This issue of nonsite.org presents a conversation between literary scholars and philosophers, revisiting the ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy in a modern disciplinary context. These essays are revised and extended versions of papers originally delivered at “No Quarrel: Literature and Philosophy Today,” a conference organized at Boston University in April, 2011 by Robert Chodat and Oren Izenberg, and sponsored by the BU Humanities Foundation. Half of the essays appear now; five more will appear in November, along with responses to the issues they raise.
The schism between literary study and philosophy has long been sharper in America than in Europe. For more than a half-century, mainstream Anglo-American academic philosophy has been dominated by work that looks to science, logic, and mathematics for its models of knowledge, marginalizing questions of narrative, interpretation, and beauty. Over the same period, American literary scholarship has invested in eclectic versions of “theory” that address questions about meaning, intention, and culture without sustained attention to contemporary work in epistemology, the philosophy of language, or the philosophy of mind. As a result, any conversation that takes the disciplinary foundations of interdisciplinarity seriously is bound to reveal differences in assumption (about the stability of a historically variable term like “literature”; about the rigor of a vague concept like “style”). It will also highlight differences of method (e.g., is a discussion of Wordsworth undertaken to improve our account of Romanticism or to improve our account of the self?).
Nevertheless, the writers assembled here seek common ground, connecting high-level conceptual problems with questions of historical change and the particularities of what Wittgenstein called “the stream of our lives,” and making explicit how they understand some of the perennial questions hovering over all discussions of literature and philosophy: Can literature offer some kind of “truth”? What does a fiction have to offer a life? Do poems mean in some special way? We hope that “No Quarrel” might provide a model for how two different humanistic disciplines—disciplines with quite different institutional and intellectual histories—can come to understand one another more fully.
Many thanks to those who helped make that event a success: Juliet Floyd, Charles Griswold, Susan Jackson, Maurice Lee, Carrie McGrory, Michael Prince, Amelie Rorty, Allen Speight, James Winn, and everyone who attended the sessions.