- A Companion to the Philosophy of Literature ed. by Garry L. Hagberg and Walter Jost
Notwithstanding the large number of publications in the philosophy of literature within the last decade, a comprehensive and up-to-date anthology introducing the key topics in this multifaceted field has been lacking. For instance, The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Literature, edited by Richard Eldridge (2009), has a strong "humanistic" emphasis, and its articles mostly discuss how literature matters for human life. In turn, Contemporary Readings in the Philosophy of Literature, edited by David Davies and Carl A. Matheson (Broadview, 2008), consists of scholarly articles of which several were written in the 1970s and 1980s, some even in the 1940s and 1960s. Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings, edited by Eileen John and Dominic McIver Lopes (Blackwell, 2004), has so far been the best reader in the field; nonetheless, the "contemporary" articles in it are also starting to turn into classics.
Hagberg and Jost's collection claims to be the first companion to the philosophy of literature, i.e. to a systematic philosophical reflection on literature. The articles in the collection, written by celebrated philosophers and literary critics, are divided into seven sections, four in each. As the field is an assemblage of different encounters with philosophy and literature, the anthology offers a composite perspective. The articles also vary greatly in their aim, object, and style, from systematic approaches and general introductions to case studies and essayistic close readings.
The first part of the collection concerns different relations between philosophy and literature. In his article, Richard Shusterman studies philosophy as theoretical writing and a way of life, that is, as facing death (Socrates, Cicero, and Montaigne) and as introspective self-examination (Kant and de Beauvoir). Roger Shiner discusses the question whether writing delimited by tradition is needed for philosophy to be philosophy (and for literature to be literature). Shiner claims that "philosophy and literature are not merely both engaged in the same task, but so engaged in an importantly similar kind of way." He examines the "ontological function" of literature and philosophy, their relation to the ultimate nature of reality (24). With the help of Heidegger and Cavell, Shiner attempts to illustrate deep affinities between philosophy and literature.
Whereas the first two articles deal with broad issues and in places risk running into vagueness, Walter Jost's essay is more focused and of a narrower scope: American modernist poetry, and its point of view, rhetorical literary criticism. Jost suggests that besides communicating, or widening, commonplaces, [End Page 333] "literature can also communicate new 'places' - new values, experiences, emotions, imaginations, 'masks,' and the rest" (40). Although it offers an interesting rhetorical look at Emily Dickinson's and Wallace Stevens's uses of language, the brief article does not make philosophical claims of a general kind.
"Philosophy and/as/of Literature," Arthur C. Danto's article originally published in 1984, studies the differences between philosophical and literary texts. Danto remarks that in expressing philosophical views, philosophers' devices have varied from poems to lecture notes. However, Danto thinks that in the age of professional philosophy the institutions of philosophy and literature have grown apart and "literary philosophy" is no longer possible. The article, which is itself of literary value, insightfully highlights differences between the two discourses.
The second part of the collection is about emotional engagement in the experience of reading, a topic that is of great interest in literary aesthetics today. In her article, Jenefer Robinson studies what it means to respond emotionally to characters and events in novels. For Robinson, emotions are, roughly put, basically physiological responses to (real or imaginary) situations in which we have a personal stake or interest. She argues that an emotional involvement with the characters is essential to a proper understanding of realistic novels. As she sees it, "many of our emotional responses to texts . . . fill in gaps in the text, for they alert the reader to important information about character and plot that is not explicitly asserted in the text" (77). Although the article...