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Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 19, Number 2, October 1995
pp. 404-405 | 10.1353/phl.1995.0077

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Philosophy and Literature 19.2 (1995) 404-405

Book Review

Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature

Being in Time: Selves and Narrators in Philosophy and Literature, by Genevieve Lloyd; 192 pp. New York: Routledge, 1993, $49.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Philosophers have long been telling stories about temporal consciousness. Augustine explained it as an imperfect reflection of the eternal God in whose image persons are made; Kant explained it as the transcendental unity of apperception, assumed in any act of understanding while always just out of range; Nietzsche explained it as eternal recurrence. These issues also appear in literary treatments of the self, particularly those by Proust and Woolf. In this book, Genevieve Lloyd compares a broad range of philosophical discussions to these two writers.

Being in Time argues for several fascinating conclusions, among them a rejection of the claim that modern and premodern philosophy implicitly assumed the existence of a unified subject. Although Proust and Woolf are often held up as paradigmatic of the fragmented self, which also plays a prominent role in Derrida, this is not a postmodern discovery, Lloyd claims; the unified subject has been problematic throughout the Western philosophical tradition. She concludes, nonetheless, that postmodern thought does represent a new departure, at least to the extent that it treats the fragmentation of self not as a problem to be solved, but as a fundamental feature of what it is to be human.

Meanwhile, Being in Time also pursues a second theme: the relationship between philosophy and fictional narrative. Drawing on Ricoeur and Aristotle, Lloyd argues that the best way to understand philosophy is to approach it as a story that illuminates and explains the human self by means of metaphor. Literature and philosophy both involve the telling of stories that allow us to make sense of our world and our place in it.

Does it follow that literature and philosophy are indistinguishable? They belong to the same family; each offers insight into the human condition, and does so through the medium of myth, story, narrative, or fiction. They are not identical twins, however, since philosophy uses stories and metaphors to draw connections among universals while literature tells its stories about universals by means of particulars. (Compare Hobbes's State of Nature to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.) For Lloyd, though, it is a mistake to discard the narrative and literary aspects of a philosophical work in an effort to get at what might be considered its real point (namely, deductive arguments). The illuminating power of philosophy lies not in truncated arguments, but rather in the richer narratives, metaphors, and stories that are used to develop and explain them.

Her claim for the unique nature of postmodern philosophy may not stand up to scrutiny -- from Heraclitus through the skeptics and into the nominalist tradition of the Middle Ages, there has been a strand of Western thought that emphasizes the fragmentary, contingent nature of the self -- but Lloyd's claims for the family resemblance between literature and philosophy should be of interest to students of both subjects, particularly those concerned with the ways in which style, choice of metaphor, and narrative voice are relevant to philosophical study. The book makes an eloquent plea for reading philosophy instead of stripping its arguments of the narrative flesh with which they were originally endowed.

Ruth Groenhout
Southwest Missouri State University

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