Some Versions of Narrative

Christopher Norris

  • Hermeneutics: Questions and Prospects edited by Gary Shapiro and Alan Sica
    Massachusetts, 310 pp, February 1984, ISBN 0 87023 416 1
  • The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge by Jean-Francois Lyotard, translated by Geoff Bennington, Brian Massumi and Fredric Jameson
    Manchester, 110 pp, £23.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 7190 1450 6
  • Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction by William Ray
    Blackwell, 228 pp, £17.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 631 13457 3
  • The Philosophy of the Novel: Lukacs, Marxism and the Dialectics of Form by J.M. Bernstein
    Harvester, 296 pp, £25.00, February 1984, ISBN 0 7108 0011 8
  • Criticism and Objectivity by Raman Selden
    Allen and Unwin, 170 pp, £12.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 04 800023 X

Philosophers are understandably aggrieved when literary critics presume to instruct them in the finer points of textual interpretation. Particularly irksome is the claim of conceptual rhetoricians like Paul de Man that philosophy has not yet caught up with ‘elementary refinements’ that criticism has long since taken for granted. Deconstruction goes furthest towards contesting the status of philosophy by showing how its concepts finally come down to the ‘unmasterable’ play of linguistic figuration. There is a striking example of de Man’s mercilessly consequential logic – deployed to most ‘illogical’ ends – in his reading of Kantian aesthetics, collected in the Shapiro and Sica volume. This essay deconstructs the Critique of Judgment by pressing its concepts and categories to the point where they yield up a series of perverse rhetorical manoeuvres at odds with any self-respecting ‘philosophic’ argument. It is tropes, not concepts, that structure the economy of Kantian reason and enable its crucial transitions from stage to stage of ‘enlightened’ critique. From the deconstructive viewpoint, de Man’s is a reading of exemplary rigour and scrupulous textual awareness. To most analytic philosophers – those trained up, let us say, on the regulative mastery of concept over trope – such ‘rigour’ looks more like mere semantic juggling, the sort of thing which had better be confined to university departments of literature.

This desire to ‘keep philosophy pure’ (in Richard Rorty’s phrase) has more to do with professional self-esteem than with the interests of reason and truth. Territorial imperatives were clearly at stake when John Searle (in a recent number of the New York Review of Books) gave a simplified account of Jonathan Culler’s On Deconstruction, and used it to launch an attack on this whole new breed of overweening literary theorists. From this point of view, deconstruction is merely the belated revenge of those disreputable sophists and perverters of reason whom Socrates so memorably nailed. Of course, not all philosophers take this aggressively self-promoting line. Some – like Rorty – would cheerfully concede that philosophy, at least since Descartes and Kant, has got its priorities all mixed up and now needs pointing in a new direction. Rorty writes approvingly of Heidegger, Derrida and others in the broadly ‘hermeneutic’ tradition who offer an alternative to the mainstream (post-Kantian) analytic strain. Philosophy has missed its true vocation, he thinks, through mistaking metaphors for concepts, believing itself firmly on the track of clear and distinct ideas when in fact it was simply devising new tricks to keep the same old debate turning over. What is needed now is a different self-image for philosophers, one which would place them on a common, companionable footing with literary critics and other participants in the dialogue of culture at large. The good thing about Heidegger and Derrida, Rorty thinks, is that they go a long way (if not quite far enough) toward curing philosophy of its age-old grandiose delusions.

Still, there is the question of what is left for philosophers to do once this chastening message sinks in. Rorty’s answer is simple enough, though not, one might think, very welcome to fellow professionals. In the absence of ‘foundational’ truth-claims, he argues, philosophy becomes a kind of narrative activity, rehearsing its own pre-history in the light of its present-day interests and concerns. In fact, this is just what philosophers have always done – constructed some kind of legitimating narrative by which to explain their position – though the storytelling is usually presumed to have an end when it comes to the moment of philosophic truth. But as Rorty sees it, there is no such moment, no point at which philosophy can claim special access to a knowledge independent of the special kind of story it is trying to tell. All we have are the various, more or less convincing narratives which enable us to see (in Davidson’s words) ‘how things, in the largest sense of the term, hang together, in the largest sense of the term’. Rorty’s tale is one which begins with the decisive wrong turn by which Descartes and Kant set philosophy off on its quest for absolute truth. The plot is worked up through successive complications induced by various deluded contenders for the major role (‘clear and distinct ideas, sense data, categories of the pure understanding’ and suchlike). Only now, Rorty thinks, has the time come round for a genuine narrative dénouement. Pragmatism – good old American pragmatism, James and Dewey style – is the looked-for issue out of all philosophical perplexities. The pragmatist has no use for truth-claims, unless by defining them provisionally in terms of ‘warranted assertability’. Truth is simply, as William James put it, ‘the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief’. Philosophy can keep itself in business by updating the story of those various beliefs which have proved themselves good (or philosophically productive) from time to time. But it is the pragmatist who always has the last word since only he can admit – without losing professional face – that this telling of plausible tales is really all there is to philosophy.

One might expect such an outlook to commend itself more readily to literary critics than philosophers. What Rorty’s argument amounts to, after all, is the virtual deconstruction of philosophic reason into two modes of thinking – metaphor and narrative – which critics are perfectly at home with. But maybe the critics have got it all wrong, Rorty thinks, and still look to philosophy as some kind of privileged discourse, able to bring theoretical rigour to their fumbling, intuitive efforts. This is what he calls the ‘weak textualist’ position, one that falls back upon hypostatised concepts (of ‘structure’ or whatever) as a hedge against the play of intertextual meaning. Rorty sees this as a latterday counterpart to those varieties of 19th-century idealism which gave up all claim to unmediated knowledge of the real, but still clung to a shaky apparatus of supposedly a-priori concepts and categories. On the other hand, there are those – ‘strong textualists’ – who dispense with such unnecessary props to understanding. These critics make terms with the fact that language provides no vantage-point of method, no meta-linguistic ground from which to conceptualise its endless play of tropological drives and substitutions. And this attitude, he argues, is just another version – albeit more strenuously arrived at – of the pragmatist willingness to let go of ‘truth’ in the interests of mutual understanding.

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