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Reviewed by:
  • Philosophy of Literature
  • Jukka Mikkonen
Philosophy of Literature, by Peter Lamarque; x & 329 pp. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009. $34.95 paper, $84.95 hardback.

Even to this day, analytic philosophical approaches to literature have a bad reputation among some literary critics and aestheticians from other philosophical traditions. This is largely due to analytic philosophers of language and metaphysics who often have done excursions into literary fiction simply to illustrate their theories of language and reality—for example, Bertrand Russell's interest in Hamlet as a group of false sentences. Fortunately, another group of analytic philosophers is interested in literature as an art form, one of them being Peter Lamarque. Over decades, Lamarque has immersed himself in studying the central issues in the philosophy of literature, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that he is perhaps the most prominent contemporary scholar in the field.

Philosophy of Literature is divided into seven chapters covering ambitious subject areas: Art, Literature, Authors, Practice, Fiction, Truth, and Value. The main questions the book attempts to answer are: What is it to view literature as art and what is it to approach literature philosophically? The first chapter is an introduction to the philosophy of literature. The discussion of the nature of literature in the second chapter includes a conceptual analysis and extensive historical survey of the theories of literature and literary aesthetics. In this chapter, Lamarque presents trenchant insights into problems underlying recent definitions of art and all the major definitions of literature from belles letters to speech-act theories, paving the way for his institutional account.

Lamarque argues that literature is an intentional and, unlike fiction, an evaluative concept. He suggests that speech-act theories of literature remove works from their contexts of origin, whereas the (Gricean) utterance theories, which he considers plausible, focus on the origin of the works and the social practice [End Page 224] of story-telling. Nevertheless, by stressing the author's literary intention—an aim to produce a work of literature—as the definitive factor of literature, Lamarque perhaps goes too far in downplaying characteristics of literary language. As he sees it, poetic devices such as dense and unusual syntax, rhythm, alliteration, metaphors, and the like are not usual or necessary in literary fiction. According to him, the language used in works of literature does not essentially differ from that used in ordinary discourse, neither is it any more dense with meaning than any other discourse. He argues that it is easy to find a vast multiplicity of meaning everywhere in language use, if one just looks for it.

Admittedly, although poetic devices are neither universal nor essential, they are characteristics of literary fiction. Although I agree with Lamarque to a great extent, I think that his intentionalist definition underestimates, for instance, the role of suggestion and implication in literature. Further, literary works make use of symbols which seldom occur in ordinary conversations—an argument Lamarque has himself used when arguing against utterance models of literary interpretation. Moreover, if literary usage were the same as in ordinary discourse, the translation of literary texts would not be considered any more difficult than that of, say, cookbooks.

Another thought-provoking issue is Lamarque's conception of literature. Lamarque argues, for instance, that works of literature are of interest because they offer content "with depth, inviting reflection." He calls this "mimesis." Here, a literary critic might argue that Lamarque's broadly "mimetic" view of literature, although it is argued to be distinct from connotations of realism or mirroring nature, is too narrow and excludes, for instance, surrealist poetry. Further, it is suspicious that Lamarque's numerous literary examples are such conventional and facile picks. For example, when arguing that appreciation requires knowledge of literary forms, Lamarque uses as his example Edmund Spenser's Epithalamion's "unusual stanza form, derived from the Italian canzone" (p. 138). If, as Lamarque argues, all literary works, including the novels of Robbe-Grillet he mentions, "should be read as structures wholes," why treat school examples instead of the complicated works which pose problems for the theory?

The center of the book is perhaps chapter four, "Practice." Lamarque seeks here the essential features of literary practice...


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