Virginia Woolf, Literary Style, and Aesthetic Education

05 Sep 2017

Works of literature represent stories, characters and events: these are the contents of a work. Often, the contents of literary works are fictional, however, it is just as characteristic of works of literature that these contents are narrated in a distinct style of writing, in an author’s distinct literary ‘voice’. In this paper, I consider whether works of literature might represent something over and above their fictional contents in virtue of their style alone, and what consequences this might have for our thinking about aesthetic education. Both of these concerns—with what works of art represent and what kind of knowledge they make available to us—have been central to recent analytic philosophy of art, however, while I will pay due attention to these debates, my main route into the question will not be through philosophy but by means of considering Virginia Woolf's writing on the modernist break with earlier stylistic conventions. Introducing the question in the context of Woolf’s writings will take up section 1 of this paper. In section 2, I will formulate a theory of stylistic representation inspired by some of Woolf’s essays. According to this view, a literary style represents a cognitive disposition: a distinct, dispositionally defined cognitive habit of making sense of the world. In section 3 I will compare this theory with some possible contenders drawn from analytic philosophy of art, and in section 4 I outline how such a theory might help us evaluate innovations in literary style in terms of the kind of aesthetic education they make available to the reader. In this way, I suggest we may read Woolf’s remarks on the modernist experiment in literary style as preliminary work for a theory of how innovations in style make new kinds of understanding available to the reader.