The Epoch of Critical Theory by pengxiang


									University of Oregon

The Epoch of Critical Theory
Author(s): Wallace Martin
Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 321-350
Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon
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               The          Epoch               of
               Critical              Theory
                                     servedas a meansof orga-
  N SCIENCE, theorieshavetraditionally

   nizing the perceptions and conjectures that lie between ignorance and
reliable knowledge. Even when disputed they contribute to the coher-
ence of a discipline by disposing facts, accepted explanations, and pre-
dictions in a single conceptual order. In criticism, however, theories play
a different role. Rather than integrating the results of literary study,
they engender diversity. Each new theory presents itself as the only sen-
sible alternative to those that preceded it. But its predecessors remain
stubbornly alive, and the new theory stimulates the production of still
others intended to rectify the errors it has introduced. Where one is dis-
membered, two or more grow in its place, and the herculean task of re-
ducing criticism to order becomes more difficult every time it is under-
   The result of this developmental pattern is what I. A. Richards, in
Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), called "The Chaos of Critical
Theories": "A few conjectures, a supply of admonitions, many acute
isolated observations, some brilliant guesses, much oratory and applied
poetry, inexhaustible confusion, a sufficiency of dogma, no small stock
of prejudices, whimsies and crochets, a profusion of mysticism, a little
genuine speculation, sundry stray inspirations, pregnant hints and ran-
dom aperpus: of such as these, it may be said without exaggeration, is
extant critical theory composed." The theory that Richards would have
 substituted for the chaos of the past has been rejected by every major
 critic who has discussed it, but many have agreed with his assessment of
 the critical heritage. "Half a century later," says Bennison Gray, "the
 problem that Richards saw remains the same."'
  1 Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924; rpt. New York, 1952), p. 6;
Gray, The Phenomenon of Literature (The Hague, 1975), p. 7.

   The proliferation of critical theories during the past two decades has
led to what is now often characterizedas a "crisis" in criticism. In Cri-
tique et verite (1966), Barthes described "La crise du Commentaire"
in a passage that has proved prophetic of the subsequent development of
French criticism: dissolution of the boundaries between creative, criti-
cal, philosophic, and scientific discourse, he said, would leave them
merged in the common field of icriture. Using the concept of theoretical
crisis developed by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revo-
lutions (1962), Hans Robert Jauss suggested that the current situation
in criticism is the culmination of a "paradigmchange" that will end the
hegemony of stylistic and intrinsic analysis. Robert Weimann views it
as a symptom of a "larger crisis in Western society"; Mecklenburg and
Miiller, employing ideas developed by Jiirgen Habermas, see the Me-
thodenkrise in humanistic studies as part of a cultural crisis that began
early in the century. The search for origins ends with the conclusion that
an implicit questioning of its own rationality has always been character-
istic of genuine criticism and that, as Siegfried Schmidt says, the history
of literary study is one of "permanent crisis." "To speak of a crisis of
criticism," says Paul de Man, "is then, to some degree, redundant."2
   De Man, who introduced the European sense of crisis to this country
in 1967, has described its symptoms as they appear in current criticism:
"None of the authors speak as if they merely had to perform a straight-
forward, unhampered task of description or understanding. All have to
set out against an erroneous conception of literature that stands in their
way." When they point out the errors of other critics, we find ourselves
agreeing with them. But "as soon as they offer their own readings, our
own critical sense reawakens,"and their theories seem no more convinc-
ing than those they have subverted. We are led to ask why so many crit-
ics have failed to produce satisfactory explanations of literature; "but,
on this point," says de Man, "our authors are.curiously uninformative:
they argue vigorously and effectively against the specific substantial is-
sue they reject, but have little to say about the reasons that have so per-
sistently misled other critics."8The prototype of the modern theorist is
   2 Jauss,"Paradigmawechsel der Literaturwissenschaft,"
                               in                           LingB, No. 3 (1969),
pp. 44-56; Weirnann,"Past Significance and Present Meaning in Literary His-
tory," NLH, 1 (1969), 91; N. Mecklenburgand H. Mfiller, Erkenntnisinteresse
und Litera.turwissenschaft (Stuttgart, 1974), p. 13;             the Foundation
of ResearchStrategies,"Poetics, No. 7 (1973), p. 9; de Man, Blindness & Insight:
Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary  Criticism (New York, 1971), p. 8. The re-
dundancyof "criticism"and "crisis" results from the fact that they are derived
from the same root: see Reinhart Koselleck, Kritik und Krise (Freiburg, 1959),
pp. 189-92; pp. 86-103.Leroy Searle providesstill anotherexplanationof the crisis
in criticism in NLH, 7 (1976), 393-415.
   3 "Literatureand Language: A Commentary,"       NLH, 4 (1972), 182-85.

                                                   EPOCH OF THEORY

the frontiersman, who must clear away a tangled wilderness in order to
make room for his own ordered growth. But since every critic's cosmos
is another's chaos, individual attempts to introduce order into critical
theory produce the disorder of the whole.
   There is of course no reason for criticism to be orderly; it is not a leg-
islative assembly or a squad on parade. But as an activity that has pre-
tensions to self-consciousness, criticism should at least be able to provide
some explanation of its diversity. This, rather than the diversity, is the
problem: the words "chaos" and "crisis" reveal our inability to compre-
hend the critical field, rather than some identifiabledislocation within it.
In other disciplines, theoretical disputes are described and analyzed in
textbooks, reference works, symposia, and metatheoreticaltreatises. But
critics and aestheticians have yet to produce an account of critical theo-
ries that would explain, if only in a general fashion, the current state of
literary study. Even metacritics, who attempt to gain a disinterested
perspective on the critical field, cannot agree on where to begin. Disputes
between them, according to one recent commentator, must be resolved
by metametacritics-opening        the prospect of infinite regress. No aca-
demic discipline currently produces as many theories as the study of lit-
erature; and no discipline has produced fewer accounts of its theories
and methods.
   One cannot assume that the lack of such accounts is an oversight or
accident. Possibly the word "theory" masks crucial differences between
criticism and other disciplines. The analysis of literature may implicate
the consciousness of its practitioners in such a way as to make an objec-
tive comparison of critical theories impossible. Murray Krieger, in the
Preface to his Theory of Criticismz, provides an interesting and perhaps
symptomatic explanation of why a general account of critical theories
was not written. Having undertaken it, he became conscious that his
treatment of other critics "constantly reflected my predisposition to
make a single theory look good" ;4 as a result, he was led to foresake his
original objective and write a book about his own theory. The bias imm
plicit in his approach to other critics, which would have been out of place
in the volume originally planned, proved compatible with his revised in-
tentions. Concerning the critics he discusses, he remarks that "any read-
er must be concerned about how idiosyncratic my treatment of them has
been"-and the "must," if not a conjecture, is an imperative. Reflection
on our own experience provides the best justification for Krieger's con-
clusion that "the [critical] tradition is my tradition, what I have created
for myself out of the writers I have chosen to treat." What is involved;
as Gadamer argues in Truth and Method, is perhaps a necessity rather
  4 Theory of Criticism: A Tradition and its System (Baltimore, 1976), p. x.


than a choice; for where, outside of us, could the tradition exist-and
vice versa ? In Krieger's words: "Every writer in a tradition must be
changed by the later writer who uses him in order to constitute that tra-
dition and to see himself as its latest member" (p. xiii).
   Two questions about unwritten (perhaps unwritable) books arise.
Would it be possible to produce an undistorted account of past critics?
And if written, would not such a book be a greater distortion than any
alternative ? Its author, in representing the critical tradition as one that
he had not himself assimilated and modified, would set his readers at a
distance from their own assimilation of the past, through argument with
him and active revisionism of their own. From this point of view, objec-
tivity is not simply one distortion among others but a fundamental mis-
representation of humanistic study that alienates us from the past.
   The problems involved in discussing other critics are, however, minor
in comparison to that posed by the existence of theory in any form. Hav-
ing once encouraged the study of critical theory, Krieger says, "I find it
ironic that I am now concerned about its flourishing, out of my fear that
in its recent forms theory leads away from the unique powers of litera-
ture as an art" (p. xii). The title of his first chapter, "The Vanity of
Theory and Its Value," is indicative of an ambivalence shared by many;
theory, he concludes, is a "necessary evil" (p. 8). In this instance as in
others, Krieger testifies to the fact that in our time, the best critics are
aware of the necessity to theorize and the dangers of theory, of the threat
that the dissemination of theory poses to literature and the consequent
importance of attempts to rectify the situation by theorizing, and of their
share of the responsibility for creating the very situation that disturbs
them. His claim that "the critic's inner person asserts itself at the ex-
pense of his systematic [i.e., theoretical] allegiance" (p. ix) is confirmed
in his Preface, which enacts the ceaseless flight from and return to the-
ory that critics may identify as their problem, but which in fact consti-
tutes their mode of existence. The chaos and crisis of criticism can thus
be seen as resulting not from conflicts between individuals and schools
that in better times might constitute a harmonious whole, but from the
ineluctable conditions of every critical act. "Criticism" is nothing but a
series of such acts; what else could it be ? And with this conclusion, some
accounts of recent criticism would end, or simply provide additional evi-
dence by multiplying instances.
   Besides showing why disinterested accounts of critical theory remain
unwritten, Krieger's Preface provides an insight into the aporias of cur-
rent theoretical discussion. They appear to exist by virtue of the fact that
we are now conscious of the conceptual structure within which critical
problems are constituted. We know that theoretical commitments are
                                                  EPOCH OF THEORY

disabling and at the same time inescapable. Such consciousness is pur-
chased at a price: it provides not an escape from traditional dilemmas
but an intensified awareness of them. In this sense, it is similar to Ro-
mantic self-consciousness, and the discovery of a critical impasse can
therefore become not just a destiny but a destination.5 To oppose this
conclusion is in one sense pointless and in another sense impossible. We
cannot return to our former naivete, nor can we escape the conceptual
framework within which criticism exists simply by choosing to do so.
   Nevertheless, it is now possible to see that framework as characteris-
tic of a historical epoch-that in which the "theory of criticism" was con-
stituted as an object-and to graph the strata upon which the structures
of current criticism are based. Before the twentieth century, there had
been discussions of the principles, elements, and foundations of literary
criticism, but literary or critical "theory," with the philosophic and sci-
entific implicationsthat accompanythe word (theory as opposed to prac-
tice; as distinguished from certain knowledge; as involving the organi-
zation of knowledge in a single, coherent structure), did not exist. Intro-
duced into the critical vocabulary by writers interested in creating a
"science of criticism"-see, for example, ?1mileHennequin, La Critique
scientifique (1,888) and John M. Robertson, New Essays towards a
Critical Method (1897)-the word "theory" achieved general accept-
ance after its use by later critics (such as I. A. Richards and the Russian
Formalists) who are also rememberedfor their scientific interests.
   On entering the critical vocabulary, "theory"brought with it the prob-
lems inherent in its uses elsewhere and created others because of the dis-
parity between the precision that it suggested and the inchoate state of
the activity (for criticism was not then considered a "discipline") to
which it was applied. The vocabulary of aesthetics and criticism re-
quired redisposition in order to accommodate the new term. "Practical
criticism" acquired a distinctive identity by virtue of its opposition to
that which was merely "theoretical"; the fact that a critic lacked or did
not articulate a theory became a basis for objection to his work; pressing
problems arose concerning the interrelationships of disparate theories;
and as the representativeof all that is abstract, scientific, mechanical,and
even tyrannical, "theory" entered into a series of terminological opposi-
tions (to literary experience, the self, literary history, and so on) that
have been important in constituting our conception of criticism.
   It would be incorrect to say that the dilemmas of current criticism re-
sult from the use of the word "theory,"or that we can no longer perceive
criticism apart from the conceptual system of which that word is a part.
    See, for example, J. I-illis Miller, "Stevens' Rock and Criticism as Cure,"
GaR, 30 (1976), 335-48.


Nevertheless, it has shaped the development of criticism in ways that do
not become apparent until its transparency is questioned, and it has con-
tributed to the development of a critical polemic more dependent on the-
oretical terminology (even when the participants are opposed to theory)
than on any of its applications or consequences. A synoptic account of
positions taken by critics concerning the place of theory in criticism can-
not in itself solve any problems, but it may help make them visible for
what they are.
   Because the epoch of critical theory is not yet over, an attempt to de-
scribe it might appear to be doomed from the start. It can only be dis-
cussed from some position within the field of possibilities it presupposes,
and as Murray Krieger shows, the logic governing that field makes ob-
jective description impossible. Those who say that we can attain objec-
tivity hold one position among others, with no defensible claims to pre-
eminence. Their opponents argue that a critical theory is not a single,
stable object that happens to be seen from one or another point of view.
For its advocates, it is not the theory that is seen by its opponents. The
possibility of rising above the scrimmage of competing theories to view
them from some metaposition will be discussed later; it is unlikely to
prove acceptableto the theorists being judged.
   Rather than denying the assumptions that preclude objective descrip-
tion, I have allowed them to dictate the method and style of the following
pages. Demarcation of a particular theory involves a zigzag movement
during which it is seen successively from the inside (sympathetically)
and the outside (critically). Through positional shifts, I attempt to mark
the borders between theories and the limits of theoretical criticism as a
whole. Every theory depends for its articulation on its rivals; without
antitheses and polemics, it could not achieve definition. In this sense,
understanding one entails understanding all. Having concluded that no
arguments can prove or disprove theories of criticism, I think they can
best be understood through study of their interrelationships,just as pho-
nemes can be said to exist through a configuration of differences. After
presenting the range of positions developed in Anglo-American criti-
cism in the four decades following the appearance of Richards' Princi-
ples of Literary Criticism, I attempt to correlate them with recent Conti-
nental theories. Current conceptions of "theory" in philosophy and
science, some of which are mentioned in the concluding section, suggest
the desirability of reconsidering its past and present uses in connection
with criticism.

  In Principles of Literary Criticism, Richards made use of several theo-
retical distinctions that eventually altered Anglo-American conceptions
                                                    EPOCH       OF THEORY

of criticism and the issues emphasized in critical debates. By discussing
not aesthetics, in the traditional sense, but the linguistic and epistemolog-
ical status of its concepts, he established the basis for a distinction be-
tween criticism and metacriticism. In part because of his interest in se-
mantics, he focused attention on the language of criticism, calling atten-
tion to its reification of aesthetic experience and its capacity to mystify
those who use it. His philosophic commitments led him to assume that
theoretical and empirical statements are clearly distinguishable in criti-
cism, just as they are (or were) in physics. Subsequent critics were
forced to declare their positions on issues that had hitherto been associ-
ated with the philosophy of science. Does criticism inevitably contain a
theoretical component? If so, is it possible to envision a "true" theory
of criticism, one that either assimilates others or shows that they are
   In his early writings, Richards assumed that criticism entails theory
and that only one theory can be true; those who would agree with this
position will be referred to as "monists." Most of the alternatives to mo-
nism emerged during the critical debates of the 1950s. One can argue
that the whole truth about literature can be subsumed in an encompass-
ing theory that incorporatesthe partial truths of earlier theories (syncre-
tism) ; that theory is an ignis fatu••s, irrelevant or unnecessary to criti-
cism; that critical theory is inescapable and inevitably circular; or that
each theory reveals part of the truth but that these theories are irrecon-
cilable (pluralism).
   It was the pluralists-R. S. Crane and his colleagues at the University
of Chicago-who defined these positions and, in the decade following
the publication of Critics and Criticism (1952), impelled others to en-
gage in the debate about the theory of critical theory. Ostensibly based
on Aristotelian assumptions, the distinctions that gave Crane's essays
their theoretical and polemical edge were taken from the philosophy of
science, in particularfrom the writings of Rudolf Carnap."When forced
to do so, the New Critics (especially Brooks, Wimsatt, Beardsley, and
Krieger) articulated their positions with a philosophic exactness that
has seldom been equaled. Wimsatt declared himself to be a syncretist-
"a person who tries to reconcile the good parts of various important the-
ories and thus to make his own theory." The method of the conscientious
syncretist is illustrated in his essay "The Concrete Universal," which
shows how the relationships between particular and universal in Aris-
totle, Plotinus, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge, Hegel, and Ransom can be ac-
commodated to one another. Northrop Frye also advocated syncretism.
  6   See The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (Toronto, 1953),
pp. 26-30.

If we discard such meaningless criticism as cannot contribute to "a sys-
tematic structure of knowledge," he wrote in Anatomy of Criticism, we
shall probably find that what past critics "have said about real criticism
will show an astonishing amount of agreement, in which the outlines of
a coherent, systematic study will begin to emerge."7In practice, syncre-
tism has seldom been more than a declaration of faith; no one has pur-
sued it systematically, and the positions taken by its advocates are so
different as to make it seem unlikely that one theory embracingall others
will emerge.
   The assertion that criticism can be free of assumptions shares with
monism and syncretism the belief that we can make true and significant
statements about literature. But critics holding this view avoid the onus
of saying how such truths can be tested, or by what signs we might rec-
ognize them. Geoffrey Hartman, in The Unmediated Vision (1954),
provided examples, not precepts, for a "criticism without approach"
yielding "completeinterpretation"; Leslie Fiedler ("Archetype and Sig-
 nature," 1951) pleaded for a "passionate commitment to not having any
commitment"; George Watson (The Literary Critics, 1962) argued that
criticism is most meaningful when it is empiricallydescriptive and avoids
 theoretical assumptions. The idea that we can arrive at such truth as we
 seek without critical theory, perenially popular in English criticism, was
 forcefully defended by F. R. Leavis in his debate with Rene Wellek in
 Scrutiny (1937).
    The opposite conclusion-that theory is inescapable and that we can
 never state the truth-has been popular among American and Continen-
 tal critics, herein referred to as "circularists."Their argument is as fol-
 lows: criticalassertions entail assumptions that are in principle separable
 from the discourse embodying them. Assumptions establish the bound-
 aries of coherent discourse and constitute the very objects the critic sees,
 limiting his horizon and determining his perceptions. Thus they lead in-
 evitably to circularity: what the critic sees is implicit in his assumptions
 and can therefore never be disconfirmed. This account of the methodol-
 ogy of criticism was introduced to contemporary French and American
 critics by Leo Spitzer (more will be said later of its origins and variants).
 In opposition to the advocates of empirical description, its proponents
 assert that even references to "facts" entail assumptions.
    With this assertion, the Chicago pluralists were in agreement. They
 argued that the languages of criticism, like those of other disciplines, can
 refer to reality only by reconstituting it as "fact" within a particular and
 partial linguistic structure. "Literary criticism," said Crane, "is not, and
  7 W . Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon (Lexington, 1967), p. 48; Frye, Anatomy of
Criticism (New York, 1969), p. 18.
                                                EPOCH      OF THEORY

 never will be, a single discipline, to which successive writers have made
 partial and never wholly satisfactory contributions, but rather a collec-
 tion of distinct and more or less incommensurable'frameworks'or 'lan-
 guages,' within any one of which a question like that of poetic structure
necessarily takes on a different meaning and receives a different kind of
 answer from the meaning it has and the kind of answer it is properly giv-
 en in any of the rival critical languages in which it is discussed."'
    Once this view of critical discourse has been articulated, a new set of
problems and solutions appears. The philosophy of criticism begins, ac-
cording to Morris Weitz, not with the question What is literature? but
rather What sort of a concept is "literature"?In his essay "The Role of
Theory in Aesthetics" (1956), Weitz demonstrated the relevance of
Wittgenstein's conception of language to the problems of critical theory
and helped inauguratea line of theoretical speculation that can be rough-
ly characterizedas follows: the positions previously discussed, including
pluralism, begin by assuming that criticism does or does not contain
some nonempirical construct called a theory and that its statements are
true, false, or circular. Such assumptions involve the erroneous belief
that there is only one satisfactory form of explanation-that typified by
the hypothetico-deductive method of the natural sciences. If we look at
criticism and see what it actually does, we shall realize that its explana-
tions are not unsatisfactory attempts to "prove" what literature is and
how it should be understood, but rather a means of helping us understand
it by calling attention to its multifarious dimensions. Critics themselves
have been misled on this point ; their definitions and arguments are really
further descriptions of literature. The test of criticism, therefore, is not
abstract, but concrete; it is not a theoretical validity-machine churning
out verifiable truths, but a form of discourse that achieves its end when
it enables us to see new aspects of literature and we find its explanations
satisfactory. Attempts to provide a single answer to questions such as
What is literature? and What is tragedy? are bound to fail because
these words are constituted of various overlapping meanings relevant to
distinct contexts of discourse; they neither contain nor refer to a single
    Until recently, this view of critical theory, which was taking shape be-
fore the publication of Weitz's essay and is still discussed in aesthetics,
failed to attract the attention of literary critics. In "What's the Use of
Theorizing about the Arts ?" (1972), M. H. Abrams summarized the
arguments it involves and mentioned essays that appeared in the 1950s
-notably those by C. L. Stevenson, Paul Ziff, and William Kennick--
which contributed to its development. I recommend Abrams' essay to
  8 The Languages of Criticism,p. 13.

those who have not seen it and append, in a footnote, a supplement to his
citations of books and articles that relate Wittgenstein's views to aes-
   It is not necessary to read Wittgenstein or his commentators,howev-
er, to understand the problem they identify and the solution they pro-
pose. Criticism, in its constant violation of propositional norms, is either
nonsense-or another kind of discourse. Arnold Isenberg, whose repu-
tation in philosophic circles was based on the handful of articles he pub-
lished during his lifetime, had contributed one element to the solution of
the problem in 194-9.After an analysis of the traditional conundrums of
aesthetics in an essay that still repays rereading, he concludes: "I may
be stretching usage by the senses I am about to assign to certain words,
but it seems that the critic's meaning is 'filled in,' 'rounded out,' or 'com-
pleted' by the act of perception, which is performed not to judge the truth
of his description but, in a certain sense, to understand it."1o Rigid dis-
tinctions between the logical and empirical components of explanation
that originated in philosophy and science are inadequate to account for
the range of reasoning and suasion employed in other disciplines and or-
dinary language. These critics and speech-act philosophers can enhance
our appreciation of the complexity of criticism. "We cannot, then," says
John Casey, "set up a sharp distinction between aesthetic reasoning and
other forms of reasoning. There is no rigid distinction between hypothe-
ses which are falsifiable in some ideally hard and obvious way, and inter-
pretations which can only be shown to be 'far-fetched' or 'over-elabor-
ate.' It is not only in aesthetics that arguments aim to persuade us to 'see'
in a particularway . . . and as the criterion of the rightness of a psycho-
analytical interpretation is that the patient 'accept' it, so in the case of
physical hypotheses we have to accept that they have been verified or
   This account of critical reasoning shows how many of the problems

   9 Abrams' essay appears in In Search of Literary Theory, ed. Morton W.
Bloomfield (Ithaca, 1972), pp. 3-54; hereafter cited in the text. See also Maurice
Mandelbaum, "Family-Resemblances and Generalizations Concerning the Arts,"
American Philosophical Quarterly, 2 (1965), 219-28; Cyril Barrett, Margaret
Paton, and Harry Blocker in the Wittgenstein issue of BJA, 7 (1967) ; the articles
by R. J. Sclafani, Richard Peltz, and W. G. Lycan in JAAC, 29 (1971), 333-41;
30 (1971), 69-78; and 30 (1971), 229-37, respectively; Morris Weitz, "Wittgen-
stein's Aesthetics," Language and Aesthetics, ed. B. R. Tilghman (Lawrence, Kan-
sas, 1973), pp. 7-19; R. A. Shiner, "Wittgenstein on the Beautiful, the Good and
the Tremendous," BJA, 14 (1974), 258-71; Abrams, "A Note on Wittgenstein and
Literary Criticism," ELH, 41 (1974), 541-54. In addition to the books by Casey
and Ellis mentioned in the text, see Weitz's Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary
Criticism (Chicago, 1964).
   10 Aesthetics and the Theory of Criticism (Chicago, 1973), p. 163.
   11 The Language of Criticism (London, 1966), p. 22.

                                                 EPOCH       OF THEORY

 discussed by theorists disappear when considered in light of concrete
 situations, the contexts of criticism. We look to criticism for explana-
 tions. We may be satisfied with the wrong ones, as Wittgenstein admits;
 however, granting that they are never subject to verification indepen-
 dent of general acceptance,we can and do "test" them by comparing in-
 stances, considering alternatives, and the like. But . . . what makes an
explanation satisfactory? Or "far-fetched"or "over-elaborate" Follow-
ers of Wittgenstein have not pursued this question. In Lectures & Con-
versations on Aesthetics, Wittgenstein is quoted as saying: "To describe
a set of aesthetic rules fully means really to describe the culture of a peri-
od . . . What belongs to a language game is a whole culture."'2This is
an important historical corrective to speculative theorizing, and John
Ellis has argued persuasively on its behalf in The Theory of Criticism
 (1974). But critics constitute a small segment of the culture, and they
tend to use distinctive kinds of explanation. This account of critical the-
ory leads us back to the very problems it attempted to solve, in that ex-
planations are usually satisfactory by virtue of their appeal to general
explanatory models. Abrams, in the essay previously cited, points out
that criticism does not "presuppose" (logically entail) theory, but that it
has always involved the use of categories, distinctions, and criteria that
are systematically related to one another (p,. 36). And thus all of the
questions that the followers of Wittgenstein have answered must be
asked again on another level.
    Criticism is probably no more forgetful of its past than other disci-
plines. Having developed out of debates between New Critics, neo-Aris-
totelians, traditionalists, archetypal critics, and aestheticians during a
period when practical criticism flourished, the positions outlined above
did not achieve recognition as fixed points of reference for subsequent
theoretical discussions. As a result, when an innovative practical criti-
cism and a concomitant debate about critical theory arose in France dur-
ing the 1960s, their relationship to positions taken in Anglo-American
criticism was not recognized until the dust of polemics had settled. Dur-
ing the past seven years, critical theory has become increasingly interna-
tional in outlook, but differences in national traditions and disciplinary
emphases have made it difficultto identify congruent patterns in the field
as a whole. Such similarities as are evident suggest that the recent prog-
ress of critical theory has involved repetition and elaborationof positions
taken in the past.

  The critical monism of I. A. Richards' early writings, based on the
  12 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology
and Religious Beliefs, ed. Cyril Barrett (Berkeley, 1967), p. 8 and n.


philosophy and empiricist psychology of his time, is the counterpart of
recent Continental attempts to create an exact methodology of literary
study based on models derived from linguistics and the philosophy of
science. In a survey of theories concerning the nature of criticism, it is
not possible to discuss the varied trends in practical criticism, except in-
sofar as the latter evolve from and give rise to the former. Structuralism,
for example, has continued to attract attention and engender confusion
quite apart from what are now recognized as its limited practicalachieve-
ments in the 1960s. In the programmaticscientism of Todorov and in the
writings of Barthes before he awoke from his dream of a science of litera-
ture, structuralism achieved a significant stage of theoretical articula-
tion that is well represented in Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics
(1975). Long since abandonedby most French structuralists, the science
of literature lives on in Germany, Eastern Europe, and in the interna-
tional successor to structuralism-semiotics.
   Semioticians and European literary theorists assume a familiarity
with the philosophy of science that few English-speaking critics possess.
In the writings of Heide G6ttner, Siegfried Schmidt, Umberto Eco, and
Gerhard Pasternack, references to Carnap,Hempel, Popper, Kuhn, and
Toulmin are common. Acquaintance with formal mathematicaland log-
ical systems is assumed in articles on literary theory published in Poetics,
PTL, and Sub-stance. When contemporary critics argue against at-
tempts to analyze literature scientifically,they must be understood as re-
ferring (if currentreferenceis involved) to views such as those expressed
in the following passages: "Recent developments in the field of literary
scholarship suggest the possible elaboration of a generative grammar of
literary texts . . . This paper will only pay attention to some aspects
of these problems, especially with respect to metatheoreticaland method-
ological issues of recent discussions in generative grammar and psycho-
linguistics. It will only very briefly touch upon the current philosophical
 (epistemological) debate about the presuppositions, aims and tasks of
the social sciences in general (Methodenstreit)." Or: "The present es-
say seeks to discuss the metatheoreticalbasis of the kind of literary study
that has left behind (as unproductive) the controversies over the as-
sumed difference-in-principlebetween 'natural sciences' and 'arts'/'hu-
manities' . . . Our essay will take as its starting point the specific meta-
theoretical position of (so-called) rational criticism as developed (fol-
lowing K. R. Popper) by I. Lakatos."'13
  While many may find criticism based on the assumptions evident in

   13 Teun A. Van Dijk, "On the Foundations of Poetics," Poetics, No. 5 (1972),
p. 89; Siegfried J. Schmidt, "On the Foundation and the Research Strategies of a
Science of Literary Communication," Poetics, No. 7 (1973), p. 8.

                                                 EPOCH      OF THEORY

these passages uninteresting or irrelevant to literary study, the attempt
to formalize critical theory in accordancewith scientific canons is under-
standable. A concern with theoretical exactness has been increasingly
characteristic of other disciplines, including philosophy and history, in
the twentieth century. And it has not simply resulted from controversy
and theoretical innovation: the scrutiny of generally accepted views has
involved precisely those epistemological issues that are likely to go un-
noticed in the ordinary progress of research. In this development of self-
reflection, criticism has participatedonly fitfully, with occasional flurries
of interest in philosophers who sanction its claims to some unique mode
of knowing. Thus literary study has found itself increasingly separated
from other disciplines.
   Some have welcomed the opportunity to sever the ties between criti-
cism and those disciplines that have accepted mathematicaland scientific
canons of knowledge. Criticism is not a science. At present, many influ-
ential critics argue that criticism is indistinguishable from literature it-
self. This conclusion provides relief from the anxiety that might other-
wise attend an estrangement from philosophy, history, sociology, lin-
guistics, psychology, and that portion of the public that questions the
relevance of the study of literature. Insofar as other disciplines need to
be employed as grist for criticism's mill, they can be recreatedwithin crit-
icism independentlyof the opinions held by those who specialize in them.
Once the autonomy of criticism is proclaimed in this extreme form, the
reasons for opposing it become understandable. Those critics who ac-
cept, understand, and attempt to apply to literary analysis the canons of
knowledge produced by other disciplines may sometimes write unappeal-
ing prose; their works may simply be unreadablefor those of us who do
not have a working knowledge of modern linguistics and mathematical
logic; but their efforts deserve to be judged by scientific as well as liter-
ary criteria.
   Critics who seek to formalize critical theory are not as a rule dogmatic;
they conceive of criticism as involving varied methodologies and modes
of argument, including the informal modes characteristic of rhetoric.'4
But even those sympathetic to their scientific endeavor admit that thus
far it remains an endeavor, with no noteworthy achievements offering
evidence of progress toward its goals. In Theoriebildung in der Litera-
turwissenschaft (1975), GerhardPasternack, who is aware of the diver-
sity of current scientific theory, holds out hope for a rigorous formaliza-
tion of literary study, but shows that recent attempts to initiate it, includ-
ing those of Lotman, Eimermacher, Schmidt, G6ttner, Wienold, and the
  14See Siegfried J. Schmidt, "Literary Science as a Science of Argument,"
NLH, 7 (1976), 449-65.

French structuralists, have failed. Why has the project proved so diffi-
cult? Why is its completion projected further into the future in every
new book and article on the subject ?
   Answers to these questions suggested by critics who think that the
"science of criticism" is an oxymoron will be discussed later; one consid-
eration suggested by the history of science deserves mention here. Gener-
al theories are usually produced in connection with reliable results from
empirical research; they seldom precede it. While transfers of methodol-
ogy from one research area to another have proved fruitful, an attempt to
elaborate a theory quite apart from the current state of a discipline, and
then to apply it to concrete problems, is bound to involve difficulties. A
skeptical view of theoretical discussions that proceed independently of
practical criticism and the current state of literary study is in fact a sci-
entific view. Before postulating theories and methods that criticism
should use, it would be helpful to know which ones it does use. The proj-
ect of discovering rather than prescribing the nature of critical theory is
one that has been undertaken by metacritics.
   As a self-conscious endeavor, metacriticism is of recent origin. In
the Supplement to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics
 (1974), Monroe Beardsley defines it as "discourse about criticism,"
which is "a step upward in the language level, from what is talked about
to what is talked in."15A disinterested attempt to describe critical the-
ories often has as its ultimate aim the determination of whether or not
they issue in true statements about literature (this is why metacriticism
is here treated as a variety of monism) ; however, in order to insure the
objectivity of its results, presuppositions must be excluded from its
methodology. But one presupposition is necessary, and it was first iden-
tified by Crane. Comparison of critical theories, he said, is based on
the assumption that they contain "principles of formulation and proof
which, however they may differ from critic to critic or period to period,
can yet be stated and compared in universal terms independently of the
shifting particulars of the discourse in which they function."'" In other
words: there is a neutral language, free of preconceptions,that all critics
can be said to speak, regardless of what they say.
   "The first, preliminary, task of the metacritic," says Beardsley in the
aforementionedarticle, "is to find the basic categories into,which all crit-
ical statements can be sorted. There appear to be at least four such cate-
gories"--description, interpretation, explanation, and evaluation (p.
952). In his Aesthetics (1958), Beardsley did not distinguish interpre-
  15 Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger (Prince-
ton, N.J., enl. ed. 1974), p. 951.
   16 Critics and Criticism,p. 11.

                                                    EPOCH       OF THEORY

tation from evaluation, but the difference is a minor one. These catego-
ries have been accepted by Morris Weitz and Joseph Margolis; Norbert
Mecklenburg finds a precedent for them in Friedrich Schlegel.17Possi-
bly, with these unprejudicial distinctions, the analysis of criticism can
   But there are disagreements even about these distinctions. John
Reichert finds serious flaws in the definitions of description and inter-
pretation used by Weitz and Margolis; Austin, Searle, Wayne Booth,
and John Ellis argue against the fact-value split, which Wimsatt had
atomized in "The Affective Fallacy."'s The attempt to sort out critical
statements in accordancewith these categories, even if successful, would
divert attention from the manner in which critical discourse functions,
according to Abrams (in Bloomfield, ed., pp. 30-33). The critic's ideas
determine which of an infinite number of "facts" he will mention; by
disregarding his ideas to constitute a categorical order of an entirely
different sort, the metacritic creates a meaningless clarity as a substitute
for a coherent argument. Discernible just beyond the neutral zone cre-
ated by these categories is the assumption that criticism should dispose
verifiable "facts" in accordance with law-governed relationships to jus-
tify "interpretations,"which in turn may yield "evaluations" if supple-
mented by further assumptions. Metacriticism, Abrams concludes, itself
presupposes a theory (pp..39-43).
   The reasons for seeking a critical metalanguage are apparent. When
critics argue about theoretical issues, they often use a technique similar
to that of a horse doctor described by Mark Twain: he couldn't cure
most ailments, but he had a potion that would turn them into the blind
staggers, and he knew how to cure that. Typically, the critic re-presents
the theories of others as they are constituted in his own categories-with
predictable results. When he appeals his case to literature itself, as he
interprets it, the mixture of discourse levels (theory about facts, theory
vs. theory, theory about theories) makes the desirability of linguistic dis-
criminations apparent. However, when such discriminations are under-
taken in the name of "metacriticism,"a new theoretical complication is
introduced into an activity that has traditionally been considered part of
the philosophy or theory of criticism. This word must itself be analyzed
    17 Weitz, Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism ; Margolis, The Lan-
guage of Art and Art Criticism (Detroit, 1965), pp. 67-83; Mecklenburg, Kri-
tisches Interpretieren (Munich, 1972), p. 52.
   18 Reichert, "Description and Interpretation in Literary Criticism,"
                                                                          tAAC, 27
(1969), 281-92; Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Mass., 1962),
p. 153; Searle, Speech Acts (London, 1969), pp. 175-98; Booth, "Two Score Wit-
nesses and More against the Fact-Value Split," Modern Dogma and Rhetoric of
Assent (Notre Dame, 1974), Appendix B; Ellis, The Theory of Literary Criti-
cism (Berkeley, 1974), pp. 86-102.


in light of the reservations that philosophers and critics have had regard-
ing its use.
   The prefix "meta" has led a split life in recent thought: on the one
hand, it has been associated with important achievements in formal sys-
tems theory; on the other, it has retained the aura of a deeper or higher
knowledge through its association with metaphysics. Strict adherence to
the distinction between mathematics and metamathematicsis necessary
to avoid paradoxes, as Frank Ramsey has shown, and the latter proved
a powerful tool for the development of mathematicallogic in the hands of
Hilbert, Tarski, and G6del.19With the formalization of linguistic theory,
the concept of "metalanguage" (to distinguish "red is a color" from
" 'red' is a word") was introduced through the analogy with logic. This
technical use of the prefix should not be confused with looser definitions
or neologisms implying that for every level of discourse, we can create
a higher one that will explain it.
   Wittgenstein anticipated the problem: "One might think: if philoso-
phy speaks of the use of the word 'philosophy' there must be a second-
order philosophy. But it is not so; it is, rather, like the case of orthogra-
phy, which deals with the word 'orthography'among others without be-
ing second-order" (Philosophical Investigations, No. 121).20 His oppo-
sition to metalanguages and even to metamathematics is so uncompro-
mising as to puzzle commentators. In this respect (if no other), he has
something in common with Heidegger, who associated metalanguages
with metaphysics and space technology.21It is possible, however, to op-
pose them for less intelligible reasons. When Barthes (in his writings
after 1970), Jacques Ehrmann, and others inveigh against the use of
metalanguages or deny their existence, they appear to be referring sim-
ply to theories and rules which they think of as existing on a plane sepa-
rated from ordinary discourse. Criticism has little to gain from the im-
precise use of technical terms from mathematicsand linguistics. If bereft
of the prefix meta-, we would be left with talk about "literature,""criti-
cism," "theories of criticism," and other expressions that, even if inex-
act, may be preferable to words implying an exactness we are unable to
discover. The importance of the distinctions between these kinds of dis-
course, which was pointed out by Crane, Beardsley, and Weitz, survives
critiques of their terminology and conclusions.
   19 For a general account of the issues involved, see Ernest Nagel and James R.
Newman, G6del's Proof (New York, 1958).
   20 Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe
                                  (Oxford, 1953).
   21 Max Black, A Companion to Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" (Cambridge, 1964),
p. 218; Gilles Granger, "Wittgenstein et la metalangue," RIPh, Nos. 88-89 (1969),
pp. 223-33; Heidegger, On the Way to Language, trans. Peter D. Hertz (New
York, 1971), p. 58.

                                                  EPOCH      OF THEORY

   Of those three, Crane and Weitz are representatives of pluralism, but
in light of the past decade of criticism, the common commitment of plur-
alists and monists to accepted standards of rationality in Anglo-Ameri-
can philosophy makes their similarities appearmore importantthan their
differences. The best evidence for the pluralist view, freed of its Aristo-
telian bias, was set forth in studies of practical criticism such as Weitz's
Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism and M. H. Abrams'
essay "Five Types of Lycidas."22 Today, it is no longer necessary to ar-
gue in favor of pluralism; few believe that conflicting critical views can
be reconciled or that all but one must be wrong. Because the pluralistic
middle-ground is now so crowded, it may be helpful to sort out the posi-
tions it includes through reference to the epistemological axis of other
disciplines, from which many of those positions are derived.
   At one extreme, pluralism is compatible with hard-line rationalism.
During the hegemony of the New Criticism, it seemed self-evident that
literature should be studied as literature. But what would it mean to say
that society should be studied as society, or rocks as rocks ? Most objects
in nature and culture are constituted as subjects of study in a variety of
disciplines. Only in the case of literature is a class of objects identified as
a single "subject,"with the result that attempts to define this class, seek-
ing some essential feature that all its members have in common, get
linked to the assumption that there is only one proper way to study it.
The problem is in part an institutional one; some critics, especially in
France, think that its resolution may require the creation of new depart-
mental structures. In any case, the pluralistic view based on the fact that
a single object can legitimately be studied in different ways, suggested by
the Chicago critics, is not incompatiblewith a rationalistic epistemology
or with monism.
   A commitment to one rational mode of knowing does not, however,
insure that only one solution to problems can be found. If we showed a
watch to three mechanical engineers and asked them to account for the
movement of its hands, they would probably produce three different ex-
planations. We could then take the back off the watch and decide which
mechanical model most closely resembled its actual structure. But we
cannot take the back off of nature, culture, or literature to see how they
"really" work. The "conventionalism" and "instrumentalism" of, for
example, C. S. Peirce and Stephen Toulmin emphasize the provisional
cognitive status of theories.23An exact fit of theory and fact does not tell
  22 In Milton's
                 Lycidas: The Traditionand the Poem, ed. C. A. Patrides (New
York, 1961), pp. 212-31.
  23 Peirce, CollectedPapers (Cambridge,Mass., 1932-34), II, 354; III, 104-06;
V, 226-28; Toulmin, The Philosophy of Science (London, 1953).


us anything about the fact's inner workings, and other theories may be
equally adequate to account for it. Poincare proved that if we have one
mechanicalexplanation of a phenomenon, we can create an infinite num-
ber of them; and Hertz, in the introductionto(his Principles of Mechan-
ics (1894), had previously shown that alternative systems were avail-
able for the axiomatic exposition of dynamics. Though it has lost ground
in the philosophy of science during the past decade, the instrumentalist
view seems particularly appropriate for humanistic disciplines, since it
explains theoretical diversity without sacrificing rationality. A collection
of essays edited by Alwin Diemer, Der Methoden- und Theorienpluralis-
mus in den Wissenschaften (1971), provides a theoretical basis for va-
rieties of pluralism that have flourished in German criticism during re-
cent years. However, a slight shift in the argument, usually involving the
introduction of historical examples, leads from instrumentalism to rela-
tivism, a position with which the former is often confused.
    In Thomas Kuhn's The                     Scientific Revolutions (1962),
many humanists and social scientists found relief from the epistemologi-
cal tyranny of the physical sciences. If, as Kuhn argued, the ultimate
sanctions of scientific theories are the conventions of scientific communi-
ties, rather than any abstract criterion of truth, science can be reassimi-
lated into culture as a whole, the standards of knowledge in other disci-
plines need not be considered inferiorto those in science, and a new range
of humanistic and historical problems awaits investigation. Kuhn has
had occasion to temper the enthusiasm of humanists who,have made use
 of his views, which themselves have been a subject of controversy since
they were first stated.24While he was not responsible for initiating rela-
 tivistic pluralism in critical theory, he provided it with more convincing
 arguments than it had hitherto possessed. And just as instrumentalism
 shades into relativism, so the latter, as it occurs in the philosophy of sci-
 ence, leads to a more radical relativism derived from anthropology.
    It is relatively easy to recognize that Western conceptions of knowl-
 edge have been sustained by cultural conventions; we are steeped in the
 history of our tradition and feel we understand its evolution. Our un-
 derstanding of other cultural traditions is more problematic.After a cen-
 tury during which "primitive"customs were satisfactorily explained by
 attributing stupidity and superstition to their practitioners, we are be-
 ginning to realize that the differences between modes of thought may be
 greater than we had supposed, and the differences between human be-
   24 See his "Comment," Comparative Studies in Society and History,     11 (1969),
403-12; and E. D. Hirsch, The Aims of Interpretation (Chicago, 1976),    pp. 147-49.
Discussion of Kuhn's view of science can be found in Criticism and the   Growth of
Knowledge, ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (Cambridge, 1970)          and in the
first volume of Toulmin's Humain Understanding (Princeton, 1972).
                                               EPOCH OF THEORY

ings less. It was of course Levi-Strauss whose discussions of ethno-
centricity and unconscious cultural structures made many critics aware
of the issue. Wittgenstein's "Bemerkungen fiber Frazers The Golden
Bough" (1930-31) shows that he recognized it, as did anthropologists
other than Levi-Strauss. Lacking a framework that would enable them
to compare systems of thought, Western anthropologists, says Mary
Douglas, construe other cultures in terms of our own; "the better the
translation, the more successfully has our provincial logic been imposed
on the native thought . . .We are left where we were at the outset,
with our own familiar world divided by its established categories and
activated by principles we know. This world remains our stable point of
reference for judging all other worlds as peculiar and other knowledge
as faulty . . . The challenge of a new meaning by which to test our own
ideas is turned into a challenge to find a new expression for our old
    Sleepwalkers in eternity, cultures stumble through familiar landscapes
seeing only the indecipherableimages of their collective dreams; given
access to the dreams of other cultures, we pronounce them childish, sav-
age, or mad. Having become conscious of this condition, anthropologists
incorporate self-reflection in a more rigorous methodology that leads to
new discoveries. Critics, however, concerned with the diversity of views
in a single culture, conclude that our collective dreams may be made up
of discrete but overlapping individual dreams. A methodological debate
leads to speculation about psychological states, and the concern shifts
from the conditions of knowing to the condition of man.
   "Perspectivism" (which has not descended directly from Nietzsche's
Perspektivismus) is based on the commonsense observation that individ-
ual critics illuminate different aspects of literature. As Abrams describes
it, "the theorist takes his stand on that one of many possible vantage
points that will provide what strikes him as the most revealing perspec-
tive on the area of his interest." Each theory "has its particularangle and
focus of vision, and what for one speculative instrument is an indistinct
or blank area requires an alternative speculative instrument if it is to be
brought into sharp focus for inspection" (in Bloomfield, ed., pp. 24-25).
Because based on a metaphor rather than a theory, perspectivism can
avoid embroilment in disputes about the choice of theoretical assump-
tions and conflicting interpretations. On the other hand, a theoretical
justification of the position that avoids the subjectivism with which it is
traditionally associated has been elaboratedby Hans-Georg Gadamer in
Wahrheit und Methode (1960). While many critics have accepted the
  25 Wittgenstein, Synthese, 17 (1967), 233-53; Douglas, Implicit Meanings
(London, 1975), p. 277.

perspectivist explanation of critical diversity, they have not always felt
comfortable about doing so. Fredric Jameson expresses his reservations
in a typical form: "We can certainly agree that there are no longer any
'privileged' interpretationsof anything. Yet this is a truth with which, it
seems to me, impossible to live . . . It is difficult to escape the conclu-
 sion that all exciting criticism is written out of some . . . conviction or
belief, or, in other words, as though some privileged order of explanation
    E. D. Hirsch discusses the backgroundof the metaphor and his objec-
tions to the theory in "Faulty Perspectives" (1976).27 In crucial re-
spects, he argues, the metaphor breaks down: it presupposes an object
that is independent of particular points of view, while at the same time
implicitly denying its existence. In "Die Zeit des Weltbildes" (1938),
translated as "The Age of the World View," Heidegger sees the scien-
tific ambition to dominate objects as the source of our debilitating per-
spectivism: when the world is seen as picture or schema, man has
"views" of it. Gadamer,who relies heavily on Heidegger, cannot be said
to escape entirely from the latter's critique. Nevertheless, Gadamerdoes
present a positive, constructive explanation of interpretive diversity. In-
dividual acts of understanding, in his view, do not spring from some
psychic interiority; they exist in language, as strands in the thread of
our tradition, into which they are woven through continuing dialogue.
He finally rejects the perspectivist metaphor of Husserl because "points
of view" are discontinuous, whereas the language of a particular inter-
pretation can be continuously extended to other interpretations and is
likewise accessible to them.2sOur unconscious assumptions, which some
see as liabilities, are for him enabling "prejudices,"without which under-
standing would be impossible. They cannot be cast off, but they can and
should be accepted, so that, passing beyond specious objectivity and dis-
abling self-reflection, we can extend our awareness of the prejudices of
others and become more aware of our own.
   The course charted by a philosophic argument in treacherous waters
is determined, at points, by stylistic choices that cannot be explained
logically. Gadamerchooses not to scrutinize "prejudices"; in fact he al-
ludes to the unmasking of ideologies by Enlightenment philosophers in
order to show that he is setting out in the opposite direction, building
upon what they would expose as disabling limitations (English ed., p.
  26 "Demystifying Literary History," NLH, 5
                                                  (1974), 611.
  27 Portions of this essay appeared originally in Lebendige Form, ed. J. L. Sam-
mons and E. Schiirer (Munich, 1970) and in Essays in Criticism, 25 (January
1975) ; rpt. in The Aims of Interpretation,pp. 36-49.
  28 Truth and Method, trans. Garrett Barden and John Cumming (New York,
1975), p. 406.

                                                 EPOCH OF THEORY

245). The differences between perspectivism and what, following Paul
 Ricceur, I will refer to as the "hermeneutic of suspicion" is that the lat-
ter, in exposing the ideologies, traditions, assumptions, and personal
 motives underlying every critical text, finds pervasive error rather than
partial truths. Many critics make suspicion the primary methodological
imperative in reading criticism. "We do not ask for personality in the
critic any more than in the artist," writes Geoffrey Hartman. "Nor do
we ask him to suppress it. We ask him not to hide behind his text . . .
Every item in the interpreter'sethos should be submittedto a methodical
 suspicion. If he stresses objectivity, one should ask whether he is not
overreacting to his fear of private compulsions, and using textual study
as self-discipline. Nothing wrong with that, but let it be thought. If he
stresses too much the integrity of the text, one should wonder about the
streaminess or pseudocontinuity of his mental life."29
   What is characteristic in Hartman's comments is that they take the
form of ethical imperatives-this is how we "should" read criticism-
and that they are directed particularly at criticism that does not appear
to be subjective. The same pattern is evident in Gary Nelson's "Reading
Criticism": recognition of "the subtle ways in which the biases, hopes,
and frustrations of the critic are woven into the texture of his language"
is relatively easy in some cases. Having practiced identifying the person-
al dimension in experimental criticism, he says, "one thing we will learn
is what to look for in scholarship whose surface pretensions to disinter-
estedness seem flawless." Jameson, conscious of the implications of his
choice, declares himself in favor of what Ricceur calls a "negative her-
meneutic," which "has as its essential function demystification, and
is in that at one with the most fundamental critiques of ideology and
illusory consciousness associated with the names of Nietzsche, Marx,
and Freud."30In his case, as in others, suspicion extends to literary as
well as critical texts.
   As an explanation of the chaos of criticism, the hermeneutic of suspi-
cion has several advantages. Unlike other pluralistic views, it does not
entail any theoretical commitments (except perhaps one to the inevita-
bility of error) and therefore is in a sense catholic: its adherents are free
to practice any sort of criticism they wish with an assurance that their
methods are as valid as any others. This freedom involves certain sacri-
fices-among which must be included the claim that there can be reliable
evidence showing that the theory is true. Since every exposure of ideolo-
gy or bias begins from a point of view incorporating ideology and bias,
  29 The Fate of Reading (Chicago, 1975), p. 10.
  30 Nelson, PMLA, 91 (1976), 804, 807; Jameson,"Metacommentary,"
86 (1971), 10.


what it uncovers as "error" may be a truth distorted by the unconscious
commitments of the analyst. (This argument does not apply to Marxist
criticism that makes the ground of its truth-claims explicit.) Another
necessary sacrifice is the claim that criticism and interpretation give us
knowledge. To phrase this objection differently: agreement about the
existence of error would seem to imply criteria for recognizing truth-
including the truth of the argument that exposes the alleged error-but
none are provided. The dilemma is not a new one; its classic formula-
tions are found in the Theaetetus, 170c-171c, and in Aristotle's Meta-
physics, IV.5-8.
   Of the possible replies to these objections, Hegel can be enlisted to
provide one of the best. Our experience of literature and criticism shows
that our knowledge progresses through negation, through escape from
limits we have imposed on it. This "determinatenegation" is not skepti-
cism: the positive insight that issues from the shattering of previous
forms of knowledge and action is a revolutionary release from the old
consciousness. What has been overthrown, in a self-formative process
that cannot be explained logically, is an abstract "form of life" or (in this
instance) "framework of criticism" that thus becomes a stepping-stone
for a new concrete awareness.31A similar explanation is suggested by
Foucault, who argues that the human sciences are animated "by a sort
of transcendentalmobility" because of their reliance upon other sciences
for modes of representation. "Unlike other sciences, they seek not so
much to generalize themselves or make themselves more precise as to be
constantly demystifying themselves: to make the transition from an im-
mediate and non-controlled evidence to less transparentbut more funda-
mental forms . . . A transcendental raising of level that is, on the other
side, an unveiling of the non-conscious is constitutive of all the sciences
of man." Because they "unveil to consciousness the conditions of its
forms and contents," they are precariously poised between the sciences
proper and the totality of experience. So conceived, the sciences of man
cannot be separated from the hermeneutic of suspicion. "It is useless,
then, to say that the 'human sciences' are false sciences; they are not sci-
ences at all; the configurationthat defines their positivity and gives them
their roots in the modern episteme at the same time makes it impossible
for them to be sciences."32
   From this point of view, errors in criticism are an inevitable result of
finding order in literature. Confronted with an object that, as Heraclitus
   31 The
          process is described at the end of the Introduction to Hegel's Phenome-
nology; see Habermas, Knowledge and HumnanInterests, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro
(Boston, 1971), pp. 17-19.
  32 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (New York, 1973), pp. 364, 366.

                                                  EPOCH OF THEORY

 said of the Delphic oracle, does not declare, does not dissimulate, but
gives signs, the critic displays its coherence by showing that its particular
features can be seen as parts of a unity. These "parts"imply this "whole,"
and vice versa: the facts purportedly constitute the categories that are
 used to interpret them. In its strong form, the hermeneutic of suspicion
 is based on the argument that no critic can escape from the "hermeneu-
 tic circle" within which he creates the intelligible object that he sees. The
 circularity of the interpretive process has been said to result from the
 relationship between parts and wholes, or intuition and expression, or
 understanding and explanation, or being and perception; it has been
 viewed as logical, methodological, ontological, and epistemological. The
 fact that the hermeneutic circle exists in so many different versions and
 remains popularwith critics despite detailed refutations of all its variants
 offers, perhaps, one kind of evidence of its validity.33 But polemics con-
 cerning the hermeneutic circle should not be allowed to obscure its his-
 torical significance. Through a curious reversal, a concept that in Schlei-
 ermacher, Dilthey, and Heidegger was intended to explain the process of
 interpretationand to distinguish the methodology of the humanities from
 that of the physical sciences is now employed to cast doubt on the aims
 that they envisioned. When emptied of its positive content, the herme-
 neutic circle survives as a fossilized carapace symbolizing the unique-
 ness of humanistic study. At present, to posit a critical or humanistic
 methodology is, many would say, to accede to scientific presuppositions
 concerning knowledge. Because these presuppositions can be evoked to
 justify conflicting interpretations and theories of literature, the only pos-
 itive means of freeing criticism of its false assumptions might appear to
 be a negative hermeneutic, one that exposes every constituted order as
 biased, contradictory, or blind.
     During the past decade, theories of criticism have been increasingly
 drawn toward the polarities here represented as "monism"and the "her-
  meneutic of suspicion" (or, as 'they are popularly named, "structural-
  ism" and "hermeneutics"). The former finds most criticism unsatisfac-
 tory because it lacks theoretical rigor; the latter finds the attempt to
  attain such rigor the very source of error. The result is two explanations
  of literary criticism that are not only powerful, but perhaps too powerful
  to account for it: each provides an all-embracingexplanation of critical
  error but no examples of critical success. For the monist, the problem is
    33 On the history of the hermeneutic circle, see Gadamer, Truth and Method,
 Part Two, Il.a, II.l.a and b; and John C. Maraldo, Der hermeneutische Zirkel
 (Freiburg, 1974). Critiques of the concept appear in Thomas Seebohm, Zur Kritik
 der Hermeneutischen               (Bonn, 1972), pp. 7-43; Wallace Martin, "The
 Hermeneutic Circle and the Art of Interpretation," CL, 24 (1972), 97-117; and
 Heide G6ttner, Logik der Interpretation (Munich, 1973), pp. 131-78.


critical chaos, a synchronic disorder; for the hermeneut, it is a historical
crisis-one which he suspects may not be a real crisis, since he is aware
of how often the use of the word has proved, in retrospect, hyperbolic.
   It was probably inevitable that renewed interest in the theory of criti-
cism should, in the course of its progress, rediscover an impasse consti-
tuted in the nineteenth century: that of how humanistic understanding
can claim to be a form of knowledge without satisfying the epistemolog-
ical canons of scientific explanation. Despite the differences that sep-
arate us from that epoch-the configuration of academic disciplines has
changed radically, some problems have simply dissolved without ever
having been solved, and we are faced with philosophic alternatives that
did not exist then-we may feel, in looking back a hundredyears, a sense
of repetitiveness. The problem of providing a theoretical justification for
humanistic study still appears to be insoluble and inescapable-so long
as we cannot describe the historical framework within which it is con-

   When, in seeking secure ground for its arguments, critical theory
spills over into history, psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, there
is some reason to think that it is exceeding its proper limits. Perhaps its
problems remain unsolved because it is always straying elsewhere. On
the other hand, criticism has always been a meeting ground of literature,
other disciplines, and culture as a whole. It neither raises nor solves its
fundamental problems, but borrows them, and they change along with
changes in the configuration of contemporaneous thought. The contro-
versy that in its broadest terms pits structuralism against hermeneutics
originated elsewhere, the former deriving its models from the social sci-
ences and linguistics, the latter evolving from a complex of humanistic
and philosophic concerns that found one important focus in Heidegger.
Thus one is driven outside of criticism in order to discover the intellec-
tual sources from which its problems arise and what hope there might be
of solving them. As Foucault says, "one must reconstitute the general
system of thought whose network, in its positivity, renders an interplay
of simultaneous contradictoryopinions possible" (The Order of Things,
p. 75).
   Three philosophers have attempted to clarify the relationship between
scientific and humanistic modes of understanding by returning to the
sources of the opposition, retelling the story of its development from the
point of view of contemporarythought. For Habermas (Erkenntnis und
Interesse, 1968; translated as Knowledge and Human Interests, 1971),
the story begins with Kant. In deriving the principles of knowledge in
general from disciplines that seemed reliable and progressive-namely,
                                               EPOCH OF THEORY

mathematics and physics-Kant made one specific kind of knowledge
the paradigm for all others. Since then, a positivist philosophy of science
has been widely accepted as the only authoritative epistemology: other
disciplines must either emulate its methods or discover some flaw in the
assumptions through which it was formulated. As subsequent philoso-
phers were able to show, Kant's assumptions are not invulnerable. He
began by asserting that we must determine the conditions of possible
knowledge before placing any trust in the knowledge we have. However,
as Hegel pointed out, this means that we must know what knowledge is
before we know-which leads to infinite regress or to circularity. Kant's
differing accounts of the ego and his distinction between the objects of
possible experience and the thing-in-itself proved to be other fissures in
the foundations of the critical philosophy. After Kant, epistemology (a
term that first gained currency in the nineteenth century) developed
along two lines, one of which can be traced in the expanding claims of a
positivist philosophy of science, the other (which is less homogeneous)
being constituted by those who found new a prioris or new ways to iden-
tify the condition of man as a knowing subject. The former tradition is,
of course, that which leads to structuralism, and the latter is the herme-
neutic of suspicion.
   The reign of positivism, beginning with Comte and passing through
Mach to the logical positivists, is marked, according to Habermas, by
repression of the critical tradition in philosophy. On the other hand,
those attempting to identify basic principles of the Geisteswissenschaften
 (Dilthey, Durkheim, and Karl Mannheim, for example) repeatedly re-
turned to Kant and discovered historical or social a prioris that led to
relativism. While science pursued its unreflective, progressive course
within the categories of time and space, history, anthropology, and soci-
ology identified a whole series of categories-ideology, self-interest, so-
cial class, historicized world views, biological necessity, unconscious mo-
tivation, cultural custom-that revealed the unconscious limitations of
all claims to knowledge. Of course the opposition of scientific to nonsci-
entific knowledge existed before Kant; Gunter Remmling has traced its
earlier history in Road to Suspicion (1967). If this opposition is envi-
sioned as having taken another decisive turn in the nineteenth century,
one crucial factor involved is that identified by Paul Ricceur in his dis-
cussion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. What these three "masters of
suspicion" had in common, he says, is a determination "to look upon the
whole of consciousness primarily as 'false' consciousness    . .
ning with them, understanding is hermeneutics: henceforward, to seek
meaning is no longer to spell out the consciousness of meaning, but to
decipher its expressions. What must be faced, therefore, is not only a

threefold suspicion, but a threefold guile."34
   In accordance with their different objectives, Foucault and Gadamer
tell other stories of the development of nineteenth-century thought, but
in crucial respects their accounts overlap that of Habermas.35In the first
part of Truth and Method, Gadamerdismantles the aesthetic-organicist
tradition that arose during the nineteenth century to preserve the con-
cept "art" in the precarious space between the extremes of positivism
and subjectivism. He then returns to the history of the hermeneutic tra-
dition, in particularas exemplified in Dilthey, in order to show that even
in its opposition to scientific explanation, it was forced to presuppose
the validity of scientific categories and thus could not provide a secure
ground for a different kind of understanding. For Foucault, the disjunc-
tion begins before Kant, with the appearanceof "life," "labor,"and "lan-
guage" as fundamental categories in a new configuration of knowledge,
or episteme. Not only Kant, but subsequent developments in nineteenth-
century philosophy are seen as prefigured in the structure of possibilities
created by this change.
   The history of philosophy is not here evoked as a deus ex machina to
resolve an impossibly tangled critical plot, and even a mapping of the
complex lines joining philosophy to criticism lies beyond the limits of
my intentions. However, quite apart from their influence on literary
criticism, Habermas, Gadamer,and Foucault deserve mention in an ac-
count of critical theory for two reasons. First, they have made it appar-
ent that monism, metacriticism,pluralism, post-Kantian organicism, and
the herm.eneuticof suspicion have maintained themselves as theories of
criticism within a systematic framework of oppositions constituted in the
nineteenth century. So long as that frameworkis not identifiedand called
into question, the conflicts between these theories, each of which has le-
gitimate claims to our attention, are unlikely to be resolved. Second,
they (and Derrida) have attempted to think beyond the assumptions
that divide theory from practice, subject from object, sensible from intel-
ligible, logic from ordinary language, empirical from transcendental,and
"man"from himself. Assessment of their projects is the task of philoso-
phy. Its earliest influence on criticism,has been of a negative order, in
that it lends itself most readily to deconstructionof assumptions that had
previously passed unnoticed.
   Because the purpose of this account is not to solve the problems of
critical theory but simply to understandthem, deconstruction is relevant
only insofar as it is necessary to prevent recent assumptions from dis-
   34 Freud and Philosophy, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven, 1970), p. 33.
   35 For the differences between Gadamer and Habermas, see their essays in The,
orie-Diskussion: Hermeneutik und Ideologiekritik, ed. K.-O. Apel et al. (Frank-
furt, 1971).
                                                     EPOCH OF THEORY

torting our view of the critical heritage. Of particular importance in this
connection is the idea that criticism should (or should not, or cannot, or
must) involve "theory." What is "theory"? A post-Kantian account of
technical uses of the term, as Foucault and Habermas show, would in-
volve Kant's distinction between analytic and synthetic propositions, the
increasingly common assumption that the theoretical component of
knowledge must be clearly distinguished from empirical evidence, and
the culmination of this tradition in the attempts of Carnap, Hempel, and
others to articulate the structure of scientific theories. In the writings of
Richards and Crane, it is clear that general assumptions from the philos-
ophy of science were used as a model for the discussion of critical theory.
In structuralism, semiotics, and many recent German works on the the-
ory of criticism, the scientific model is explicitly evoked; in the writings
of American critics, the existence of an ideal theoretical paradigm is of-
ten simply presupposed. Likewise, to argue that criticism is inevitably
circular, or to oppose "theory" in criticism, is to assume the validity of
the entire frameworkwithin which these concepts are constituted and see
it as excluding all but antithetical points of view.
   In its classic form, the positivist account of scientific theories (they
were said to be composed of a mathematicallogic, theoretical and obser-
vational vocabularies, and rules of correspondence) was an appealing
model. The fact that no complex scientific theory had been exhaustively
analyzed in accordancewith the model appearedto be merely a technical
problem, one that could be resolved once troublesome details had been
attended to. But ever since it was clearly formulated about three decades
ago, this account has met with an increasing number of difficulties that
have led even its formulators to modify their views. And these difficul-
ties are not superficial: they involve fundamental assumptions, in par-
ticular the distinction between theoretical and observation statements,
and even (last bastion of two centuries of theory) that between analytic
and synthetic propositions. Recent books and symposia-for example,
The Structure of Scientific Theories, ed. Frederick Suppe (1974)-
present a spectacle of disarray at the very center of the philosophy of sci-
ence, quite apart from peripheral critiques such as those of Kuhn, Paul
Feyerabend, and Gerard Radnitzky.a6
    0 Feyerabend, Against Method (London, 1971); Radnitzky, Contemporary
Schools of Metascience (Chicago, 1973). Criticism of the analytic-synthetic dis-
tinction began with Morton White (1950) and W. V. Quine (1953) ; see David K.
Lewis, Convention (Cambridge, Mass., 1969) for a summary of their arguments
and a reply to them. For a classic account of the components of scientific theory as
conceived in the positivist tradition, see Ernest Nagel, The Structure of Science
(New York, 1961). Recent objections to the analytic-synthetic and experimental-
theoretical distinctions are summarized by Suppe, pp. 66-86, and Mary Hesse, T he
Structure of SciAtific Inference (London, 1974), pp. 9-44. The elimination of all

   The disappearance of the ideal image of scientific explanation would
leave in its wake not a new world, but simply a new awareness'of its sub-
liminal influence on the imagination. "Theory," "practice," and "fact"
are pulled toward one another in the complex and contingent relation-
ships involving general statements, rough orderings of heterogeneous
particulars,examples, conjectures, clarificationsthat do not take account
of some features of a situation, reasons, and assumptions backed by an
inextricable tangle of observation and presupposition. This list approxi-
mates the one compiled by Richards as evidence of the chaos of critical
theories, but with a difference: lacking an imagined standard of theoreti-
cal clarity, we are no longer justified in using the word "chaos"; and
"theory,"as exemplified in critical practice, remains in need of examina-
tion. If theory is not conceived as containing a purely formal element iso-
lable from critical practice, its opponents are left without an antithesis to
stand on. Their aporias and circularities, their irremediabletensions be-
tween clear structures and the labyrinth of experience, could be conjured
up as heteronomous metaphors only in a world sanctioning a diametri-
cally opposed view.
   Despite their differences, the theories referred to in the preceding
pages are far from chaotic. Individually and collectively, they entail a
conceptual structure that has evolved and repeated itself with an almost
logical precision. Every possible permutation of "truth" and "theory"
has found its advocates. There is one theory that accounts for the truth;
or several theories that account for the truth; or several that identify sep-
arate aspects of the (one) truth. Or there are disparatetruths, depending
upon cultural or individual differences that can (or cannot) be explained
through reference to ethnology, ideology, psychology, and the like. Can
these alternatives be opposed? Only through the use of terms that they
have already constituted: the subject can be valorized in opposition to
the object; practice or insight in opposition to theory; the transcendent,
concrete, and/or present in opposition to the abstract. Since they are un-
able to defeat each other (no available criteria could determine which
theory is correct), the only result of polemics is to sustain the terminol-
ogy on which they are based.
   It might seem that any alternative to this conceptual structure would
be welcomed by those who concern themselves with theoretical criticism.
However, this has not been the case. While maintaining the positions
established during the past five decades, critics have gradually drawn
together in their opposition to deconstructive criticism, especially as
practiced by Derrida. Their reasons for opposing it have been as varied
theoretical terms from science, undertaken by Hempel and Skinner, has been shown
to be unfeasible by R. Tuomela in Theoretical Concepts (New York, 1973).

                                                EPOCH       OF   THEORY

as the positions they represent. Unlike the critical debates of earlier dec-
ades, this one has been peculiarly diffuse, in that its protagonists seldom
succeed in engaging each other on the same ground, and observers can-
not agree on the difference between a telling argument and a shot in the
   Because it is a method rather than a position, deconstructioncannot be
pinned down in relation to conventional polemics. Derrida is often ob-
scure or oversubtle, but his programmaticstatements concerning method
are clear and unequivocal." Rather than opposing traditional thought,
he yields himself to its precision and rigor, leading it toward an articula-
tion in which it defeats itself through logical necessity. Alternatively, he
accepts the terminology of a current discipline and tries to bring it into
conflict with empirical evidence in such a way that "the language of the
human sciences criticizes itself." The most disquieting aspect of his
method, from the point of view of traditional critical theory, is his refusal
to commit himself to commonsense assumptions concerning the referen-
tiality of language. If he succeeded in altering our idea of representation
and in prying apart the terminology of traditional thought, the entire
structure of theoretical discourse would be subject to effacement and
   Derrida poses an immediate and apparent threat to traditional con-
ceptions of critical theory. Gadamer and Habermas have attracted less
attention-in part because their theses concerning history and philoso-
phy are more remote than Derrida's from current critical interests. It is
ironic that after two decades of deconstruction in Anglo-American phi-
losophy (stemming from Wittgenstein's later writings), English and
American critics should find themselves engaged in a debate involving
the deconstruction of Continental philosophy. As Charles Altieri has
pointed out, Wittgenstein can provide the basis for a "post-theoretical"
criticism that would avoid the forms of idealism and positivism attacked
by Derrida.38Positivism in the philosophy of science has undertaken its
own deconstruction,and as a result many critics may be deprived of their
favorite antagonist.
   Rather than being developed through a study of critical practice, the-
ories about critical theory have been borrowed from philosophy, in par-
ticular from the philosophy of science. Opposition to such theories is

   37 "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," The
Structuralist Controversy, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore,
1972), p. 254; Of Grainmmatology,trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), pp.
157-64; "The Ends of Man," Jourril of Philosophy and Phenomnenological Re-
search, 30 (1969), 56.
   38 "Wittgenstein on Consciousness and Language: A Challenge to Derridean
Literary Theory," MLN, 91 (1976), 1397-1423.


itself caught up in a system of philosophic assumptions coeval with those
of its antagonists. Because it is congenitally conservative, literary study
runs the danger of remaining attached to a conception of theory that has
been left behind by other disciplines. The strong form of a historical the-
sis, such as the one here presented concerning the epoch of critical theory,
is a prediction based on a description. Within a few years, most current
theories of criticism will no longer be discussed-not because they will
be disproved, but simply because they will be rendered otiose. The end
of the epoch of theory will change not what we know about literature, but
how we think about what we know. Bifurcated as "theory" and "his-
tory," criticism has yet to be analyzed as a rhetoricalmode. Before decid-
ing what it means to say that criticism is true, such analysis might at-
tempt to determine how criticism attains explanatory force. Eventually,
we might hope to produce an account of how criticism functions as a
form of discourse mediating between literature and culture.

  University of Toledo


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