for genres among the other historical curiosities which philosophers, quite inexplicably, once took seriously, like Descartes's piece of wax or Plato's aviary or Berkeley's tar water. Such intimations of the death of genres, however, may be not only premature but misdirected in rather a special way. For even in a less suspicious age, when the prima facie claims for the existence of genres might have been accepted at face value, their role was shadowy, fixed in a rhetorical limbo. Evidently (or so I would argue), there have existed generic conventions of which philosophical writers have been aware and to which their writings conformed. But even among writers in whom this pattern is most explicit and self-conscious, it is not as though the writer, after first reviewing a list of genres, would then simply choose the one among them that most recommended itself. No doubt, a writer's style—including the genre of his writing—is deliberate, in some sense a matter of choice. But the conception of "choice" in this context is an unusual one. Plotting genre could not be like trying on suits until one finds a likely fit— because this would imply that when the philosopher is trying out various possibilities, what he measures them by exists in his own mind as a philosophical Ur-genre, something which itself transcends the requirements of genre. We might suspect the presence here of the genre of all genres that is not itself, however, the member of a genre. And although it is possible that such a philosophical bedrock exists—this would be, in a way, a true philosopher's stone—all that philosophers have turned up in their history as a matter offact is a considerable number and variety of—well, we have to say it—philosophical genres. Genres, in other words, have rarely been read or written as "natural kinds," and yet they have surely been read and written. The distinctions among them and even the broad tide...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 190-210
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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