Back to top

Literature, Analytically Speaking

Literature, Analytically Speaking
Explorations in the Theory of Interpretation, Analytic Aesthetics, and Evolution

A new bridge between literary studies and analytic aesthetics, drawing on a diverse range of texts—from Scheherazade and Raymond Chandler to graphic novels and Woody Allen films.

Series: Cognitive Approaches to Literature and Culture, Edited by Frederick Luis Aldama, Arturo J. Aldama, and Patrick Colm Hogan

April 2010
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
220 pages | 6 x 9 | 8 b&w photos |

In a new approach to interdisciplinary literary theory, Literature, Analytically Speaking integrates literary studies with analytic aesthetics, girded by neo-Darwinian evolution. Scrutinizing narrative fiction through a lens provided by analytic philosophy, revered literary theorist Peter Swirski puts new life into literary theory while fashioning a set of practical guidelines for critics in the interpretive trenches.

Dismissing critical inquirers who deny intention its key role in the study of literary reception, Swirski extends the defense of intentionality to art and to human behavior in general. In the process, Swirski takes stock of the recent work in evolutionary theory, arguing that the analysis of narrative truth may be grounded in the neo-Darwinian paradigm which forms the empirical backbone behind his analytic approach. Literature, Analytically Speaking provides a series of precepts designed to capture the ways in which we do interpret (and ought to interpret) works of literature. Reflecting a resounding shift from the poststructuralist paradigm, Swirski's lively and colorful presentation, backed up by a dazzling variety of examples and case studies, reconceptualizes the aesthetics of literature and literary studies.

  • Chapter 1: Analytic Aesthetics
  • Chapter 2: Artwork
  • Chapter 3: Work and Text
  • Chapter 4: Fiction and Nonfiction
  • Chapter 5: The Nature of Fiction
  • Chapter 6: Fictional Truth
  • Chapter 7: Intention and Interpretation
  • Chapter 8: Aesthetics and Evolution
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Peter Swirski is Professor of American literature and culture at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Honorary Professor of American Studies at Jinan University, China, and member of the Executive Council of the International American Studies Association (IASA).


And for those who are still interested in pronouncing judgments as to aesthetic value, it is only by identifying, tracking down, and laying bare the supreme workings of style that we are able to say why a given work is beautiful, why it has enjoyed different kinds of reception in the course of time, and why, although it follows models and sometimes even precepts that are scattered far and wide in the sea of intertextuality, it has been able to gather those legacies and make them blossom in such a way as to give life to something original.

Umberto Eco, On Literature

A Book of Literary Theory

If there is a discipline called Poetics, it . . . will have to deal with one of the dimensions of language, and in that sense it will be the proper object of the critic, just like poetry is the object of the poet.

Umberto Eco, On Literature

This is a book of literary theory, written by a literary theorist for literary theorists. My aim here is fourfold. First and foremost, I seek to integrate contemporary analytic aesthetics together with certain of its concepts and methods into literary studies. Conversely, by virtue of scrutinizing aspects of narrative fiction with an intensity uncommon in philosophy, I seek to enrich and complexify the understanding of belles lettres among our natural allies: aestheticians of philosophical persuasion. Either way, I aim to throw a bridge between literary studies and the domain that shares so much of its subject matter yet lies so far apart in its research program and methodology.

Moving down, I aim to rehearse, and in some cases refine, the solutions to several problems in aesthetics that bear directly on the interpretation of literature. The general tenets and many specific theses elaborated herein have been worked out over the past three decades or so by philosophers like Arthur Danto, David Lewis, Kendall Walton, Gregory Currie, Jerrold Levinson, Peter Lamarque, Stein Olsen, Stephen Davies, Robert Stecker, Gary Iseminger, Dennis Dutton, Paisley Livingston, and many others. However, given that their work remains practically unknown in literary studies, Literature, Analytically Speaking highlights their findings and tailors them to our field-specific needs.

Preoccupied with theory, analytic philosophers are occasionally wont to overlook the forest of art for the trees. Bearing this in mind, I draw from all this theorizing a set of practical guidelines for critics in the interpretive trenches. Bringing aesthetic theory and critical praxis together, I aim to enhance interdisciplinary knowledge of—and the methods of disciplinary research into—the fundamentals of literary-aesthetic study. For, as I contend, both of these goals can be profitably pursued by adopting, and when necessary adapting, not just the specific postulates but the very philosophy that underlies the analytic approach.

Problems of interpretation continue to occupy theorists of literature, partly because they are the most pressing and partly because they are the most difficult on our agenda. Alas, like the McCartneys' divorce attorneys, scholars who labor to rationalize the principles of literary-critical interpretation seem only to agree to disagree on almost everything under the sun. Indeed, in the words of one eminent thinker, this "great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion which prevails in the world, is too obvious not to have fallen under every one's observation." It is a sobering thought that David Hume's summation from 1757 has lost nothing of its punch in our day.

While there have long existed competing schools of textual exegesis, amid today's cornucopia of positions and oppositions theorists of literature cannot even agree on the foundational principles according to which research should be organized. The variety of textual moves and anti-intentionalist movements known collectively as postmodernism has only exacerbated this balkanization. Alas, if the maturity of a research discipline is to be judged by the emergence of a shared program of study driven by a methodology contiguous with other areas of inquiry, literary theory—viewed not as a heterogeneous body of metacritical commentary but as a research discipline—is still in its infancy.

Recognizing this, I turn to analytic philosophy in pursuit of a cogent and principled methodology. Although in itself the interdisciplinarity turn is nothing new, the extent to which literary scholarship actually practices what it preaches is another matter. Richard Levin's "The New Interdisciplinarity in Literary Criticism" (1993) thoroughly documents, in fact, that cross-campus standards in critical theory and practice remain for the most part skin deep. This may in turn explain why, on the jacket of a 1999 critical anthology, Mieke Bal felt the need to defend herself against "the common assumption that interdisciplinarity makes the object of inquiry vague and the methodology muddled."

The partition that separates literary criticism from neighboring disciplines such as analytic aesthetics or pragmatics may be invisible but is none the less real. It is a pretty safe bet, for example, that when it comes to speech-act theory—an area of inquiry shared by analytic aesthetics and linguistics—few story scholars could sketch it even in broad strokes, let alone track its significance for the analysis of ontology of fiction in general and narrative fiction in particular. Ditto for the so-called problem of fictional truth and a host of other topics pursued with analytic rigor and success in a discipline of which many have only a vague and often not entirely favorable notion.

This is where Literature, Analytically Speaking comes in. Taking both the specific findings and the general methods of analytic aesthetics to belong squarely to literary scholarship, I set out to formulate an alternative to some of the notions embraced by the current generation of critical inquirers. The central of those is the denial to authorial intentions their rightful place in the study of the reception of literature. "Rightful," I hurry to point out, should not be taken to imply any kind of sacrosanct status. My approach to human agency is entirely more moderate, not to say commonsensical—taking intentions to be a vital, if not always fully accessible or even reliable, facet of literary interpretation.

Likewise, contesting critical and metacritical evocations of the "literary text," I argue that to the extent "literary" entails anything like "aesthetic," the term is a conceptual oxymoron and as such a primary candidate for disciplinary reassessment. To this end I marshal a series of case studies designed to bring out categorical—both ontological and art-interpretive—distinctions between texts and works. Arguing against the centrality of the notion of text and thus against the concomitant marginalization of the concept of work, I advance an alternative to the theories of interpretation associated chiefly with poststructuralism.

To facilitate this, the book is structured conceptually like an hourglass. It opens with a basic inquiry into the ontology of literary art and follows with the analysis of the principles of aesthetic interpretation. It then narrows the scope to investigate the nature of narrative fiction as well as the interpretive guidelines for "fleshing out" story contents (the problem of fictional truth). Toward the end it fans out again to revisit a broader set of methodological points about intentions and interpretations before closing with a look at the evolutionary implications for the notion of the aesthetic and for aesthetics tout court.

Since it would not do to talk about the principles of interpretation before determining what it is that we are interpreting in the first place, Chapter 2 opens with the identity of literary artworks. Literary theory today may be agog with polemics on sundry aspects of interpretation, but amid these metacritical thrusts and parries surprisingly little effort is directed at the most fundamental research category of all. Yet, recalcitrant as it has proven to be, the concept of an artwork lies at the heart of the entire critical enterprise, not least because of its ramifications for the ways in which we (should) interact with literature.

On the other hand, little of such reticence is in evidence among analytic philosophers who clearly consider themselves equal to the task of clarifying what it is that artists bring into being. Consequently, my analysis rides coattails on the work of aestheticians who analyze the nature of art, of which literature forms a natural phylum. Taking ontological identity and aesthetic function to be distinct items—contra proponents of functionalism, of whom I will have more to say as I go along—I thus separate inquiries into "What Artworks Are" (identity) from "How to Tell Artworks from One Another" (individuation).

Having said that, I do not extend these ontological investigations to other forms of art. Limitations of space, coherence, and not least knowledge dictate that I restrict myself to the only corner of the art world of which I can speak with some confidence. My purpose is thus to clarify matters pertaining to the analysis of narrative fiction, passing over other forms of art, such as painting, music, sculpture, and stage performance. Fortunately, as we shall see in Chapter 2, ontological theses devised for artworks in general prove to be disciplined yet flexible enough to capture what is essential about works of literature.

With the question of identity out of the way, I look at a couple of concepts typically twinned without a moment's hesitation. "Works" and "texts" are terms so ingrained in contemporary critical discourse that many scholars take them to be pretheoretical and, as such, in little need of elucidation. Many, as a matter of fact, employ them interchangeably (sort of like "cell phone" and "mobile"), begging the question of whether we could dispense with one of them without any loss. Indeed, poststructuralism—which in many ways still drives the disciplinary paradigm—typically privileges the notion of text, although, as conclusively demonstrated by textual scholars proper, without much reflection on what this move entails.

Critics who do distinguish works from texts, on the other hand, often omit to tell us why this ought to be so. Filling this crucial lacuna, in Chapter 3 I disambiguate the concepts of work and text, supply a chain of reasoning for why they are not identical, and elaborate the framework for applying either concept en route to individuating artworks. I devote especial consideration to the concept of text, this catch-all of so much critical and metacritical discourse. I detail not only how complex it is but also how it is yoked to contexts where we really speak of work. Loosely speaking, literary texts can be—and frequently are—used synonymously with literary works, but this substitutiveness does not extend to contexts where the difference is of consequence.

In Chapters 4 and 5 I take under the microscope the category that forms the interpretive bread and butter for most literary critics and scholars: narrative fiction. The very fact of asking what makes fiction fiction signals a significant departure from colloquial parlance whereby fiction is assumed to be synonymous with literature. Analytically speaking they are, naturally, anything but. Bertrand Russell's Autobiography is magnificent literature but not fiction. Andrew Wiles's proof of Fermat's last "theorem" is a magnificent nonfiction but hardly a work of literature—not, at least, in any widespread sense of the term.

Armed with a constellation of arguments grounded in speech-act theory, I thus distinguish fiction ("made-up stories, usually in prose") from nonfiction ("prose that has not been made up"), as per a recent, unintentionally hilarious handbook for creative writers. Then, in Chapter 6 I take on the problem of fictional truth. The matter is deceptively simple and concerns the assumptions all readers must make to fill in ubiquitous semantic gaps in the stories they read. The solution involves an intricate, if for the most part tacit, type of reflexive interaction (game) between the author and the reader conducted principally by means of the text—though not only.

While unraveling the inner workings of this interpretive pas de deux, I revisit the notion of agency to demonstrate how a moderate appeal to authorial intentions overcomes a range of theoretical and practical obstacles in anchoring interpretation in literary works. This part of my analysis might help some literary theorists overcome the interpretive split-personality syndrome frequently exhibited in contacts with literature. A characteristic symptom is the discrepancy between their sometimes wildly implausible theories and the sensible (not to say commonsensical) practical aesthetics they fall back on when face to face with a story.

Who could forget Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, who propounded the death of the author in books that never failed to ascribe their authorship? Or Jacques Derrida, who breezily endorsed the intertextual playfulness of contextless referents while protesting that his numerous debunkers failed to get his message right? Indeed, the chasm between their words and deeds was so pronounced that even Paul de Man—himself no stranger to deconstruction—reproached his self-defeating colleagues:

In all of them a paradoxical discrepancy appears between the general statements they make about the nature of literature (statements on which they base their critical methods) and the actual results of their interpretations.

Moving on, to get a better grasp on the role of intentions in interpretation, Chapter 7 revisits the standard objections raised against intentionalism in the context of literary study. My task is made easier by the fact that the conceptual map for skirting the Scylla of radical intentionalism and the Charybdis of radical anti-intentionalism already will have been put in place in the preceding chapters. As such, I contrast work-directed interpretations and textual readings, fortifying this theoretical distinction with the analysis of a genre-busting novel from one of the most aesthetically versatile American writers, the late Thomas M. Disch.

Finally, to cap the book, evolution. Despite prodigious amounts of print on the nature of literature and literary-critical axiology, there is as yet little consensus on how to approach the analysis of beauty and truth. Beauty or, pace Longinus, sublimity has traditionally been yoked to the truth of representation, whether naturalistically mimetic, self-reflexively impressionistic, or any other. Taking stock of the recent work in evolutionary and evolutionary-literary studies, I argue that a promising approach to the analysis of narrative truth emerges from the work on behavioral veracity within the neo-Darwinian paradigm—thus bringing us full circle to the questions of methodology and disciplinary research.

A Model for a Science of Literature

One can construct a theory of literature, and use individual works as documents, and one can read individual works in the light of a theory of literature, or, rather, in an attempt to make the very principles of a theory of literature emerge from the examination of individual works.

Umberto Eco, On Literature

Taking Poetics as a model for a science of literature, Lubomir Dolezel proposed that Aristotle's efforts can be construed in two distinct, though not unrelated, ways. First of all, Poetics is a volume of practical criticism replete with staging advice for the working dramatist that advances structural and, by derivation, aesthetic judgments about the works to which it refers. On the other hand, it is distinctly more philosophical in flavor, laying down a succession of normative postulates of inquiry into the aesthetics of tragedy, comedy, epic poetry, and dithyrambic poetry.

Either way, Aristotle's vision is much more analytical and empirical than any conception of criticism as the foundry of value judgments or of metacriticism as the study of literary beauty. In view of these differences, before jumping into the thick of argument and counterargument, it may help to distinguish aesthetics as it had been understood historically from aesthetics in the analytic vein. After all, in its original context, the ancient Greek aisthesis or aesthesis signified no more than perception or sensation, being conspicuously mute on the subject of the sublime.

Although metacritical interest in the arts goes back to the Babylonians, modern aesthetics and the philosophy of art did not come into their own until the publication of Kant's Critique of Judgement in 1790. As far as analytic aesthetics is concerned, it has even been argued that it did not coalesce into a professional discipline until the 1940s, roughly co-extensive with the birth of the American Society for Aesthetics and the launch of Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. To complicate matters further, debates rage nowadays whether there even exists a set of judgments that could be marked off as strictly aesthetic, that is, categorically separate from artistic, cognitive, or ethical.

Be that as it may, the conceptual nucleus of modern aesthetics centers on the heterogeneous, not to say interdisciplinary, inquiry into the philosophy of art. This, in turn, entails inquiry into the assortment of beliefs, concepts, and theories that impinge on our contacts with phenomena that involve aesthetic experience and value. Given how broad and inclusive this characterization is, it invites an obvious rejoinder. Aesthetic values and art have been intimately associated with each other in virtually all human cultures. Why, then, differentiate aesthetics from the philosophy of art at all?

The reasons are twofold. On the one hand, not all aesthetic encounters and judgments necessarily involve art. For many people naturescapes—or, for me, the fastidious creations of bower birds—can be a source of wondrous beauty. On the other hand, not all judgments about art are aesthetic in character. Cognitive, moral, functional, even institutional considerations play a role in contacts with artworks on a regular basis. It is for no other reason that in 1964 Arthur Danto coined the term "artwork" to detach analysis of aesthetic creations from their implicit valuation as "Art." In sum, instead of mapping one to one, aesthetics and the philosophy of art only cross-sect each other's domains.

If modern aesthetics is only a little more than two centuries old, analytic philosophy is younger still by about a century, evolving from the work of Frege, Russell, Wittgenstein, and the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle. One needs to distinguish here the school of analytic philosophy associated with the Vienna Circle—which largely dissipated in the 1960s after Quine and others had battered its methodological premises—and the type of philosophy descended from that tradition. In this book I am naturally interested in the latter, not least because even in its short history the analytic orientation has proven immensely fruitful.

Surveying its meteoric career in the opening chapter of Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, John Searle gives it an enthusiastic two thumbs up. Nothing in the history of philosophy, he contends, has come close to the analytic method in "rigour, clarity, intelligence and, above all, its intellectual content" (1996a, 23). Audacious as the assertion is, it would be difficult to contest (not that such has not been tried). The principal mode of doing philosophy in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Germany, and more and more in other parts of Europe and South America is indeed analytic. So much so, points out Searle, that scholars in the nonanalytic tradition "feel it necessary to define their position in relation to analytic philosophy" (1).

If analytic philosophy can be said to deal with the analysis of meaning, analytic aesthetics can be said to deal with the meaning of art and aesthetic experience. Meaning here ought to be understood inclusively—from the ontology of art, the nature of fiction, the nature of representation, and the mechanisms of emotional response to art to the nature of aesthetic properties and their relation to artistic, cognitive, or moral ones. That even this limited inventory is a far cry from the historical conception of aesthetics as the study of beauty is no accident. In a legacy of John Passmore's crusade against wild-goose chasing after essentialist traits of all art, research today is typically limited to narrowly defined problems within a single art form—as it is in my case.

The rationale behind this methodological modesty is simple. In the spirit of analytic philosophy tout court, it is felt that only by proceeding systematically and piecemeal does work in aesthetics stand a chance of maturing into a coherent, cumulative research paradigm. Indeed, contends Bernard Williams in the second prologue to the above-mentioned Companion to Philosophy, this is the analysts' recipe for success—"as opposed to work done in their local departments of literature" (26). Even as with other literary scholars and critics I mutter "Ouch," this disciplinary dis is worth a pause with regard to what it implies about research in literary and cultural studies.

For better or—as I had opportunity to demonstrate in Between Literature and Science (2000) and Of Literature and Knowledge (2007)—for worse, such condemnations are for the most part well deserved. Their repercussions for the task at hand transcend, however, the occasional oddities professed by professors of literature in the name of this or that methodological fiat. When a half-century ago C. P. Snow bemoaned the schism between the Two Cultures, he certainly did not envision a situation where two neighboring disciplines, such as literary studies and analytic aesthetics, could be so estranged from each other.

And yet, even as philosophers habitually lay siege to problems in literary theory, few critics are aware of the work conducted under the banner of analytic aesthetics. How many of us are conversant with, for instance, David Lewis's Reality and Mutual Belief principles? Or with their roles in defining the agenda for the analysis of fictional truth—that is, for the interpretation of implicit story content, indispensable to the grasp of all narratives? The sad truth is that, despite vows of interdisciplinarity, theorists today remain almost completely negligent of analytic aesthetics.

Nor is this disciplinary isolation a latter-day phenomenon. Twenty years ago Anita Silvers took stock of the situation in an essay whose Age of Aquarius title, "Letting the Sunshine In," evoked the spirit of harmony and understanding. Even so, upon surveying the would-be cross-currents between art criticism and aesthetics, her verdict was far from sanguine. With the one possible exception of Wimsatt and Beardsley's "Intentional Fallacy," she wrote, "historians and critics of the arts treated the work of the analytic aestheticians at best as irrelevant, but sometimes as malevolent" (1987, 137).

Twenty years thence, the Modern Language Association's 2007 MLA International Bibliography has its own statistical story to tell. A keyword search for "analytic" and "aesthetics" yields all of 22 hits, only half of which are actually devoted to analytic aesthetics. The disparity with the disciplinary mainstream is stark: "literary theory" registers more than 38,000 hits, "aesthetics" and "literature" more than 8,000, and "aesthetics" and "literary theory" more than 2,000. "Literary theory" and "analytic aesthetics" renders all of 3. On the authority of this completest database in literary studies, the conclusion is hard to avoid: while aesthetics is quite popular, analytic aesthetics is not.

This lack of rapport may be symptomatic of a broader tendency within the humanities toward disciplinary autarchy. The recent rise of molecular genetics, neurophysiology, sociobiology, psychophysics, or biomechanics, to name a few, attests to the fusion of scientific research across disparate fields of inquiry. Given their common subject (the arts), research arsenal (linguistic and counterfactual analysis), and interest (theory of interpretation), it is therefore hard to understand why, as the editor of the 1998 Encyclopedia of Aesthetics rues, so "many people concerned with art and culture today seem to want to distance themselves from aesthetics."

Like a Serengeti waterhole that can nurture fish, reptiles, mammals, and fowl alike, analytic aesthetics is capable of nurturing scholars from departments other than philosophy. After all, its object of study—any and all modes of artistic creation—is intrinsically comparative. In this it is mirrored by the discipline itself for, in the quintessentially cross-campus fashion, aesthetics lies on the cusp of literary studies, art history, evolutionary studies, translation theory, linguistics, pragmatics, semiotics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, metaphysics, cognitive science, sociology, psychology, and law and ethics, to name a few.

Literary studies itself, with its multiple subdomains such as epistemology, narratology, and genre theory, typifies a multidisciplinary environment, but the same can be said of the visual and performance arts. One of the venerable topics in aesthetics is, in fact, the extension of ontological, stylistic, or structural regularities from one form of art into others. Cutting through the traditional ways of looking at artworks—be it according to historical period, nationality, mode of narration, modality of expression, or any other—aesthetics prides itself on being inherently interdisciplinary and comparative.

The State of the Art in Aesthetics and Art Criticism

Unfortunately, "postmodern" is a term bon a tout faire. I have the impression that it is applied today to anything the user of the term happens to like.

Umberto Eco, Postscript to The Name of the Rose

Against this backdrop, it may not be amiss to pause over the recent endeavor to summarize the state of the art in aesthetics and art criticism. The above-mentioned Encyclopedia of Aesthetics casts itself in this very light, as an effort to define the field and the research in the field for the twenty-first century. As such, it implicitly invites comparison with other leading "chains of knowledge" of the past. Diderot and D'Alambert's Encyclopédie was, after all, not just a collection of knowledge from antiquity on but also a method of bringing order to it. The legendary eleventh edition of the Britannica was not a mere litany of facts but a reasoned summary of the practical and speculative research of its era.

In keeping with the hyperexplosion and consequent fragmentation of knowledge in the present age, one might suppose the goals before the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics to be somewhat less assuming. Not so. According to the editors, the first English-language reference work on this scale devoted to aesthetics offers a combination of historical reference material and critical discussions of contemporary aesthetics intended for general readers and experts alike.

This, in other words, is it—more than two thousand pages on the ways in which we interpret works of art and the culture in which they are embedded. In the same spirit, the four volumes bring together not only philosophers (analytic and otherwise) but also art historians, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and other theorists and metatheorists of art and culture. Given these claims to comprehensiveness, one may be allowed a quick tour of the encyclopedia insofar as, in many ways, it makes for an instructive foil for my own project.

To begin, the publication that prides itself on being the reference work in aesthetics—and which actually indexes the distinction between works and texts—continues to conflate and, as such, confuse these fundamental concepts. Evidently the bulk of the encyclopedists are ignorant of, or simply ignore, the categorical distinction between a (fair) text and an intentionalist aesthetic construct such as the work. The neglect of research by philosophers in the analytic tradition is, in fact, the norm rather than the exception. The seemingly comprehensive chapter on fiction contains not a word on the problem of fictional truth, a central and widely debated topic in analytic aesthetics.

Equally striking is the lack of an entry on evolution, which is implicated in so many spheres of cultural activity, including literature. Connections between literary aesthetics and literary epistemology are so plentiful that they give renewed credence to arguments that aesthetic values employed to define belles lettres may, indeed, need to include a distinct sort of cognitive value. Given that all cognitive theories rest at the bottom on the modern evolutionary synthesis, this is a startling oversight. Not even the article on empirical aesthetics—a growing subfield that combines philosophical analysis, literary theory, and psychometric experiments—makes a note of neo-Darwinian theory, including theory of mind.

Theory of mind (commonly shortened as TOM) refers to our astonishing and astonishingly successful ability to read people's minds—or more precisely to read minds off people's behavioral and linguistic cues, often provided for that purpose. Such mind reading has nothing to do with ESP or any other paranormal mumbo jumbo. It is a normal, universal, and indispensable component of our innate folk psychology by means of which we attribute mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions) to other beings and have mental states attributed to us. Theory of mind, in short, is a process of hypothesis formation about one another's mind to make sense of one another's behavior.

If formal research into mental representations of the world can be said to have begun with Piaget, its contemporary renaissance is usually traced to David Premack and Guy Woodruff's 1978 article "Does the Chimpanzee Have a Theory of Mind?." Since then theory of mind has surged to the foreground in fields such as psychopathology (studies of autism, for example), neurology, primatology, evolutionary ecology, and—not least—analytic philosophy of mind and language. Indeed, thirty years on the investigative circle seems to have closed, inasmuch as theory of mind today informs a growing number of inquiries into the intentional stance one needs to adopt to interpret artworks. As such, it forms the empirical backbone behind my analytic approach.

Theory of mind is all about recognizing the role of cognition and intentions in our biological and cultural lives. It is about recognizing purposes and goals—whether in real life or in fiction—within a framework of human behavior. Ultimately, it is about recognizing other people as intentional agents. As such, research into TOM provides the latest and final nail in the coffin of poststructuralist criticism defined by anti-authorial and anti-intentionalist dogmas. And apparently for this very reason, theory of mind and other evolutionary and literary-evolutionary topics are conspicuously absent from the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Instead, the editors prefer to genuflect to cognitive and interpretive relativism.

It is more than a mere question of poststructuralist aesthetics occupying a disproportionate amount of headroom. More to the point, one detects a calculated endeavor not to channel debate according to the best available research but, in a triumph of plurality over argumentative evidence, to compile a list of mutually critiquing choruses instead. Pointedly, the editors concede as much in the preface. Their homage to postmodern skepticism about cognition is "to incorporate the contemporary doubts about the encyclopedia into its very structure." This open abdication of intellectual responsibility is especially striking in a discipline such as aesthetics, in which theories are in many cases a matter of ongoing work and which could benefit from a judicious pruning of branches that have failed to bear fruit.

The contrast with the principles of literary study enunciated already two and a half thousand years ago in Poetics could scarcely be starker. "Thought," counseled Aristotle, "is found where something is proved to be or not to be" (64). The gulf between his stress on rigorous argument and today's duty-free theorizing speaks for itself. In a more contemporary environment, his point is eloquently reiterated in "From Small Beginnings: Literary Theorists Encounter Analytic Philosophy" (1990). In this rare example of informed philosophical anatomy from a professor of English, David Gorman reviews one of the rare encounters between story scholars and analytic aestheticians.

Setting the record straight on what it means for literary theorists to add to—and thus to contest—the work in analytic philosophy, his verdict is decidedly unflattering. Addressing himself to a collection of essays on analytic philosophy, deconstruction, and literary theory, Gorman's running theme is the critics' refusal or plain inability to do their philosophical homework. In fact, his diagnosis could in many ways serve as the motto for Literature, Analytically Speaking: "The main problem afflicting modern literary theory lies in the remarkable willingess of most theorists to accept, with little examination, dicta of the philosophical authorities who have impressed them for some reason, as opposed to thinking through such ideas critically" (650).

The point is simple but worth reiterating: the power of analytic philosophy rests in its methodology rather than in any one of its specific formulations. The latter, by analogy with the sciences, may be superseded by subsequent research—conducted, significantly, along methodologically sound lines. Literary critics who aspire to tackle issues in philosophy, writes Gorman, or who wish to tackle issues in critical theory in a manner respected by philosophers must therefore recognize that "exegesis cannot substitute for argument" (655). To this Rule Number One of Interdisciplinary Scholarship I can only append Rule Number Two: "Learn Fast Rule Number One."

Unfortunately, in the wider world of knowledge hunters, the research credentials of literary and cultural studies remain shaky at best. There is no need to reinvoke Bernard Williams's opprobrium from the previous section, either. A 1989 bestseller in the philosophy of science disparages the most egregious methodological excesses as none other than "Research by Literary Interpretation." The hallmark of the pseudoscientists, points out the author, is to "focus upon the words, not on the underlying facts and reasons. In this regard the pseudoscientists act like lawyers gathering precedents and using these as arguments, rather than attending to what has actually been communicated."

These censures do not seem to bother literary theorists, the better known of whom actually boasts that his kind of analysis "seeks not to find the foundation and the conditions of truth." To be fair, such attitudes are not confined to literary criticism. Laments in classical studies about intellectual damage inflicted by "new historicism, or history without facts" are picked up in anthropology whose sorry state is attributed to its theoretical apparatus, drawn "alas, from cultural studies." Historians themselves are up in arms against the so-called New History, according to which "'Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt."

In this context, the 2006 special issue of the Yearbook of English Studies, published under the aegis of the Modern Humanities Research Association, may mark the beginning of the end of such laissez-faire practices. Traditional in content (Victorian literature), it is anything but traditional in its methodological orientation. Conspicuously gone is the constructivist/deconstructivist element that has given literary studies a bad name with recondite theorizing and inscrutable jargon. Indeed, if the imprint of this leading research association in the humanities can be taken as the harbinger of things to come, agency and intentionality are making a comeback at the expense of postmodernist theory and theorese.

New Vistas for Looking at Art

We thus find ourselves facing not an opposition (as was long thought) between a normative poetics and an aesthetics . . . but, rather, the oscillation between a descriptive theory and a critical practice that presupposes each other in turn.

Umberto Eco, On Literature

Over the past two decades or so, a series of pivotal books in analytic aesthetics opened new vistas for looking at art and, for that matter, at the discipline itself. Confined to philosophy, this disciplinary renaissance did little, however, to bring literary scholars into the analytic program. Arguably the only book-length study that comes close to combining the tools of analytic philosophy and the interests of literary theory is Peter Lamarque and Stein Olsen's Truth, Fiction, and Literature (1994). However, despite its length, their investigation is directed almost entirely at the problem of fictional truth and, as such, is of limited value to story scholars searching for a broader paradigm.

Even more to the point, although they are preoccupied with literature and literary analysis, Lamarque and Olsen write strictly with the trained philosopher rather than the literary theorist in mind. The consequences are predictable, insofar as one would look in vain for any response from literary critics to what is, after all, a major contribution to the field. In short, much as one might wish it were otherwise, the gulf that divides literary metacriticism and philosophical aesthetics remains today as deep as ever. Be that as it may, my interest in analytic aesthetics is proportional precisely to the extent that some of its recent studies can serve as signposts on the road to interdisciplinary fence mending.

Here are a few examples of the research program I have in mind: Richard Shusterman's Analytic Aesthetics (1989); Gregory Currie's The Nature of Fiction (1990); Kendall Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe (1990); Stephen Davies's Definitions of Art (1991); Gary Iseminger's Intention and Interpretation (1992); Jerrold Levinson's The Pleasures of Aesthetics (1996); Robert Stecker's Artworks (1996); Joseph Margolis's What, After All, Is a Work of Art? (1999); Nöel Carroll's Theories of Art Today (2000); Michael Krausz's Is There a Single Right Interpretation? (2002); Paisley Livingston and Berys Gaut's The Creation of Art (2003); and Livingston's Art and Intention (2005).

Naturally, this is only a short list of philosophical publications devoted to disentangling the web of aesthetic and sociocultural practices known as art. Appearing at the end of a century during which analytic aesthetics emerged as a research discipline and setting the agenda for the century in which I write, they map the continuities and discontinuities between the historical views on art and the current endeavors to theorize them. Offering a portal onto the history, methodology, and the cutting edge of the field, they pursue a number of inquiries homologous to those at the heart of literary studies.

Not to look too far, one can mention inquiries into the nature of works of fiction (such as their ontology), the significance of authorial intentions in interpretation, or the nature of aesthetic appreciation. However, in contrast to the still prevalent mode of doing literary and cultural studies, by and large analytic philosophers refrain from methodological fiats and sweeping generalizations on (postmodern) society, culture, language, or art. Instead, they take on systematically defined problems and dissect them with a view to internal cogency and critical practice.

By and large, this is also the path on which I embark. Weighing the theoretical pros and cons, I mount a series of arguments in support of what I consider to be compelling accounts of the identity and individuation of artworks, the text/work distinction, the nature of fiction, the problem of fictional truth, the relation of authorial intentions to critical interpretations, and the evolutionary roots of some aesthetic judgments. Given how unfamiliar all this philosophizing may be to at least some critics and students of literature, at every step I copiously illustrate my discussions with literary examples and case studies.

All the same, a lingering doubt may rear its hydra head at this point. Why devote time and energy at all to what might, after all, be construed as merely another addition to the already crowded supermarket in literary theory? One, the skeptic might persevere, that does not even properly belong to literary studies, as the word "philosophy," which graces more than one subtitle of the books on aesthetics, would suggest? Although seldom couched in such parochial terms, this variant on ignoramus et ignorabimus is widespread enough to warrant a brief response.

The object of such skepticism is a neighboring discipline whose research program bears on a range of topics of immediate concern to us. For decades now, with analytical and evidentiary transparency rarely evinced in literary theory, the philosophers have advanced the understanding of some long-standing, not to say foundational, principles of interpreting artworks. Notwithstanding the often bone-dry and esoteric style of their analyses, some even keep an eye on the practical consequences of adopting their proposals in critical and classroom practice.

To take the first example off the shelf, in the chapter on "Intention and Interpretation of Literature" in The Pleasures of Aesthetics, Jerrold Levinson sets out to dispel doubts about one type of intention-driven approach to interpretation (hypothetical intentionalism) and, by extension, about all and any intention-driven approaches to interpretation period. Indeed, his series of arguments leaves little doubt that—however alien the notion may be to the avatars of Barthes or Derrida—some moderate form of intentionalism is an inalienable part of our contacts with works of literature.

Yet one would look in vain for a concerted response from literary critics to this explicit contribution, and implicit challenge, to their patterns of inquiry—unless, that is, steadfast ignorance is the response. If so, however, it is a highly inopportune one, given how ongoing research in analytic aesthetics offers hope for the eventual emergence of a coherent and cumulative program of inquiry into sundry problems of literary interpretation. Indeed, the progressive character of such work provides the best justification of its centrality within Anglo-American aesthetics and within philosophy in general.

It is in this spirit that Joseph Margolis exhorted his colleagues in the 1990s to exorcise the dreariness of aesthetics. In the context, the dreariness had less to do with hair-splitting dullness than with revitalizing the discipline, partly via infusion of ideas from nonanalytically minded critics and partly by adopting a less reverential stance to the disciplinary pantheon. There is little to gain, chided the philosopher, from deferring to the sages of the past whenever research has already surpassed them. One should not hesitate to admit that a "considerable part of current Anglo-American aesthetics is simply superannuated" (1993, 134).

One does not have to imagine the reaction from literary theorists on being told that a considerable part of their professional lore is simply superannuated. The howls of outrage that greeted the Sokal hoax from humanists loath to forgo genuflections to deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and other disciplinary authorities were certainly eloquent enough. Yet this is exactly what I propose—a different methodological apparatus in the service of a different research paradigm. And the extent to which I feel justified in turning to analytic aesthetics is the extent to which it is driven by argument and not exegesis.

For these reasons, I find it hard to accept the (qualitative) remonstrations that literary studies and analytic aesthetics are incommensurate in their research or the (quantitative) defense that the inundation of print precludes rapprochement with research outside lit crit. "Who has the leisure to master other-disciplinary paradigms when there is no time to read even a fraction of what is published in one's own profession?" goes the not wholly unjustified plaint. Yet, even if only by virtue of appropriation of inquiries traditionally in the provenance of literary-critical theory, analytic aesthetics is a part of the profession.

Preoccupied as it is with critical and metacritical theory directed at textual and contextual interpretation, literary scholarship has little to lose in the bargain except poor methodological habits and disciplinary isolation. At the same time, by keeping abreast of the discipline whose findings bear straightforwardly on our own domain, literary scholars can cross-pollinate and thus revitalize joint inquiry into any number of recalcitrant interpretive conundra. It is with this expectation that, in the chapters to follow, I take a look at literature through the lens framed by analytic aesthetics.

It would be foolish to think that any one book can cut through the Gordian knots of theory that have eluded thinkers from Aristotle on. Accordingly, Literature, Analytically Speaking should not be confused with a kind of definitive, not to say megalomaniacal, Principia Literaria. Some of its formulations are bound to be challenged by subsequent researchers—as they ought to be. Given the disputes among generations of literary critics from Horace, Plotinus, Sidney, Pope, Arnold, Taine, and Propp to Wellek, Warren, Beardsley, Frye, Todorov, Hirsch, Fish, Eco, and innumerable others, anything else would be unthinkable.

That said, I do advance a series of precepts that aim to capture the ways in which literary fictions are actually interpreted—never mind the theoretical bumper stickers. For reasons defended in the chapters that follow, these are also the ways that ought to inform any coherent theory of interpretation. Certain aspects of our contacts with literature, in other words, I take to be rationally secure, even as many problems remain in need of refinement or full-scale analysis. Identifying some of those as I go along, I hope that this analytically driven effort entices literary scholars to join the fray, with disciplinary and interdisciplinary benefits to all.

As in all interdisciplinary bridge building, selections and simplifications are inevitable. There is nothing wrong with that—as long as they do not amount to gross distortions. Although building on one another, each of the book's eight chapters forms therefore a complete whole. Each building block of each argument is made as systematic and transparent as I can make it, so that each can be considered on its own merit. When important theoretical beliefs and interpretive practices are challenged, justification is required at every step of the way, and readers will be justified in taking their time to ponder every argumentative twist and turn. Only this can provide the confidence that the path taken is, indeed, the correct one.

In the end, some philosophers may find the exposition too plodding or too simplified for their liking. Conversely, some literary theorists may feel that it leaves too many stepping-stones unstepped on while complicating what is plain and simple. Perils of this nature cannot be entirely avoided insofar as they come with the interdisciplinary territory. To the philosophers I can only respond that a literary-critical study that corroborates the work in analytic aesthetics shows that both are on the right track. To the critics I can only say that many of the matters considered here are complex and knotty and once again encourage them to stay the course in the hope that, overall, the methodological pros outweigh the cons.

In his classic essays Francis Bacon taught that truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion. Even if one's findings are in error, he observed, it is the lucidity of the arguments outfitted in their support that permits one to deduce that it is so and rectify the error. Thus, to the extent that Literature, Analytically Speaking speaks analytically, it speaks the language of Bacon. For in the spirit of scientific analysis—in the sense of conforming to the basic criteria common to all rational inquiry—it foregrounds its analytic premises as a way of inviting you to put them to the critical test.


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse