Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective.

Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective. – book reviews

Gregory Currie

Lamarque and Olsen offer a “no truth” theory of fictional literature: “the concept of truth has no central or ineliminable role in critical practice” (p. 1). As their argument develops, the thesis turns out to be somewhat stronger; not merely is truth irrelevant to critical practice, it plays no role in analysing the concepts which critical practice employs, in particular concepts of aesthetic and other value. But readers familiar with contemporary literary theory should not suppose that they are in for another dreary round of truth-bashing from the friends of deconstruction. Refreshingly, Lamarque and Olsen (hereafter L&O) are more like old-fashioned humanists about literature, keen to distinguish fiction from other kinds of writing, resistant to scepticism about the notion of truth itself, and insistent on the mimetic value of literature (which now and hereafter means fictional literature). But unlike the earlier humanists, they deny that literature aims to be, or needs to be, true.

As L&O recognize, there are really two distinct questions about the relation of truth to literature. One, the analytical question as I shall call it, is whether we need the notion of truth in order to analyse the concepts of fiction, fictional character, fictional event, and the like. The other, evaluative question is whether we must appeal to truth as an ingredient of literary value. Negative answers to the first question have been proposed (Walton’s Mimesis as Make-Believe being the best known example); L&O differ from their anti-metaphysical allies in that they treat fiction as a social rather than as a (purely) psychological notion. Walton and friends have argued that fiction is distinguished by some psychological quality in the author or reader, a quality not closely connected with belief or truth. L&O agree that certain psychological facts (concerning, in particular, acts of imagining) have to be in place for there to be fiction, but add that these psychological facts must underpin an essentially social process of communication (Chapter 2). To know whether there is really much disagreement between L&O and the Walton camp we would need to know how thin this concept of the social can get. If Crusoe invents and tells himself stories to pass the time, does this constitute a social interaction between Crusoe and himself? If it does, I would be happy to call the psychological account a social one. If it doesn’t, then presumably L&O’s account has it that Crusoe isn’t really doing any fiction making or telling, which seems wrong. They might argue that only a previously-socialized-but-now-isolated Crusoe could engage in this sort of reflexive storytelling–but I should like to see the argument for that.

It is their answer to the evaluative problem in Part 3 which most strongly individuates L&O’s contribution. They grant that literary works sometimes imply propositions of a general kind, as Middlemarch (perhaps) implies that the best human hopes and aspirations are always thwarted by forces beyond human control. But they insist that the truth or falsity of such general propositions is irrelevant to the value of the fictions that imply them. Their argument has two parts. First, we can understand those propositions as implied by those fictions without assigning them a truth value. Second, we can ascribe to those fictions a value in virtue of their implying those propositions, without making a judgement about the truth values of those propositions. What matters about the propositions is that they be interesting, not that they be true.

Can interest, as a notion of concern to literary theory, be detached from truth? Consider this proposition: all human beings are always perfectly happy, their hopes and aspirations never thwarted by forces of any kind. I suggest that any fiction which implied this proposition would be, to that extent, puerile. Is the proposition uninteresting? It’s wild, audacious, unexpected, etc. If it’s not to count as interesting in the relevant sense that is surely because it isn’t an even remotely plausible candidate for truth. General propositions implied by fictions might not need to be straightforwardly true to be interesting: they might be interesting exaggerations of truths, or useful simplifications of them. But then it’s their relations to truth which are important for their value. Or perhaps we humans are so hugely wrong about our moral and psychological predicament that nothing true in this area would interest us much; but then what interests us depends on its relation to what we take to be true. Explaining “interesting” without appeal to truth seems an unpromising strategy.

Another notion appealed to by L&O as preferable to truth is universality. For example, what is wrong with Bradbury’s The History Man is not its lack of truth–“on the contrary, as effective satire the reader recognizes its essential truth to the actual phenomenon it satirizes”–but its failure to be universal (p. 429). It speaks to the radical politics of the late ‘sixties, which we are already finding hard to understand, much less care about. Three comments. First, the quoted remark constitutes a damaging concession: if the novel’s truth is partly constitutive of its effectiveness as satire, truth cannot be excluded from the critic’s tool box. Second, suppose, with L&O, that the novel fails to be great because it fails to be universal, and not because it fails to be true. All that follows is that truth is not a sufficient condition for literary greatness, which I take to be uncontroversial. What this and other examples fail to show is that the truth of what the work says or implies is irrelevant to a critical judgement of it. Third, the idea of universality employed in the book is unanalysed. Would a proper analysis of it go something like this: “implying propositions which are true of, or probably true of, or verisimilar with, a broad range of situations in which humans recurrently find themselves and with the outcomes of which they are vitally concerned”? That seems to me likely.

What motivates this attempt to separate fiction and truth? The thought that if fiction is valuable because it is true, then literary value is “reducible to the values of history, philosophy, or science” (p. 22). But we can hold that truth is one ingredient in the value of fiction without thinking of it as the only or primary one, and there could be something distinctively fictive about the way fiction conveys truth which precludes such a reduction. There might, for instance, be distinctively fictive mechanisms of implicature.

The book does not stand or fall on the cogency of its central claim. It raises an important question about the role of truth in our judgements about literature, a question which analytical aesthetics has tended to forget in recent decades. L&O’s bold and unencumbered claim will be more apt to rekindle that debate than a dozen more cautious formulations would. Trying to figure out where their arguments are successful and where not may be the best way to start to answer the question: In what ways and to what extent is truth relevant to fiction? Moreover, the book is a compendious guide to much that has been influential in recent theorizing about literature. It is clear, it is fair, it is lively. It is justly hard on the claims of postmodernism. Importantly, it takes the trouble to document and analyse these claims in a way which reduces to a minimum the sense of confusion and despair likely to be experienced by the analytically-minded reader who encounters them for the first time.

Department of Philosophy GREGORY CURRIE The Flinders University of South Australia Adelaide 5001 Australia email:

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