Literary lessons

norris200One kind of secret, the open kind, is that which has to be kept but not so well kept that nobody would even guess at its existence except perhaps those who were in on it from the outset. That there are not many secrets of this or any kind in philosophy as practised nowadays is perhaps unsurprising, given that it depends so much on communicative media like books, articles, or peer-group review for its sense of identity and self-worth as a collective enterprise rather than just an outlet for idiosyncratic opinions. Maybe I should say “as practised in the mainstream Anglophone-analytic line of descent” since philosophers in the other (continental or mainland-European) line have more often emulated Kierkegaard in preserving what Jacques Derrida has called “a taste for the secret”. They have been more receptive to a mode of indirect communication that eludes any literal, face-value reading and responds only to certain well-attuned hermeneutical refinements or subtleties of interpretation. “Thought provoking thoughts”, as the tpm motto rather nicely and cryptically puts it.

Still there is a secret that is sort-of acknowledged but sort-of suppressed within the analytic community. In brief, it is the fact that philosophers have more to learn from language – language at its furthest creative, unpredictable, or “literary” stretch – than has yet been recognised. This claim might appear downright absurd given the extent of the “linguistic turn” across diverse movements of thought. After all, there is nothing secret about the idea that language is the ultimate horizon of intelligibility, rather than those previous candidate items – essences, forms, concepts, ideas, or sense-data – that have caused so much philosophic trouble in the past. Yet even the most zealous promoters of this turn have often failed to grasp what would strike anyone sufficiently attentive to language itself – to its creative and thought-provocative aspects – as distinct from certain philosophically received ideas about language. What these have in common is the tendency to let some generalised conception decide in advance what shall count as a paradigm instance of language by their own theoretical lights.

The latter approach is one that spans some otherwise diverse schools of thought, from analytic philosophy of language in the Frege-Russell tradition to structuralist and post-structuralist ideas about language, ideology, and representation. The trouble is that these thinkers – of whichever theoretical bent – very often let their fixed doctrinal conceptions get in the way of any adequate response to language at its full creative-exploratory stretch.

Then there is the “ordinary-language” doctrine, with its chief inspiration in Wittgenstein’s later writings, which tends to look askance at any non-standard or communally unsanctioned, i.e., any extraordinary mode of linguistic expression that fails to make sense by those same criteria. Hence (as I have argued at length in Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory) the curious tension in Wittgenstein’s remarks about Shakespeare between a flat refusal to credit the judgment of those think-alike “professors of literature” who routinely praise him as a nonpareil genius and a grudging allowance, very much in the German high-romantic style, that there is something about Shakespeare’s plays more akin to a force of nature than an artefact of human dramatic and verbal contrivance. The problem, for Wittgenstein, is how to square his claim that language makes sense only by the norms of some existing communal “form of life” with his awareness of its power to open up dimensions of meaning that cannot be accounted for by any such conventionist or communitarian approach.

So it is not surprising that this routine appeal to the wisdom enshrined in “ordinary language” doesn’t get us very far toward revealing the springs of linguistic creativity. However there is no more help to be had from those alternative, mainstream-analytical modes of thought which take it, on the contrary, that common-sense linguistic intuition is not the last word and that philosophy – or theory – can and should sometimes call it into question. For even when they do try to stretch their techniques around certain select “literary” topics – like the workings of metaphor or the (supposed) problem of reference in fictive discourse – such approaches typically remain at a large conceptual and methodological distance from the sorts of language that ostensibly occupy their focus of attention.

Post-structuralists and analytic types have this much in common despite their otherwise large divergences of view: that both seek to question, challenge, correct, revise, or even systematically subvert the workings of “ordinary language” in pursuit of some theoretically elaborate programme. In both cases the result is to open up that same gap between language and meta-language, or whatever it is about literature that unsettles, provokes and thus teases out the best efforts of conceptual analysis and whatever it is about the analytic enterprise that finds itself thus unsettled and provoked.

The signal exceptions to this general rule are again to be found on both sides of the English Channel and again tend to be thinkers of a marked “literary” bent whose responsiveness to matters of linguistic nuance – ambiguity, metaphor, metonymy, paronomasia, irony, and so forth – tends to go along with a certain resistance to the lure of philosophic system-building. That is, they are aware of just how much philosophers (let alone literary critics or theorists) stand to lose by allowing the inherent creativity and sheer quirkiness of language to become just a handy source of set-piece examples.

I am thinking here of an otherwise strangely assorted bunch of thinkers whose common virtue is just this extraordinary gift for locating, describing, vividly evoking, and to some extent seeking to explain the source of such remarkable effects. Among them is J.L. Austin, the anatomist of speech-acts or performatives, whose writing exhibits a hyper-cultivated ear for the finer points of everyday usage along with a readiness – one not shared by his more method-fixated exponents such as John Searle – to give those points their philosophic due rather than dragoon them into the service of a wholesale classificatory theory. They also include Jacques Derrida who was quick to spot just this irrepressibly heterodox or system-subverting dimension of Austin’s texts and to register its various signs of resistance to the kind of self-assured, risk-averse reading proposed by Searle. Indeed I can think of no recent philosopher whose writings come close to Derrida’s for this well-nigh uncanny ability to combine the utmost conceptual precision with the utmost sensitivity to hitherto unnoticed, often problematical yet highly revealing details of the text in hand.

Among literary critics, William Empson shows the same kind of shrewdly analytic intelligence allied to a genius for verbal explication that sometimes supports but just as often creates unexpected problems for his tentative forays into literary theory. Should any philosopher doubt that there is anything of value to learn from this quarter – having perhaps been put off by certain well-publicised wranglings between philosophers and literary theorists – then they could best start with Empson’s preternaturally brilliant, acute and perceptive Seven Types of Ambiguity and then proceed to The Structure of Complex Words. What the latter book loses by comparison in terms of critical-creative brio it gains in terms of philosophic yield, that is, its ability to unpack the complex words in question and exhibit the variety of intricately structured senses, feelings, covert implications, subliminal metaphors, evaluative overtones, or suasive doctrines carried by the different orders of semantic “equation” that are here laid out for analysis.

The existence of a work like Complex Words, with its wealth of distinctly philosophical as well as literary-critical insights, is one of those open secrets that result from the overly rigid present-day division of academic labour. Such is the prevailing guild mentality amongst some philosophers which leads them to view anything with the label “literary criticism” or – worse still – “literary theory” as ipso facto not worth their attention, even (or especially) where it is so bold as to lay such claims on its own behalf.

This attitude has no doubt been hardened by the taunts of those ex-guild-members, like Richard Rorty, who propose that philosophy should henceforth count itself just one more voice in the ongoing “cultural conversation”, or just another strictly non-privileged “kind of writing” with literary criticism as the model to which it might best – i.e., most fittingly or least self-deludedly – aspire.

Nor have philosophers been much impressed by Derrida-influenced literary theorists such as Geoffrey Hartman who suggest that criticism should be pepped up by occasional doses of (preferably mainland-European) philosophy but only in a pick-and-mix, loosely eclectic, allusive or name-dropping way and without any notion that philosophy might have something more distinctive or properly “philosophical” to contribute. In Hartman’s case this provocation was all the more unfortunate since he happens to be one of the very few literary critics who can run Empson close for verbal sensitivity and, at times, sheer hermeneutic exuberance.

Still philosophers should not be put off investigating Empson’s, Derrida’s or even (at its subtle and mind-stretching best) Hartman’s work by the preconceived notion that there is nothing of interest or value to be gained from acquaintance with that hybrid genre of writing that is vaguely and for the most part disparagingly known as “theory”. For it is in just this long disputed border-zone where philosophy comes into contact (or conflict) with language at its most inventive, unpredictable and wayward that thought may find itself venturing onto ground that has not yet been trodden into ruts by the keepers of received philosophical-linguistic lore.

I could put this more simply as a plain suggestion that philosophers of language take time off once in a while to read Shakespeare and the best commentators on Shakespeare, Empson foremost among them, as well as philosophically-minded Shakespeare critics such as A.D. Nuttall. It is not, or not primarily, a matter of unearthing philosophic “themes” such as the neo-Platonist influence on Shakespeare’s thought, or his understanding of theological doctrines concerning free-will and determinism, or his conception of subjectivity vis-à-vis Descartes’ near-contemporaneous musings. No doubt there is plenty to be said in that vein, although some philosophers – not to mention literary types like Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw – have denounced Shakespeare’s habit of going all-out for dramatic effect by seeming to countenance all manner of far-fetched, ill-assorted, contradictory, or downright silly ideas. I don’t think many readers will need convincing that these latter judgments had more to do with the aging Tolstoy’s famous “renunciation” of literature and with Shaw’s rival claims as a more “intellectual” and politically crusading playwright than with any intrinsic failing of Shakespearean poetic drama. On the other hand their adverse reactions are not so very different from Wittgenstein’s near-allergic response to what he considers the self-indulgent, licentious, even morally pernicious character of Shakespeare’s wordplay.

This kind of judgment has a long prehistory in English criticism, finding perhaps its most powerful yet oddly ambivalent expression in Dr. Johnson’s animadversions on the poet’s fatal weakness for puns, ambiguities, multiplied metaphors, and suchlike linguistic “quibbles” despite his incomparable greatness in other respects. It is through the challenge Shakespeare poses to widely-held ideas about language, truth, and representation that philosophy presently has most to learn about their limiting effect on its own responsiveness in this regard.

In my own – I trust not wholly untypical – experience, the effect of going back to Shakespeare or to texts such as Empson’s Seven Types after over-long subjection to the grey-on-grey of most academic prose – or the engrossing yet somnolent word-magic of Wittgenstein’s later work – is to re-stimulate just that sense of open expressive possibility that is so easily dulled by routine habits of language and thought. In Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory I have tried to show how a certain approach to the topic of creativity in language – the question how it is that certain modes of utterance may surpass the limits of received or communal usage – can also throw a sharply revealing light on the issue of freewill versus determinism or of human accountability for acts as well as words. There is a great difference between this kind of active involvement with language where the responsive reader must in some sense be repeating the act of creation in their own mind, whether or not with the help of a gifted intermediary such as Empson or Derrida, and the largely passive or disengaged approach – signalled most often by a striking absence of what Hartman calls “answerable style” – that typifies so much philosophical writing nowadays. It seems to me that some philosophers have lost out by reason of their fixed aversion to literary theory just as some literary theorists have lost out through a failure or refusal to meet philosophy on anything like its own, properly demanding terms.

Maybe they should take comfort – and courage – from the example of a literary critic like Christopher Ricks who is himself strongly averse to “theory” and a brilliantly gifted exponent of textual close-reading very much in the early-Empson mode. Yet he is also apt, like Derrida, to raise the most thought-provocative philosophic questions through his acute awareness of the way that certain texts (including, as it happens, those of J.L. Austin) exhibit this self-reflective, self-subverting, self-complicating tendency. For there is indeed a meeting-point – one exemplified, albeit in different ways, by Austin, Empson, Derrida, Hartman, Ricks, and Nuttall – where the interests of analysis and creativity can be seen to converge, rather than (as so often of late) being misperceived as somehow inherently at odds one with the other.

No doubt it is the “secretive” character of many literary texts – their withholding of some deeper, esoteric sense or refusal to yield up their meaning to the first (naïve or literal-minded) comer – that sets them apart from most present-day philosophic prose with its trademark ethos of plain-speaking, problem-solving directness. Still one need only mention such generically hard-to-classify instances as Plato, Montaigne, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Wittgenstein to make the point that metaphor, fiction, multiple viewpoint, “free-indirect” style, and other such modes of indirect communication are at home in philosophical as well as in literary discourse.

Why this should be the case – why thinking should find itself sometimes compelled to go such oblique or parabolic ways around – is a question that some literary critics have pondered to striking effect, among them Frank Kermode in his wonderful book The Genesis of Secrecy. This body of work is terra incognita to the majority of philosophers, even those (especially philosophers of language) who have most to gain from acquaintance with it. All of which goes to reinforce my point: that there is a great difference between secrets artificially maintained by the workings of proprietary self-interest and those other, more rewarding kinds of secret whose distinctive mark, in the poet Wallace Stevens’ words, is “to resist the intelligence almost successfully”.

Further reading
J.L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words (Oxford University Press)
William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (Penguin)
Geoffrey Hartman, The Fate of Reading, and other essays (University of Chicago Press)

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University and author of Fiction, Philosophy and Literary Theory: will the real Saul Kripke please stand up? (Continuum)

  1. Here is a much needed approach both to language and to the philosophic endeavour. We have to acknowledge the essential fluidity of language if we are to overcome the inescapable contradictoriness of all determinate thought (the undiscovered secret of Plato’s Parmenides). In what I call my version of Platonism I insist that philosophic insight can only be conveyed in myth, metaphor and paradox.
    The thought that “modes of utterance” that “surpass the limits of received or communal usage … throw a sharply revealing light on the issue of freewill versus determinism” appeals to me in a special way. I have often cited poetic creativity as exemplifying a metaphysical principle of creativity strangely neglected by most philosophers, a principle in which I find the solution to the pseudo-problem of “freewill versus determinism”.

    D. R. Khashaba

  2. Language, Creativity, and Freewill « Backtosocrates’s Blog - pingback on April 23, 2009 at 11:07 am
  3. Kierkegaard’s masterful use of language is quite refreshing. He is one of the few great philosophers, like Plato and Wittgenstein as you mentioned, who can weave complex philosophical insights into brilliant literary prose. His use of parables and aphorisms also help illustrate his points.

    It’s secretive only in the sense that he’s not stating flatout his propositions; you do have do some work, and hopefully learn something in the process.

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