Review of John Gibson’s Fiction and the Weave of Life

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Browsing through some recent issues of the British Journal of Aesthetics, I came across the following review of John Gibson’s excellent monograph, Fiction and the Weave of Life (Oxford Univ. Press, 2007). The last two sentences of the review (written by James Harold, of Mt. Holyoke College) read: “The book is well-written, original, and thought-provoking. It deserves to be widely read.” To find out why, read the whole review by clicking here.

This is how Harold’s review begins:

We need more books like Fiction and the Weave of Life. Brief, coherent, readable, and bold, it avoids the digressive indulgences of many longer books, while retaining their ambition and importance. Gibson shows a rare fluency with the main trends in both contemporary literary theory and Anglo-American philosophy of literature, and throughout the book he uses insights and objections from different traditions to flesh out his argument. Gibson’s aim is to restore humanism to a respectable place in the philosophy of literature by rethinking what humanism means. Humanism, according to Gibson, is the view ‘that there is an important link between literature and life, and that this link . . . accounts for one of the central reasons we value literature’ (pp. 16–17). Although many will doubt whether he achieves his aim, readers will certainly find his efforts rewarding.

The book is divided into five chapters, and they build upon one another nicely. The first chapter lays out the sceptical case against humanism; the second presents Gibson’s central argument for humanism; the third explains how his version of humanism could have real cognitive value; the fourth considers the issue of literary interpretation in a humanist light; and in the final chapter, Gibson compares humanism to its two chief rivals, panfictionalism and make-believe. The chapters are well organized, and, despite the brevity of the book, little is omitted.

In Chapter 1, Gibson sets out the arguments against humanism. He takes these sceptical challenges quite seriously, and makes the reader understand why humanism has seemed so unappealing to so many philosophers and literary theorists. The central sceptical problem is just this: literary works, insofar as they are literary works, are precisely not about the real world. Gibson rejects as too weak the form of humanism that some philosophers—he references Gregory Currie, Kendall Walton, Martha Nussbaum, David Novitz, among others—have recently embraced. He calls this version ‘indirect humanism’. According to indirect humanism, ‘literary works can at least invite modes of reflection, simulation, and imagination that can in turn lead us to a better understanding of our world’ (p. 19). The problem with indirect humanism is not that it is false—it is probably true—but that it is too weak to be counted as truly humanist. As Gibson’s sceptic points out, nothing in indirect humanism denies the sceptic’s claim that insofar as we consider the work of literature as a work of literature, we learn nothing about the world. Humanism must avoid construing literature as representing the real world, while still showing that, as literature, it brings something of value to our understanding of the world.

Gibson’s alternative, a direct, full-throated version of humanism, is outlined in the second chapter. Literature connects with the world not by representing it, Gibson argues, but by functioning as a criterion for concepts that exist both in fiction and reality…

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