You are on page 1of 4

Précis of The Philosophy of Literature

Peter Lamarque

A central question in The Philosophy of Literature is what literature must be like if it is to

count as one of the arts. The characterization of literature on offer is a characterization of
literature as art. I suppose it might be objected that the characterization simply does not fit
the conception of literature in common usage. If that is right – and I do not think it is –
then the conclusion would be that literature is not commonly conceived as an art form. I
accept that for some it is simply not helpful to view literature as art, and thus in the way
that I characterize it, so I also accept that the very nature of my enterprise is controversial.
I do not take myself simply to be describing facts: this is not an empirical enquiry into, say,
modes of criticism currently deployed or indeed into linguistic usage. It aims to be sensi-
tive to common practice but is not merely describing it.Yet nor is it prescriptive.This is not
a book of recommendations about how to do literary criticism. Rather it is a conceptual
enquiry, exploring and developing a conception of literature, one I believe will be familiar
to readers of literature but also one that emphasizes those aspects of literature that make it
Exploring a conception of literature (as art) is not the same as seeking a definition of
literature and some scepticism is expressed in the book as to whether any substantial defi-
nition is possible. Reflections are offered on the nature of definition and it is shown how
different this is from the more traditional approach of identifying some salient quality –
such as mimesis, expression, pleasure, or linguistic autonomy – to capture what is special
about literature.
If literature is an art, then it must share features with other arts such as painting, music,
film, dance, or sculpture. In spite of obvious differences in media – broadly the medium of
literature is language – there do seem to be features in common related to a certain kind
of directedness of attention that all art invites. This is sometimes associated with aesthetic
qualities or aesthetic experiences, but although it is argued that there is an important place
for aesthetics in the philosophy of literature, it is stressed that this must be handled care-
fully, not least to avoid reductionism. Aesthetic approaches to literature are often reduc-
tive, giving undue emphasis to ‘fine writing’ or the ‘pleasures’ of reading or literary form.
A better focus is to give priority to the way that literary works, like all works of art, exploit
the resources of their medium (in this case language) to produce a satisfying and finely
tuned consonance of means and ends. It is important for the philosophy of literature
to encompass all literary forms – lyric poetry, epic, drama, the novel, the short story –
without given implicit priority to one form over another (as New Criticism did to poetry,
for example, and structuralism to narrative). Literary works are linguistic artefacts compa-
rable, as works of art, to the artefacts of painting, music, and so on. To respond to these
artefacts from a literary point of view is to appreciate how linguistic properties – from poetic
devices to narrative structure – are utilised to the end of developing subject and theme in
a coherent form capable of sustaining a pleasurable imaginative interest.

British Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 50 | Number 1 | January 2010 | pp. 77–80 DOI:10.1093/aesthj/ayp065
© British Society of Aesthetics 2010. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics.
All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email:

A key argument in the book is that a literary work should not be identified with a bare
text, that is, a mere string of sentences in a language: a work is a text (type not token) but
a text deeply contextualized. It is helpful to think of works as texts that are doubly embed-
ded: in a historical context (of production) and in an institutional context (determining
relevant modes of attention). Literariness is not an intrinsic or formal property of a text.
No formal textual property – syntactic, semantic, or rhetorical – has intrinsic value and
that includes formalist notions such as ambiguity, metaphor, ‘semantic density’, syntactic
complexity, or rhetorical aims such as ‘defamiliarizing’, ‘foregrounding’, and so forth;
these are only valuable, if at all, when assigned a function in a work. Formalist theories of
literature can never be complete in themselves.
Once the distinction between work and text is acknowledged, further consequences fol-
low. For example, Roland Barthes’s view that ‘writing is the destruction of every voice, of
every point of origin’ and therefore that literary works are au fond merely instances of
contextless undifferentiated writing (écriture), open to multiple and unconstrained reading,
must be rejected as a basis for approaching literature, being neither true to the phenome-
non nor illuminating in practice. The attack on the author, epitomized by the ‘death of the
author’, is at root an attack on a humanistic conception of literature. Thinking of texts as
authored is essential to thinking of them as works of some kind. Only when they are treated
as works can they be subject to meaningful (that is, non-arbitrary) interpretation. This does
not mean that all interpretation must be author-focused, that is, focused on meanings in
the mind of the author, nor does it imply there is only one acceptable interpretation for
each work, but rather that being authored puts important constraints on reading, not least
by recognizing purposiveness in the writing and some conception (in the broadest terms)
of what kind of achievement is sought.
The chapter, on ‘Practice’, at the centre of the book is pivotal to the argument. Literary
works, conceived as works of art and distinguished from mere texts, are ‘institutional ob-
jects’ the very existence of which is made possible only by conventions of a practice. This
practice-based conception of literature rejects intuitive, ‘natural’, or untutored responses
to literary works as somehow authoritative. It takes seriously the idea, found in David
Hume, that artistic appreciation is a learned response, acquired through experience and
training. This central chapter aims to give a broad analytical account of the ‘conventions of
the practice’ or, more specifically, the focus of attention to a literary work that a trained
reader applies when reading the work as literature. The idea is not to adjudicate between
different ‘approaches’ to literature in different schools of criticism but to seek out those
fundamental common points of interest that underlie all such approaches: in a word, the
interest in how a complex verbal artefact ‘works’ to achieve its ends. Inevitably this will
involve an examination of the formal ‘devices’, conventional or unconventional, general
and specific, that allow the artefact to ‘hang together’, through which its subject is ex-
pressed and its themes developed. It will involve exploring how parts cohere with the
whole, how linguistic means further aesthetic ends. It will also use interpretation to assign
symbolic, figurative, or thematic significance to the work’s elements. As every work has a
subject, be it a story told or an emotion expressed, attention will be directed to the subject
content itself, what it is, what connections might be drawn inside and outside its ‘world’,
what its characters, incidents, or setting are like; but it is a common mark of literature

(as opposed to ‘genre’ fiction or popular verse) that interest goes beyond such subject de-
tails, inviting readers to reflect on thematic ideas that both bind together and transcend the
immediate subject portrayed. In the book I not only look at, and characterize, these differ-
ent focuses of attention but I examine some controversies that arise in relation to them: the
hermeneutic circle, the constraints on interpretation, monism and pluralism, the idea of
‘appreciation’. Again the point is not to take sides between schools of criticism but to see
where arguments lead and what positions – for example, on critical monism and critical
pluralism – seem best supported.
The chapter on fiction examines philosophical and logical issues about how to define
fiction, the difference between fictional discourse (the telling of stories) and discourse about
fiction (the reporting of fictional stories), what a fictional character is, and various questions
about fiction and emotion. The concepts of literature and fiction are not identical; the
terms have different meanings – ‘literature’, for example, possesses an evaluative compo-
nent not present in ‘fiction’ – and they are not extensionally equivalent (not all works of
fiction are classified as literature). It is a moot point whether all literary works (novels,
dramas, poems) are, or should be treated as, fictional. Some paradigmatic literary works –
Shakespearean comedy, the novels of Austen, Dickens, and Trollope – display their fiction-
ality overtly. Other paradigmatic literature (usually poetry) – Shakespeare’s sonnets,
Wordsworth’s Prelude – is less obviously fictional, though can (perhaps should) be read,
from the literary point of view, as the projection of fictional personae rather than as un-
equivocally autobiographical. A central theme of this chapter is the deep tension between
two ways of looking at fictional characters – as literary artefacts (viewed from the ‘exter-
nal’ perspective) and as human beings (viewed from the ‘internal’ perspective of their own
‘worlds’). We have different ways of talking about characters under these perspectives and
different kinds of interest in them; in fact when we occupy one perspective (stressing the
human qualities of characters, their motives for action, thoughts, demeanour, appearance,
and so on) the other perspective (the artefactuality of characters, their grounding in lin-
guistic description, the originality of their invention, and so on) can seem remote and even
irrelevant. A Gestalt-like shift takes us from one to the other. Yet somehow it is important
to try to keep both perspectives in mind.
The debate about truth in literature seems no closer to resolution. But it is important to
identify just where the disagreements lie. Are we talking about factual truths or more ‘uni-
versal’ truths ‘about human nature’? Are we asking whether such truths can be derived
from literature or whether it is part of the distinctive value of literature that we should do
so? Is the focus really on truth or other modes of learning? It seems all too easy to find both
factual and universal truths in works of literature (notably novels) and to discover instanc-
es where readers learn things from novels. That is not where the deep disagreements lie,
even though defenders of literary truth spend much time citing examples of things they or
others have learned. It is not contentious either that there can be learning (from fiction)
without truth: obviously it is possible to pick up falsehoods from fiction but, more impor-
tant, as is often pointed out, what is learned can be non-propositional, skills, know-how,
‘what it is like’, and so on. In the relevant chapter of the book I pursue a line first advanced
in Truth, Fiction, and Literature, my co-authored work with Stein Haugom Olsen, that we
should be wary of emphasizing truth as one of the fundamental values of literature. The

point is that we can acknowledge the power and seriousness of literature, even its ‘cogni-
tive’ nature, without supposing that its seriousness (value) lies in its ability to advance
knowledge. The fact that critics employ propositions to characterize thematic content
should not be taken to support the pro-truth theory, nor should the fact that similar prop-
ositions appear in works themselves. A distinction is needed between thematic proposi-
tions applied to a work and thematic propositions taken to embody generalizations about the
world at large, for such propositions might well be true of the work but false of the world,
or vice versa. When a novelist (Kafka, say, or Beckett) presents a pessimistic or nihilistic
view of the world we can take pleasure from the novel and value it as literature without
endorsing the vision portrayed. The interest is in how powerfully, effectively, and origi-
nally the vision is developed. That is a literary interest, not any empirical, philosophical or
sociological support for the vision that might or might not be forthcoming from outside.
And thus to the final topic, to which many others have already pointed: literary value.
An important, if fairly obvious, point is that literary value must relate to a conception of
literature. If literature is conceived as belles lettres or ‘fine writing’, then that will be the
ground for value judgements. If weight is given to the ‘cognitive’ capacities of literature –
a source of knowledge – then in turn that will become the focus for value. Formalists will
have criteria for value different no doubt from those of Marxists or feminists. This relativ-
ization of value is inevitable but does not imply that value judgements about literature are
merely arbitrary or subjective. To view literature as art is to apply criteria found across the
arts: an emphasis on artistry, creativity, imaginativeness, consonance of means and ends,
pleasure, and the intrinsic value of an experience afforded. More controversially, this can
be extended to emphasize a kind of autonomy in judgements about literary achievement.
To value a literary work for its own sake is not to value it for the truths it imparts or for the
morality of its vision or for its ability to improve human lives. The great works of literature
are not great because they make better or more moral or more knowledgeable readers but
because they offer something strikingly unique, they show the very limits to which the
medium of language can be stretched, and they create a ‘world’ or a vision often far beyond
the powers of imagination of mere mortals. The great literary works stand with the great
paintings or musical works or sculptures as monuments of human creativity, objects of
wonder and delight, inviting amazement that such human achievements are possible.

Peter Lamarque
The University of York