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Intimate Conflict: Contradiction in Literary and Philosophical Discourse, a Collection of Essays by Diverse Hands.

AN EDITOR'S life is not without its problems. Some of them, however, can be self-inflicted. As regards the present volume, it seems that the contributors have been issued with a brief of such flexibility that it is difficult to determine what kind of audience is the intended target. Perhaps one should not read too much into titles. However, on the face of it, a reader might judge that they are being presented with yet another instance of what is a fairly established genre, one which explores the affinities between the subjects and their rhetorical devices and strategies. After all, the world 'discourse' appears in the title. The six essays do not quite conform to such expectations, and Brian Caraher's introduction is inevitably something of a patchwork. There are predictable elements featured, such as Escher's lithographs, and the by now mandatory references to Derrida. But Caraher also lurches into a four-page aside on Heidegger, who is not so much as mentioned by the other contributors. After eighteen pages, he provides a summary overview, announcing with an amusing immodesty that 'each of the following essays can stand as an excellent contribution to literary critical and philosophical thought'.

The first paper, by Henry Johnstone Jr., is a rather dense three-page discussion note, which conspicuously is the only piece to make explicit use of formal logic, in this case to elucidate a passage from Hesiod on the theme of lying and truth-claims. Johnstone prefaces his brief analysis with the observation: 'An important aspect of Western civilisation is its concern with contradiction. The experience of being faced with a contradiction is typically western'. No argument or evidence is offered in support of this contention. By contrast, the next two items together account for nearly half the total text. Charles Altieri's essay deals with the issue of self-evasion and sophistic rhetoric illustrated in Plato's dialogues. He counterposes this with Freud's attempts to overcome self-evasion and contradiction in his own investigations. Altieri deploys the term 'subsumption' to capture the sense of self-scrutiny which he sees as central to Plato's vision. Mili Clark's essay is an equally prolix discussion of a theological problem with features in Paradise Lost. Early on, she says: 'Poetically the epic succeeds on convincing us that characters who realy are sufficient to stand nevertheless choose to fall'. From this remark one might have expected a demonstration of how Milton qua poet solves a theological conundrum but this is precisely what we do not get. There is more textual citation of the posthumously published treatise Christian Doctrine than of the epic, and although Clark exhibits a commendable patience with her material, the sharpness of the main issue gets lost in the detail. Milton is supposeed to solve the problem by deploying the principle of Non-Contradiction, but it remains obscure exactly how this is achieved.

Marc Shell's 'Money of the Mind' sets out to demonstrate 'the historical fact of the internalisation of economic form in philosophy'. This is meant to have a specific bearing on what he describes as 'formalistic logic' via the thesis that it is indebted to metaphors derived from monetary practices. Although Shell provides a few interesting examples from different cultural and historical contexts, it would in fact take rather more than this anecdotal evidence to sustain the reductive stance he adopts. He nowhere engages with the more technical aspects of formal logic as such, and the only principle repeatedly mentioned though not clearly stated, is modus tollens. No major logician is discussed. (Kant hardly qualifies.) One suspects Shell is in some haste to get to his own Hegelian-cum-Marxist conclusions. Caraher himself provides the next piece on contradiction and metaphor, arguing that one needs to appeal beyond syntax to context in accounting for poetic metaphor. This has the smell of old news about it, although Caraher makes some reasonable critical comments on the work of both Brooke-Rose and I. A. Richards. He makes some interesting use of actual poetical examples, but at least some acknowledgement of more recent work besides that of Lakoff and Johnson might have been helpful.

Finally, Richard Kuhns deals with paradox in narration. This is a very mixed affair. The second two sections on Melville's Confidence Man, while a litle compressed, are an insightful addtion to Melville criticism. The first two sections are less fortunate, appealing to a precarious analogy between Russell's treatment of logical paradoxes and Freud's treatment of negation. Interesting and suggestive though this might be, the exposition of Russell was less than clear. With this piece, as with all the others, one cannot help feeling that with modifications it might have been more happily located elsewhere. The six papers have gained little by appearing within the same set of covers.
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Author:Pollard, D.E.B.
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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