With his first monograph, The Value of Literature, Rafe McGregor delivers a provocative contribution to the long-standing debate about the nature and source of literary value. He identifies literary value as the sole non-instrumental value of literature, offering what he characterizes as a humanist theory of literary value. In so doing, he joins a modest but growing number of philosophers who describe themselves as ‘Literary Humanists’, sharing with several of these a commitment to the view that realism neither entails, nor requires, cognitivism. All of this is in service of McGregor’s stated ambition to demonstrate why usefulness is not what makes literature qua literature important, and that ‘freedom from limitation’ is essential to the literary use of language (147). The commitments, arguments, and challenges in The Value of Literature demand serious response and are more than likely to reinvigorate unresolved discussions not only in the philosophy of literature but further afield in the philosophy of art. McGregor begins (and ends) as a value-pluralist: literature has a number of values all bar one of which, however, are instrumental. The instrumental values of a particular work include not only its (potential) value as a financial investment or, indeed, a paperweight, but any of its (possible) moral and cognitive values. Indeed, all the moral and cognitive values of a work of art are instrumental, and as such do not contribute to what McGregor argues is the final (as he prefers to characterize the non-instrumental) value of any work of literature. For on his account, there is only one such final value of a literary work, and that is its literary value; its value as literature. Moreover, this final, autonomous, sui generic literary value is not something to be found in a particular work, but rather is the experience of a literary work, an experience constituted by pleasure. Thus the sole final value of literature is, specifically, the unique pleasure, or literary satisfaction, that it provides. To justify these claims McGregor provides ‘an argument from literary thickness’ (25). Literary thickness is not, he proposes, a property found in a particular literary work, but a demand made of it, namely the demand that a work’s particular form and content be inseparable. Key to this idea is the recognition that one can bring a variety of interests to both the ‘formal and substantive axes’ of a work and that an interest which focuses on the integration of both axes, as opposed to an interest in one or the other, just is such a demand for literary thickness (117). For McGregor, literary thickness, so conceived, provides a way to avoid what he takes to be the false dichotomy between formalism and a more full-blooded, three-dimensional understanding of the value of literature of the kind proposed by, amongst others, Noel Carroll. Instead, for McGregor, the rejection of the relevance of cognitive and/or moral values to the final literary value of a work does not commit one to any kind of mono-dimensional aestheticism, in which content is irrelevant. Rather, thanks to his notion of literary thickness, with its demand for the inseparability of both the substantive and formal axes of interest, McGregor identifies a third available option; one that he suggests might helpfully be understood—running with Carroll’s metaphor—as a two-dimensional approach. Thus equipped with the two (inseparable) dimensions of substance and form that are constitutive of his literary thickness, it becomes clear why McGregor regards his theory as ‘completing’ (148) the project begun by A. C. Bradley in his 1901 lecture, ‘Poetry for Poetry’s Sake’.1 In developing literary thickness out of Bradley’s unity of substance and form, McGregor’s theory also owes an important debt to the work of Peter Lamarque, particularly the latter’s notion of literary opacity. Dues are readily and generous acknowledged not just to Lamarque but to several other philosophers, including Derek Attridge.2 That said, McGregor does make his own unique humanist contribution to what he describes as ‘the space between literary aesthetics and literary theory’ (1). The Value of Literature consists of a brief, argument-summarizing preface that incorporates the functions of an introduction and seven chapters (Literary Representation, Literary Education, Poetic Thickness, Narrative Thickness, Literary Thickness, Literary Value, and Literary Autonomy) incorporating twenty-eight sections, the last of which is entitled ‘Literary Humanism’. The central, argument-bearing chapters (3, 4 and 5), on poetic narrative and literary thickness, recapitulate material from recent articles of the same name3 before the book’s argument-culminating chapter (6). Chapter 2’s ‘Literary Education’ identifies what McGregor takes to be two main objections to his position: Noel Carroll’s ‘clarificationism’ (as explored in Carroll’s collection of essays, Art in Three Dimensions4) and Martha Nussbaum’s putative conflation of moral and literary value (particularly as argued in her article ‘Exactly and Responsibly’5). McGregor replies to these objections in the final chapter claiming his account of literary value is ‘rationally more justifiable’ (ix) than theirs. Throughout the book, McGregor offers a number of snapshots which locate a range of philosophers in relation to the various issues explored. These are woven easily into the text and provide a helpful, albeit modest, amount of historical and contextual information that is likely to be appreciated by anyone coming to aesthetics or the philosophy of literature for the first time. Indeed, his willingness to label is further evident in McGregor’s own repeated declarations that, as a philosopher of literature, he is a referentialist, a non-cognitivist, an autonomist and a humanist. The range of novels exploited to illuminate the detail of McGregor’s theory include a number of works regularly harnessed to similar tasks: Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, J. M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. McGregor also brings to bear several works rarely (if ever) involved in such discussions. These refreshing choices include Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Elmore Leonard’s L.A. Quartet. In an illuminating move, McGregor creates a ‘hypothetical’ novel, The True Knights, written (so his thought experiment proposes) in 1915. This novel ‘enacts’ the view that ‘The Ku Klux Klan were heroic defenders of liberty’ (103) and runs along narrative lines not dissimilar to D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, of the same year. Just as the film can be regarded as having merit qua cinema, in spite of its moral attitudes, McGregor suggests that The True Knights might also be taken to have literary value, notwithstanding the moral reprehensibility of its author and the content of the work. In exposing McGregor’s autonomist convictions, this cannily contrived example will, no doubt, prompt a wealth of reactions. And finally, McGregor solicits James Joyce’s support by bookending The Value of Literature with Leopold Bloom’s reflections on the value of his various encounters with the works of Shakespeare. For Bloom, in Ulysses, Shakespeare’s works have ‘proved entirely useless’ (viii) in the task of helping him with the practical matters of life or ‘providing him with instruction’ (149). Rather, the literary value of the great playwright’s work is, for Bloom and McGregor alike, just a matter of what McGregor calls that ‘distinctive kind of pleasure’ (viii). For philosophers versed in the dialectics of such value debates in the philosophy of literature there are a number of familiar resources to turn to were one to be cautious about, or even hostile to, the above views. I will not rehearse those again here. The detail of McGregor’s theory does, however, prompt a number of specific questions. Perhaps the most challenging of these is the problematic issue of how a constitutively pleasure-involving view about the nature of literary value might account for the kinds of non-pleasurable, discomforting and downright painful encounters that certain literary works provide. This difficulty is acknowledged but left for another occasion. Another challenge concerns the possibility that works may resist the demand for literary thickness. Although McGregor does touch on this issue it is unclear quite how the problem has been resolved or dissolved. Worries that the demand for literary thickness might be overly or inappropriately rewarded are not considered at all, but might not such possibilities risk distorting the value of literary works? Also noticeable by its absence is the associated question of what, if any, role McGregor sees for literary criticism or judgements about value. He makes no reference to Bradley’s distinction between (i) the inescapable unity of substance and content as experienced in the act of reading, and (ii) the legitimate separation of substance and content required by—and indeed constitutive of—any post-reading reflection on the poem. For Bradley it is precisely because these two experiences are not the same that critics and reflective readers have the opportunity and wherewithal to delve further into the relation between substance and form, and not just encounter them as an inextricable compound unity. McGregor says nothing about this aspect of Bradley’s position, nor does he offer any of his own theoretical thoughts about such post-reading literary engagement, its value and its potential methodological limitations. How, then, are we to understand the practice and purpose of literary criticism or indeed the status of judgements about value? Indeed, are these even possible on such a view? I will finish with a very brief look at two unresolved conceptual concerns that run the length of the book. The Value of Literature makes a clear case for McGregor’s announced thesis that the final, that is to say, the literary value of literature does not depend on a work’s moral or cognitive value, and as such, literary value is autonomous. But what about aesthetic value? With reference to aesthetic value almost entirely absent, one is left wondering whether McGregor takes the aesthetic value of a work to be (i) one and the same as its literary value; (ii) the value produced by a reader’s focus on (and experience) of a work’s formal axis only; (iii) some other instrumental value, whose very instrumentality rules it out of consideration as a final value; or (iv) something that drops out of the picture having been made redundant by literary thickness. There are a number of occasions, such as the sympathetic discussion of Alan Goldman’s experiential account of aesthetic value (120), when it would seem that McGregor uses literary value and aesthetic value interchangeably. Perhaps it is because of the need to ensure that literary thickness delivers value autonomy without collapsing into (pure) formalism, that McGregor avoids any reference to literary value as aesthetic value. Instead, the literary aspect of literature is taken to either be, or to subsume, the aesthetic. Yet, during his critical engagement with Nussbaum (145ff.), he does use the term ‘aesthetic value’ in a way that looks to limit it to matters relating to the value of form only. The issue is further complicated by claims such as: ‘Carroll employed “aesthetic value” as inclusive of what I have called “literary value”—that is the value of literature qua literature’ (14). This suggests that for McGregor the literary is somehow less than, or less rich than, the aesthetic, an assumption that pulls against previous suggestions that matters aesthetic are one and the same as matters formal. Overall, the radically limited reference to, or discussion of, aesthetic value together with the near-ubiquity of literary value, sows doubts about how correct one’s understanding of McGregor’s position might be. There is also an occasion when the relative importance of different values is compared (‘a work’s ethical value may always be more important that is artistic value’ (140)). This leaves one wondering if McGregor takes the notion of final value to have an honorific sense, as well as being descriptive of its non-instrumentality. Is literary value, qua final value, thus the most important or precious of the various values of literature? Whilst the scope of McGregor’s understanding of the aesthetic remains elusive, no such problem appears to occur with the cognitive. Early on, he establishes and maintains his crucial categorical separation of cognitive and literary values by committing to a very narrow (and thoroughly empirical) appreciation of what might count as the cognitive, limiting its scope to the characterization of information-provision about the world (outside of the work). Concerned to ensure literature is free from any requirement to deliver truths or identify facts about the world, McGregor insists that this can only be achieved by a thoroughgoing anti-cognitivism. Yet fellow realists and Literary Humanists, such as Bernard Harrison, are no less determined than McGregor to ring fence literary value from the demands of truth, but see this as enabling literature to deliver valuable destabilizing insights into, and wisdom about, ourselves, each other, and the world.6 That said, if, in worrying these issues, The Value of Literature contributes to highlighting the difficulties involved in the very notion of the cognitive, this will be a point entirely in its favour. It is worth noting, however, that whilst McGregor insists on his anti-cognitivism, he characterizes the sui generic ‘delight’ that is literary value as, amongst other things, ‘intellectual’ (viii). He later re-christens this aspect of literary experience as ‘intellective’ in order to distinguish it from the cognitive aspect of literary experience which he takes to be limited to ‘learning about particulars and universals’ (122). This risks fuelling a degree of incommensurability of the debate’s key terms and concepts, which may undermine future dialogue whilst simultaneously spurring it on. In many ways, The Value of Literature reads like the start of a fascinating journey, with McGregor’s throwaway references to ‘freedom in literature’ offering tantalizing hints at exciting future developments and directions. As he pursues the implications of literary thickness, I look forward to McGregor engaging with those, like Harrison, who share a commitment to humanism but not autonomism; and those, such as Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, who share McGregor’s resistance to the literary relevance of truth-orientated cognition, but for whom the value of literature, as Moyal-Sharrock appreciates, nonetheless uniquely ‘enhances our understanding of ourselves … and incomparably contributes to the formation of our concepts’.7 Might not Leopold Bloom and James Joyce concur? Footnotes 1 A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1959). 2 See particularly Peter Lamarque, ‘The Elusiveness of Poetic Meaning’, Ratio 22 (2009), 398–420; Peter Lamarque, The Opacity of Narrative (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2014) and Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature (New York: Routledge, 2004). 3 Rafe McGregor, ‘Poetic Thickness’, BJA 54 (2014), 49–64; ‘Literary Thickness’, BJA 55 (2015), 343–360; and ‘Narrative Thickness’, Estetika: The Central European Journal of Aesthetics 52 (2015), 3–22. 4 Noel Carroll, Art in Three Dimensions (Oxford: OUP, 2010). 5 Martha Nussbaum, ‘Exactly and Responsibly: A Defense of Ethical Criticism’, Philosophy and Literature 22 (1998), 343–365. 6 No relation to this author. 7 Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, ‘Wittgenstein and Leavis: Literature and the Enactment of the Ethics’, Philosophy and Literature 40 (2016), 240–268, at 258. © British Society of Aesthetics 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Society of Aesthetics. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: email@example.com
The British Journal of Aesthetics – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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