Friday, March 14, 2008


Bertrand Russell once made an interesting distinction between fact and fiction:

" maintain that Hamlet, for example, exists in his own world, namely, in the world of Shakespeare's imagination, just as truly as (say) Napoleon existed in the ordinary world, is to say something deliberately confusing, or else confused to a degree which is scarcely credible. There is only one world, the 'real' world: Shakespeare's imagination is part of it, and the thoughts that he had in writing Hamlet are real. So are the thoughts that we have in reading the play. But it is of the very essence of fiction that only the thoughts, feelings, etc., in Shakespeare and his readers are real, and that there is not, in addition to them, an objective Hamlet. When you have taken account of all the feelings roused by Napoleon in writers and readers of history, you have not touched the actual man; but in the case of Hamlet you have come to the end of him. If no one thought about Hamlet, there would be nothing left of him; if no one had thought about Napoleon, he would have soon seen to it that some one did. The sense of reality is vital in logic, and whoever juggles with it by pretending that Hamlet has another kind of reality is doing a disservice to thought. A robust sense of reality is very necessary in framing a correct analysis of propositions about unicorns, golden mountains, round squares, and other pseudo-objects."

(from Russell, Bertrand. Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1919)

Lord Russell raises an important point here, however bo-ring that point may seem to most literary hepcats, many lacking a "robust sense of reality". Do aesthetic "truths" hold (say the truth of the play Hamlet) in the way truths of natural sciences or history, or truths arrived at in calculus or formal logic hold? Russell seems to suggest they do not.

The traditional "epistemological" divide splits analytical truth (pertaining to mathematics and formal logic–-i.e., deductive reasoning) from synthetic truth (inductive knowledge based on inference and observation: natural sciences, chemistry, physics, as well as social sciences). Leibniz, one of the founders of integral calc. along with Newton, made this distinction, and Russell was quite aware of Leibnizian thought. Aesthetics, alas, does not fit easily in the Leibnizian schema.

The play Hamlet offers no facts; it is not history, tho' it may contain a few historical allusions (rather difficult to confirm as well). The play Hamlet thus might be interpreted as sort of an eloquent Prevarication (we here at Contingencies are not complete Philistines and would allow the Bard's strange works to be kept in libraries the world over--not sure about other, lesser Lit-Liars, however). Similarly, a few pages of authentic WWI history--say, regarding the sausage-grinders of Verdun or the Somme-- in effect reduces Joyce's Dantean vision of Ulysses to near nothingness (stalinism, fascism, Hiroshima, 'Nam continue that reduction). Hemingway at least attempted to depict the Sausage-grinder (i.e Soldier's Home--) as did Joe Conrad.

A fortiori, the latest fictional potboiler--whether Salinger or space-opera---should not be mistaken for some accurate representation of, for lack of a better term, economic-historical Reality. Literary works--or cinematic works, for that matter--may allude to historical or scientific facts: they are human inventions, however, and not to be mistaken for the ding-an-sich.

In some sense, Russell reaffirms a rather classical and skeptical view of aesthetic claims: in the Republic, Plato (speaking through the Russell-like Socrates) bans the emotionally-driven lyric poet from the ideal State, and insists on Reason as the sole pathway to Wisdom. Plato, it might be noted, did allow for some state musick--like JP Sousa of 400 BC. (He'd probably have allowed Bach, maybe say Scriabin, and have all the rock-pop-country-rap jingleheimers in gulags). Harsh, but at the very least some such moderation policy (in a kinder, gentler cyber-Republic) would prevent the reification of the Hallmark-card.


J. L. Speranza said...

Good. This connects with Grice in "Vacuous Names" and shall see if I can post a post in Grice Club that may relate. It IS a serious topic and I think Currie -- since Gregory Currie wrote some good stuff on this.

Also, why we are moved by Anna Karenina. I.e. a truth may be fictional, but are those 'fictional' tears?

J said...

Yes, there's more to it, and didn't intend to make Russell sound quite so philistinish.....but it may have sounded like that.

Tolstoy I m not a big fan of (still working with War and Peace...llike dozen pages a a decade or so I might be finished), but have read Dostoyevsky. It's strange to say Crime and Punishment is merely fictional.

So it's the suspension of disbelief idea, for lack of a better term (im sure lit-types have fleshed this out in much greater detail). With great writers, we do that--even reading say Moby Dick I feel stirred and emotionally distraught ...Ishmael seems real.

But there's a flip side to the narratives. Some books don't move me like that---say victorian sap, or just dull realism, or sci-fi. Same for movies. Yet people do get carried away with purely fictional constructs--whether Gone with the wind, or the latest blockbuster, or even ET. The moviemakers and entertainment biz as a whole succeed in creating simulacra--we might call it BS, but very profitable BS it is.

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