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LeMahieu, Michael. 2013. Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945-1975.

LeMahieu, Michael. 2013. Fictions of Fact and Value: The Erasure of Logical Positivism in American Literature, 1945-1975. New York: Oxford University Press. $49.95 he. 256 pp.

In Fictions of Fact and Value, Michael LeMahieu offers a much-needed corrective to a genuine historical lacuna: the afterlife of logical positivism in twentieth-century American literature. Through what he appealingly calls the "literature of ideas"--a blend of intellectual and literary history, literary criticism, and philosophy--LeMahieu shows how this arid and abstruse philosophy manages to persist in the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, Saul Bellow, John Barth, Don DeLillo, and Thomas Pynchon. The book is organized around the claim that logical positivism "appears tactically in postwar literature in order to advance authors' aesthetic strategies, which are often latent, implicit, or ironic" (5). Part of this "tactical" persistence occurs in the way the fictions under analysis deal with a schism between fact and value, between what can be explained scientifically and what escapes such explanations.

Much of the scholarly analysis here is undertaken specifically in relation to Ludwig Wittgenstein's equal parts cryptic and pellucid Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which the Vienna Circle thinkers who devised logical positivism treated as a major inspiration. Positivism emerged out of the view (often associated with Auguste Comte) that all knowledge arises from experience and so is an account of empirical facts. The Vienna Circle thinkers who took inspiration from Wittgenstein as a "positivist," however, got things fundamentally wrong about what Wittgenstein was trying to achieve in the Tractatus. Theodor Adorno also falsely treated Wittgenstein as some kind of positivist, assuming the Vienna thinkers' alignment with the Tractatus was sound.

LeMahieu's desire to historicize "the reception of logical positivism by tracing its lines of influence, and the ways in which they were subsequently erased, in the decades following 1945" leads to intricate readings of both fiction and philosophy (20). The first chapter offers a sustained reading of Adorno's critique of logical positivism, specifically in relation to Wittgenstein's Tractatus. LeMahieu argues convincingly that, despite Adorno's alignment of the early Wittgenstein with a positivism that would relegate artworks to a species of non-sense, his "critique of logical positivism enables the reading of Wittgenstein that debunks {his own} extension of his critique to Wittgenstein" (37). This claim leads to a genuinely original set of remarks on the most influential line of Tractatus interpretation of the last thirty years, the so-called "resolute" reading associated with Cora Diamond and James Conant. The resolute reading is, roughly, the view that rather than a dramatic break between the "early" Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and the "later" Wittgenstein of the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) there is continuity. One way such continuity gets expressed, according to this line of interpretation, is in Wittgenstein's famous injunction at proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus, that once one has read through the propositions of the book one must "throw away the ladder," realizing that the propositions, too, are "nonsense." This idea of discarding the very steps that got you to 6.54 is akin (so the resolute reading goes) to what in the later work Wittgenstein calls "therapy": i.e., thinking designed to break the spell of the false problems that have bedeviled philosophy since the ancient Greeks. Among LeMahieu's many interesting insights here is an account of the idea of "feelers" {die Fuhler) in Wittgenstein's picture theory of reference and how this idea inflects our reading of the Tractatus as poised between what can be said and what can only be shown. There are also refreshing comments about the possible influence of William James on Wittgenstein's more "mystical" sounding pronouncements--although nowhere else in the book is there attention to the relation of American pragmatism to logical positivism, such as the way the Vienna Circle's "verificationist" approach to meaning may be traced to Charles S. Peirce's 1877 essay, "The Fixation of Belief."

The chapter on Pynchon's first novel V (1963) is especially insightful. As with many of the close readings in the book, LeMahieu makes excellent use of archival materials from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Here, LeMahieu traces Pynchon's revisions from typescript to galley proofs: in doing so, he usefully contextualizes Vs many allusions to the Tractatus from the perspective both of intellectual history and writerly craft. The really fascinating element, though, is the way LeMahieu is able to show through close reading how Pynchon launches a full-scale attack on the idea of aesthetic autonomy: from a typically wacky character name--"Dudley Eigenvalue," the latter word referring to an equation which provides its own value--to V.'s central scholarly quest for a "complete system of knowledge" (161). Like totemic modernists before him, most obviously T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922), Pynchon imagines the quest for knowledge in relation to Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890). This link allows for LeMahieu's further engagement with Wittgenstein, whose "Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough" (1931) opens another angle of reflection on the tension between fact and value through the scientific interpretation of "magic" rites and rituals.

One minor complaint is that for all the insight into the unexpected literary afterlife of logical positivism--and especially the importance of Wittgenstein's thought for understanding these literary consequences--there is little specific attention to Wittgenstein asaprosestylist.Forinstance, we are told at a key moment in the opening chapter that Wittgenstein "joints} the ... written and unwritten parts" of the Tractatus--i.e., the part that can be said and the part that can only be shown--in the text's final proposition, " Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber mufi man schweigen" (What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence) (49). But it is never acknowledged that this is simply a beautiful line. Like so many of the aphorisms in the Tractatus, this line is as sonorous and modulated as a line of poetry or a song lyric, as is Wittgenstein's first proposition, "Die Welt ist alies, was der Fall 1st" (The world is all that is the case). Nor is there any discussion of the peculiar transformations Wittgenstein made upon the brand of atomism he picked up from his sometime teacher Bertrand Russell, a bit of intellectual history with crucial relevance for understanding how the picture theory of reference actually works, not to mention Wittgenstein's very idiosyncratic brand of metaphysical realism. It is also odd, though not necessarily damaging to the book's argument (since it postdates the historical range specified in the title) that there is no mention of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), a novel that actually tries to imagine a heroine who inhabits a Tractarian world and thus sheds light on the logic of fiction and fiction making.

These are minor complaints about a book that is on the whole a success, and one that makes an important step toward clearing up the many misunderstandings and reified preconceptions that often hinder efforts at genuine interdisciplinary conversation between literature and philosophy. What allows for this rapprochement between literature and philosophy is LeMahieu's nimbly executed "literature of ideas"; his bringing scrupulous, careful analyses to both literary prose and philosophical argument. One can only hope the book is a promise of more work to come along these lines among literary scholars--and, maybe, even by philosophers.


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Author:Grimstad, Paul
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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