Stein Haugom Olsen
Truth, Verisimilitude, Make-Believe: Explaining the Concept of Literary Realism
The view that literary realism is ‘the literature of truth’ and that a literary work to count as ‘realist’ must tell important truths about social reality has been prevalent among authors, critics, and readers from the very moment the concept ‘realism’ was introduced into the critical vocabulary in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. This has been so though it has proved difficult to provide a theoretical clarification and defence of the view. The tenacity of the view indicates the existence of a strong intuition that it is a characteristic or even a distinguishing feature of a ‘realist’ literary work that is has a positive relationship to something outside the work (‘social reality’), and that this relationship sets it apart from non-realist works. If this positive relationship cannot be explained in terms of truth and reference, then some other way of explaining it has to be found. One possibility is to explain by explaining away: to argue that the intuition that there is a positive relationship between the realist literary work and reality is fundamentally mistaken. There is no such relationship. Such an explanation would make the concept of ‘literary realism’ otiose as there would be no rational grounds for distinguishing realist works of literature from other types of literary work. The problem with any theory that supported this explanation is that rather than discrediting the intuition, the theory itself is discredited. This paper raises the question whether the notion of ‘make-believe’ is helpful in explaining the nature of this positive relationship, or whether other concepts have to be brought into play. Having found the notion of ‘make-believe’ unhelpful, an attempt is made to develop the notion of ‘verisimilitude’ in such a way that it can be used to ground the notion of ‘literary realism’ without running into the kinds of problem that made it difficult to sustain the view of literary realism as ‘the literature of truth’.
Stein Haugom Olsen is currently the Dean of the Faculty of business, languages and social sciences at Østfold University College, Norway. Before this, he was Chair Professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department of Philosophy, Lingnan University, Hong Kong. From 1985 to 1997 he was Chair and Professor of British Civilization Studies at the University of Oslo. Olsen has published widely in aesthetics and the theory of art, the history and theory of the humanities, the philosophy of literature, British 19th Century intellectual history, and British 19th Century literature. Among his recently published works are (ed. with Anders Pettersson) From Text to Literature: New Analytic and Pragmatic Approaches, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), (ed. with Peter Lamarque) Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition: An Anthology (Blackwell, 2004) and, (ed. with Peter Lamarque) the highly influential Truth, Fiction, and Literature: A Philosophical Perspective (Oxford U.P. 1994). His current research activities include the phenomenon of metaphor and figurative speech and the theories that have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, as well as a project on the Origin of Academic Literary Criticism.