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In Defense of Literary Philosophy

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By Sayani Sinha

“All philosophical thinking, and precisely the most rigorous and most prosaic, is in itself poetic, and yet is never poetic art. Likewise, a poet’s work— like Hölderlin’s hymns—can be thoughtful in the highest degree, and yet is never philosophy.” – Heidegger

Heidegger is undoubtedly a major figure, perhaps the major figure, in the re-evaluation of the philosophical seriousness of art. His contribution, however, is one in a long history of post-platonic reflection upon art, majorly influenced by German Romantics, broadly and Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) and Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1820-29) in particular. The key strain that runs through all of these highly individual and distinctively original works is none other than, Plato. That is why, post-Platonic isn’t just a lineage, it embodies a movement in the suture of art to truth. At the heart of Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (1936), is the claim: “Art then is the becoming and happening of truth” (1971a: 71). This is noteworthy not only for its stark contrast to Plato’s rigorously held belief that art can only breed illusion, falsehood and propaganda, but remarkably for its Romantic overtones. The great Romantic tradition in its aspiration to fuse all disparate regions of knowledge in one grand synthesis (may also be narrative) and giving a role of supreme importance to art always, already underlies the pre-existing separation of philosophy from art. In Schelling’s argument, “art occupies the highest place for the philosopher” (1988a: 228), what is succinctly implicit is that it is the philosopher who accords to art its highest place, and who decides wherein its nature consists and why it is pre-eminent. Art can set forward what philosophy cannot represent, but philosophy can describe what art cannot put into concepts. Here, art may very well assume a highly distinctive character, one that parallels if not eclipses that of philosophy. When it comes to the assertion of ‘significance’, however, not only does philosophy appropriate the importance of art proper completely unto itself, but vitally, it stands for the adjudicator of art’s significance. If in this scenario art is important, it is so because philosophy makes it so. Just as art is the becoming and happening of truth, philosophy is the becoming and happening of art. In a most reverse-platonic turn of events, philosophy may be twice-removed from truth, but without philosophy art’s self-apprehension is not possible. It is only through the medium of philosophy that art comes to know to confront the truth about itself. In this act of mirroring, philosophy not only delivers art from its own inherent muteness and unknowability, it also simultaneously renders art understandable and experienceable in reality. Notwithstanding Heidegger’s obsession with poetry in general and Hölderlin in particular, what the quoted lines from his Poetry, Language and Thought (1971) signify is this: thought may be poetic, but it is not poetry; poetry may be thoughtful, but it is not thought. The poet and the thinker stand on separate peaks, at equal heights and in close proximity to one another, but distant in their capabilities and roles. The catch is that, the peaks are situated in a universe that is largely philosophical, or an atlas whose major attributes are philosophical. The way out of this deadlock is markedly Hegelian. When it comes to the arts, Hegel has however decidedly taken a back foot, and for a very precise reason. Hegel’s claim that “art is, and remains for us, on the side of its highest vocation, a thing of the past” (Hegel 1993: 13) reflected the view that art is no longer the means by which Absolute Spirit reveals itself. Hegel’s notion of the “end of art” suggests that art’s linkage to truth is a thing of the past, so that now the philosopher can assume the leading role in the revelation of Absolute Sprit. When this view it-self is considered obsolete in a naive commonsensical manner and hermeneutics is established as a means to reach middle ground, we often overlook the fact that hermeneutics is a properly philosophical engagement.

In his Being and Time (1927), Heidegger succinctly noted the critical distance between objective reality and the knowledge of it. This critical distance is where Philosophy comes in, or rather this is the defined space of Philosophy proper. As Žižek had once very simply put it, “The task of philosophy is not to provide answers or solutions, but to submit to critical analysis the questions themselves” (Topoi (2006), 25: 137). This is the precise Heideggerian point – to see philosophy in its difference from the subjective knowledge of objective reality. For any properly hermeneutic approach to work, it must be first submitted to an array of pre-conceived notions and assumed knowledges, a kind of primordial understanding which shapes all subsequent knowledge-formulations. This horizon of pre-understanding which is always, already there is what foregrounds the intervention of Philosophy as such or in the Heideggerian tone, the ushering of Event. What then is the Heideggerian notion of Event? Event is not just a change in reality but change in the basic mode of our relating to reality; that is, it relates to the shift in the parameters which demonstrate the perception of reality as such. The legitimacy of the Event of the disclosure of being as also the premise of Philosophy or philosophical intervention is the truly ontic question that all of western metaphysics, all its variegated strains of thought is ultimately foregrounded by. But is philosophy at its most fundamental really reducible to a desperate attempt to fill in the gaps and inconsistencies in our notion of reality and thus to provide a harmonious Weltanschauung? With Kant’s transcendental turn, the exact opposite happens: Kant fully exposes a crack, a lack, a series of irreparable antinomies which emerges the moment we begin to conceive reality as all. Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalizes it. While Kant locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, Hegel locates them in their heart, in things themselves, that is, he conceives reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.

Hermeneutics is the philosophical intervention into arts, proper. Hermeneutics, not interpretation. To understand this, we must first counterpose them through two un-likely candidates, Meaning and Sense as Žižek (2012) does:

Meaning is an affair of hermeneutics, Sense is an affair of interpretation, such as interpreting the sense of a symptom which, precisely, belies and undermines the totality of Meaning. Meaning is global, the horizon encompassing details which, in themselves, appear meaningless; Sense is a local occurrence in the field of non-sense. Meaning is threatened from the outside by non-Meaning; Sense is internal to non-Sense, the product of a nonsensical, contingent, or lucky encounter. Things have Meaning, but they make Sense. (697)

It is precisely because hermeneutics aligns with the realm of Meaning, endowed with the perfunctory gesture of allocating, attributing and even appropriating meaning as such that it is purely philosophical. Hermeneutics begins with the realization that meaning is obscure, not immediately accessible, and possibly also multiple and ambiguous. It aims to counter an unregulated semantic free-for-all by delimiting the field of acceptable interpretations. Hermeneutics is thus a kind of discursive regulation of interpretation. A most singular voice in the field of literary criticism makes the strongest case for this: Umberto Eco (1992) proposes what appear to be unobjectionable conditions for interpretation to occur: “If there is something to be interpreted, the interpretation must speak of something which must be found somewhere, and in some way respected” (42).  So first of all aletheia must be something which is “out there” in the world, available to be interpreted; we must then find stand in respect of it, in the sense that our interpretation must be appropriate to it and not arbitrarily imposed on it. Eco provides limits to the range of possible interpretations, but does not unduly restrain it. But as the philosopher Richard Rorty (1992) insists, “the coherence of the text is not something it has before it is described” (97) He takes particular notice of Eco’s requirement of something “in” the text, some meaning and internal coherence which he discounts completely. The notion of over interpretation is redundant because it falsely implies that we have a reliable distinction between what is in the text and what is merely supplied by a willful interpreter, and therefore that we have a measure of ascertaining which interpretation(s) may be correct. In the absence of such a distinction there obviously lies no essential difference between reading and over-reading, there are just more or less interesting and useful acts of reading. What this simultaneously implies is a certain residue, a remainder or excess, (what is perhaps literary in a literary text and as such stands for the very possibility of over-reading) which unsettles stable meaning and interpretive control and which forms the interest of Derrida.

Contrary to formalist and thematic approaches to literary criticism (that is, to pin the work down, to restrain it by identifying its formal features or encoded messages), Derrida’s deconstruction is an attempt to traverse the event of the text in its utter singularity, to stand exposed – and obliged to respond – to its untamable strangeness. Derrida is uncomfortable saying he writes ‘about’ texts, since to do so would imply some degree of interpretive mastery and the identifiable separateness of a critical metalanguage. He prefers to say he writes “towards” them, or “in the face of the event of another’s text” (1992: 62). In his writing there is no theory of literature, or, reading; if anything, there is a theory of why there cannot be any such theory. “Literature” names something which cannot be contained by rules and principles. It is wayward and uncontrollable, and this is why it demands the attention of the reader. And yet the text, for Derrida, imposes the law of absolute fidelity; his anxiety as reader comes from the knowledge that his reading can never be fully faithful. The remainder will always remain. Attentiveness to the texts of others is tantamount to an ethical obligation. In an almost deconstructionist Levinasian way, it entails the endeavour to preserve and respond to a singularity which speaks from a position of total otherness. As he writes in Signépogne (1988):

The thing would therefore be the other, the other-thing which gives me an order or addresses demand to me which is impossible, intransigent, insatiable, without exchange and without transaction, without any possible contract. Without a word, without speaking to me, it addresses itself to me alone in my irreplaceable singularity, in my solitude as well. I owe to the thing an absolute respect which comes from no general law: the law of the thing is also singularity and difference. I am tied to it by an infinite debt, an endless duty. I will never be free of it. So the thing is not an object, it cannot become one.

Eco’s rejection of over interpretation relies on the sense that there is something in the text which readers should not falsify by imposing on it associations which are entirely their own. But by what criteria do we decide what is genuinely present in the text and what is added by the reader? For Derrida, this question is much more difficult than for opponents of over-interpretation. He is no more in favor of falsifying the text than they are, even if he knows that some element of betrayal is inevitable; but he is less confident about how to draw the line between the inside and the outside of the text. So he can have no assurance about what should be excluded from an acceptable reading, and indeed about what would make a reading acceptable and unacceptable in the first place. This is not just a contingent difficulty which more and better hermeneutic theory might clear away, since it derives from his conception of textuality in general. The text will never be cleansed of its traces and residues, which are also its resistance to interpretive exhaustion. Derrida might agree that we should not arbitrarily impose on texts associations which are not really there, but no established rule can ever settle once and for all what the work truly contains. Whatever rules may or may not apply, they will never allow an exhaustive, definitive and complete reading of a text. This exhaustive reading is, he implies, the dream of hermeneutics. In Derrida as in much of French philosophy, the word hermeneutics is often used to refer to the fallacy of a stable meaning accessible through the mode of interpretation. In a manner after Gadamerian hermeneutics, Derridean deconstruction acknowledges a major debt to Heidegger: a belief that meaning is a matter of language, an interest in interpretation and in particular the interpretation of works of literature, a rejection of the “single correct reading,” a sensitivity to ambiguity, and a concern to preserve and to attend to the text’s distant otherness. While Heidegger’s obsession with language in “his house of being” (wherein he expands how “essence” is something that depends on the historical context, on how the epochal disclosure of benighted occurs in and through language, the work of which is the making of essences) may succeed in bypassing the tyranny of philosophy with relation to literature when it comes to meanings and their allocation, Deleuze for the first positively attempts to break away from the tyranny of meaning.

Deleuze repeatedly insisted that he was a ‘not interpreter’ of texts and films. Rather than revealing their messages or intentions, he wanted to create something new through his encounters with them. For him literary texts were content-free. He was therefore interested in what they did and not what they meant, because they meant nothing. Deleuze echoes Heidegger when he puts immense emphasis on the factor of creativity in his attempt to conjoin philosophy and the arts. Yet he again following Heidegger reserves a special place for philosophy: “To tell the truth, sciences, arts and philosophy are equally creative, although it is the role of philosophy alone to create concepts in the strict sense” (Deleuze and Guattari 1991: 11). We may be wary of this claim given the latter half of the statement but Deleuze is adamant no such implication should be read. Despite best intentions, perhaps, none can escape the tyranny of language. Since Deleuze is a self-professed not interpreter, he forecloses any discussion of the positions he adopts. He is not interested in argument and counter-argument, so on his own terms at least there is no point whatever in trying to debate what he says, or to apply to it the correctness or error. Since he denies that what he is doing should be called interpretation, he dismisses the interest of any possible objections. Perhaps, though, this double-gesture can be read as a disabling dogmatism more than an enabling liberation from the despotism of meaning. Deleuze proposes powerful interpretations even though he refuses to name them as such, and he disallows any critical dissent. He seems to have replaced the authoritative regime of Meaning, with an even more tyrannical debacle of non-Meaning.

Whereas for Derrida there is nothing outside the text, for Deleuze there is nothing inside it. This content-free nature of literature as mere extension of all that forms its externality is more prescriptive than it is descriptive. “Writing,” Deleuze insists, “operates the conjunction, the transmutation of fluxes, through which life escapes from the resentment of persons, societies and reigns” (Deleuze and Parnet 1977:62). For Deleuze, this could be presumably true in general even if no single instance could be brought forward to support it. To say what literature is in its actual manifestations would be a dully critical, interpretive activity. Deleuze is concerned rather to create something in his writing that might be. And so long philosophy continues to harbor high hopes for literature, it does not quite relinquish its aspiration to know more about art than art knows about philosophy, or about itself. In his writing there may no longer be any conflict between philosophy and literature but that is perhaps because they are not in competition anymore. The scales can no longer be balanced for they are broken. Hermeneutics may be a terrible thing, but only it can form the positive possibility of its own radical subversion.


Baugh, Bruce.   Deleuze and Literature. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2001.

Bernasconi, Robert.  Heidegger in Question: The Art of Existing. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1993.

Bogue, Ronald.  Deleuze on Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Davis, Colin. Critical Excess. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

Deleuze, Gilles. Pourparlers. Paris: Minui, 1990.

Derrida, Jacques.  Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York and London: Routledge, 1992.

_________________.  Signépogne. Paris: Seuil, 1988.

_________________.  Positions. Paris: Minuit, 1972.

Davis, Colin. Critical Excess. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

Eco, Umberto.  The Limits of Interpretation. Trans. Martin Mclaughlin. London: Vintage books, 1990.

Eco, Umberto.  On Literature. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana UP, 2006.

_______________.  The Limits of Interpretation. Trans. Martin Mclaughlin. Lon don: Vintage books, 1990.

Hegel, G.W.F.  Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics. Trans. Bernard Bosan-quet. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. 1971. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Perennial Classics Eedition. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

___________________. Existence and Being. Trans. Douglas Scott, R.F.C. Hull and Alan Crick. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1949.

Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. London: Profile Books, 2008.

______________. Žižek, Slavoj.  Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences.New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

Sayani Sinha is a postgraduate student of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She graduated first-class from Presidency University, Kolkata, where she was also born and brought up. Her research interests include but are not limited to Marxism, New Left Theories, Postcolonial and/Subaltern Studies, Nation and Nationalism, German Aesthetics, Modernist Poetry, Contemporary British Theatre, Postmodernist Short Story, Cryptocurrency, and the Internet of Value.


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