Most Read... Rebecca WattsThe Cult of the Noble Amateur
(PN Review 239)
John McAuliffeBill Manhire in Conversation with John McAuliffe
(PN Review 259)
Eavan BolandA Lyric Voice at Bay
(PN Review 121)
Patricia CraigVal Warner: A Reminiscence
(PN Review 259)
Vahni CapildeoOn Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books
(PN Review 237)
Tim Parksin conversation with Natalia Ginzburg
(PN Review 49)
Next Issue Gwyneth Lewis ‘Spiderings’ Ian Thomson ‘Fires were started: Tallinn, 1944’ Adrian May ‘Traditionalism and Tradition’ Judith Herzberg ‘Poems’ translated by Margitt Helbert Horatio Morpurgo ‘What is a Book?’
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
PN Review 276
PN Review Substack

This item is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

Why Do I Write?


Roger Caldwell raises deep questions about the relationship between literature, or writing in general, and philosophy ('Dangerous Liaisons: Jean-Paul Sartre between Literature and Philosophy', PNR 194). He is concerned that too close a liaison between them compromises the integrity of one's philosophical position. But he overlooks a fundamental way in which at least some philosophy must be written down, even if we do not want to call it literature. But given that 'literature' is a fairly arbitrary concept it feels like a matter of no importance whether we call it literature or not.

Caldwell discusses the attitudes to literature and philosophy of Sartre and Heidegger but takes a line independent of both these giants and argues there is no essential link between philosophy and writing at all. He nudges aside not only Sartre but the Post-Modernists and Post- Structuralists ('literary intellectuals') and points towards Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein and Quine for whom 'a question of... liaisons between literature and philosophy does not arise'. Philosophy, we are told, is 'rooted in the oral', in argument and discussion, so for the right-minded philosopher the question Why do I write? 'doesn't arise'.

But Caldwell wants to weaken the 'dangerous liaison' between literature and philosophy for a much more profound reason than philosophy's allegedly oral roots. His reservation concerning Sartre, as well as later French 'literary' intellectuals, is that the tight link they draw between philosophy and literature prevents them from escaping mere literary horizons in the attempt to solve their philosophical problems. Caldwell claims that the key 'dangerous liaison' is between literature and 'a tradition of philosophy that sees the human horizon as its limit-point'. As a consequence, 'the physical universe itself' becomes 'subordinate to human concerns, whereas in fact it is the basis on which human concerns are made possible in the first place' and he argues, fairly enough, it warrants a scientific not just a literary treatment. Yet for pre-Romantic philosophers, of course, there was no likelihood of a dangerous liaison between literature and philosophy because there was no 'literature' to liaise with, there was only 'writing' (as well as argument and discussion). The idea of literature as mainly fiction and poetry is a very recent one. But even for them there was frequently an essential connection between thinking and their writing.Caldwell is worried that philosophers like Foucault and Derrida see themselves primarily as writers. But the same was true of David Hume, who channelled enormous literary ambitions into the constitutive urbanity of his major works. Later on, Nietzsche regarded himself as both the greatest writer and thereby the greatest thinker who had ever lived and there is little point in the question of whether a work like Also sprach Zarathustra is a work of philosophy or literature. Quine, whom Caldwell praises for lack of literary ambition, was a master stylist. In Quine there is a compression of thought and argument that is hard to separate from his syntax and diction. Quine, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Fodor and others seem to provide us indeed with a distinctly American way of writing philosophy, as different to English philosophy as American poetry is to English. For instance, Dennett's famous essay Where am I? is a wholly American piece of philosophical science fiction concerned with consciousness and personal identity. Its form is inseparable from the nature of the philosophy that it renders and it could never have been written by an Englishman.

But there is a deeper issue here, about the relation between thinking and writing. Writing after all, an exteriorised form of thinking.There is no clear sense in which the systematic thoughts in any major philosophical work can possibly be said to have existed prior to the production of these works. The works are the thoughts. Without writing, certain kinds of thinking would be literally impossible, in just the same way that without certain kinds of mathematics certain kinds of science would be impossible. Caldwell is dismissive of the likes of Bernhard-Henri Levy when Levy describes himself as merely the totality of his books and Caldwell remains clearly sympathetic to Sartre's own defence of the free Cartesian subject. But the idea that the Cartesian subject is somehow the repository of 'thinking', wholly independently of any exteriorisation of thought, has been increasingly discredited. There is a growing consensus that the human subject is some kind of public, embodied, social and linguistic reality and not a Cartesian ego. Caldwell is certainly right to demand that this subject, however it is constituted, is not in the end to be regarded as the fundamental reality.Perhaps by recognising the public, objective character of this subject, we will continue to move a little down that road. But Caldwell is mistaken to argue that philosophy, or any kind of complex thought, can sever its essential links with the instrument of written language. It is only through the structural complexity of written language that the structural complexity of most really useful thought becomes possible. We cannot do it all in our heads. And the question of whether we call it literature or not does not really matter. We can if we must, or not.


Doing Better


In his review of David Jones's In Parenthesis (PNR 197), Luke Kennard mistakenly writes that it was written in 1937, which was its year of publication. Jones began writing this epic poem in 1928, after finishing his copy of All Quiet on the Western Front (translated by his friend Arthur Wheen) and, setting it down, saying to Tom Burns (who related this to me), 'Bugger it, I can do better than that.' From 1928 Jones worked steadily, making over twenty drafts of some sections and finishing the first continuous draft in August 1932. In October of that year he suffered a devastating nervous breakdown, possibly brought on by this creative re-presentation of his war experience. From 1934 to 1937 he worked nearly exclusively on revision. The result is, surely, the single greatest achievement of British modernism between the wars.

Windsor (Ontario)

This item is taken from PN Review 198, Volume 37 Number 4, February - March 2011.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image