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Richard Kamber ON THE NONEXISTENCE OF LITERARY IDEAS ? There is a fundamental difference between philosophy and literature which, despite its apparent familiarity, has generally been overlooked or underestimated by interdisciplinary commentators. Having neither the visibility of textual discriminations nor the partisan appeal of functional criteria, it has been left to languish in conceptual obscurity. Such neglect, however, is undeserved, for it well may be the only consistent difference between philosophy and literature. The difference to which I refer can be explained, at least in part, in terms of the Aristotelian distinction between technê and theória. The practice of literature (as distinct from literary criticism) is a poiêtikê technê, defined not by its ideational content but by its verbal artifacts. Philosophy, on the other hand, is a theoretical enterprise, a form of theória, defined neither by its verbal artifacts nor by its practical consequences, but rather by its distinctive ideas. Indeed, literary ideas comparable in semantic form to philosophical ideas do not even exist. When we speak of "philosophical ideas" we are talking about ideas which, regardless of where they happen to be found, can be identified, in principle, as philosophical in character. Perhaps the particular ideas under consideration have already been expressed in works of philosophy. Perhaps they have not. It makes no difference. Neither does it matter whether the ideas in question are ideas about the discipline of philosophy. Philosophers do worry a great deal about the nature and function of their profession. Yet "being about philosophy" is neither necessary nor sufficient for "being philosophical." Whatever might be said about the association of particular philosophical ideas with compatible views or attitudes about the practice of philosophy, it is obvious that most philosophical ideas are not about philosophy at all; they are about matter, mind, perception, value, language, divinity, etc. By the same token, some ideas about philosophy are clearly non-philosophical. The idea, for example, "that philosophical thinking is correlated primarily with 199 200Philosophy and Literature brain activity in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex" belongs to neurophysiology. Furthermore, the use of conspicuously philosophical language is seldom necessary and never (by itself) sufficient for the expression of philosophical ideas. Even where a line, sentence, or passage exhibits unmistakable earmarks of philosophical phraseology, we have no guarantee that a philosophical idea is being expressed. It follows then, that if we were to speak of "literary ideas" in a sense that formally parallels normal discourse about "philosophical ideas" they would have to meet the following three conditions: (1) they could, in principle, be identified as literary regardless of where they happened to be found; (2) their literariness would be logically independent of their being about literature; and, (3) the use of conspicuously literary language would seldom be necessary and never (by itself) sufficient for their expression. While I cannot prove that such ideas do not exist, I feel safe in claiming they do not, and I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to produce a clearcut example of one. For want of a better term, I shall call ideas which satisfy parallel conditions for any single discipline "categorical" ideas with respect to that discipline. Philosophy, literary criticism, and all of the empirical sciences have their own "categorical" ideas. Literature does not. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak meaningfully of "literary ideas." There are, in fact, three major alternatives—one for each of the conditions listed above. Ideas in literary works. To begin with, the term "literary idea" can be used to denote any idea, whatever its subject or disciplinary character, that is stated, implied, or clearly embodied in at least one work of literature. Unlike the sense delineated above, all that counts here is where the idea can be found. It was in this "local" sense of the term that Lionel Trilling used the expression "literary idea" throughout his essay, "The Meaning of a Literary Idea." Ideas about literary works. Taken as a covering term for such common expressions as "literary theory," "literary view," and "literary principle," the uncommon expression "literary idea" can be used to denote any idea that has some manifest connection with actual or possible literary works—or pieces of literary discourse, whatever their source...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 199-210
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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