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  • Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art by Henry W. Pickford
  • Kevin Andrew Spicer
Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art. By Henry W. Pickford. Northwestern University Press, 2016. 240 pp.

In the second canto of Dante's Purgatorio, Dante the pilgrim comes across an old friend of his from Florence by the name of Casella, a musician who, so the commentators tell us, set a number of Dante's own love poems to music. Dante has just spent three days making his way through Hell and is exhausted from his journey. The sojourner asks his old friend to sing him, if he still recalls his time on earth, a song as he used to when they were younger. Asking Casella for some music that comforts his soul the way he used to, Dante listens as the musician begins a performance that draws all the other newly-disembarked souls on the shores of Purgatory to gather around the singer. "All of us were caught up listening/to his notes," and everyone gathered there quickly forgets their penitential and purifying purpose here at the bottom of the mountain. As soon as all become mesmerized by the song, Cato, the great doorkeeper and infamous suicide of Caesar's Civil War, upbraids them rather mercilessly for shirking their proper duties: "What is this negligence, this standing still?" he wonders. "On your way to the mountain, running, and peel/away the dead skin that keeps you from seeing God" (Canto 2, lines 118, 121–123). The idea of music's potential threat of derailing the soul from its proper path—or, in Dante's case, to "fix" or cause one to be "caught up"—is undoubtedly an old one, yet Henry W. Pickford's Thinking with Tolstoy and Wittgenstein: Expression, Emotion, and Art manages to put a decidedly new and thought-provoking spin on this oldest of aesthetic problems.

Marshalling an incredibly wide array of texts and philosophies—everything from the works of Tolstoy and Wittgenstein to the latest contributions of analytic thought on the interrelations between emotion, ethics, and works of art—Pickford's work demonstrates how Tolstoy's aesthetics tries and ultimately fails to counter what he calls the "Nietzschean threat" of "ethico-aesthetic understanding," which is itself derived from [End Page 138] "an interpretation of Schopenhauer's theory of the influence of music together with his theory of action and moral psychology" (6). Pickford's first chapter sets up the theoretical players—Derrida and Kripke's readings of Wittgenstein's work—to argue against what he calls the "interpretivist assumption" within literary theory. This is the assumption that "any act of understanding (of a text, of spoken words, of a person) requires an act of interpretation qua justification." Pickford's use of Wittgenstein on rule-following behavior is clearly juxtaposed against the Derridean perspective in his explicit focus on the former's use of "normative" accounts of justifying why an expression is interpreted in a particular way by a community of speakers. The argument is that Derrida's lack of any clear account of normative uses of language leads one ultimately to skepticism. In other words, accepting the interpretivist assumption of either Derrida's or Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein results in "meaning skepticism," which itself can come in one of two forms for Pickford: "either in an epistemological vein (we can never be certain of having correctly or conclusively understood an expression's determinate meaning) or a metaphysical vein (there is no such thing as determinate meaning)" (5). Questioning this central assumption is to entertain the possibility that there is a way of "understanding" particular expressions that does not involve a strict hermeneutic process of grasping the meaning of that expression. Pickford thus wants to think of the possibility of precisely what Dante highlights with his old friend, Casella—namely, the idea that music, say, could quite literally "touch the soul" by following certain communal norms that ultimately keep the entire aesthetic procedure from requiring the endless process of interpretation. Moreover, Pickford's book argues, Wittgenstein's thoughts on aesthetics have roots in "an unlikely literary predecessor: Leo Tolstoy, who at the height of...


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pp. 138-141
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