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On Composition as a Human Science and The Making of

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					On Composition as a Human Science and The Making of Knowledge in Composition

When I started my MA program, the first course I took was a “composition theory” course—and
one of the first texts I read was Phelps’s Composition as a Human Science. Upon re-reading it
eleven years later, I still find it compelling. I’d remembered that I liked it, but I didn’t remember
just *how much* I liked it. In some ways, my reaction to this text is the converse of my reaction
to North’s (to which I have taken an intense disliking).

North’s project of critiquing Composition’s uncritical use of the methods of other disciplines is
in some ways paralleled by Phelps’s critique of Composition’s uncritical use of other discipline’s
theories (in Chapter 9), but Phelps’s overall work lays a philosophical groundwork for advancing
Composition as a discipline, whereas North simply criticizes. I would suspect that Phelps would
find North’s approach overly “masculine” (Phelps, xiii). Neither author ever directly addresses
the other (perhaps because they were writing at essentially the same time), but the two works can
certainly be read as engaging in a kind of dialect about the nature of Composition as a field and
as a discipline. Phelps can be read as almost directly addressing North when she states:

       Many, even in opposing [positivism] as a model for their own disciplines, see alternatives
       as falling away from an ideal or at best preliminary to empirical-analytic studies …. In
       tone their language seems to mourn the inability of their own disciplines to produce true
       knowledge, to become genuine and rigorous sciences, to achieve certainty or make
       progress, to agree on an ongoing paradigm. (11-12).

Phelps counters North’s critiques of the use of a variety of methodolies (or, more accurately, his
assertion that inter-methodological complementarity cannot be achieved, as per “Diesing’s law”
(North, 369)) by setting up a framework (contextualism) that supports multiple methods as a
valid approach to meaning-making. Starting with theory rather then methodology seems a far
more productive approach than North’s – and it highlights the ways in which North’s orientation
as a logical positivist lead him to making such inaccurate predictions about Composition’s future
(as he foresaw it in 1987). North, I think, has two major failings (although his taxonomy *is*
useful): first, he does exactly what he critiques everyone else for doing—he takes a methodology
from another field (Diesing’s work in sociology) and attempts to shove Composition into that
methodology; second, he falls into the trap of working with a method without first developing a
theory—as Phelps would say, he “lacked any sense of irony about [his] own terminology [and]
premises” (42). (I dropped “recuperative project at the end of that quote because I don’t think
North has one—he has only critique…which, come to think of it, makes it three major failings).

Phelps’s answer to North, and one I agree with, is this:

       [C]omposition has no intrinsic methodology, but draws on approaches from across the
       range of disciplines falling within the natural, critical, and hermeneutical sciences. To
       these I would add praxis as a source of knowledge, both the praxes of composition itself
       (discourse, teaching, inquiry) and analogous arts of performance or creation (acting,
       sports, music, building). …. Composition tends to be a synthesizing force in relation to
       these disciplines, incorporating their work as information and as alternative perspectives
       on its own topics and issues. Its principles of integration and critique are precisely those
       proposed by Dewey; reflection dominated by experience. (77).

Phelps and North aren’t wholly antagonistic though – they both argue that Composition has to
re-value praxis (lore), and they both are trying to contribute to larger project of articulating
Composition as a (big D) discipline. On the whole though, I find Phelps’s work generative (as
opposed to critical) and therefore more productive overall.

				
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posted:4/20/2013
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