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This chapter explores the impulse to understand reading and criticism in the terms provided by the natural and social sciences, asking both what generates such an impulse and whether it can deliver on what it promises. Such an impulse dates back to the early days of literary studies as an academic discipline, if not longer, but it has returned with a vengeance in the early twenty-first century. The chapter explores two recent instantiations of the impulse: the effort to use Big Data to understand the history of the modern novel, and the hope to understand aesthetic experience in the terms developed by neuroscience. Each of these models presents itself as a radical departure from traditional aesthetic criticism, and promises to break down boundaries between disciplines in ways that would revolutionize how we understand the practice of criticism. Wittgenstein’s writing on language, the mind, and aesthetics, the chapter argues, helps us understand the misplaced assumptions and conceptual weaknesses that pervade these efforts. Instead of giving us the generalizing causal accounts that define the most coherent and rigorous scientific disciplines, criticism and aesthetic understanding arise from a kind of immersive experience, a prolonged encounter with a singular artifact, and one in which empirical studies have no clear explanatory role.
Wittgenstein is often regarded as the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, and in recent decades, his work has begun to play a prominent role in literary studies, particularly in debates over language, interpretation, and critical judgment. Wittgenstein and Literary Studies solidifies this critical movement, assembling recent critics and philosophers who understand Wittgenstein as a counterweight to longstanding tendencies in both literary studies and philosophical aesthetics. The essays here cover a wide range of topics. Why have contemporary writers been so drawn to Wittgenstein? What is a Wittgensteinian response to New Historicism, Post-Critique, and other major critical movements? How does Wittgenstein help us understand the nature of style, fiction, poetry, and the link between ethics and aesthetics? As the volume makes clear, Wittgenstein's work provides a rare bridge between professional philosophy and literary studies, offering us a way out of entrenched positions and their denials-what Wittgenstein himself called 'pictures' 'that held us captive.'
Plato's banishment of the poets didn't prevent a number of subsequent thinkers, over an enormous period of time, from drawing intimate connections between literature and philosophy. “Poetry,” said Aristotle – by “poetry” he meant “the making of plot-structures” – “is both more philosophical and more serious than history, since poetry speaks more of universals, history of particulars.” Philosophy and poetry involve comparable sorts of knowledge: they investigate kinds or types of characters and actions, and thus provide, for Aristotle, a key to the world's purposeful order. For the romantics and idealists at the end of the eighteenth century, purposeful orders belonged less to the world than to the generative human mind. But while this shift in emphasis represented a critical moment in the history of Western thought, it led them nevertheless to suggest, like Aristotle, that literature plays a central role in human understanding. “Only poetry,” said Friedrich Schlegel, approaches “the sublime urbanity of the Socratic muse,” and in the “The Oldest System-Program of German Idealism” (1796) we find the claim – attributed variously to Hölderlin, Hegel, Schelling, or all three of them – that “the supreme act of reason” is an “aesthetic act.” Via Coleridge, Carlyle, and others, such ideas receive their American expression in Emerson, for whom “the true philosopher and the true poet are one,” each assigning “the apparent order and relations of things to the empire of thought.”
On the face of it, no new Athens or Jena or Concord arose in American culture in the half-century after World War I, and the ancient quarrel between literature and philosophy seems to have grown as heated as Plato wished.
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