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All The World’s A Text?

by Rick Lewis

Our cover shows Don Quixote riding with his faithful squire Sancho Panza. Cervantes’ 1605 tale, the first modern novel, tells the story of a retired country gentleman who spends his nights in his library, immersed in stories of chivalry and knightly derring-do. Eventually losing his mind due to lack of sleep, he believes himself to be the knight Don Quixote, puts on an old suit of armour and an improvised helmet, mounts an old nag and sets out with a long-suffering neighbour on a quest to rescue his true love. His subsequent adventures include attacks on windmills, which he mistakes for giants. Touching and hilarious; yet Stefán Snaevarr examines the view of philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Paul Ricoeur that all our lives, like that of Don Quixote, are made up of a myriad of stories.

There have always been links between philosophy and literature. Plato’s dialogues, while being some of the greatest classics of ancient philosophy, are also great literature; and more recent philosophers including Voltaire, Sartre and Camus have been novelists or playwrights. (On the other hand, there have been plenty of works of philosophy which only a lunatic would regard as literature!) In this issue some of our contributors use literature as an inspiration for philosophical investigations, pondering what Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out reveals about what it is to be a woman, or using Charles Dickens to illustrate the nature of truth in a fictional world.

Recently the links between literature and philosophy have become more explicit, a development at least partly the fault of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Derrida invented a method of textual analysis called deconstructionism, which involved making explicit the contradictions he claimed were hidden within any text. This obviously applied to literature but the big step which followed was Derrida’s claim that, as he put it: “there is nothing outside of the text.” In other words, everything around us – the world, human society, culture – is in some sense a text and can thus be subjected to methods of literary analysis such as deconstruction.

This approach had little immediate impact on philosophy in English-speaking countries. There has been a divide for most of a century between ‘anglo-american’ and ‘continental’ philosophy, and despite both of these currents becoming increasingly focussed on the nature of language there are great differences in style and method. Most English-speaking philosophers were exasperated with Derrida’s playful and often obscure writing style, some declared him a charlatan, and his ideas made only slow headway.

While the Philosophy Departments of English-speaking universities were busy ignoring Derrida, their colleagues in the English Literature departments were lapping up his works with huge enthusiasm. They were delighted to hear that everything is a text, and to be told that literary analysis was applicable not only to understanding nineteenth century novels but to grasping the workings of the world as a whole. With one bound, literary theorists realised their wildest ambitions. No more nitpicking over the symbolism in Silas Marner! Now they could grapple with glamorous metaphysical issues instead.

Philosophy’s strange embrace of literature continued with the work of Michel Foucault and others. Foucault’s notions about the nature of authorship in general and the ‘death of the author’ in particular added fuel to the fire. (Foucault’s ideas are discussed in Marnie Binder’s article .) But in America, some philosophers were already engaged for their own purposes in a deep examination of literature. The ‘ordinary language’ philosopher Stanley Cavell, of Harvard, is the giant in this field, producing magisterial investigations into the philosophical importance of the works of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Jane Austen and Ralph Waldo Emerson, partly to illustrate his own ideas about the nature of utterances. However, as Don Quixote showed us, giants (like windmills) are there to be tilted at, and Nancy Bunge takes a tilt at Cavell’s work on Emerson in her article.

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