It has become obvious that the postmodern brand of theory in literary studies has come to a dead end, according to literary theorist Peter Swirski. Rather than write yet another book railing against the excesses of French-derived theory in an already overcrowded market, Swirski has wisely opted to present instead an alternative approach to studying literature. Accordingly, in his recent book Literature, Analytically Speaking, Swirski turns to analytic aesthetics for a more [End Page 265] Philosophy and Literature fruitful starting point for literary studies. His astute examination sets out to familiarize literary scholars with the theories and methods of analytic philosophy, and with analytic aesthetics in particular. This leads to two questions: would literary scholars stand to gain from acquiring knowledge—that, presumably, they do not have—of analytic philosophy and aesthetics? And does Swirski’s study offer anything valuable for those who are not literary theorists; namely, philosophers and aestheticians?
The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes. The insights that Swirski’s book offers on literature are lucid and undeniably valuable for scholars of literature. Even the more continentally inclined critics, who are inherently against analytic thought, stand to gain from acquiring a better knowledge of how the “other side” thinks. Moreover, not only does Literature, Analytically Speaking provide a fascinating introduction to analytic themes and methods in service of understanding literature, it even manages to help formulate and refine theories of literature developed by aestheticians and philosophers. In this perspective, the study manages to transcend its introductory aims, and proves advantageous for those familiar with analytic thought as well.
Readers aware of Swirski’s substantial body of work know that he has consistently advocated an interdisciplinary position for literary studies. In his view, scholars of literature can and should appropriate methods not only from philosophy, but from science and mathematics as well. Literature, Analytically Speaking excels in realizing this aim by concentrating on what analytic philosophy has to offer literary studies. It introduces the analytic view to several fundamental questions of literature: What is a literary work of art? What is fiction as opposed to nonfiction? What is truth in fiction—that is, what can be said to be true in a story?
However, Swirski does not attempt to describe comprehensively all the approaches analytic philosophy takes to answer these questions. Rather, he concentrates on particular influential theories and develops them further. This proves to be the greatest strength of Swirski’s study. A more comprehensive approach could have become a massive, unwieldy book, of interest, perhaps, only to undergraduate students. Instead, Swirski’s study succeeds in genuinely contributing to the analytic tradition of understanding literature.
The philosophical focus of Literature, Analytically Speaking does not mean that it is primarily of interest only to aestheticians or philosophers. While Swirski is well informed by philosophical theories of meaning and art, he never loses sight of his principal subject, literature. He approaches the philosophical problems of interpreting literature through several enlightening readings of literary works. There is a stimulating feel of reading literary criticism even when Swirski is treating complex philosophical arguments. As a result, his study succeeds in being an inspiring example of the kind of literary criticism he is advocating.
Philosophically, the guiding motif of the book is a resolute defense of intentionalism in interpretation. Although Swirski shares E. D. Hirsch’s view that intentionalism in interpretation is above all a commonsensical position, he is far [End Page 266] removed from Hirsch’s radical intentionalist view. Swirski advocates a “moderate intentionalism,” which claims that the correct meaning of a work of art is defined by its maker’s intentions, but admits that most of the time readers do not have access to those intentions except through the text. Swirski notes that readers—even academic readers—mostly interpret literary...