You can’t argue with a novel
- Radiant Cool: A Novel Theory of Consciousness by Dan Lloyd
MIT, 357 pp, £16.95, December 2003, ISBN 0 262 12259 6
The philosophical novel is a well-established genre. Comp. Lit. 102: readings in Dostoevsky, Kafka, Mann, Gide, Sartre (and Martin Amis if time permits); little or no philosophical sophistication required. In the paradigmatic instances, the form is used to show how things look when viewed from the perspective of some or other philosophical assumptions, the philosophy itself being exemplified rather than propounded. What’s hard to imagine is a novel (as opposed to, say, a myth, fable or allegory) that is the exposition of a philosophical theory. No successful examples come to mind. If there were one, it would seem a sort of trick, like novels that encode chess games, or leave out the letter e. It would fill, as they say, a much needed gap. This isn’t surprising. For one thing, practically by definition, theories traffic in abstractions; they purport to see where the eye does not. Novels, by contrast, tend to be concerned with the surfaces of things; in particular, with how the surface of behaviour can reflect, exhibit, shape, express or stand for an underlying geography of emotions and motivations. So, in one of Henry James’s novels, much is revealed when the heroine, out of character, overfills a cup of tea.
Vol. 26 No. 6 · 18 March 2004
From Daniel Dennett
I would like to report a novel bit of phenomenology. Ever since the invasion of Iraq, I find that whenever I read one of Jerry Fodor’s essays declaring the impossibility of a science of consciousness (most recently – LRB, 4 March – his attempt to trounce Dan Lloyd’s Radiant Cool), my image of him coalesces with memories of Baghdad Bob, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the Iraqi Minister of Information whose emphatic and even cheerful denials of reality on CNN provided brief interludes of entertainment during those terrible days. There’s Jerry, wearing a jaunty military beret and heavily holstered, strutting up to the bank of microphones and declaring that the army of ‘classical’ Fodorians have captured Baghdad airport and will soon – soon! – sweep the field of cognitive neuroscience (which ‘barely exists’) into the sea. I just can’t get this image out of my mind, and wonder if other readers are experiencing similar effects.
Tufts University, Boston
Vol. 26 No. 7 · 1 April 2004
From Mary Elkins
Not being Daniel Dennett, I wouldn’t presume to comment on the ridiculousness or otherwise of Jerry Fodor’s denial of the possibility of a science of consciousness (Letters, 18 March). I would, however, like to take issue with Fodor’s claim that ‘you can’t argue with a novel.’ He uses the opening sentence of Moby-Dick as an example of the kind of statement it would be absurd to dispute. And, yes, ‘I won’t!’ would certainly be a silly way for a reader to respond to ‘Call me Ishmael’; but to ask ‘Why should I call you Ishmael?’ is a potentially fruitful question. Indeed, ‘arguing with novels’ isn’t a bad way to describe the business of literary criticism, or one aspect of it, and Fodor himself goes on to argue with Dan Lloyd’s novel – as a piece of philosophical exposition but also as a work of fiction – to devastating effect.
Vol. 26 No. 8 · 15 April 2004
From Michael Dibdin
Daniel Dennett wonders whether other readers of Jerry Fodor’s comments on cognitive neuroscience and consciousness are reminded of Baghdad Bob’s ‘emphatic and even cheerful denials of reality’ during the Iraq war (Letters, 18 March). Fodor’s position reminds me of those who have argued all along that while the outcome of the war was in no doubt, given the amount of money and high technology at our disposal, it would solve nothing. I eagerly await evidence that either they or Fodor are wrong.