Philosophy of the Novel: I Literary Aesthetics Before Hegel

Extract from a research proposal expanding on work in progress regarding the philosophy of the novel, lightly edited to make it suitable for posting on a blog

The aim is to set up the account of the novel in Vico and later thinkers about the novel, through a survey of literary aesthetics before Hegel. This will overlap with Vico’s time, though Vico will only be considered later in the project. This slight anomaly is necessary to give a full account of what Hegel was reacting to and is justified by the lack of obvious influence from Vico on literary aesthetics, or thought in general until the eighteenth century. Vico’s thought itself does not draw in any obvious way on literary aesthetics after Horace, and can therefore be treated with some detachment from work in that area after the age of Augustus. The survey will commence with Plato’s thoughts on the role of poetry particularly in the Republic, but also in dialogues such as Phaedrus and Ion where the theme also appears. The aim will be to look at how Plato defines the different parts of poetry, and the reasons he has for moral disapprobation of some parts. This will be followed by a discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics, agains drawing on other texts, such as the Rhetoric when it is appropriate. The focus will be on the account of epic, as the most obvious forerunner of the modern novel, but attention will be paid to all aspects of what he says, where it is relevant to the modern novel, which as will be discussed across chapters, tends to incorporate all aspects of poetics or literature.

The discussion will then move onto some discussion of Longinus On the Sublime and the Horace’s Art of Poetry to complete the understanding of antique perspectives on literary texts. Given the relative lack of influential texts on literary genres, and other material about the nature of literature, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, the discussion will make a jump from antiquity to the Renaissance. The era of Rabelais and then the era of Cervantes appropriately overlap respectively with the earlier and later parts of the life of Montaigne, the greatest of the Renaissance essayists, and the nearest thing to an inventor of the essay as a major form of writing. It is in Montaigne that the form of the essay, and of the essay collection finds an extreme exemplar, where digression and shifting perspectives take place within essays and across a whole series of essays, which themselves have narrative and fictional aspects. They also mark the decomposition of antique assumptions about the comprehensibility of the world and the self, of a natural alliance of will and reason to control desire, which is part of the emergence of the novel, of the looseness of prose in narrative as opposed to the structure of classical poetic metres. The Renaissance and early modern essay is not only developed in the self-conscious self-referring thoughts of Montaigne but in apparently more strictly political and philosophical writing.

Machiavelli’s thoughts on the politics of princes and republics are an expression of the still relatively new power of prose writing in Italian, or the capture of antiquity in the modern languages, as well as of the importance of imagination, symbolism and narrative in constructing theories of power and of political forms. Like Don Quixote, The Prince and The Discourses expose illusions; like Rabelais and Montaigne, Machiavelli shows that a mixture of antique authority and sceptical imagination is the basis of writing, of any kind of writing which shows the cultural energy and tensions of the age, rather than the kind of formalised discourse, which tries to expel context.

Even the mathematically inclined philosopher Descartes, wrote sometimes in ways which bring narrative and imagination into the exposition of pure philosophical principles. Those are his most widely read writings Discourse on Method and Meditations on the First Principles of Philosophy. The cultural continuity with Cervantes is apparent in references of the Discourse on Method to a mind dominated by thoughts of knights, magic, and the like. Both are concerned with the description of the world both as a set of representations cleared of anomalous representations, which cannot be clearly said to represent real entities or clear thinking processes; and the extreme multiplicity of forms when the criteria of existence is representability, rather than any kind of intelligible and purposive substance. It is the openness and less hierarchical language of the novel compared with epic, which allows for both the rationality of existence and its inexhaustible pluralism.

These themes in Descartes are taken up broadly speaking in a rationalist continental traditions and an empiricist British tradition, which feed into aesthetic thought. The process continues during the seventeenth century into the eighteenth with the continuing exploration of the issues raised by Machiavelli, Montaigne and Descartes in political though, essays and philosophy as in Grotius, Pascal, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke. The idea of a covenant or contract at the basis of state and law brings narrative and fiction into political thought, which forms part of the context of the novel, as it will exist in the eighteenth century.

Another focus here will be on the aphorisms of La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère, which set up a kind of store of perspectives on the passions and their conflicts for the use of novelists, in a form which is not novelistic, but is open to integration into the psychological intimacy and speculation, which is part of the nature of the novel. These moral aphorisms are also a major source for a philosophical ethics of scepticism and subjectivity, which is a challenge to the idea of a world and a human self structured by moral purposes.

The final part of the discussion will look at the aesthetic and literary aesthetic thought of the early modern period that draws on, or parallels, the material above. That will include the ways in Wolff’s aesthetics develop’s Leibniz’ metaphysics and Shaftesbury’s development of Lockean empiricism in ways that lean more towards Platonism than Locke himself, and which incorporates discussion of aesthetics. British ideas about aesthetics and literature will then be traced through Hutcheson, Hume, and Burke. Finally there will be a return to continental philosophy, with regard to the philosophical aesthetics of Kant, which aims to synthesise rationalist and empiricist approaches. For Kant there will be a concentrate on the nature of poetry and the place of ‘common sense’ in aesthetic judgement. The exploration of a diverse range of material over a long period will be unified by a concern for the ways in which various aspects of previous aesthetic thinking, philosophical reflection on literature, literary style in philosophy, and connected themes in philosophy and literature, are taken up within the novel as a form and reflection on the novel from Vico onwards. It can be thought of as a discussion of the deep history or preparation for the philosophy of the novel.


One thought on “Philosophy of the Novel: I Literary Aesthetics Before Hegel

  1. Pingback: Philosophy of the Novel II: Vico on Homer. An Implicit Philosophy of the Novel | Stockerblog

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