Rowman and Littlefield International

Literary Aesthetics and Literary Theory

Published on Wednesday 30 Aug 2017 by Rafe McGregor
"My position is that philosophy and theory need not be antagonistic and that each has something to learn from the other: philosophy teaches clarity and rigour, theory teaches creativity and pragmatism."

John Gibson is one of the few analytic philosophers who has any time for post-structuralism. He may well be the only one to have both engaged with the work of post-structuralist theorists and represented their thinking in a sympathetic manner. Gibson's Fiction and the Weave of Life (2007) is, like The Value of Literature, an argument for literary humanism, broadly construed as the view that literature is intimately and importantly connected with reality. In warning against the position he calls literary isolationism - the separation of work, text, or word from world or object - he sets out the basis of the post-structural position with accuracy and transparency: structuralism associates meaning with difference, 'a function of a system of differentiation'; post-structuralism associates meaning with difference, the idea that 'a system of difference between signs is just not the sort of thing that can secure determinacy of meaning.1 Gibson goes on to give a common-sense explanation of Jacques Derrida's now notorious statement that there is no outside the text and shows why it runs contrary to the literary humanist thesis.


Unfortunately, combative exchanges have dominated the relationship between analytic philosophy and post-structural theory. A dialogue between Derrida and John Searle that began in 1972 and lasted for more than two decades degenerated into an unproductive methodological critique sprinkled with ad hominem name-calling. The revelation of Paul de Man's wartime collaboration in 1987 was used to implicate the whole of post-structuralism as having an at best amoral and at worst immoral foundation. Derrida's nomination for an honorary degree at Cambridge in 1992 produced heated debate and extensive accusations of charlatanry.  The Sokal affair of 1996 was the first of several publishing hoaxes involving the submission of deliberately preposterous papers to humanities journals, the most recent of which was the Tripodi hoax, perpetrated on the International Journal of Badiou Studies in 2015.  My position is that philosophy and theory need not be antagonistic and that each has something to learn from the other: philosophy teaches clarity and rigour, theory teaches creativity and pragmatism. Gibson's Fiction and the Weave of Life demonstrates all four of these virtues by means of a philosophical perspective, while Derrida's The Gift of Death (1995) does the same from a theoretical perspective. There is merit in both philosophy and theory and their perspectives should not be considered mutually exclusive.


I have applied this approach to The Value of Literature, in which Derrida's work plays an indirect but crucial role. The two contemporaries upon whose work I draw the most are Peter Lamarque, a philosopher of literature, and Derek Attridge, a literary theorist. Attridge has almost singlehandedly been responsible for turning Derrida's post-structural philosophy into a theory of literary criticism, by linking Derrida's epistemology to the literary genre and by his own literary theory.  The former was achieved with the publication of Acts of Literature (1992), a collection of Derrida's work on literature that included an introduction by Attridge, a selected bibliography, and an interview with Derrida. Attridge begins the interview by asking Derrida why such a small proportion of his work is concerned with literary rather philosophical texts and reveals many aspects of his thinking that sit surprising well with literary aesthetics: literature as free from limitation, the necessary relation between literary experience and pleasure, literature as an institution, and the uniqueness of each new literary work.2 Attridge's theory of literary criticism is first set out in The Singularity of Literature (2004) and then in more detail in The Work of Literature (2015).


The third academic upon whose work I draw substantially is literary critic A.C. Bradley, Oxford's Professor of Poetry from 1901 to 1906. I develop Bradley's relatively uncontroversial claims about the significance of the unity of form and content in poetry to make a more contentious claim about form, content, and value in literary narratives. I draw several parallels between Bradley and Attridge, the most important of which is between the former's resonant meaning and the latter's mobilisation of meanings. In discussing the integration of literary form and the events of meaning, Attridge warns against attempts to separate the content from the whole,

'which does not include any extractable sense, information, image, or referent that the work lays before the reader. Through this mobilization of meanings, the work's linguistic operations such as referentiality, metaphoricity, intentionality, and ethicity are staged.'3

I take staging - understood as the mobilisation of meanings or forming of content - to describe the relation of form-content inseparability in literary works. I then match staging with the complementary conception of opacity developed by Lamarque in The Opacity of Narrative (2014) to establish narrative thickness. I argue that narrative thickness is characteristic of literary narratives such that if a work is a literary narrative, it will reward the demand for narrative thickness.


Attridge has participated in literary aesthetics debates on several occasions and his most recent book reveals not only a sympathetic engagement, but an appropriation of one of the core concerns of philosophical aesthetics. The Work of Literature is in part an attempt to identify the similarity, resemblance, or essence common to different art forms and to this end explores the relations among literature, music, and painting. The title of the monograph is itself revealing in that work is more usually associated with literary aesthetics than literary theory, where text is more common. As such, Attridge stands as Gibson's counterpart on the other side of the philosophy-theory divide, recognising that while their perspectives are divided by method they are also united by subject and by the worth they ascribe to that subject. My intention in The Value of Literature is to reinforce the tentative ties between literary aesthetics and literary theory and my hope is that it will be read between Attridge and Gibson, as literature between the singular and the human.


[1] John Gibson, Fiction and the Weave of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 39 & 40.

[2] Derek Attridge, "'This Strange Institution Called Literature': An Interview with Jacques Derrida," in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature (New York: Routledge, 1992), 33-75.

[3] Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), 109.