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Review of Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings
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Eileen John, Dominic McIver Lopes, eds, Philosophy of Literature: Contemporary and Classic Readings (Blackwell, 2004)

Reviewed by Anna Christina Ribeiro

Although the philosophy of literature is an important area within analytic aesthetics, there was no reader dedicated to it until Eileen John and Dominic Lopes put together this excellent volume. Philosophy of Literature was a much needed anthology, and it is one that I have and will continue to use in my philosophy of literature courses.

Following the format of previous readers in the Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies series, the volume is divided into sections arranged by topics (except for one), each preceded by a brief introduction. These introductions are as brief as they are informative about the texts that follow them – never more than two pages introducing the topic and concisely summarizing the main points made by the authors of the selected essays. John and Lopes add a nice touch to the volume by including a short literary piece prior to the philosophical essays in each section (again, except for one). In each case these pieces raise questions surrounding the topic of the section.

Part I, ‘Classic Sources’, is the exception to the topical arrangement and the introductory literary excerpt. It features selections from Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Poetics, Hume’s ‘Of Tragedy’, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, and Freud’s ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’. It will be a challenge to put all of these together in a course, especially one that is analytically oriented. In my course, I leave Nietzsche and Freud out, and use Plato and Aristotle to discuss the ways in which literature may affect us as a way of introducing the paradox of tragedy. This means that after Hume I have to jump to Part V of the book, ‘Emotion’, to cover Susan Feagin’s ‘The Pleasures of Tragedy’ and Flint Schier’s ‘Tragedy and the Community of Sentiment’. From here it is easy to remain in that section of the book and proceed to the paradox of fiction, which is represented by Colin Radford’s seminal essay and Kendall Walton’s renowned green slime. It is not evident why John and Lopes should have left Part I without a literary piece. An excerpt from an ancient Greek tragedy would have been appropriate – indeed, Oedipus Tyrannus would have been perfect, and as a matter of fact I supplement my course with that play.

The definition of literature is the topic of Part II. As with the remaining sections, the editors do a fine job of selecting works that represent contrasting views. Here we have E.D. Hirsch, Monroe Beardsley, Peter Lamarque and Stein H. Olsen, and Robert Stecker. Part III, on the ontology of literature, is commendably, if expectedly, preceded by Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, although – bizarrely – in their introduction to this section John and Lopes refer to the original story as having been written in Portuguese, rather than Spanish. In this section we have Richard Wollheim, J.O. Urmson, Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin, and Gregory Currie. It is easy to cover all texts in both these sections.

The same is not true of the following section, on fiction. There are six essays here, from John Searle to Amie Thomasson to David Lewis, from fictional discourse to fictional characters to possible worlds. Some background in philosophy of language and metaphysics will be required for the average sophomore or junior student to make sense of much of this. Unless one is using this text for a more advanced course with philosophy majors (and even then), one might be better off by picking a few texts from this rich selection. Thus far I have opted for Searle, Currie and Walton, much as I would love to discuss Lewis, Thomasson, and Lamarque and Olsen as well – which I would do in a senior – or graduate-level course.

Part VI is on metaphor, and it includes the required seminal texts on the topic, Max Black’s ‘Metaphor’ and Donald Davidson’s ‘What Metaphors Mean’. These are complemented by essays by Ted Cohen and Kendall Walton. There has been, and continues to be, an inordinate amount of work written on metaphor. For a second edition, the editors might wish to add more recent work by philosophers who can bring fresh perspectives from philosophy of language and cognitive science, for instance, to bear on this difficult and fascinating topic. Perhaps blasphemously, I personally have skipped this section altogether in my course thus far, in part because I gorged on the topic years ago when writing my master’s thesis, and in part because the topic is at once too narrow – one technical feature of literature – and too broad – a phenomenon that is not peculiar to literature.

For the purposes of a course, a trimming may also be required for Part VII, on Interpretation, and Part VIII, on Literary Values. On the other hand, both these sections will need supplementation with other texts. The section on interpretation can be divided into a section on the debate between critical monism and critical pluralism (Wollheim, Alexander Nehamas, Stecker) and a section on the intentionalism debate (Noël Carroll and Jerrold Levinson). The first clearly needs a philosopher defending critical pluralism, and for that I have chosen Matthew Kieran’s aptly titled ‘In Defence of Critical Pluralism’. The second requires a defense of anti-intentionalism; my choice here is Daniel Nathan’s ‘Art, Meaning, and Artist’s Meaning’. The section as a whole is flanked by two essays that do not fit neatly into either of these two debates: Wayne C. Booth’s ‘Who is Responsible for Ethical Criticism, and for What?’ and Jenefer Robinson’s ‘Style and Personality in the Literary Work’. Robinson’s essay, however, can nevertheless be discussed in the context of the intentionalism debate, and in any event it is of enough interest to stand on its own.

Part VIII may likewise be subdivided, into a section on the cognitive value of literature and one on the moral evaluation of literary works, although the weight is clearly given to the former debate. The essays by Jerome Stolnitz and Catherine Wilson are excellent choices for opposing views on what we can learn from literature, whilst the selection by Lamarque and Olsen offers a refreshing broader perspective, one which also refers to Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’ (also in the reader). An instructor wishing to supplement this sub-section may add Kieran’s ‘Art, Imagination and the Cultivation of Morals’, although the section is rich as it is. As for the other sub-section, it is unfair to leave Berys Gaut’s essay, ‘The Ethical Criticism of Art’, all alone without at least a couple more to supplement this important debate. I suggest Carroll’s ‘Moderate Moralism’, James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean’s ‘Moderate Autonomism’, and Walton’s ‘Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality’.

As the editors acknowledge, an anthology is a selection and will inevitably leave out works that others will think should have been there. I have here made some suggestions in this regard. Still, John and Lopes are to be commended for the choices they made. For one, even if some important texts did not make it into the volume, the ones that did all have a serious claim for inclusion. Moreover, and unlike many readers that suffer from over-representation, this one has the virtue of almost fitting into a semester-long undergraduate course – one where students will have covered various central areas of philosophy, such as metaphysics, philosophy of mind and psychology, philosophy of language, and ethics, via the study of an art form that is of such central importance in human life.


2009 © Anna Christina Ribeiro

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