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  • On Alan Goldman’s Philosophy and the Novel
  • Richard Eldridge

It is worth at least a moment to note and praise Alan Goldman’s methodological stance in Philosophy and the Novel.1 Goldman reflects appreciatively on the achievements of specific novels in order to arrive at philosophically interesting results about interpretation and moral understanding. In his appreciative reflections, Goldman is aware of, but by no means bound by, recent work in experimental moral psychology (for example, arguments against the existence of character) and metaethics (for example, standard realism/antirealism debates). The result is a powerful demonstration not only of the human, cognitive, and ethical interest of the novel but also of the ability of the novel to inform and transform our thinking about psychology and ethics.

Part 1, titled “Philosophy of Novels,” argues for claims about interpretation. Two main theses are prominent:

  1. 1). “Interpreting novels aims at appreciating their value” (p. 21).

  2. 2). A work distinctively possesses aesthetic value when, and only when, it invites and sustains “the full and interactive exercise of our … perceptual, imaginative, emotional, and cognitive … capacities” (p. 3).

In developing this second thesis, Goldman draws on his earlier account of aesthetic value in his 1995 book, Aesthetic Value. Goldman’s general view about value is broadly Aristotelian: distinctive values attach to distinctive kinds of activity that we enjoy. In reading novels in particular, or at least clearly successful ones, we engage with and enjoy their “perfect union[s] of form and content, grasped through imagination, feeling, [End Page 564] and thought operating together” (p. 6). As these mentions of form, content, imagination, feeling, and thought indicate, Kant, Dewey, and Beardsley are also among this book’s pantheon of heroes in considering literary art.

Interpreting novels, then, is not simply a matter of semantic decoding. Nor is interpretation directed exclusively or primarily either to authorial intention “behind” the work or to formal properties detached from expressive or semantic significance. Any “thematic theses” must, if a work is “to be of literary value, … be embodied or woven into [its] narrative, characterization, and even setting, formal structure, and prose style” (p. 7). Both authors and readers know this, and their manners of production and reception are attuned to this requirement, at least in cases of successful writing and reading.

The interpretation of novels as works of literary art functions, then, as a kind of reverse engineering of what has been successfully achieved within the work, in analytically distinguishing the elements through which the job of embodying literary value has been done. Interpretation selects properties and guides attention to the appreciation of value (p. 23). It “aims at understanding and appreciation” (p. 24). As a kind of “inference to the best explanation” of how the task of producing a valuable, appreciatable literary object has been carried out, interpretation stands between description—e.g., paraphrase of individual sentences, where meanings are readily enough agreed upon—and appreciation or felt engagement with values (p. 29). For example, in interpreting, “we must judge whether the characters in The Sun Also Rises morally develop by explaining for maximal appreciation the descriptions of their actions and thoughts in the text, whatever interpretation of their descriptions along these lines (if any) was intended by Hemingway” (p. 33).

Given the further assumptions that “artworks can be appreciated in different ways” and may “have potential values that cannot be realized simultaneously” (p. 38), then a third thesis immediately follows from this picture of interpretation:

  1. 3). “There will be incompatible interpretations or explanations [of the achievement of literary aesthetic value in a work] that appeal to different tastes or preferences for different aesthetic values” (p. 38).

Notably, Goldman treats aesthetic value not as a function of any more or less immediately discernible single property but rather as a complex configurational feature of works. A novel possesses aesthetic value and [End Page 565] displays that value to readers when and only when readers are absorbed in their attentions to a considerable range of complex interrelated semantic, formal, thematic, historical, and intertextual features, among others, in following what is going on.

This general picture of appreciation and interpretation that is developed in part 1 of Philosophy and the Novel strikes...


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pp. 564-571
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