There are a number of important texts, sometimes treated as philosophical and sometimes as literary works, which do not usually find an appropriate audience. Paradigms of what I have in mind are: Kierkegaard's pseudonymous writings, almost all of Nietzsche, Marx's narratives of capital and class-struggle, Sartre's complex series of fictions, plays, treatises, critical performances and autobiography, and Heidegger's hypnotic meditations and textual exegeses. Responses by philosophers, especially Anglo-American ones, seldom take account of the specific literary forms of these works or of their authors’ very self-conscious concern with the problems and strategies of writing. It is true that the texts in question are often regarded as poetic, but the designation is usually code for nonsense. The positivistic assimilation of poetry and metaphysics to emotive utterance not only has deep roots and affinities in the English critical tradition but continues to have unacknowledged influence among philosophers. John Stuart Mill's idea that poetry is a voice overheard, expressing powerful emotions, continues to be paradigmatic for the way in which many philosophers construe poetry, despite its qualification or abandonment by literary critics. As a result, the deviation from the stylistic norms of the Descartes to Kant period of the texts mentioned above is often attributed to the personal peculiarities or even madness of their authors. Kierkegaard’s broken engagement and Nietzsche's egomania and rivalry with Wagner have been invoked in order to interpret their writings; these interpretations are often so simplistic that a literary life-and-works critic of the old school might not be able to endure them with a good conscience. In any case, there is something paradoxical about attempting to explain a literary performance by invoking notions of personality and character from the contexts of ordinary life. For personality is originally the persona or mask of the dramatic actor and character a mark in a piece of writing: and this suggests that a reduction of literary practice to such notions may be short-circuited to the extent to which our ideas about character, personality and the like have already been formed by literary models.

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Copyright © 1982 Metaphilosophy LLC. This article first appeared in Metaphilosophy 13, no. 3-4 (July 1982): 267-76. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9973.1982.tb00684.x.

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