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Review of Philosophy and Literature: An Introduction
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Ole Martin Skilleås, Philosophy and Literature: An Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 2001)

Reviewed by Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza

I. Introduction and Overview

“Socrates: Where do you hail from, Phaedrus, and where are you bound?” (Plato, 3) The seemingly simple introductory questions that Socrates poses to Phaedrus are anything but straightforward (112). Skilleås, with his careful exegesis shows the way to deal with this duplicity and how to extract the richness inherent in the great texts. Seemingly there is nothing perplexing in answering where we come from and where we are bound. On a deeper level these are the questions that philosophers like Socrates dedicate their lives to. For, where do we come and where do we go ultimately, between birth and death? Thus, a simple introductory remark leads to a veritable philosophical puzzle. Ole Martin Skilleås, in Philosophy and Literature: An Introduction is not directly concerned with these questions, but by the end of the book the same puzzlement takes over the reader. Along the way, we ponder and come to appreciate some central questions that spark when literature and philosophy grate on each other.

His opening chapter, of the eight this volume comprises, “What is Philosophy and Literature?” engagingly introduces the authors and questions this work is concerned with. His roster sports relevant and memorable names: Plato, Aristotle, Gadamer, Cavell, among others. In addition, there are many cameos provided by respected plumes in the field as Stein Haugom Olsen’s and Peter Lamarque’s are. On the purely literary front he enlists Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare – almost exclusively. Two paramount questions he devotes his talent to are: In what ways is philosophy literature? And, Can literature be genuinely philosophical? Issuing from the connections between philosophy as literature, and between literature as philosophy this chapter’s suggestive and interesting reverberations become unequivocal intonations in the sixth and seventh ones.

Chapter six, “Literature in Philosophy?” contemplates whether we may find genuinely literary philosophical works. Skilleås ponders whether form and style can be formative of the content of philosophical texts and, against orthodox philosophical lore, he avows that indeed the content can be partially shaped by the form (108ff.). His witnesses are Plato, Wittgenstein, and Quine, whose idiosyncratic works exemplify the writings that combine literary, rhetorical, and philosophical facets in such a fashion that they cannot be divided without being crippled. The seventh chapter, “Philosophy in Literature?” considers the other side of the same coin, bringing to the palestra Martha Nussbaum’s and Stanley Cavell’s work. Skilleås methodically presents Nussbaum’s work, assessing her claim that some literary works are fundamental for moral philosophy, and acquiesces that literature, by calling on us rationally and emotionally, may be a necessary part of our moral development (129). However Skilleås criticizes Nussbaum for relying “on a naive account of reading and interpretation, and […] on the presence of the author-genius” (139-140). Cavell’s work on Shakespeare’s King Lear focuses on skepticism, arguing that such doubting “is a self-inflicted threat to human existence”(142). For him Cavell succeeds in showing that Shakespeare did pursue philosophical motifs in his literature, and that engagement with both literature and with philosophy are part of ‘the examined life’ (146-147).

Chapter two, “Philosophy and Literature in Antiquity,” pays tribute to tradition’s venerable founding role establishing how it brings the proper perspective to contemporary discussions (e.g., Aristotle’s pertinence to Nussbaum’s work). Peripatetically, Skilleås takes us for a stroll through the original Academy and Lyceum, presenting Plato’s and Aristotle’s pertinent thoughts as they are found in Ion, The Republic and the Poetics (chapters three and six discuss other platonic writings). His love for the hermeneutic task adroitly prepares the ground for much that is to come later.

The philosophy of literature is also prominent in this project. Skilleås “foci […] will be the definition of literature, the authority of the author and the nature of literary interpretation” (12), which correspond to the third, fourth, and fifth chapters respectively. The chapter “Defining Literature,” begins with a peculiar look into the why and how of definition, and introduces and rejects externalist, internalist, and family resemblance approaches. He also beholds the institutional approach, in particular Olsen’s, finding it promising but inadequate because of its circularity, to conclude that literature is an essentially contested concept (58). Chapter four deals with the death of the author and those who have rushed to write the corresponding obituary: Wimsatt and Beardsley locally, and Foucault and Barthes continentally. In summary he ascertains that we should forsake paying tribute to the author-genius without relinquishing authorship completely, for we still must locate the source of the meaning of the text in order to have that particular work (79-80). This problematic reduces to people communicating (80). Chapter five, “Hermeneutics and Interpretation,” primarily evaluates Gadamer’s seminal opus, and concentrates on the interpretation of these communications. He combines Olsen’s model, which propounds that we read literature differently than other texts, with Gadamer’s conversational hermeneutics based on understanding, and develops a model favoring the participation and interests of the reader as they push off the resistance from the text itself (97-98).

The last chapter, “Philosophy/Literature,” briefly ponders anew whether the distinction between literature and philosophy is legitimate, and surprises the reader for its extreme brevity (barely a page of text). But more on this anorexic section later.

II. From Overview to Review

Philosophy and Literature does not exhaustively treat all or most salient issues in the topic, neither does it present all relevant philosophical or literary schools, nor is it thematically organized as an A through Z compendium. Rather it concentrates on the few central problems and concrete examples discussed above. What may seem narrow in scope seems justified, because to ask of an introductory book a full acquaintance with every aspect of a discipline is likely to result in a superficial volume, a worse outcome than a limited but genuine exposition. Besides, a fairly complete “Further Reading” section follows each chapter, redressing this to some extent. Additionally, this introduction does not presuppose a lot of background knowledge or familiarity with the texts, as Skilleås does a fine job of explicating them. As a classroom tool the book will thread its web of appeal not on courses that seek an complete and thorough assessment of the philosophy of literature, nor on those that like to flutter from topic to topic, but rather on those that aim to thoughtfully explore the ever changing and vague contours that Philosophy and Literature share since antiquity – of which the former is but a part.

The author is at home in both the analytic and the continental traditions. Although his taste evidently favors the former he is cavalier enough to offer a serious presentation of continentally flavored views. Nevertheless, it is clear that Skilleås does not take literary theorists too seriously, his Socratic allegiances against sophists and kin being too strong. In fact, he delights in offering us a quick and informative genealogy of the origins of literary theory that will amuse some readers and may offend others (10-11). The tone of the book is informal, at times almost courting impertinence. For instance, when he points out that deconstructionists always focus on classic texts and not on their own employment contracts (67). However, this is done in good spirit and lightens the book in a clever manner – so long as one is on the right side, of course. Moreover, this is not carried out at the expense of valid argumentation, of which there is plenty.

III. …to critical review

(a) Rhetoric as the way of philosophy? “Words exist because of meaning. Once you have gotten the meaning you can forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Chuang-Tzu, 164). When considering the association between philosophy and literature Skilleås interestingly claims that: “[Philosophy] cannot but be rhetorical, because it seeks to persuade, and rhetoric is the art of persuasion”(5), a view he revisits on several occasions (106,124). This does not turn philosophy into literature, but for him is a central and often neglected literary component of philosophy. Plato despised rhetoricians, but if we believe Skilleås, then Plato was the best of them all, which may be too big a swallow for some. Chuang-Tzu, a Taoist who philosophized by way of parables, stories, and poems, and was a rhetorician when needed, hails the vacuity of words. Indeed, the mute truth the citation speaks does away with words – words rhetoricians and sophists depend on (once we realize that there is no propositional truth). Perhaps that Skilleås should aim for that genuine conversation sans words … that seems to be the ultimate rhetorical and philosophical exercise.

(b) Reflexivity and Reflection. “Speculate, reflect: every thinking activity implies mirrors for me” (Calvino,161). Skilleås, a careful interpreter and philosopher, always gleans insights from the texts he visits. What is missing from his observations is a bit of reflexivity on his own ways. Next follow a few reflections. First, while it’s praiseworthy that he so scrupulously includes the Greek origins of our practices this reviewer would have welcomed a couple of winks to other equally rich philosophical and literary traditions – any east or south of Athens would have sufficed. Second, Skilleås bemoans the lack of stylistic innovation imposed by contemporary philosophical mores and the demands of academic life, and whereas his somewhat insouciant and occasional tone does redress this partially his own text fits the mold of another book produced in the very assembly line model he criticizes. Third, he is very mindful that philosophy relies on arguments and reasons foremost, yet at times his arguments or explanations could do with some additional material. E.g., when he warns us of the risk of ignoring the constitutive role of Plato’s style for his philosophy yet fails to clarify what the risk is (113), or when he chastises Hirsch (64). Last, this volume transports the reader to a mythical realm that might be called ‘The World of The Circular Ruins,’ in reference to J.L. Borges’ story, for here philosophical stances tend to crumble because of that annular pattern. Some instances follow: Olsen’s admission of circularity (56), Foucault’s reliance on an institutional model that is circular (75), Gadamer’s hermeneutic circle (96), and the circularity of moral judgments he finds in discussing Nussbaum on friendship (133). In fact, the issue of circularity appears to enclose him as well, since he supports a modified version of the institutional theory but never clarifies how he escapes the maelstrom. Truly dizzying.

(c) Sic! Primo Levi, in an essay so entitled, writes: “When polemicizing the peak then is reached […] when one manages to insert in the body of the quotation a pair of brackets and write inside them: Sic! This sic is the equivalent of a checkmate in chess or the drop shot close to the net in tennis: like these it is ruthless, and just like these it presupposes an error on the contender’s part. It may be a venial error, a grammatical or even orthographic oversight, but the sic, this hiccup of virtuous and scandalized astonishment, blows it out of all proportion …SIC: the man whom I quote and from whom I obviously dissent as every decent person must dissent, is, my dear sirs, a dunce.” (93). Skilleås is no dunce, my dear sirs, most definitely not. All the errors are venial “pecata minuta,” simple grammatical and orthographic oversights precisely (not that this reviewer is free from such mistakes). For instance, the concordance between subject and verb may be off. But there are many, and they add up. Not being a polemist by nature and wishing to avoid inserting any “[Sic!]” I opt not to quote any of these. Besides, I think that most of them will go unnoticed for most readers even if they want to find them. A posterior edition of this fine book will probably redress this. I presume.

(d) Disappointment as the ineluctable end of philosophizing. Chapter eight is compressed and suggestive. Indeed, its suggestiveness literally ends in disappointment as Skilleås justifies the fact that the book does not offer those “exception-free definitions” nor that “neatly ordered conceptual field” by saying that “[t]he desire for full and absolute knowledge, and its inherent disappointments, are facts of life” (152). Well, we can always take heart and react the way likeable antihero Iñigo Montoya does in the film The Princess Bride. Iñigo is dying to learn the identity of the accomplished masked fencer he is dueling with: “Iñigo [in strong Spanish accent]: Who are you? / Wesley: No one of consequence / Iñigo: I must know / Wesley: Get used to disappointment / Iñigo [too accommodating]: O.K.” Iñigo gets used to disappointment too easily when Wesley refuses to reveal his identity. Martin Skilleås duels with a set of difficult problems, concluding that in the end disappointment is the ineluctable end of philosophizing. Yet it seems that this diminutive chapter could have assuaged its readers by summarizing the main claims of the work and suggesting other possible lines of inquiry – growing in the process – instead of taking the easy way out by recommending us to read Cavell on Shakespeare (otherwise we could simply read that book instead) (152).

IV. The “Blurb”

This is the part where I offer a short and enticing conclusion, the kind of paragraph that editors want and which they usually, and almost always unsuccessfully, try to obtain by means of more or less apt amputation of reviewers’ comments. As a preemptive move to bypass such procedure, I hereby commit such mutilation myself.

“Ole Martin Skilleås has written what may be the first introductory book in English that looks not only at what philosophy of literature is, but also and more originally at how both Philosophy and Literature interact… the examples are clear and engaging … Skilleås presents a cogent philosophy that ties the work together… This book may be a good and interesting choice for courses on the subject by itself or as a supplement…”


2003 © Jesús Ilundáin-Agurruza

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