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Philosophy and the Novel: Philosophical Aspects of Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, A la recherche du temps perdu, and of the Methods of Criticism (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 1, Number 1, Fall 1976
pp. 101-106 | 10.1353/phl.1976.0000

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Critical Discussion Philosophy and the Novel: Philosophical Aspects of Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, A la recherche du temps perdu, and of the Methods of Criticism, by Peter Jones; pp. 216. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, $13.75. Discussed by Monroe C. Beardsley The central issue in the theory of literature today, at least in Western nations, is surely the issue over the epistemological status of interpretations of literary works. And the focus of much of this debate is on the question of what is to be done with conflicting interpretations. On one side, there are those who regard critical interpretations as factual statements whose truth or falsity is, at least in principle, open to discovery by empirical inquiry; on the other side, there are those who regard all literary texts as more or less "empty" of inherent import, waiting for the interpreter to fill in the void as he will; in between, we have seen various attempts at compromise, adjustment, or conciliation . It is a good methodological principle to resolve such contentious arrays into sequences of binary oppositions—of which we may here select one for particular attention: whether or not logically incompatible interpretations of a given work can both (or all) be acceptable. "Acceptable" is my choice for inclusiveness in this formulation. It embraces a number of distinguishable positions, whose differences must be taken into account in any sustained discussion: shall we read it as "valid," or "apt," or "reasonable," or even "true"? In one shape or another, we have what may be called a Principle of Tolerance: that incompatible interpretations are (in one of the appropriate senses) acceptable. It is this principle that has been, and still is, so much in dispute—and understandably, since it not only presents some very puzzling features, but evokes a degree of moral warmth in adversaries who cherish, on the one hand, order and rationality, and, on the other, openness and generosity. So when a new book on critical interpretation comes along, we are naturally eager for the light it may cast on some form of Tolerationism. 101 102Philosophy and Literature In the fifth and final chapter of his book, Peter Jones outlines his theory of "creative interpretation," which he has illustrated and bolstered by the preceding discussions of four great "philosophical" novels. Interpretations, he says, are of texts (p. 181). There is a "rough and ready distinction between the linguistic meaning of sentences and the various ways in which they may be taken": i.e., their "significance or import" (p. 183). "The central question for the interpreter is how a given work is to be taken" (p. 184), that is, how it is to be rendered "coherent," made sense of (p. 182). There is some discussion of significance, but its import is not very clear to me; besides its conceptual connection with coherence, there are suggestions that it is something like a "use" of the linguistic utterance, a relation to some purpose. What does emerge with some definiteness is Jones's view that "by interpreting a text we determine its significance" (p. 195), by which he means that we give it a significance, for significance is "created by the critic" (p. 193). "All interpretations are takings, and all are from viewpoints" (p. 182); which may be equivalent, or nearly equivalent, to the equally reiterated assertion that significance is determined by social and linguistic contexts, conventions, purposes (p. 183). But again these basic and pregnant theses seem vague to me. What exactly is a "viewpoint"? How is one "viewpoint" distinguished from another? I find no precise characterization of "viewpoints," no examples to help me, no explanation of just how a "viewpoint" directs or guides the selection of one interpretation over another. Jones makes an important distinction between two dominant interests with which the interpreter may approach a work—interests that may be combined in various proportions. One may ask "how the author actually conceived the significance of his text, in the light of the precise context in which he saw himself" (p. 184); or one may choose to ignore this question completely and "postulate his own purposes, or those familiar from his own context" (p. 185). Indeed, Jones apparently holds that...