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  • Wittgenstein and the Craft of Reading:On Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience, By Charles Altieri
  • Fred Rush

Charles Altieri's Reckoning with the Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience addresses a perceived problem in literary theory.1 That problem is how to reintegrate practices of "close reading" in a field dominated by "grand theory": deconstruction, postcolonial studies, queer studies, New Historicism, and other regimens. Unlike the New Criticism that controlled the reading, writing, and teaching of serious literature in the United States through the 1940s and '50s, in which intricate analysis of text as text was all, Altieri does not begrudge conceptual space to more expansive social-theoretical approaches. But he does deny their trump status, i.e., the idea that their forms of cultural understanding are either necessary or sufficient windows onto the experience of literature.

Altieri's proposal deploys a schema with two principal parts. The first part consists in resources for an expressivist aesthetics he finds in Kant and German Idealism (pp. 3–21, 97–110, 180–1). Kant's theory of productive imagination, Schiller's aesthetics of Schein, and Hegel's loosening of the determinacy of concepts by means of the process-oriented [End Page 236] dialectical model of rationality token a domain of experience in which single objects have significance that is at the same time superabundant and noncategorical. That is, the meaning of such objects does not submit to classificatory understanding, and yet, such objects have generality of content: they are singular, but not simple. What makes them complex, and deeply so, is what Kant called art's "indemonstrability." Art is for Kant representational, but the way it is so does not, indeed cannot, depend on determinate modes of discursivity. Art is not primarily descriptive nor is it a species of knowing; rather, it is a form of expression by means of representation, in which the art object is a "display," "presentation," or "portrayal" (Darstellung) of the genius of the maker. So conceived, art is a form of communication that does not intrinsically deal in the transfer of information. Rather, at the base of art is the display of the particular mind of the artist in the mode of the work in all the work's detail. Of course, narrative works (among others) do deal in propositional interchange in order to see the fictional world as real enough to support the reader's immersion in it. But that such a world is that world is a function of the imagination of the author in making it—an imagination distributed across the entirety of the work as an integrating expressive force.

With the aesthetics of German Idealism comes—well—idealism, i.e., unwieldy, unwanted, and unnecessary metaphysical schemes. Altieri wishes to detach what he prizes in this German line of thought from its metaphysics. Here one comes to the second component of the schema: a proposal as to how to integrate the expressivist aesthetics of Idealism with an account of reader response more acceptable by contemporary lights. Wittgenstein is pressed into service. The idea that one makes Idealist theories comestible by organizing the dinner around Wittgensteinian precepts may seem to some as bordering on the quaint. Philosophical interest in Wittgenstein is decades past its zenith in Anglophone circles. There was a time in its reception-history that Wittgenstein's work seemed a good place to unearth nuggets of philosophical argumentation on what were taken to be pressing contemporary problems in the philosophy of language and mind. When it was realized that his approach to philosophical questions—and the questions themselves, as he understood them—was idiosyncratic and demanding in ways that were impossible to ignore and just as impossible to paraphrase, interest waned. But perhaps matters are otherwise with literary theory. In any case, the two primary aspects of Wittgenstein's thought that Altieri mobilizes to update German Idealist views on the experiential role of imagination, [End Page 237] expression, and display are: (1) its treatment of first-person avowal, and (2) its account of aspect seeing.

"Avowal" translates as Äußerung or Ausdruck, and it might have suited Altieri's purposes better to...


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