- The Artist as Philosopher
IN DE PROFUNDIS Wilde memorably boasts that he has “made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art.” Philosophy and Oscar Wilde provides a fine opportunity to consider the extent to which his work reveals [End Page 427] a productive interchange between the two fields. Editor Michael Y. Bennett has chosen an eclectic set of essays to include in a volume he describes as an “open space to explore linkages between Wilde’s works and philosophical thought” (2). Sometimes the concept of “philosophical thought” is used in the conventional sense, referring to the branch of knowledge studied by Wilde at Oxford, including such canonical figures such as Plato and Aristotle as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century theorists. Sometimes it is applied much more broadly to designate a perspective or world view. Bennett divides the volume into two parts, “Facts” and “Fictions,” explaining that the former includes essays that are more descriptive, the latter those that are more interpretive. He grants “considerable overlap” between the sections, and the distinction is precarious to be sure. Neither label really suits the material. This is a minor point, however; the essays themselves provide interesting engagements with important aspects of Wilde’s work.
In the first essay, “Wilde at Oxford: A Truce with Facts,” Simon Reader challenges the critical commonplace that Wilde was hostile to facts or, more accurately, epistemologies that rely on and privilege empirical or factual data. In the “Notebook on Philosophy” that Wilde kept at Oxford, a resource that has only recently been published, Reader finds a more complex attitude in comments that Wilde jotted down in response to ancient and modern political theorists and to two particular texts, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and Francis Bacon’s Novum Organicum. Interpreting these comments, Reader discovers the antithesis of the argument in “The Decay of Lying.” To his mind, the author of the “Notebook on Philosophy” skeptically resists “theoretical or abstract models” and enjoys “the chaotic whorl of data that always overflow any conceptual explanation” (17). Reader reveals an unfamiliar side of Wilde’s mind, recovering a crucial phase of his intellectual development and broadening our understanding of his life at Oxford.
Like Reader, Philip E. Smith II turns attention to the understudied field of Wilde’s Oxford notebooks in “Oscar Wilde’s Philosophy of History.” As co-editor of Oscar Wilde’s Notebooks: A Portrait of a Mind in the Making (1989) and editor of Oscar Wilde’s Historical Criticism Notebook (2016), he is well positioned to do so. In his essay, he presents the latter text as a crucial step toward Historical Criticism (1879), the (posthumously published) thesis that Wilde completed after leaving [End Page 428] Oxford. Smith emphasizes the breadth of Wilde’s references in a text that covers ancient philosophers (for example, Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius) and modern (Hegel, Darwin, and Spencer). The initial discussion of such theorists reflects the author’s emerging philosophy of history, Smith argues. For Wilde, “a philosophy of history produces historical criticism, an anti-authoritarian and progressive discourse related to innovation and inquiry, to science and philosophy, and to democracy and revolution” (33). Reader’s essay draws persuasive links between Wilde’s perspective on history and his broader aesthetic and political ideas.
In one of the book’s strongest essays, “‘Even Things That Are True Can Be Proved’: Oscar Wilde on Argument,” Bruce Bashford pulls philosophy into a fruitful dialog with rhetoric, considering how Wilde constructs theories of argument that productively complicate his romantic conception of individualism. Bashford begins with consideration of pertinent aphorisms, as when Lady Bracknell proclaims that “I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar and often convincing.” Beneath the humor, we glimpse what was for Wilde the threat of argument: its attempt, sometimes successful, to force an individual mind to accept an alien perspective. As Bashford observes, argument thus tries “to force a view on a person from the outside and so disrupts that person’s process of articulating his or her own identity” (55). Drawing on the work...