On the “Uses” of Literature

Having just finished another rendition of my course on “Philosophy of Language and Interpretation,” this time around I found myself more and more fascinated by Wittgenstein (and a later disciple, Robert Brandom). In particular, I was struck by how fruitful Wittgenstein’s account of meaning as “use” could be for thinking about literature and poetry. While my primary training is in phenomenology–specifically the train of thought that runs from Edmund Husserl through Heidegger to Jacques Derrida–I found this “semiotic” stream less provocative than Wittgenstein’s “pragmatism.”

So I was intrigued to read a recent piece in the Chronicle Review which raised some similar concerns. Though Rita Felski ends by commending phenomenology for the study of literature (which I still think is valuable), in the middle of her argument is a claim that warrants some Wittgensteinian unpacking:

What literary studies sorely needs, in other words, is a nonutilitarian understanding of use. To talk about the uses of literature is to insist that those uses are plural and diverse. We need to surrender, once and for all, the quixotic pursuit of a single concept that can explain why literature matters.

Read the entire article.