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The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism (review)

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 26, Number 2, October 2002
pp. 462-464 | 10.1353/phl.2003.0011

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Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 462-464

The Phantom Table: Woolf, Fry, Russell and the Epistemology of Modernism,by Ann Banfield; 452 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, $55.00.

We have grown accustomed to reading Woolf philosophically. Lucio Ruotolo, Mark Hussey, Gillian Beer, and Pamela Caughie are just a few notable scholars who have used philosophical texts and themes to shed light on Woolf's novels and life, but Ann Banfield's The Phantom Table marks the beginning of a new approach. Contrary to the poststructuralist readings of the last two decades, Banfield treats Woolf as a "philosophical realist" (p. 294), an interpretation that presupposes that "Truth, although logically constructed, remains nonetheless objective, a discovery, as opposed to a creation, of the mind" (p. 94). To justify this approach, Banfield makes a case for privileging Bertrand Russell's "symbolic logic" (p. 42) as "a key if limited influence on Woolf's thinking about language" (pp. 42-43). Simply appropriating elements of Russell's rigorous epistemology, however, is not enough to determine Woolf's thinking, for as Banfield claims: "Woolf's philosophically inflected aesthetic is not one Russell would have foreseen" (p. 54). Roger Fry's astute reflections on Post-Impressionism aesthetics complement Russell's philosophical approach and thereby provide Woolf with a framework for the "novel's realism [which] must relate two competing realities, the private world and the public persona" (p. 324). Through an extraordinarily insightful analysis of the work of Russell and Fry, Banfield offers an intelligent interdisciplinary interpretation of the rigorous epistemological presuppositions at the base of Woolf's aesthetic.

Central to Banfield's project is the conviction that reality is mind-independent (p. 101). On this view, "modern fiction ultimately aims to describe a reality beyond privacy" (p. 298), but to understand how we can access that reality we must carefully distinguish sensations, sense-data, and sensibilia. According to Russell, sensations are the private experiences or awareness of a subject, whereas a sense-datum is "that external object of which in sensation the subject is aware" (p. 70). Sensibilia, the lynchpin of Russell's and Banfield's theory, have the same ontological status as sense-data, though they are not necessarily data to a specific mind. Banfield cleverly articulates the ontological priority of sensibilia by reversing Berkeley's famous dictum: "What brings about" sensibilia's "actualization is the perspective's occupation by a subject and the corresponding interception of sensibilia by sense-organs located in time and space" (pp. 74-75). Sensibilia need not be perceived to exist, which places the perceiving subject at the mercy of sensibilia, rather than making sensibilia ontologically dependent upon the perceiving mind.

Given the primacy of sensibilia, the epistemological "goal is now to leave one's perspective and imaginatively project oneself into other perspectives, even the possible ones inhumanly occupied, to experience the world as it would be without the thinker" (p. 213). According to this system, the perceiving subject and the modernist artist become irrelevant because they can inhibit our experience and/or understanding of sensibilia. Eliminating the subject and effacing the author, therefore, become necessary so that "artistic creativity" (p. 173) is given free flow, which means that for art to achieve its goal of seeing "the world 'as far as possible as it is in itself, and not merely through the distorting medium of personal desire'" (p. 382), the death of the subject is mandatory—though this death of the subject differs considerably from Roland Barthes's, Michel Foucault's, and Paul de Man's. Once the subject is eliminated, which occurs in Woolf's novels according to Banfield, the novelist will be able to create a "method of multiple perspectives" which functions as a "route to wider knowledge" (p. 312) of sensibilia.

In the last part of the book, Banfield examines how "Fry's aesthetic derives from analytic philosophy" (p. 248) and then argues that Woolf incorporates much of this aesthetic into her work. Fry makes a clear distinction between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Impressionism represents the "totality of appearance" (p. 256), the vital and amorphous forms of "the data of experience," while Post-Impressionism seeks the logical, fixed, and permanent patterns behind appearance...

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