This issue of nonsite presents a conversation between literary scholars and philosophers, revisiting the ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy in a modern disciplinary context. Edited by Oren Izenberg and Rob Chodat.
Narratives are indeed a crucial tool by which many of us make sense of our lives. The problem comes in identifying selves too directly with the lives they live. If we drop the insistence on life-long autobiographies in favor of many short overlapping stories, we can hew more closely to the role narratives typically play in everyday self-representations; but then we also stand in need of a new criterion for unifying those stories into a coherent self.
The dominant question that has troubled readers of both Wordsworth and Wittgenstein on the topic of common language, its forms of expression, and its situatedness in the world consequently has been similar: Whose language shall count as the “real” or “everyday” one, and with what authority or under which criteria do I assert the commonality and commonness of this language? Put differently: Which words are to act as representative of real or everyday language, what is supposed to be, as Wordsworth has it, the very (the “empirical,” let’s say) or what J. L. Austin might have called the actual language of men?
There is, so to speak, an internal relation between our theories of psychological expression and our theories of aesthetic expression. If we therefore want to hold on to the thought that art is, in fact, expressive, a great deal will depend on how we understand the expressiveness of the human figure. Yet at the same time, if we are convinced that art is not expressive (for whatever theoretical reasons), then that may, in turn, influence the way we see the human body itself: perhaps draining not only works of art, but the human body too, of their expressive powers.
To suggest that literature is simply another genre of fiction, like the Western or the Romance, is to ignore a fact that…genres are distinguished from one another principally by looking at the story-type, the plot. Insofar as works of literature fall into distinct types, they do so on the basis of features other than plot, such as theme or character. So different kinds of great literature may indeed be categorized as falling into certain “types,” but these types are not thereby genres, because genres are distinguished from one another according to their plot. This matters because plots are powerful emotion-producing machines.
It is the scientist’s “being-in-the-world” that allows her to describe planets and bacteria, “things and subhuman organisms,” but the “being-in-the-world” of the layman occupies what Percy calls a “different sort of reality,” resting upon the linguistic and social ties that constitute a “non-material, non-measurable entity.” And what holds true of our triadic relationships also goes for us as individuals. A “material substance cannot name or assert a proposition,” which accordingly means, Percy concludes, that “the initiator of a speech act” is also something that the natural sciences are incapable of recognizing: “The agent is not material.”
There is not not anything true here; there is not no thought
whose single attention might burn as the day burns, holding
in flame and in fury to longing, or stuck to the nub
of some one refusal, some stubborn remainder of thought.