In 1922, the Cambridge philosopher Bertrand Russell gave a lecture entitled “On Vagueness.” In Megan Quigley’s excellent new book, Modernist Fiction and Vagueness, Russell’s lecture, while not as decisive as the other literary and philosophical texts of that annus mirabilis, is importantly incisive. Russell, she argues, highlights a significant philosophical issue—the problem of vagueness—in the intellectual history of modernism. But in Quigley’s book, Russell is just one of many writers and thinkers taking up the problem of vagueness in the first decades of the twentieth century. Others include Russell’s former students and (former) friends, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and T.S. Eliot. Quigley connects James Joyce to this group via, unexpectedly and usefully, C.K. Ogden. She also identifies attention to vagueness in the work of writers associated with pragmatism, including C.S. Peirce and William and Henry James. Indeed, one of Quigley’s central and valuable aims is showing how in both Cambridges—one the birthplace of analytic philosophy and the other the birthplace of pragmatism—literary writers and philosophers shared a common concern about vagueness and what it reveals about the relationship of language to truth.
In philosophy, this concern manifests as attention to the vagueness of language, a problem that goes back at least as far as the sorites paradox of Classical Greece, which demonstrates the fuzziness of semantic concepts, such as a “heap” of sand (if you add grains of sand one by one, when does it become a “heap”?). Russell, Ogden, Peirce, and the early Wittgenstein were troubled by semantic vagueness; Russell’s logically ideal language, Ogden’s basic English, Peirce’s emphasis on clarity, and the propositions that Wittgenstein lays out in the Tractatus are attempts to escape natural language’s problematic vagueness. James and the later Wittgenstein similarly acknowledge the vagueness of language but do not find it problematic or troubling, in part because their priorities are (or are now) in representing thought and language as they are used in practical situations in ordinary life.
Quigley shows how modernist novels anticipate this second curve of the linguistic turn. Henry James’s novels grow, in his own estimation, richer in meaning as they grow more vague: as his style becomes more imprecise, the characters become more diffuse, and the plots thinner. Virginia Woolf similarly increasingly embraces vagueness in her novels; her “sense of community” depends on people being connected “in some vague way,” even though vagueness, by endorsing subjectivity, risks solipsism (quoted on 99). The relationship between vagueness and community is picked up by the next chapter on James Joyce. Here, vagueness is tied to sex; the teenage Stephen Dedalus is infected with it after he kisses a prostitute. The infection spreads: Quigley traces vagueness ramifying throughout Joyce’s oeuvre and argues that Joyce’s transformation from an early idealist belief in logical language to his late diffuse and deliquescent prose parallels Wittgenstein’s evolving beliefs about language’s necessary vagueness. The final chapter, on T.S. Eliot’s criticism, finds this same arc: Eliot’s early criticism invokes and attempts to mimic scientific precision, while his later writings acknowledge and even value vagueness.
The great strength of Quigley’s work is her ambitious and rigorous interdisciplinarity. She reconstructs a conversation about what she calls the “crepuscular” with clarity and precision. The philosophers she discusses are among the most important, and among the most difficult, of the twentieth century. The same is true of the literary writers. And in discussing both philosophy and literature, Quigley is able to combine breadth—she discusses large oeuvres over the course of long careers—with the depth of an expert close reader. The philosophic and literary figures in [End Page 472] this book have long been canonical and so long been the subjects of critical industries; Quigley provides not only new ways to read them, but also, in her thorough bibliographic work, a resource for literary scholars. This is a book that is both dense with information and still a pleasure to read.
Literary scholars are the...