Reference and structure: Literary modernism and the philosophy of language

Terrence Joseph Riddell, Marquette University


This dissertation is concerned with the implicit theories or philosophies of language which can be inferred from the practices of five writers of modernist literary texts, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, as these theories of language can be explicated by contemporary critical theories including the deconstruction of Jacques Derrida and the dialectical models of Michael McCanles. The dissertation, then, is composed of an introductory theoretical chapter and five central ones dealing with the authors named above (followed by a brief and speculative epilogue). Language is construed here as having two basic trajectories, that of 'reference' to trans-linguistic entities or states of affairs, and that of 'structure,' i.e., those purely formal orders (grammatical, syntactic, textual) in which words take their places, often without regard to 'reference.' In the modern world, these two tendencies are seen to diverge since there is no longer a cultural or ideological concensus as to how language relates to 'reality' (as there seems to have been, for example, in the Christian Middle Ages in which reality itself was seen as a well-formed text quasi liber scriptus digito Dei). The result of this cultural rift between the referential and structural aspects of language in modern times is that authors of literary texts seek to reconjoin these elements in their texts on an ad hoc basis. Following McCanles, I argue that the relation of the referential and structural aspects of language is dialectical, and following Derrida, I argue that linguistic reference is itself (not to say in combination with 'structure') problematic owing to the irreducible play of differance and that anyhow pure 'structure' is impossible since all structurea (as Derrida shows) are covertly dependent on a 'reference' to (or grounding in) a "transcendental signified." Ultimately, then, I argue that literary modernism is an essential step in the progress from naively Edenic or medieval models of language and those contemporary ones like Derrida's and McCanles's which locate in language an ineluctable problem like differance or dialectic.

Recommended Citation

Riddell, Terrence Joseph, "Reference and structure: Literary modernism and the philosophy of language" (1990). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9101423.