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Martin Warner ON NOT DECONSTRUCTING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN LITERATURE AND PHILOSOPHY More than a quarter of a century ago J. L. Austin warned of the need "to abandon old habits of Gleichschaltung, the deeply ingrained worship of tidy-looking dichotomies."1 On the face of it this warning has been well heeded, but closer inspection sometimes reveals that the worship has merely gone underground, and that considerations urged against important and serviceable (though not "tidy-looking") distinctions themselves presuppose versions (sometimes inverted) of Gleichschaltung. Recent attempts to assimilate philosophy to literature, both in the work ofRichard Rorty and in the writings ofDeconstruction, provide an instructive case study with implications for the practice of philosophy itself. "There is from of old," remarked Plato's Socrates, "a quarrel between philosophy and poetry." In the Republic he argues for the banishment of the "honeyed Muse in lyric and epic" from his ideal city; he expresses some unease but regretfully holds to his conclusion: "for reason constrains us." Despite Aristode's attempt to provide a modus vivendi, the ancient enmity has continued through the centuries; David Hume remarked that "poets are liars by profession," and the logical positivists went one better: poets do not lie because they characteristically talk literal nonsense. Further, the principles underlying much ofthe Platonic critique can be extended to most of what is today—somewhat imprecisely —characterized as "imaginative literature." As so often with quarrels, the enmity has been focused over rival claims to the same territory, for both philosophy and literature have traditionally been held to share a concern with both the great and the small truths of the human condition. It was Plato's conviction that only 16 Martin Warner17 philosophy had access to at least the greater of such truths, which led to his banishment of the rival claimant; reason and imagination were in genuine tension—only reason held out credible promise of enabling us to see the world clearly and see it whole, and the imagination's claims to do this as well or better were counterfeit. There have, of course, been various attempts to end the quarrel but the most recent is perhaps the most radical: while literature has no access to the truths of the human condition, neither has philosophy—for philosophy is itself a kind ofwriting inescapably enmeshed in the procedures ofimaginative literature; the very notion of such "truths," particularly if conceived of as relating to "the ultimate nature of reality," itself represents a kind of mirage brought about by failure to grasp the essentially rhetorical character of all dialectic. This strategy is emblematic of the characteristic deconstructive maneuver . Texts or cultural perceptions are conceived of as structured in terms of oppositions with one term dominating the other; the standard priority is then reversed and the intellectual space thus gained used to undo the conceptual field structured in oppositional terms. Similarly, with respect to the specific topic of the rhetorical character of dialectic, Jacques Derrida argues that the distinction between the metaphorical and the literal, or proper, is essential to philosophy, which requires the privileging of the latter, but the distinction is a philosophical one and the very terms used to draw the contrast are themselves rhetorical, indeed figurative. The perception of the inevitability of "metaphor in the text of philosophy" leads through an attempt to show that it is constitutive of philosophy's "fundamental oppositions" (thus reversing the received priority) to the "explosion" of that "reassuring opposition ofthe metaphoric and the proper, the opposition in which the one and the other have never done anything but reflect and refer to each other in their radiance. Metaphor, then, always carries its death within itself. And this death, surely, is also the death of philosophy."2 This latter "death," characteristically, is then finessed, though Rorty is uneasy with such finessing.3 In each case the whole strategy depends on taking certain contrasts (philosophy/literature, proper/metaphorical) as "tidylooking " dichotomies and then putting pressure on them—when they collapse a new "deconstructed" intellectual landscape is revealed in which the old contrasts are excitingly absent. But somewhat as "God is dead" is only impressive for the worshipper or ex-worshipper of a god of the appropriate...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 16-27
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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