Fiction and the Weave of Life

March 13, 2008

This engaging and admirably clear contribution to the philosophy of literature attempts to rehabilitate what the author terms "literary humanism" - the unfashionable but intuitively appealing view that fictional texts have cognitive value, that they offer a "window on our world" - by disconnecting it from a mimetic or representational model of the relationship between literature and life.

In articulating an alternative account of this relationship, John Gibson criticises current trends in both analytic and continental philosophy of literature: the modelling of fiction on games of make-believe, and the post-modern "panfictionalism" inspired by Jacques Derrida's infamous remark that "il n'y a pas de hors-texte". Neither position is hospitable to "humanist" interpretations of works of fiction. Gibson claims that these very different approaches to literature both rest on a "division of word and world into distinct realms that require bridging if language is to touch reality".

In his search for fundamental common ground between the specifically literary character of works of fiction and life outside the text, Gibson embarks on a critique of representational thinking. Reference and representation are not the only ways to understand the relationship between language and the world: "there are other forms of linguistic involvement with reality, forms that must already be in place for representation and reference to be possible".

Drawing on Wittgenstein's social, cultural conception of language as embedded in types of practice, Gibson suggests that just as the standard metre archived in Paris is not itself an object to be measured but an instrument that functions in a practice of measurement by providing a criterion, so works of literature contain "archived" possibilities of life, aspects of the world - anger, betrayal, suffering, for example. These are neither things nor objects that are represented by fiction, but rather "standards of representation" that "open up a way of seeing the world".

Literature, argues Gibson, discloses the "way in which we are in the world" by bringing to light "our criterial relation with reality", and literary criticism has a key role to play in this revelation of world by text. The claim that literature has cognitive value is secured by an expansion of the concept of cognition to include "acknowledgement", which here signifies a performative or dramatic expression of understanding: "a way of giving life to what we know".

Despite his suspicion of "panfictionalists", Gibson unwittingly gestures towards the work of Martin Heidegger, to which Derrida's deconstructive readings of literature and philosophy are indebted. In texts such as Being and Time and The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger explores in depth the concepts of "world" and "work" that Gibson makes central to his own argument but sketches only in outline. More generally, of course, Heidegger carries out the critique of representational thinking that, as Gibson recognises, is required in order to make sense of those aspects of human life that elude more traditional models of knowledge.

In presenting "panfictionalism" as simply a radicalisation of structuralist linguistics, rather than tracing its engagement with the history of philosophy - in particular with Hegel, Nietzsche and 20th-century phenomenologists - Gibson perhaps misses an opportunity to develop his compelling defence of "literary humanism".

This is not to suggest that Fiction and the Weave of Life fails to accomplish what its author sets out to achieve: it is a rigorous and stimulating book that offers a balanced critique of contemporary theories and important insights into the philosophical problem of literature.

Fiction and the Weave of Life

By John Gibson
Oxford University Press
ISBN 9780199299522
Published 6 December 2007

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