Title page for ETD etd-03062006-200330

Document Type Master's Dissertation
Author Taljaard, Frederik
URN etd-03062006-200330
Document Title Imaginative unconcealment : Heidegger’s philosophy of aletheia and the truth of literary fiction
Degree Master of Arts
Department English
Advisor Name Title
Mr M C van Niekerk Committee Chair
  • Shakespeare
  • Nussbaum
  • Wittgenstein
  • Adorno
  • imagination
  • James
  • Heidegger
  • fiction
  • ethics
  • Ashbery
  • aletheia
  • aesthetics
  • literature
  • philosophy
  • truth
Date 2006-04-06
Availability restricted
This dissertation applies Heidegger’s belief that works of art ‘disclose’ or ‘unconceal’ the world to the study of fictional texts in the English literary tradition. I supplement Heidegger’s ideas with an account of the creative or innovative imagination, so as to provide an accurate explanation of the way in which works of fiction, born from the human imagination, relate to ‘truth’, ‘life’ or ‘reality’. Heidegger uses an ancient Greek phrase, aletheia, to describe a type of truth that is not reducible to the propositional statements on which other truth-accounts rely. Aletheia literally means ‘unconcealment’ and, according to the Heideggerian philosophy of art, it is precisely by being embodiments of unconcealment that aesthetic artefacts communicate a knowledge that is as numinous and sublime as the experience of colour or music. This knowledge can be located wherever one looks for it, and I seek its presence in three fictional texts: King Lear by William Shakespeare; The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror by John Ashbery. Shakespeare’s play demonstrates how a work of literature can be constructed from language without being reduced to the sum of its propositional statements. King Lear exemplifies truth-as-unconcealment because critics have offered directly contradictory explanations of the play’s purported ‘meaning’; one can make sense of this paradox by approaching the play as a work that ‘conditions’ such interpretations without necessarily affirming them, which suggests that its truth lies beyond the arguments deduced from the play’s content. The philosophy of aletheia will also impinge on the recent ‘turn to ethics’ among literary theorists and moral philosophers. I follow the critic Robert Eaglestone in claiming that an aletheia-based reading of literary fiction makes more sense of the ethical elements within fiction than interpretations (such as those of Martha Nussbaum) that convert fictional texts into exercises in Aristotelian morality. My reading of The Portrait of a Lady does not conceive of the novel as a philosophical thesis tending towards a ‘moral point’ but considers it, instead, as a work exposing the problematic dimensions of human existence. This disclosure of facets of moral reasoning in the novel’s content finds its analogy in the Jamesian style, and I refer to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s contention that non-propositional truth ‘enters’ propositional language through the idiosyncrasies of style, to explain how the densities of James’s prose connects with the notion of truth as aletheia. But if aletheia is an irreducible and non-propositional truth, it is also a non-fungible truth, which means that the truth of one aesthetic artefact cannot be exchanged with or replaced by the ‘world-disclosure’ embodied in other works. To elaborate on this idea, I employ the aesthetic theory of Theodor Adorno, illustrating his reworked version of truth-as-unconcealment with Ashbery’s postmodern poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. I treat Ashbery’s demanding linguistic experiments as attempts to clear a space for authentic truth and imaginative freedom in a culture dominated by fungible commodities.

The thesis concludes with a discussion of the consequences truth-as-unconcealment holds for contemporary literary criticism.

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