Many of us read works of fiction passionately not only because of their entertainment value or for their aesthetic inventiveness but also because we feel that they enrich our understanding of ourselves and the world. This is where there seems to be an important resemblance to philosophy. A number of fictional works can be legitimately called “philosophical” because they are thought provoking about issues that works of philosophy explicitly deal with. However, as the hot debate concerning truth through literature or literature’s cognitive value indicates, it is notoriously hard to pin down what it means to “enrich understanding” or what counts as “thought-provoking content.” Even if it is granted that literature offers some sort of knowledge, it is contested whether this knowledge is somehow relevant to the aesthetic appreciation of literary works.
Jukka Mikkonen’s The Cognitive Value of Philosophical Fiction steps onto this battleground in a careful and thoughtful manner. Mikkonen is interested in the question of “philosophy through literature” (p. 2), and he narrows his inquiry to fictional literary works of the philosophical variety.
After an introduction that includes conceptual clarifications of the main terms and the outlining of Mikkonen’s position, the book is divided into three main chapters. First, in “Fictive Use of Language,” Mikkonen surveys prominent theories of fiction in order to arrive at a Gricean definition of the literary-fictive utterance. Second, in “Literature and Truth,” he examines the relationship of literature and knowledge, arguing that works of philosophical fiction provide knowledge not only in the form of assertions but also through suggestions, implications, and contemplations. One of the most intriguing claims of the book is found at the end of this chapter. Mikkonen’s thesis is that works of philosophical fiction can be seen as a type of rhetorical argument—what Aristotle called enthymeme, in which the conclusion is missing—and that the reader is intended to make the inference based on the fictive premises. Third, in “Meaning and Interpretation,” Mikkonen navigates among various positions with regard to [End Page 317] the significance of authorial intention in understanding and interpreting a work of literature. The clarity with which Mikkonen categorizes, describes, and evaluates the arguments in each chapter demands respect, and by themselves, these chapters make the book into a highly useful resource regarding issues in the philosophy of literature.
Mikkonen’s debut monograph seems to be a moderate book. This is explicitly signaled by two of the main pillars of his argument.
First, according to Mikkonen, works of philosophical fiction provide significant propositional knowledge. This is the propositional theory of literary truth. Proponents traditionally claim that authors of fictional narratives make literal assertions in their works, and that these assertions can be scrutinized for truth value. Mikkonen begs to differ. Along with others, such as Noël Carroll and Peter Kivy, he denies that authors make literal assertions. Instead, he argues that the assertions are not independent from the rest of the work and that they are made by a fictive voice, a voice employed by the real author. This is moderate propositional cognitivism.
Second, since these assertions are seen as intended by the real author to be imagined by the reader, Mikkonen needs to address the question of how intentions figure in interpreting philosophical fiction. According to actual intentionalism, a work’s meaning is determined by what its author intended to communicate in writing it. Such a position is too narrow for Mikkonen, so he proceeds to carve out logical space for his version of moderate actual intentionalism. The moderate version is broader: the author’s intentions do not determine meaning but they are relevant for it. In other words, if there are competing meanings, the correct one is that which is compatible with the author’s intention.
One of the most important counterarguments on the anti-intentionalist side is metaphysical, claiming that “intentions consist of beliefs and desires, which are objects of the mind,” and “objects of the mind cannot be discernible in public, for mind is by definition private” (p. 113). Mikkonen quickly defuses this objection by referring to “utterance meaning” (the meaning of an utterance within a context of use, as opposed to “utterer’s meaning” and “word-sequence meaning”) and to what one might call a (neo-)Wittgensteinian view of intentions. According to such a view, intentions are not private mental episodes or states but rather embodied, manifest, or contained in the actions for which they are intentions. So for a philosophical novel, the intentionalist merely needs to read the work in order to know what the intentions of the author are, and these intentions are relevant to what the work means.
It is certainly true that many anti-intentionalist arguments presuppose that authorial intentions are private mental states. But the main issue with the (neo-)Wittgensteinian intentionalist response is that it is far from clear just what is meant by saying that intentions are “embodied” or “manifest” in the work. A simple utterance like “Close the window!” manifests the intention of [End Page 318] wanting to make someone close the window. An ironic utterance like “That’s very funny!” manifests the intention of ridiculing someone who told a joke by various devices such as tone and gestures. However, when it comes to an action that is as complex and as long-winded as writing a novel, the product does not seem to wear the intentions of the author on its sleeve, so to speak. The reader needs to interpret the work and to make inferences about the author in order to arrive at the intentions that contributed to producing the text. Assessing the relevance of these intentions only becomes possible after this process of interpreting and inferring.
Nevertheless, based on moderate propositional cognitivism and moderate actual intentionalism, Mikkonen defends a conversational approach. Based on Carroll’s view, Mikkonen argues that “literary works are legitimately interpreted intentionally as conversations” (p. 110). He proposes an interpretive pluralism where there is a multiplicity of legitimate approaches to works of fiction. As described, such pluralism is compatible with intentionalism. In the plurality of approaches, it is argued, the philosophical, truth-seeking interpretation that is concerned with the intentional message of the author is only one possibility. The intentional interpretation is the true interpretation of the work among the plurality of apt or appropriate (Marxist, psychoanalytic, etc.) interpretations. The main problem here is that this seems to be pseudopluralism. Reserving the label of “true interpretation” for those that refer to authorial intention belittles and devalues other interpretations that cannot be true, only “interesting” or maybe “apt.”
Mikkonen’s book is not only useful as an introduction and an overview of this important debate but is also a tour de force in articulating its own view. The argumentative power by which it considers, criticizes, and supports various positions deserves respect. It seems to me that Mikkonen’s main target is Peter Lamarque’s long-standing and strongly convincing approach. Lamarque’s moderate version of anticognitivism claims that readers can learn all sorts of truths from works of literature; however, this process of stating truths and learning them is not essential to aesthetic or literary value. Going up against Lamarque and standing on the shoulders of moderate propositional cognitivism and moderate actual intentionalism, Mikkonen’s conversational approach is a serious challenger among the variety of approaches to literary fiction. [End Page 319]