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Steven L. Ross FICTIONAL DESCRIPTIONS OF all the arts, literature is the only one so intimately related to everyday discourse. This gives us a ready way into approaching and understanding it, but it also makes for a familiar philosophical puzzle: just what is language doing here? When an art form employs say color or sound, no contrast between the organized, often elaborate use these components receive in aesthetic contexts and an equally organized or elaborate use elsewhere can arise. One might even say it is part of the magic of something like music or painting that the medium is exploited with this kind of sophistication for the first time here. But clearly with literature the case is quite the reverse. Not only is the medium employed with equal skill and complexity outside the aesthetic context; whatever accomplishments we attribute to literature are inseparable from what its medium is characteristically capable of in its ordinary use. These two contexts are not simply "linked"; to all appearances the identical language spans them both. Yet at the same time, critics and aestheticians have long cautioned us against any tendency to confuse the two contexts, to violate the "aesthetic integrity" of a. literary work by assimilating it to say a work of history or autobiography. Such a move has long been derided, in a rare show of unanimity, as the grossest of philistinisms. (Anxiety over such an error again points up the contrast between literature and other arts: no critic ever warns us against assimilating Mozart to any of the sounds we hear outside the concert hall.) So the question quite naturally arises: just what is the status of fictional discourse? As with non-literary discourse, it would be surprising were there one answer here. A moment's reflection tells us there are different kinds of sentences bearing different kinds of intentions and so doing different kinds of literary work. But, however we characterize the various types of literary discourse and however we go on to analyze these, we must accommodate the central fact that all of these sentences are subject to a special kind of critical appraisal. Our philosophical analyses of literature must square with the ordinary practices of literary criticism. Despite — or perhaps even because of— the passionate insistence on literature's autonomy, this apparently innocuous requirement is all too often Philosophy and Literature Vol. 6 Nos. 1 and 2 Pp. 119-132 0190-0031/82/0061-0119 © 1982 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 120Philosophy and Literature overlooked. With this in mind, I want in what follows to sketch out a general picture of literary discourse with respect to some of the more central ambitions traditionally found in fiction. However, I will be particularly concerned with that distinctly literary construction, the fictional character, for I believe it is especially here that certain philosophical considerations have tended to lead aestheticians far afield from what common sense requires of us as critics. The sentences we find in literature bear no distinguishing marks. However hard, obscure or elegant they become, no special rules of grammar, meaning, or reference operate. It is true that certain tasks are impossible here. For example, though literary works sometimes contain something like an exhortation or command , there can be no such thing as a performative in literature; there is no sentence an author can write which when read fundamentally alters his relationship to the reader, puts him under an obligation and so on. Other tasks, while not unique to literature, are of special importance there, and it is these that have puzzled philosophers. In particular, a great deal of those sentences we encounter in literature have as their subject people, places, circumstances and so forth which do not exist. Again, this is not the only kind of sentence we find in fiction, but unless such sentences are found to a significant degree, the term fiction cannot apply. "Fiction" is an ambiguous expression, meaning both the fictitious (as opposed to the true or actual) and that by which the fictitious is expressed. As Margaret MacDonald has it, Tom Jones does not exist but TomJones certainly does, and it is only because the second contains a fair number of sentences about...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 119-132
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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