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382Philosophy and Literature Inconvenient Fictions: Literature and the Limits of Theory, by Bernard Harrison; vii and 293 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991, $35.00. This book attempts to come to grips with what it is to experience literature as literature, and what the value ofthat experience is, thereby focusing squarely on what most people are interested in when they turn to philosophy for illumination about poetry, drama, or the novel. Moreover, while much current dieorizing about literature tends to theorize about other theories, Harrison's arguments take their starting point direcdy from literary experience. In fact some chapters, relating Sterne to Locke, E. M. Forster to G. E. Moore, and Muriel Spark to Jane Austen, along with the essays on the Book of Job and on biblical parables, are largely pieces of practical criticism. The discussions here give Harrison the opportunity to test and illustrate what he has claimed in the more theoretical parts of the book. In the theoretical chapters Derrida is the dominant influence. Other theorists discussed include Kermode (on secrecy ) and Davidson (on metaphor). Among the theoretical essays, chapter one ("Humanism and Deconstruction") is the key. I will confine myself to some of the central claims made there. Discussions of deconstruction, whether affirmative or critical, often preach only to the converted, either taking a line that is too soft to impress the skeptical or too dismissive to convince defenders that the doctrine has been understood. In both of his two chapters on deconstruction, Harrison adopts the right tone, neither guUible nor hostile, and succeeds in presenting a critical evaluation which should both discourage the excesses of some of Derrida's disciples and persuade his more hostile critics that his attack on logocentrism contains an important insight. Harrison's interpretation suggests that recent French philosophy and contemporary analytic philosophy are notthatfar apart. The central insight of Derrida's attack on logocentrism is, for Harrison, the idea that meaning should be seen not as something imposed on language by a fixed extralinguistic domain; rather, our conception of that domain is determined by the structure of language itself, while the latter takes its character from practices and conventions internal to the language and its cultural setting. This is surely a deep and important idea. Nor is it foreign to analytical philosophy. This account of die "logocentric myth" makes Derrida sound more familiar and palatable than many of his critics would have expected. But what of Derrida 's notorious 'intertextuality' thesis, that texts refer only to other texts—not to an extralinguistic world? Here Harrison is more ingenious. On his interpretation the diesis refers only to literary texts and is best interpreted in the light of Merleau-Ponty's distinction between "constitutive" and "constituted" language. Constituted language takes for granted the internal character of the language, using it in an unselfconsciously referential way to talk about the Reviews383 world. Constitutive language, associated with literature, uses language in such a way as to shift and reorder its internal structure and relationships with the purpose of drawing attention to possible orderings of reality that are obscured when we take for granted the view of the world offered by the old constituted language. Constitutive language, therefore, is not about the world, but shows us something about language itself. This makes the intertextuality thesis easier to swallow, but how Derridean is it? Let us leave that to the scholars. More interesting is what happens when we use the offered distinction to account for the sense ofinsight we often get from a good passage in a novel or play. Here, interesting though the issue is, I did not find Harrison convincing. According to him, Shakespeare's depiction in Lear of the early altercation between Lear and Cordelia gets its power not from its vivid evocation of actual filial relationships as we know them, but from the way it makes us aware of new possible forms that the filial relationship might take. Itis hard to believe that, in feeling "convinced" by the scene, we are merely assenting to a possibility, rather than to the way the scene chimes in with our experience of families we have known. University of Cape TownPaul Taylor Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 382-383
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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