Particular, Possible, Universal: Reflections on History, Literature, and Philosophy

The “ancient quarrel” between literature and philosophy has recently earned new attention. Philosophers have addressed metaphor, classical tragedy, and the ethics of fiction; literary critics have turned from “high theory” to cognitive science, pragmatism, and other strands of Anglophone thought. But one issue issue still seems to divide the fields—namely the place of history in the understanding of aesthetic works. As a discipline, literary studies remains stubbornly committed to historicizing literary texts, situating them within the contingent particularities of historical processes, whereas most philosophers still ask how texts yield truth or knowledge, or exhibit standing human powers and interests. For the literary scholar, the philosopher risks treating literature as a source of tidy illustrations or pearls of wisdom; for the philosopher, the literary scholar risks losing the work in a morass of local detail, rendering it just another piece of historical or sociological data.

Can there be an approach to the literary text that is all at once historical, attentive to textuality and figuration, and concerned with the significance of the literary work as imaginative and presentational object? How does knowledge of political, social, or economic history inform our grasp of a literary work? How does it not inform it? How does a literary concern with form, thematization, and their interrelations both respond to historical phenomena and productively shape them?

“Particular, Possible, Universal” is a small conference bringing together a rare group of thinkers who have shown themselves committed to investigating these questions. They include rising early-career scholars and some of the most prominent names currently working in the humanities, and they span both the analytic/continental divide in philosophy and the formalist/historicist divide in literary studies.