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January 18, 2005



Downloaded it. Will be reading it soon...

Rich Puchalsky

You quote Eagleton paraphrasing Keynes thus:

"The economist J. M. Keynes once remarked that those economists who disliked theory, or claimed to get along better without it, were simply in the grip of an older theory."

Since a good deal of the essay involves this idea, it is a bit distressing that its original use sets off so many scientism alerts. Whenever someone examining culture quotes a scientist, I wish for a revolver. There's a reason that Sokal patiently baited his trap with so many references to gravity and quantum physics.

Needless to say, Keynes' use of the idea differs from how you quote Eagleton as using it through the following:

1. For Keynes, "theory" meant what we usually think of as theory. He restricted his comment to economists, and it's a lot more plausible to say that every economist has an implicit theory about economics than to say that every reader of any work has an implicit theory.

2. It is plausible to think that people have implicit theories (again, in the usual sense of the word) about economics because we live in a world of economics -- of scarce resources. And we spend a good deal of our lives dealing with this in one way or another. Unless Theory is supposed to encompass all language, literary studies can not make a similar claim (and I think that linguistics would dispute them if they did make this claim).


Rich, I'd recommend strongly a book written somewhat under the influence of Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Economics, as a remedy for the "economics is a science" bug. It might be, but not in that way.

Vance Maverick

Rich, it's plausible to think people have implicit theories of literature because we live in a world of literature—of stories. The "scientism" worry is a red herring. Eagleton really does believe that people who say they do without literary theory are simply in the grip of some particular theory—not necessarily an older one, or a plausible one, but certainly a set of ideas and assumptions about how literature works.

Rich Puchalsky

OK, forget the remark about scientism (although thank you, Jonathan, for the book recommendation). I've described what I think are clear reasons why I think that Eagleton as depicted by Holbo is misusing Keynes, and those reasons don't depend on any larger point about whether economics is really a science.

Vance Maverick, I can't agree with you about us "living in a world of literature -- of stories". (I'm not sure whether that's your belief, or whether you're just explaining Eagleton, but either way I disagree with it.) It appears to rest on the same fallacy of equivocation that John Holbo writes about as the puffer fish. If "literature" means what is ordinarily described as literature, then most people decidedly do not live in it -- most people never or very rarely read literature. This is elided by the immediate equation of literature to "stories", which is vague enough so that it could mean anything. Psychological rules of thumb? Archetypes? Sociological mind-sets? Folk tales?

I would certain agree that anyone who actually does read literature must have an implicit or explicit "set of ideas and assumptions about how literature works". It would be impossible to read literature otherwise. But that is pretty much a tautological statement, and says a lot less than Keynes did when he referred to economists having theories.

John Holbo has already gone off on the problems of extracting any meaningful information from this. It is not clear a priori that an explicit set of ideas is superior to an implicit one in general, that the particular explicit set of ideas called Theory is superior to other possible explicit or implicit sets of ideas, or that Theory really is an explicit set of ideas with sufficient internal coherence to justify calling it a theory in the usual sense of the word.

Vance Maverick

Rich, it sounds like we don't disagree on much here besides the scope of "people". By "stories", I was thinking mainly of movies—many, maybe most people engage in movie criticism, primarily based on story line. Presumably earlier generations had lots of folktales, but I wouldn't know.

But we could also look at pop music, which many people evaluate critically (in the sense of arguing or passionately stating that A is better than B); my impression is that pop-music discussion frequently reduces to discussion of the lyrics, under a complex set of implicit assumptions. Thus, in my view, most Americans already have a theory of poetry—not that it has much to say about "real" poetry, of course.

If you want to raise the stakes and say that a theory must be explicit and internally coherent, then this sort of "theory" won't qualify. But I take Eagleton to be talking precisely about ill-thought-out theory—whether practiced by book reviewers or the Man in the Street. (I'm remembering remarks on this topic in Literary Theory, perhaps not the same place he quoted Keynes.)


Bravo, John! Devastating and deeply entertaining. Theory is a mode of self-expression, a suburb of poetry, a cultural sensibility. Just so, as an unforgivably pompous gentelman of taste might say. I wish I had been able to put some of my similar, but inchoate intuitions about Theory with the force you do.

I think the gist of my two-cheers-for-Theory post below was that, all this said, a cultural sensibility can play a valuable role--even if, leaning to one side correctively, one easily gets stuck. This is the way change tends to happen in disciplines like English, and perhaps in most. No doubt many would be gratified if Eagleton or whomever were to stand up and say: you know what, I've been a fool. But that won't happen; they'll just fade away. Meanwhile, from inside the field, I perhaps overoptimistically feel like a shift is in the offing, and that it does involve less meta-reflection and more focus on understanding the literature. Still, I'll grant, the problems are inherent to the field in some ways and are inseperable from the need for professional self-definition and status.

Rich Puchalsky

Vance, John Holbo already said this better than I could, and I encourage you to read his other recent posts if you haven't already. But, to be brief, yes there is a question of whether you really can describe ill-thought-out theory as theory, much less Theory. Does all thought equal theory? If so, it's true that anyone who thinks has a theory, although this doesn't tell you much.

Although the quote was from Keynes, the basic idea feels like poorly borrowed sociology rather than economics. It is a sociological commonplace that people aren't just clean slates; they have world-views, generally not explicit, which are passed down in their culture and which give meaning to everything that they do. I guess I'd recommend Peter Berger's "The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge" as a text.


It's more than a little absurd for me of all people to defend Terry Eagleton from someone who hasn't read him, so I'll close with two suggestions: Rich, why don't you actually read something by Eagleton? His Literary Theory is short, well written, and often quite funny. And it's even to the point of what's being discussed here. But astronomy should still be defunded because I read in the Weekly Standard that Carl Sagan smoked dope, I'm afraid.

And I'd suggest to John that he send his dialogue to Eagleton for comment.

Rich Puchalsky

I do plan on reading his introductory text, Jonathan, but really -- you only recommended it a few days ago, and there's a conversation going on now that I don't really want to miss. I thought I was being careful in writing that I was discussing "Eagleton as depicted by Holbo". If I've got it wrong about this aspect of his much larger body of work because I'm getting it at second hand, wouldn't it be simpler for you to just tell me where I've got it wrong? And really, if I'm getting it wrong because John Holbo is misleading me, wouldn't it be better for you to disagree with him directly? He's certainly read Eagleton, after all.

The bit about defunding astronomy because of the Weekly Standard and Carl Sagan smoking dope is illustrative of why I can't take your objection too seriously in this case: it's sort of a satire of baa's and DougM's views, not mine -- I came up with my own naive, straight-from-first-principles justification for why literary studies should continue to be funded in their current form. And it's really an unfair satire of their views; from their own accounts they didn't get theirs third hand and they don't appear to be conservatives on a rampage, they seem to have the responses of educated people who have a bone to pick with an area that they may or may not understand (I have no idea of their educational field), but who appear to have come by those views through individual experience.

David Moles

Can anyone point me to a good current basic introductory textbook — of the fat, fifty-dollar, explicitly pedagogical hardback kind common to nearly all academic disciplines — on Theory, suitable for, say, a reasonably bright high school senior or college freshman? If not, why not?


Rich, I just see the statement you originally quoted as a truism and I've gone back and re-read what John was doing it with it in his dialogue and came away a bit confused. This entire discussion is leaving me with the desire to make progressively more flip remarks, such as, for instance, that whenever I hear someone riff on Goebbels, I wish for a blessed fixed +2 Luger.

I think this has to do with my own pragmatic attitude towards literary theory, which I simply think of as a quixotic attempt to come to terms with problems that are far beyond the cognitive capacity of humans. If you start with this strong mysterianism, then you'll tend to be more forgiving. But I suspect that many don't realize how forbidding and difficult the issues are.



I enjoyed reading your article. Like Nietzsche, it's very funny even when I don't quite believe the argument.

But you left me feeling unsure who or what you were really arguing against. You move from Eagleton to Derrida as if there were a single intellectual position called "Theory" that is espoused by both writers. But what you are calling "Theory" is a bunch of squabbling philosophers with significantly different methods, approaches, and objectives. As you say, the very idea that there is a unified tradition that encompasses these figures is silly. They differ in their approaches to writing: Derrida is notoriously hard to read, while Eagleton attempts clear writing. They also differ in content: In "Literary theory: An Introduction", Eagleton seems to be advancing a Marxist argument against post-structuralism, accusing it of being irrelevant to political struggle:

"Unable to break the structure of state power, post-structuralism found [it] possible instead to subvert the structures of language. Nobody, at least, was
likely to beat you over the head for doing so."

I found your points more convincing as an argument against Eagleton specifically, rather than against "Theory" in general.

Another thing that worried me about your article is that I don't read Derrida as if he was a logicist like Frege. An author can build a big complicated system (like Frege) or advance an argument that someone else's system is internally contradictory (like Bertrand Russell constructing a paradox to demolish Frege's system of logic). I always thought that Derrida was attempting the latter kind of argument. Under the usual rules of the game, he only has to wreck his opponent's system to win; he is not under any obligation to construct something better. In particular, he is not under any obligation to construct an internally consistent, Frege-like system called “Theory”. Of course, anyone who claims to have such a thing leaves themselves open to attacks from people who try to demolish it.

I haven’t read Marjorie Garber’s book, but the piece you quote seems to be in danger of turning into logicism. At one level, it’s quite reasonable: if the intended audience already knows the definition of a technical term, and the body of argument that supports it, then the use of that term can be taken an instruction to the reader to treat the text as if the author had just made the well-known argument at that point. (In Stanislaw Lem's "The Futurological Congress", delegates just call out a number in place of the entire argument).
But (following Wittgenstein) I don’t believe we could expand out all these macros and feed the result into a culture-independent theorem checker. And (following Derrida), I’m not even sure that each reader will expand the macros in the same way – the assumption that the argument is well-known is doubtful. I find it hard to believe that Garber and Derrida could be arguing the same position.


David, to your question, I had this assigned to me as a sophomore in college and still love it:


BTW, looking at the TOCs for the three editions (1971, 1992, 2004) provides a nice little tour of how conversations around literary theory have evolved over the past thirty years. Out with the Ong, in with the Bloom.

David Moles

Thanks, Sam! Not quite as basic as I was thinking of, maybe (I notice the Amazon reviews both suggest the reader have “some background in theory”) but it looks like it would be a good start if I wanted to catch up with the debate and see how the scattered bits of Barthes and Foucault I’ve received over the years fit together. (And maybe understand why Eco sometimes seems to be saying that the Postmodernists are just providing a gloss on the Scholastics, or something of that sort . . . .)


Thanks for all the good comments. Couple of quick responses. David Moles: the Hazard Adams anthology is solid (well, at least the old edition I have is pretty good. I guess I really have no idea about the new editions.) Eagleton's "Introduction" really is a classic of sorts. It's clear enough. And, to be fair to the main, there are little bits and snips of arguments in it. But it really sets my teeth on edge (could you tell?) At least this much is right: you can understand something about the culture of literary studies by finding out that THIS thing was a kind of solid floor on which to build in the early 80's. (Since 'theory' really is a periodizing notion, you do have to study it genealogically.)

Susan, perhaps this isn't clear but one reason I hop from Eagleton to Derrida - they are, obviously, opposite poles - is to say that, if you want to defend Theory, as opposed to (say) philosophy, you have to explain why the peculiar cluster that includes Eagleton and Derrida but not, say, Quine and Russell, is good. What characteristics of the cluster make it good? On the other hand, you can forego defending Theory and defend an individual theory - or argument, or idea - instead. You could defend Eagleton or, alternatively, Derrida. But if you do that you have to do it argumentatively, and - although this of course must be shown - what you find is that they both write like Nabokov. That is, they deploy gestures on behalf of a sensibility. Which is all fine. But it is what it is, not another thing. You cannot defend Eagleton and Derrida by trying to make out that they have good arguments. What they have are bad arguments which, since they aren't even supposed to be functioning as arguments - rather than as ornaments - simply should not be considered along this axis. Both of them present themselves as doing something more philosophically sophisticated than mere gentlemanly belletrism - better than Q, in Eagleton's case; better than Proust, in the other. But really what Eagleton and Derrida have on offer is amateurism on stilts (to adapt good Mr. Bentham.) Derrida is often described as very rigorous, but I think what people are really indicating by this is that he is consistently fussy, in his talmudic way.

Amateurism-on-stilts as the condition of Theory is an important thing to notice because it actually undercuts one standard criticism of Theory: namely, that it is a toxic departure from all those nice old gentleman scholarly ways of doing things. No, Theory is, as per my Nietzsche quote, a glorious recovery of that pre-dialectic gentlemanly mode, when giving reasons was regarded as bad manners. It is also not so much post-modern as pre-modern. It is late romanticism declined into mannerist kitsch. (But that's for the next chapter.) Of course, I haven't really shown this, particularly not in Derrida's case. But I believe it is true.

McGruff, very gratified that you liked it. Thank you for the nice compliments.


My pleasure, John. I look forward to reading it again more carefully and to passing it around, samizdat style, to wavering colleagues.

One comment you (or S, if I remember right) make in passing reminds me of what I do think has been a beneficial possibility created by the recent critical climate, that I wish had been realized on more fully, and that I think and hope will be more prominent in coming years. That's the remark that some writers really are quite nasty people.

This is especially important in the period I work and mainly teach in, where literary virtuousity often runs hand-in-hand with radical political or cultural complaint, but I think in general much more attention deserves to be paid to the fact that writers have views about things, that those views are often fundamental to their work, and that on not infrequent occasion, great beauty and depth can be inspired by profoundly unattractive sentiments. The stance I want to take with respect to that phenomenon is something close to S's response to Nabokov--to marvel at the virtuosity and not be a churlish moralist. But also something a little more. As you want to do when you read Nabokov or Nietzsche, I want to acnkowledge and consider the depth or the conviction of the vision that inspired the work that moves or impresses me without being expected to simply assent to or reject it. (Even or especially when Nabokov's fiction both adheres to and plays havoc with his critical pronunciamentos.)

An attitude like this shouldn't need explaining or defending, of course. It's the way Trilling (one of your faves if I remember correctly) treats Babel, say. But, one of the revealing affinities between the New Criticism and its Theoretical usurpers is that they each effectively shunted this approach aside.

I loved your emphasis on the dialectical subtlety of Brooks, by the way. But it could be added, I think, that New Criticism was the first school to go meta--and thus to chart the direction that Theory would take. As with the famous essay that gave the Well-Wrought Urn its title, the subject of great poems and of criticism turned out to be, at bottom, the nature of poetry. With the consequence that whatever dialectical subtlety Brooks showed in emphasizing the tension between historicism and transcendent poetry, the triumph of the latter turned out to be the story told over and again by Brooks's followers. Boy, that got dull.

It's because of the way that attitude became an orthodoxy and shut down responsiveness to the distinctiveness of different writers that I'm hesitant about calls like Daniel Green's that seem to me to say: just say that great literature's great. I may be reading him too suspiciously, but to me that looks too near a recipe for dullness and homogeneity.


Surely only the third of those things ("beauty and depth") could be construed as missing.

I work on Wyndham Lewis, among others, so I know all about it.


Ok – let’s try a different tactic here… Like the U.S. Democratic party, it might be time for Literary studies to get off its heels in this debate. Hit back.

Seems to me that one problem with this whole discussion is we literary types are playing away games all the time… When we get into these things with philosophers, we feel, well, not very logical, not all that clear and level-headed about things.

But the thing is, what are the philosophers doing nowadays to advance the field of knowledge – or even general benevolence – toward any concrete goal? Who the hell picks up philosophy (other than our brand of it – called here “theory” - generally French, at least continental) when they’re at the barricades?

I think it would be hard to deny that much of the most provocative work on race, gender, class (yes, our trinity) are coming out of our field, not yours.

Philosophy – as it’s practiced at least at the American university I attend and am about to leave – seems to add up to two general assertions: 1) “Whatever is is right” and 2) “What you’re doing doesn’t make any sense at all.”

I get the sciences. We’ve got space shuttles and cell phones, and computers with lithium batteries. We’ve got fancy medicines, and explanations of where we come from.

I get most of what’s done in the humanities. What’s the meaning of this or that? How was this constructed, defined, shaped, or altered? How is today like yesterday, and how is it different? And implicitly, behind so much of it: what is to be done? How should we live?

We’re engaged, we take risks. You (philosophers) seem to me to be involved in an endless project of affirming the status quo, of calling us out whenever we step over the line of logic, of clear and coherent thinking. But you can’t push anything forward, advocate any changes or rethinking.

Someone on one of these post advocated turning English departments into Departments of Reading and Writing. I’d say that US philosophy departments are already Departments of red ink, correction ink. You hit us – like you’re doing here – and we feel momentarily insecure… You’re better critics, in a sense, than we are… But let’s put you on the defensive for a sec. Lets hear what your valuable contribution to the world is, other than putting us in our place, OK? What changes, what’s improved, through U.S. philosophy?

A philosopher that I was in an interdisciplinary fellowship program with last year gave a paper for an undergraduate philosophy caucus at the university called “Why You Have a Reason to Eat Your Automobile.” (I’ve tweaked the title to keep this post out of Google’s reach). He’s got a job at a very fine institution now. Now maybe there’s something to all this philosophy stuff, but from the surface, I just don’t see it.



I'm not sure I follow the gist of your latest. But if it means, as I think it does, that the literary scholarship influenced by literary theory and before that by new criticism really has paid a lot of careful attention to the views of writers and the way those views shaped their work, I don't really believe it. The New Critics tended to shove that all aside as subliterary. Theory heads tended to read works as either expressive or subversive of ideologies that acted independently of the intentional views of their vehicles. Either way effectively tended to downplay the significance of ideas.


As a sceptic about Theory, I was happily reading along here, as a war veteran might read the news from the front, until Jonathan's post roused me like a bugle. For I take it that in defending 'literary studies' he takes himself also to be defending Theory. And I don't think it's Theory that's producing the work Jonathan values. Intransitive big-T Theory provokes in many of us only wonder that the racket still makes money.

The origins of Theory lie in linguistics, in anthropology and in a particular line of European philosophy. Derrida (e.g.)(who is a small-T man) developed deconstruction through close readings of all sorts of texts, some philosophical, not many of which would count as literature. (Or should I say, 'would once have been counted'.)

Many other theorists would need to be brought in here were I writing history. But since what I'm trying to do is support a distinction, I'll stick with the example of Derrida. His work raises large questions about how words relate to the world (if at all), whether selves are constituted in language, and whether there is any escape from metaphor. These questions do not come from outer space: they are philosophical questions.

One way of seeing what happened in the literary world is that scholars seized a collection of philosophical, linguistic and psychoanalytic ideas and applied them first to the canon, then (covering much ground along the way) to the concept of the canon, the concept of interpretation, the concept of literature itself.
To that point, the movement as a whole, however confusing and novel, could be understood as another attempt to construct a philosophy of literature. Derrida's books could be shelved with 'Biographia Literaria' 'An Apology for Poetry' and Sartre's 'What is Literature?'. The main difference in the new philosophy was that, rather than provide new insights into its object of enquiry, it attempted to dissolve it in the ocean of 'textuality'. Rather than offer new interpretations, it suggested that interpretations were themselves texts.

Enter left, Race, Gender and Class. Marxists(like Eagleton)feminists and a raft of identity scholars took up the new ideas. Bound however by actual commitments to their constituencies, they couldn't go in for the open-ended, exacting analyses of the deconstructionists, the voyages on the endless oceans of textuality. Such scholars tried to make use of Derrida (and Foucault and all the rest of the line-up). Eagleton in the late 70s and 80s was one of those, but chose to stick with ideas compatible with praxis. 'Literary Theory' sums up and moves on. His move away from Theory in the 90s is entirely consistent with his longstanding allegiances.

But ambitious (not to say vaulting)minds - Frederick Jamieson, Judith Butler- chose to do something different. For lo! all theories could be read by other theories and the results interrogated by a third. It is this this (I have come to believe) that constitutes Theory. That is why I should call Derrida a theorist. As interpreted by Christopher Norris (rather than say, Jonathan Culler) Derrida allows the texts he reads to count, to offer resistance, to have what might be called ontological weight.

So finally, to Jonathan. If I have correctly described Theory,it is the last place one would look for answers to the questions What is to be done? or How shall we live? These (to go no earlier) are Arnold's questions and Tolstoy's. Leavis, Trilling, Nussbaum and even Rorty address them. Whatever ethicists or political scientists may say, it's an honourable tradition to engage with literature in such a way as to raise these questions. Martha Nussbaum argues persuasively that reading literature provides a kind of moral finesse that the bleaker dialects of (Anglo-American-analytical) philosophy cannot capture.

If that's what Jonathan is defending, it may be literary studies but it's not (as I understand it)Theory.


Struth! Re my previous post, I see that the discussion to which I thought I was contributing follows on from Clueless in Academe II & no doubt much else. Forgive a newcomer to blogging. Had I done all the homework I would have put things differently - possibly not at all.

Rich Puchalsky

Bruce: "Enter left, Race, Gender and Class. Marxists(like Eagleton)feminists and a raft of identity scholars took up the new ideas. Bound however by actual commitments to their constituencies, [...]"

Bruce, I hate to pick on a single word -- constituency -- but it signifies a concept that I disagree with in your description. I don't think that academic Marxists, feminists, or identity scholars have constituencies in any real sense. I assume that you're using the word in its sense of "the people involved in or served by an organization (as a business or institution)" (Merriam-Webster), and I disagree that the work that professors in English departments have done has really served anyone politically. Look at a list of famous feminists, political agitators, or leaders of minority ethnicities and you will see very few academics. Or look at the theories used by groups in these areas that actually do political work and you will see plenty of stuff taken from economics and political science -- but little or nothing from literary theory. My own anecdotal experience suggests a similar conclusion wrt the personal usefulness of literary academics in political action. Basically, I haven't seen many literary academics that can actually write stuff that the mass of people can read -- a prerequisite for political action for the theorist. And they just are not in a social position that encourages them to take chances as a direct leader.

So let's not say constituencies. Let's say fantasy objects, perhaps. I would agree that some academics are bound by their commitments to these fantasy objects, much as a 50-year-old unathletic lawyer might be bound by his unresolved desire to become a fireman since when he was four to show up and try out for the volunteer fire department every year.

I'm being too harsh again, I know. Sorry.

Rich Puchalsky

Oops, I missed this earlier comment when I replied to Bruce --

"Me" writes: "I think it would be hard to deny that much of the most provocative work on race, gender, class (yes, our trinity) are coming out of our field, not yours. "

Ah yes, "provocative". Again, I don't think that this word means what you seem to think it means. Going to Merriam-Webster again: "serving or tending to provoke, excite, or stimulate". OK. When, outside the realm of fantasy, has someone last been provoked, excited, or stimulated by a literary or cultural studies work about race, class, or gender? Note that mockery does not count. Thus the awards called the "Provokies" are regretfully excluded.

I bring up fantasy again because I think that it is inescapable when considering these statements. A literary theorist writes something, say, about how Jane Austin would be read if she were a lesbian (sorry, SusanC, to use your example) and expects people to be provoked. Everyone else who is sufficiently literate to even hear of this essay picks it up with a feeling of "well, here's another one". Yet it is apparently a significant part of the self-image of the writer that they are a "provocative" writer.

Of course U.S. Republicans occasionally pull out one of these articles and pretend to be provoked by it, so that they can raise money with direct mail and the like. They serve a vital function by doing so. Unless *someone* pretended to be provoked, the fantasy would eventually fall under its own weight. It's like the Onion article that thanked the 5% of middle-aged men who do not have long hair for continuing to let the 95% of middle-aged men who do continue to pretend to be countercultural.


Wow, Rich, thanks for the dictionary help. You're doing a great job tonight supplying definitions from the good old MW every time one of us needs help. So thanks for clearing that up - I didn't know that provocative meant "tending to provoke."

(By the way: not sure if it's in MW or not, but the name is Austen, not Austin...)

I wonder what it is about the idea of an essay about Austen and lesbianism that always makes that sort of thing pop up in discussions like this. You can throw that sort of thing out as on its face ridiculous... OK - what's so ridiculous about it Rich? I'd like to hear how, instead, you'd teach Jane Austen? Or even Jane Austin... Whichever you'd like...


The work that I admire in literary analysis is not Procrustean in its attempt to link a writer's values and larger ideological issues. I don't think Jameson's book on Lewis does this, for example. Some of it is inevitable, but see "Pierre Menard."

Doug M

Whoa! Hold on here. Everyone take a deep breath. (I was responsible for the degradation of tone on the last thread and so feel a duty to prevent the same here.) Rich is exasperated by the pose of righteous subversiveness that is meant to excuse so much bad Theory and post-Theory. His exasperation is reasonable and shared by many. Me is exasperated by academic philosophy because so much of it is rigor for rigor's sake. I quit my philosophy studies at the M.A. stage because I felt the same way. The problem that Me describes is important, and we have to place it next to Graff's if we want to grasp what's wrong with the humanities. (I've said this in a post on this site before but I think it bears repeating.) On the one hand you have the literary scholars' poor reasoning; the philosphers congratulate themselves on superiority of their own reasoning as if it excuses the paltriness of the purposes towards which they put it. On the other hand you have that paltriness of purpose, which the literary scholars use as a black background to make their own good sociopolitical intentions shine brighter, as if that will excuse their poor reasoning. It's a destructive co-dependency. I know of no other way to break it than to pursue initiatives like John's here, which may get at least some on each sides to recognize the importance of the other's ideals. (Maybe a condition for employment in the humanities should a qualifying exam on Jane Austen and J. L. Austin.)

Rich Puchalsky

I see that my rhetorical use of M-W was going too far. OK, "Me", I'll restate myself in terms which should be obvious enough. I guarantee that absolutely no irony will be involved.

There is absolutely nothing ridiculous, as you put it, in a reading of Jane Austen as a lesbian. (Thank you for taking the time to correct my typing gaffe, by the way). Rather, such a reading is pedestrian, unremarkable -- not provocative. I'm not sure how much such a reading actually tells you, but whether it tells you anything or not, it has certainly been done many times before, and will apparently continue to be done many times in the future. It may or may not be a worthless reading, but it can no longer be a shocking reading, or provoke any kind of original thought. In fact, as you yourself point out, it is rather the first thing that one thinks of with the set of ideas "literary studies" and "Jane Austen". (If you read my original carefully, you will see that I used it as an example because a previous poster did).

I deeply appreciate that you have a strong interest in my declaring the idea ridiculous, and being shocked by it. This would in turn validate it as "provocative". But I'm afraid that you are going to have to look further to find someone to play this role for you.

Ari Krupnick


Let me try to respond to some of the things you wrote. I think this might end up being quite long, so please bear with me. I often read blogs. I seldom post on them.

As a matter of fact, people (some more than others) want to know the answers to various questions. For instance, what, exactly, makes this action right and that one wrong? Are scientific theories moving closer and closer to the truth, or are significant changes in scientific theories just "paradigm shifts" (whatever that means)? Could a computer be conscious? How would we know, if it could be? Are there facts of the matter about what is right and what is wrong, or is it "all relative"? What makes something a person (e.g., when does a fetus become a person)? The first of the following two claims seems that it can be known "a priori", whereas the latter cannot: All bachelors are male; There is a tree with green leaves in my garden. Why is that we can know some things a priori, but not others? And what exactly is the difference between knowing something a priori and knowing it some other way?

Now, also, as a matter of fact, U.S. philosophers, as you call them, try to answer these questions (among others). As it turns out, answering these questions is a very tricky matter; there are lots of complications and details that get in the way of giving a precise, definite, plausible answer to any one of those questions. And most of those questions are so"big" that giving an answer to any one of them is only possible after giving an answer to many smaller more esoteric questions. That, as far as I'm concerned, is why U.S. philosophy (a.k.a. analytic philosophy) is technial and detailed and often times esoteric. It's not that we are not trying to answer the "big" questions. It's just that answering these questions in a precise and definite way requires both pain-staking attention to detail and the answering of "smaller" questions that, at the start, might have seemed totally irrelevant to the "bigger" questions.

It also happens to be the case, it seems to me, that if we do discover the correct answers to the above questions (if indeed there are any, a philosophical question in its own right), the possesion of that knowledge would not have much of an impact on our lives. Certainly it would not have the impact of having the answers to questions like: What causes cancer? How can we stop the spread of AIDS? How can we build earthquake-proof bridges? etc.. So why do we try to find the answers to those questions I listed at the top? Because we want to. Because we care about the answers. Because we are curious (well, I suppose I should only speak for myself). If that's not a good enough reason to study philosophy (I suppose I haven't really made up my mind on this matter), then we should not be studying philosophy.

With regard to your last comment about the seemingly silly paper your friend/acquiantance (I can't remember which) wrote: one does see this in philosophy. One sees papers that seem silly and not in any way relevant to answering some of the "bigger" questions I mentioned at the start. I find this very regrettable and I wish that everyone took philosophy as seriously as I do. I think that this superficiality (not to say that I am immune to it) is caused to some degree by pressure to say something new or original or creative. And to such people, and also to some critics of analytic philosophy that seem to haunt the blogosphere, I recommend the words of Tim Williamson (himself an analytic philosopher, of course): "Truth and precision come first. Depth and originality will follow."


Doug M.,

Totally right.

I'd never ever disagree that there's a ton of crap produced by literary studies. Just tons of it. The MLA, for a lot of different reasons, is one of the privileged windows on to this crap. Getting both Austen AND Austin right should be a prereq. to moving on to future work.

And in fact I think one of the worst things that has happened in English is that there are tons of folk hanging around who came to literature from theory rather than the reverse. It's not that one has to come before the other, it's just that when one treats literature as nothing more than the set of examples to work with because of the department you're in, trouble's bound to ensue.

So we should get more rigorous. Absolutely. Especially about the literature. There's so much there to work on....

But the problem is that these others are throwing the rigorous out with the loose and lumpy. It's not how well we're doing it or not - it's what we're doing that's under attack. And, in particular, it's our desire to "do things with words."



Maybe the difference between the literary approach and the philosophical is that we tend to think that the sort of questions that you name (what makes one action right and another wrong, computer consciousness, etc... ) might actually be more important than building a better bridge or even curing cancer.

This is where we get accused of a sort of disciplinary imperialism, as well.

In the world we live in today, if one can't see the importance of working on issues like right vs. wrong (vs. my right vs. your right) or what kind of storytelling goes in to the formation of a nation or what does language have to do with the construction of racial difference, I'm afraid you're not paying attention...

I just think when you start calling the problems you're working on issues without much impact - something we'd simply like to know, because we're curious - it's no wonder that things start to take the shape of tautology... This is because it is because it is...


Finally, on the whole line of the lack of effectiveness of literary studies on the level of culture. If we're talking about the general leftism of literary studies (the parts of it that aren't "left" aren't really what we're talking about here, are we), the question that I have is "Who the hell is doing any better, nowadays, in the US of A?" The democratic party? labor leaders? the semi-popular left press? We're losing on every front, the tide has turned (if it ever really pointed in our direction...)

So I agree, we're not having much effect. But who is? We should try harder, no doubt. But it's also the times. Is the answer, do you think, to put down our Class, Race, Gender placards simply because we're not being listened to. Just to give up? Start re-vamping our course lists into a Lynn Cheney-esque confection of God, Baseball, and Apple Pie?

And most importantly, I'd like to think that our students at least are hearing some of what we say... Maybe no invites to serve as talking heads on CNN, but the students (mine at least) seem interested, engaged, satisfied....

I'm kinda comfortable with the idea that the discipline that is my home (actually the humanities in general) is perhaps the last bastion of this sort of stuff. The lights are going out all over everywhere...

Rich Puchalsky

Doug M writes: "On the one hand you have the literary scholars' poor reasoning; the philosphers congratulate themselves on superiority of their own reasoning as if it excuses the paltriness of the purposes towards which they put it. On the other hand you have that paltriness of purpose, which the literary scholars use as a black background to make their own good sociopolitical intentions shine brighter, as if that will excuse their poor reasoning. It's a destructive co-dependency."

Doug M, whenever someone polishes up a parellel structure this brightly and evenly, I suspect that the purpose is to exclude other alternatives. What if the literary scholars have poor reasoning *and* their sociopolitical intentions are worthless, thus excusing nothing? What if those sociopolitical intentions come down to a form of incantatory magical thought, in which merely working on what "language [has] to do with the construction of racial difference", is supposed have real social effects on constructed racial difference? What if "paltriness of purpose" (a phrase I find hard to understand, given that philosophers are supposed to work on the ultimate questions) is actually morally superior to argumentatively shoddy work in a supposedly high purpose, undertaken for reasons of radical chic, which actually helps no one?

Enough rhetorical questions. There are some things about literary studies that I like, but this "Racism a problem? Make it go away with the MLA!" sloganeering is not one of them.

Ari Krupnick


I shouldn't have posted. I don't have time to enter into this discussion. But in light of your comments, let me change one thing I said, which I now realize is somewhat in error. If everybody had the answers to the big philosophical questions and acted accordingly, then certainly that would have a big impact. But if a few academic philosophers come close to having the answers, which is all we can probably hope for, then that will not have that much of an impact, I don't think. Maybe I'm wrong. This is an empirical question that I'm not qualified to answer.



But see, why do we have to live up to some baseline of effectiveness that no one else is subject to? I never said "make racism go away with the MLA." Everything's incremental, everything's one foot in front of the other. Most don't kid themselves that the situation is anything other than what it is.

It's like you're putting us in this position where we either overthrow the state by yesterday or we shut up and concentrate on penmanship or something.

And why do you always have to go to the "radical chic" line? That's the question? Certainly there are better ways of achieving chicness than slogging through the ranks of English departments, grading frigging papers. I just don't get it - what if many of us actually mean what we say? What if it's not just a pose?

Rich Puchalsky

I'm sorry for the bit about radical chic, that was ad homenum. But my objection is not that you haven't overthrown the state yesterday. My objection is that you can't say, "well, I'm not so great on the core academic value of being able to argue rationally, but my politics are good!", especially if you are actually bad at politics. And no, just because the left as a whole is losing big right now doesn't mean that everyone is equally bad at politics, or even that all academics are equally bad at politics. Look at the economists, for instance. I would guess that Duncan Black, J. Bradford DeLong, and Max Sawicky get more political radio time than the entire MLA (admittedly, some of these three may be insufficiently "left" for you, and the first and third of these are at nonprofits at the moment -- but I'll happily throw in any MLA types at nonprofits into the comparison). Or look at the philosophers for that matter.

Doug M

You're right, Rich, that my co-dependency point was phrased too glibly. I didn't mean that philosophers' and Theorists' faults were equally serious. I just chose to sidestep the question out of a desire to be conciliatory. Rather than give my opinion on the matter, I'd like to respond to some of the comments about academic philosophy in particular. John has said that the philosophy dept. is the shining exception to the Graff decline-of-good-arguments complaint. Me and I have said, on the other hand, that academic philosophy serves rather trivial ends. Ari gave a good rebuttal, pointing out that philosophers are actually work on questions of great importance -- the "ultimate questions", as Rich put it. So I need to revise my criticism.

When I was in philosophy grad school, the ultimate questions did get mentioned, but they seemed to hover far, far overhead. We worked on sub-problems of sub-problems of sub-problems. I can't remember anyone having faith that they would find solutions right up this chain and actually bag one of the "ultimates". Even the notion that this might be possible seemed to vanish from our minds, so focused were we on the minutiae. Now, it's not a priori impossible that all this low-level intellectual work should yield something grand. (Look at open-source software like Linux for a counterexample.) But my overwhelming impression after two years was that the enterprise was not making much progress.

More specifically, my impression was that everyone took a side on the big questions, but subconsciously believed that, as for as proof goes, they were stalemates (or "antinomies" as some liked to say). Only they had to pretend otherwise for obvious professional reasons. Each biggie allowed two or three nearly-stable, self-consistent solutions. (E.g. "there's no free will", and "free will exists as a primitive inexplicable feature of the universe" and "free will should be defined downwards as the particularly nifty trajectories of certain entities in an unfree system.") I say "nearly" stable because you can always find slight flaws in your opponents' position and force them to shift a little bit. This sort of thing accounted for most of our papers.

I'd compare the big questions to differential equations that have no closed-form solution. You see that your equation has three solutions for X, somewhere near 1, 2, and 4.5 respectively, say. You do a lot of work zeroing in on one of the solutions, showing it to be between 1.0 and 1.1, then between 1.05 and 1.06, et cetera. But all this work seems beside the point if you're trying to find which of the three solutions is the right one!

Obviously, if you're tying to find that, you need to step back and repose the question, because within your framework it makes no sense. Only most of the attempts to do this resemble a change of variables of the "replace X with tan(Y)" variety, where the symbols change, but the fundamental problem does not. (The Allan Gibbard book used in one of my classes was typical, trying to explain what's "good" in terms of "norms". One would have gotten exactly as far by doing the exact opposite.)

Well, this been a depressing comment. Worthwhile progress has been made in philosophy in, say, the last 100 years. The attempt (by Ayer, Carnap, etc.) to build an airtight positivism, and the reasons why it failed (as expressed by, e.g., Quine, or the late Wittgenstein), advanced us on the big questions, at least by knocking off positivism as a contender. Read Ayer! Read Quine! And the philosophical implications of Goedel's work are huge, even if most of the work there was done by mathematicians.

As for positive suggestions for grad school, we need to relieve the "pressure to say something new or original or creative", as Ari put it. This mimicry of the hard sciences has to stop.

Rich Puchalsky

Interesting personal history, Doug M. I think that most of the academic fields outside the few hard sciences like physics or biology that everyone glorifies have a short, glib advertisement and a short, glib demurral. You know:

Astronomy: We study the largest scale / But you're useless
Engineering: We're practical / But you're narrow-minded
Philosophy: We do the ultimate questions / But you never get anywhere

Etc. It strikes as a problem of the current self-definition of literary studies that while the glib demurral is fairly well defined -- "But you're incomprehensible" -- they seem to be having trouble deciding on a glib advertisement. It used to be "We maintain high culture", I suppose, but now what is it? The problem with "We provoke you" as a contender is that, as I wrote before, people are demonstrably not provoked. "We do Theory" is, well, too incomprehensible to work. "We encompass everything" just isn't believable. "We rule language" seems like it seriously poaches linguistics. Has anyone got a contender?


It seems like one thing that often gets lost here is the role of the academy in preserving knowledge (as opposed to refining or creating it). A lot of literature has been written over the past few thousand years. A great deal has also been thought and written about various writers and artists (and, on a yet-more-meta level, about writing and art themselves). Isn't there an immense value in having a segment of society devoted to keeping alive that knowledge, the memory of that great conversation (if you want to go in for hackneyed metaphors)? Not just preserving it like medieval scribes, but keeping it in use: examining it through the lens of contemporary sensibilities, maintaining the ability to imaginatively place oneself in the situation of past writers, artists, and cultures, and so on.

On this view, one might see the role of much scholarship in the humanities (journal articles, especially) not so much on the scientific model of incremental progress, but on a conversational model: scholars talking to one another (and to whoever else wants to listen in) as part of the process of becoming better scholars. Journals as longer and far more rigorous versions of coffeeshop conversations.


Rich, you're right of course that leftist R-G-C scholars don't have empirical constituencies. I guess I simply meant that they have relatively stable ethical and political beliefs which to disown would mean losing professional (and personal) standing. As some kind of obstinate liberal, my problem is that I still don't believe that a scholar qua scholar should have any commitments that s/he is not prepared to defend, revisit regularly and revise if need be.

In that respect, to make a glancing point, I'm more comfortable nowadays around philosophers and historians than with lit people.

My experience with the left academy in this country (Australia BTW) is that for many years now it has become more and more authoritarian and dogmatic. After the brief moment of openness that was the 'new' left, I often feel that we're right back to Lenin. But that's not news.

Belated, I know, but night is day down here, so we can't post in sequence.

William S

I do not think the princess pea/Wilde joke is funny. Is it funny? Please do explain, anyone.


Well, it's supposed to be some foreshadowing for the Eagleton stuff from "The Signficance of Theory" about how meta-theory really isn't so far away from life as all that. As to whether it is funny? I'm really too close to it to say.

Kieran Setiya

Like Ari, I read blogs quite often, but very rarely post.

I was provoked initially by Me's critical remarks about philosophy, and his failure to respond to Ari's excellent defence of it.

Me appears to agree that (some of) the questions philosophers ask are important. Some (e.g. ethical ones) are of practical importance, some (e.g. in metaphysics, which Ari doesn't mention) are not. So there is common ground.

But what does Me think about the rest of Ari's post? I mean: the argument that these questions are very hard, and that answering them rigorously might well involve asking more esoteric questions along the way. The consequence is that Me may be right that the value of philosophy is hard to get at "from the surface" - but Ari's point is that there is good reason for this, so that it may not be a fault.

Me's own example seems telling here. It is actually _not_ very hard to see how asking a silly question, like "do you have a reason to eat your car?" might a "way in" to a question of obvious importance, like "how should we understand the concept of a reason for acting?" and then to a question that is surely big enough, "what should I do with my life?" Here the gap is rather small between a "deep" question, and one that can seem both silly and esoteric.

Rich Puchalsky

The part ending in "Perhaps some sleep more soundly on five"? Come on, that was really funny. Unless you're one of the putative sleepers, I suppose.

Bruce, I agree with you, but I don't think that your summary of my objection to the word goes quite as far as I meant it to go. There are some academics with real constituencies. When they come out with new theory, networks of people working on real political issues eagerly pick it up and try to see how they can use it. Sometimes those networks are essentially frozen until new theory comes out. But those academics are generally in political science, economics, or sometimes the physical sciences (where those affect political issues).

By trying to use "constituencies" as a term of art in the sense that you describe (and which I sum up as "fantasy objects") literary studies people try to blur this distinction between what they do and what other academics sometimes do. And this radical disjunction from reality is one reason why politics in literary studies never seems to progress. If you look at left economists who work in the real world, they generally don't call themselves Marxists anymore. Why? Because Marxist economics flatly don't work. "Me" was earlier sort of congratulating his field on being the last one standing -- wait, here's the quote:

"I'm kinda comfortable with the idea that the discipline that is my home (actually the humanities in general) is perhaps the last bastion of this sort of stuff. The lights are going out all over everywhere..."

To misuse John's joke, when you have five mattresses, this appears noble. When you have none and are sleeping on the street, it appears like anything but a commitment to politics.



I’ve always felt that anyone who borrows arguments from Nietzsche is playing with fire. (I have similar misgivings about Julia Kristeva’s use of Céline). Too much uncritical use of Nietzsche might lead to an argument that looks like this:

  • Foreigners are bad

  • Jews are foreign

  • Derrida is a Jew

  • Therefore Derrida is bad

I don’t mean to suggest that you, I, or even Nietzsche believe this, but it’s the kind of argument Nietzsche might have made.

Ok, so you’re arguing that “aristocrats” are bad (hiss, boo!) and the “common people” are good. The next step is to assume that analytic philosophers are the “common people”. The values and methods of analytic philosophy are good ones, firstly because they are the “our” values and methods (as opposed to the values and methods of Continental philosophers, people who speak French, women, or Jews), and secondly because they are the methods that enabled “us” (i.e. analytic philosophers) to defeat the hated “aristocrats” (including, for example, Continental philosophers)

This Nietzschian argument might work in an academic philosophy department (where the analytic philosophers have succeeded in driving out everyone else), but in other contexts it might presume facts not in evidence (that analytic philosophers have in fact been victorious in the current context, that the reader is an analytic philosopher, etc)

I presume that, like Nietzsche, your argument is intended to be read ironically!

William S

First of all, I very much liked the dialogue and actually read it a long time ago.

Second, I always have a hard time as to how to refer to the author of the original post since I feel like I should be talking to them, but am also talking about them to other people. So, between "you" and "John" I just use "John".

The sensitivity of the princess is proof that she is a princess. Is it controversial that one could be so sensitive, or that there are princesses? If she is not sensitive enough, then she is not a princess, and maybe also you could claim she shouldn't be a princess should the opportunity arise. And maybe there shouldn't be princesses, but this is not established by being generally skeptical that such people as sensitive as princesses could exist.

This seems to relate to the general distrust of and sarcasm directed toward anyone appearing aristocratic. But this does not really shed light on the nature of the authority of someone like Nabokov, who is decidedly aristocratic, and yet has real authority. One can say that authroity in one realm has been unjustly seized in another, but isn't this what we are waiting to see proven? Why does philosophy constitue the realm in which 'theory' is properly and justifiably used? Isn;t this the point of contest? I understand that the fact of factions withing the academy is reason enough to address this issue, but it does not seem reasonable to assume that a defense or critique of one or the other can proceed from this fact. What literary theory and philosophy seem to contest is the appropriate description or development of the general human faculty of judgement, which is not really fully explored by circling the word "theory".

This relates to the use of 'common sense' in the dialogue and masking its being a form or description of judgement. It is identified with basic congitive functioning, or consciousness with respect to unconsciousness, as in being brain dead or just dead. I think here the description of common sense and its invocation is somewhat dishonest, though common enough, in that two forms of judgement are put in a relationship where one is understood as more basic to general human functioning, and the other seeks to undermine it. it is possible that there could be such a relationship between two systems of judgement, but it would independent of the content of those judgements. Commonsense here is used to refer to a very specific trend in philosophy and the use of language which cannot be directly attributed to be the content of the judgements of anyone who is conscious (and sane).

This reflected not os much in the statements of the dialague as in its style. Specifically, in the fact that various important transitions and concepts and relations are asserted simply by being printed in italics. In the context of the joke, it seems contreoversial that the theorist could be so sentiive beacause "if they ARE students OF literature" because of the relationship that should be obvious simply from the form of the sentence by which we generally express it. But if it is so obvious, why the italics?

The final point seems to me to be that you can't really justify philosophy over literary theory except for political reasons, or perhaps not even fully political reasons but something like them. Like principles of interpersonal amity or something. Though the forms of demonstration are similar (Plato, Nietzsche, and Wilde all writing dialogues in a sense, and this being obviously the case with John's piece, and the obvious inspiration by the former), the demonstration that you do not want to supress a plurality of styles of thought is not the same as the demonstration of the proper relation to justification in the individual that you get from reading Plato.

Because, as I mentioned above, it seems to me the motive and basis of the debate really concerns the structure of the academy. And not with any explicit exploration of the concept of education and proper formation of one's judgement, or proper composition of taste, or personality, or whatever. Rather, the integrity of the academy is somehow independent of thinking about education of the individual. More like securing certain social outcomes or forms. So it's not clear to me what "many styles" means in this sense. What it's relation would be to an actual social form, even to the academy. It seems like real success, as John mentions in the post, would involve disengaging philosophy and literary theory from each other as contestants. But insofar as this proceeds from the assumption of the authority of philosophy in a realm in which literary theory also claims authority, it seems that even this demonstration of the reasonableness of disengagement is sort of sneaky.

I understand the foreshadowing bit, but it seems to actually also go some way toward structuring the engagement with Eagleton and others. So, P says there must be theory because of the nature of reading literature, and later he attributes personal motivations to the multiplication of theory which is echoed by S. The multiplication of intermediate structures between the book and the reader is taken as sort of silly becasue it appears silly when you say it or read it in the way it is described in the dialogue. And it suggests also that the chain of understandings is the result of a sort of fussiness, to use John's description of Derrida, but one that is also a little sinister (careless, comfortable). So the joke, which I see as revolving on the Wilde paraphrase, doesn't work so well as one mattress was never fortunate, but necessary. There is a poorly conveyed sense that the theorists were silly to even begin contained in the structure of the joke, or that it is something inevitable about theory that it should spiral into silliness like this. I guess the suggestion is that we should return to an undersanding of judgement as something inherent to the mind or some faculty of persons as opposed to relationship of mind to objects. That development of the faculty of judgement is not to be understood as working on refining our relationship to books or texts.

I like Nabokov very much because he is so obviously concenred with composition of judgement and taste.


Perhaps I ought to explain an ironic reading of your article. Given that it is absurd for analytic philosophers to present themselves as the "common people", it is equally absurd for Theorists like Terry Eagleton to do so. This is similar to Rich's argument that the Theorists have no real political constituency.

William S


But how is it that philosophers and theorists are same enough that this holds? In what way exactly?

And I think it is not that philosophers identify themselves with common people, but that they can engage common people should common people or philosophers wish to do so, that there is the possibility of class mobility, say, whereas theorists deign to do so, which is of course not workable if they are to be the edcuators of society in the sense of educating individuals, developing the minds of those individuals.


All this needs a long reply, but a short will do: theory has preened itself in its democracy, so it is too tempting not to turn that false conceit on its head. (Call this inversion 'deconstruction' or 'lifesmanship', as you like.) But the point is not supposed to be that my response is democratic. The point is not even supposed to be that democracy is better than aristocracy, if it comes to that.

I have greatly enjoyed reading this thread. Let me thank Ari (and Kieran) in particular for their helpful contributions (with which I am broadly in agreement.) Also, all our regulars for maintaining a high level of debate and decorum. I'm planning a follow-up, which should be up in a day or so. It will be a response to Me's allegations of analytic uselessness, more or less.

Rich Puchalsky

SusanC: "Too much uncritical use of Nietzsche might lead to an argument that looks like this:
Foreigners are bad
Jews are foreign
Derrida is a Jew
Therefore Derrida is bad

I don’t mean to suggest that you, I, or even Nietzsche believe this, but it’s the kind of argument Nietzsche might have made."

And a characterization of how JH's essay might be read uncritically: "The values and methods of analytic philosophy are good ones, firstly because they are the “our” values and methods (as opposed to the values and methods of Continental philosophers, people who speak French, women, or Jews) [...]"

Ah, JH, I'm so glad to hear that you're not an anti-Semite after all -- as long as your essay is read ironically, i.e., in the manner that SusanC thinks it should be read.

William S

So is it then a lack of a proper sensibility that causes one to read it without irony or a critical attitude?

Looking forward to the next post, as are all I am sure.

Rich Puchalsky

William S, what I had meant to say (but irnoy does not travel well, I know) is that SusanC is engaging in a form of critical blackmail. It's easy to set up a false dichotomy in which there are two readings of a text, the "uncritical" one in which the author is an anti-Semite by implication, and the "ironic" one in which the author is peachy keen, but the text has lost whatever force it had.



I hope I didn't offend. The point is that Nietzsche's writings are full of the most extreme anti-semitic ideas. Anyone who starts off their argument by repeatedly citing Nietzsche and using his ideas - as John does here - has to be very, very careful to only take the things in Nietzsche that are good are wholesome, and leave behind the things they wouldn't want to be associated with. There are at least two dangers: (a) they take an assumption that looks fairly innocuous, but has very dangerous logical implications (and so by assenting to it, they're also assenting to Nietzsche's exploration of its dangerous implications) (b) they borrow an argument that Nietzsche was ridiculing as a bad argument, as an example of how stupid racist rhetoric is. Many of the postmodernists build on Nietzsche, and so have to deal with the fact that they are in very, very bad company. Anyone citing Celine has a similar problem.

I wish to avoid making an ad hominen argument. Nietzsche (or Martin Heidegger) might have valid arguments on one subject and reprehensible views on another - but be careful which of their assumptions you adopt, and where they lead.

"Anyone who looks like an aristocrat is bad, because aristocrats are bad" struck me as a potentially dangerous premise - even if its more an inversion of Nietzsche than something borrowed from him. (Particularly as all sorts of people are going to be put into the category of the hated aristocrats). Note that I haven't demonstrated that it does have bad implications - just that I don't have to accept the assumption (because it's a value judgement, not a matter of fact), and I'm reluctant to accept any Nietzchian assumptions that I don't have to (because I know full well what Nietzsche goes and does with them).

And of course, Plato was an aristocrat. So if we are to champion the style of the philosophers who opposed the aristocrats, shouldn't we be siding with Plato's philosophical opponents, the Sophists - who made a living by teaching?

The much more recent time that the analytic philosopher's style won out was in academic philosopy departments; and its victory there was rather local, as the Continental philosophers were perhaps used more by English departments.
But maybe John was really alluding to the Enlightement?

So I don't feel very happy starting where John starts.

Rich Puchalsky

SusanC, I really think that you need to show where, exactly, John Holbo is supposed to be misusing or reading naively one of Nietzsche's arguments. So far the only specific objection I've seen is: "'Anyone who looks like an aristocrat is bad, because aristocrats are bad' struck me as a potentially dangerous premise - even if its more an inversion of Nietzsche than something borrowed from him." I don't think that you need to describe this as an inversion of Nietzsche in order to point out that it's a bad argument. One might suspect that the only reason Nietzsche is credited with it is because without Nietzsche, you can't bring in all that juicy anti-Semite stuff.

So, given that the Nietzschian implications of "aristocrats bad" are what you object to, is John Holbo even making that admittedly bad argument? I don't think so. (And he explicitly denies it, for what that's worth.) That part of the article is not a serious criticism of literary studies types -- it's simply mockery. The serious criticism is for the lack of rational thought in Theory. The bits about how Theorists have come to resemble the aristocratic amateurs that they deride is, as John said, "too tempting" to leave out.

I find this to be the greatest flaw in JH's writing, by the way. It's funny and discursive -- witty. But wittiness is not always the greatest authorial value when writing philosophy.


Rich (and John!), I apologise. To say, as I did, that the assumption is not provably harmless, is a very weak argument against it.

I'm not sure whether the idea of aristocrats versus commoners is just mockery, or a central part of the argument. It's mentioned again on p. 11 (with respect to Judith Butler) and on p. 27 (with respect to Eagleton)

I had thought John was making a valid and clever argument where this is central. An argument that other people might make for Theory is that the people doing it are from some minority group (i.e. the work is good/desirable because the people doing it are not those aristocrats). But John shows the consequences of postulating "Aristocrats are bad" - the Theorists can be made to look like aristocrats, and because the assumption that aristocrats are bad has been conceded, the Theorists are made to look "bad".

This looks like an ironic argument: one that starts by assuming that (X) is true with the eventual goal of persuading the reader that (X) is false.

The repeated references to Nietzsche at the beginning act as a warning to the reader that this kind of argument might be coming up. (Yet another reason why it's dangerous to make heavy references to Nietzsche is that it can create this expectation inappropriately).

A further hint is that we know that Plato was an aristocrat.

This line of argument works better against class-based justifications of Theory than race or gender based ones. If we start from "men are bad", rather than "aristocrats are bad", its harder to make Judith Butler look like a man than it is to make her look like an aristocrat. (Though as the example is Judith Butler, rather than some other feminist, and given Judith Butler's views on gender, there might be a workable argument along these lines). The ethnic version of the argument with respect to Derrida looks less promising and more dangerous.

Rich Puchalsky

SusanC, I don't think that John Holbo can really be making the argument that you describe. In the text, there is only one extended mention of race/class/gender:

"S: I have not said enough about politics, have I? The Holy Trinity of race-gender- class concerns. It might be argued that literary studies has moved from being defined mostly in terms of subject matter to being defined mostly by methods – by ‘theory’ - to being defined mostly by political, social and cultural concerns. If so, my formulations are out of date."

In other words, John Holbo is specifically *not* aiming his attack on political, social, and cultural concerns. He is aiming his attack on *methods*. He doesn't say enough about the race/class/gender justification for Theory to make your argument plausible. And it would be a weak argument for him; he's attacking all Theory, and not all Theorists underpin their work with race/class/gender concerns.

The extended comparisons of Theorists with aristocrats are because, as John said: "theory has preened itself in its democracy, so it is too tempting not to turn that false conceit on its head." In other words, he's doing it to get your goat.

Now this goat-getting may be a setup for an attack on Eagleton later (or in a part of the dialogue that got sawed off?), since Eagleton really does seem to bring in politics as a justification. In that case I wouldn't elaborate it to the Niezschian levels that you describe. I'd describe it as a perfectly ordinary sort of ad homenum attack based on Eagleton's supposed hypocrisy (you say you support commoners, but you're acting like an aristocrat!). It would only work as a valid attack if Eagleton made an argument of the form "Any theory made by a 'commoner' is for that reason good." But I really don't think that JH is doing this, I think it's just a series of taunts, intended to puncture the Theorists' self-image by making them look like the people they criticize.

If anyone does want a serious attack on race/class/gender concerns, needless to say I like my own better -- that as an academic you can not justify your work as being primarily political, especially when your politics does not actually help anyone.

William S

Susan and Rich,

Susan: The way you have described an ironic argument could also characterize a recdutio. So, why the stylistic embellishment? Is that what makes it ironic? What is the contribution of it being a dialogue to the point being made? And I don’t mean to say “you must tell me why I am reading 45 pages rather than 5” but rather what is the contribution of the style and form to the “presentation” of the argument. The form of formal logic is important. What I am not getting, I think, is how the style and form are integral to the argument, rather than clever and fun. I too enjoyed the allusion to Wilde…

Rich: In other words, John Holbo is specifically *not* aiming his attack on political, social, and cultural concerns. He is aiming his attack on *methods*.

Where a final statement is that a plurality of style is best. Not like Wilde, where style is best. There remains an element of discernment and taste that is justified in making claims. But I am confused as it seems that theory is being made to defend itself, sort of, but is dismissed as basically lacking proper sensibilities. This is also seen in the comment on method at the end – that you who understand will see what is important and what is foolishness. Or in having hypocritical sensibilities, being pretense? But in order to get to this you have to portray the relationship between theorists and theory and activism and other things in a particular way with respect to their authority, which is, as I think I meant to mean when talking about Nabokov, not only a result of their claims to it. So to point to a problem in their understanding of themselves is not sufficient. It is like wit economists: they do not claim to be more rational than others, they only claims to be using the concept of rationality properly, which has, of course, implications for themselves and others. So there is this external element of the nature of authority in this case which is skipped over (or maybe the dialogue skips on the pond of authority like a thrown stone) in the sense that the dialogue does not address it explicitly, but does so in its form. That is, could you even have a dialogue in defense of theory? Would this mode of presentation be compatible? It speaks to a certain kind of edcuation, in the general sense. And one that appeals heavily, here anyway, to certain types of books.

“Sallies that meet fools with their folly”. Without a context of in what court the two fools play, irony becomes sarcasm. And the Nietzsche then seems to imply that one may make the final leap, or break the last resistance, by being extremely foolish… But where then does the hard core of truth reside?

Perhaps I am having difficulty as I am not really part of this contest, as it seems to be. I got my education, due to strange circumstances, mostly through Chinese philosophy. And not through Chinese philosophy as in “is the mandate of heaven consistent with a concept of democracy?” or “does Xunzi have a consistent theory of human nature?” or “Is Zhuangzi a relativist?” but just reading the Chinese books. So, my concern is that if I do not get it, what does this mean? What am I or anyone else lacking? I suppose these concerns are related somewhat to Me’s. In that I’m not sure what this all is ultimately about.


SusanC and Me seem to assume that the methods of my dialogue are those of analytic philosophy. But I think this is a serious mistake. I quote no analytic philosophers and deploy no technical devices characteristic of Anglo-American philosophy post-1900. I am engaged in immanent critique, if you like. I take the other side apart from the inside: logically, psychologically, genealogically. That said, it is significant that 'theory' - to the extent that I am right that is an expression of a sensibility, not a mode of critical inquiry - cannot engage in immanent critique. I had a bit in the dialogue originally in which I make the joke that theory can be 'eminent critique' - i.e. pure aristocratic self-assertiveness; 'imminent critique' - i.e. hints to the effect that soon some philosophical apparatus will be deployed, although none is presently in evidence ('towards a theory of the text', etc.); and 'emanant critique' - i.e. name-dropping or 'travelling theory'. You quote a bit of Derrida, a bit of Foucault, a touch of Austin and Zizek, and the impression is generated that elsewhere there is impressive machinery, from which the present work obscurely derives power. But theory, especially in its eclectic manifestations, doesn't do 'immanent critique'. This is the reason why - as per Wayne Booth - "Critical Inquiry" doesn't contain many critical inquiries. It's a theory journal so that stuff gets squeezed out. (This is far too polemical, of course. That's why it's in a comment box, not in my dialogue any more. But there's a grain of truth to it.)



Thanks very much for your reply.

I take your point that "analytic philosophy" was the wrong term to use.

Much of what you use can be seen in Plato - exposition by means of imaginary dialogues with Socrates, a belief that clear arguments are a good thing, a belief that almost everything can be explained in simple terms that everyone will understand etc. This all seems innocuous enough, but the assumption that universal languages exist - that arguments can usually be made coherent to outsiders - seems to be in dispute here.

In Plato's "Meno" (after Socrates is accused of being a stingray) Socrates explains a proof to a slave. Plato (an aristocrat) has a pretty low opinion of slaves, and has the fictional Socrates speak to the slave accordingly, making everything very, very simple so that the slave is sure to get the point (and also making sure that the slave is unable to deviate from his master's control). This is an aristocratic view of argument.

Whatever we call Plato's preferred combination of methods of argument and methods of government, many Theorists seem to have taken a contrary view. Some of them seem to value the beauty of poetry over clarity of exposition (even when it's bad poetry), and they seem to believe that, in many cases, a universally comprehensible explanation doesn't even exist. Not just that the poetic explanation is better, but that there is no explanation that is accessible to people outside a particular community.
For example, the world might be divided into disjoint tribes, and a proof can be shared and understood within a tribe but not necessarily communicated to outsiders.

The question of whether there can (or should) be separate cultures is separate from the question of whether those cultures should be ruled by aristocrats internally. If someone said that we need a Philosopher King to conquer all these tribes, unite them, and impose a common language and standard of proof, that would be not just aristocratic, but also imperialist.

Marjorie Garber's description of jargon as macros seems compatible with Plato's model in "Meno". We can play the role of the slave, listening to Socrates explain the proof. Each time Socrates says a line of the proof, we can check it "mechanically" - just following the rules, like a slave. A word can refer back to an argument that has previously been spoken by Socrates and checked by the slave, so it can save Socrates from having to say it again and the slave from having to check it again. "Thinking operations" is an inelegant phrase for this, but I can see what she's getting at.

If jargon really was just macros, we could ask to see the definitions of those macros and check them "mechanically". So it's easy to call Marjorie Garber's bluff. (But .. what if she gives us something, and we don't understand it? In Plato's model of proof, would this just make us incompetent slaves?)

Judith Butler seems to be taking an opposing view - that some of the jargon words are not macros, and if you don't already know what they mean then there's no way to define them using your pre-existing vocabulary. Socrates might run into this problem if the slave doesn't already know what a point or a straight line is. (Or the slave doesn't speak Greek, or he comes from somewhere where they're really into non-Euclidean geometry)

So, how credible is Judith Butler? Do we believe her, or do we think this is a bluff? It partly depends on whether we think everything (or most things) can be defined in terms of a universal vocabulary that everyone knows, or whether we think each tribe has its own (internally consistent) concepts that can't be communicated to outsiders - so we don't expect to understand outsiders. I think Judith Butler would argue that there is empirical support for her theories, but one extreme position that could be taken is that there exist concepts that can't even be demonstrated empirically, except to someone who is already part of the same community.

There's a subsidiary argument that could be had over whether separate languages/cultures are learned, whether they're biological, or whether it's meaningless to make this distinction. The really strong version of the non-translatability argument (I don't think Judith Butler uses it) is that even after you've expanded out all the macros, the core you're left with depends on the sensory experience of a particular kind of biological organism, which is not necessarily translatable into terms a different kind of organism (with different sensory experience) could make any sense of. This leads, in effect, to a demand that biologically different organisms should have their own aristocrats.
(i.e. "She may be an aristocrat, but she's *our* aristocrat!")

So to take the Theorists apart from the inside - starting from their assumptions - it seems to me that you can't assume that they agree with Plato's values or his implicit belief in a universal language. (Universal languages are easy if everyone speaks classical Greek)

If we take non-translatability seriously, a cure for nonsense is to have adequate standards for argument within each group (but not global standards, as these are, by hypothesis, impossible). Groups of one person aren't interesting - an argument that only one person understands is useless. So to be acceptable, an argument should have to persuade a reasonable sized group. But this is pretty much how academic peer review is done anyway.

I think that the quotes from Judith Butler etc. might be seen as pleas for the autonomy of academic departments - the freedom to set their own standards of proof, and not be constrained by another department's. But there's a ton of Theory to justify this stance against philosophical attack.

Rich Puchalsky

SusanC, aren't you really just using the same kind of criticism that you used last time? Before, it was that JH used a putative reversed argument from Nietzsche, so that his essay was somehow in danger of being infected with anti-Semitism by osmosis. Now, it's that he uses the form of a Socratic dialogue, so he's in danger of propounding an "aristocratic view of argument" that would make us all like slaves under a master's control. Even though, if you look closely, he's not doing anything like what Plato did: "P" in the dialogue is not restricted to answering mostly Yes or No to carefully framed questions by "S". So what you're using is really a rather transparent rhetorical device. Should I, whenever Eagleton is brought up, gravely cite the dangers inherent in using concepts that once led to the victims of Stalin?

As for non-translatability, or concepts that can conveniently enough only be communicated within a single academic discipline -- I admit the theoretical possibility of such concepts. But in practice, they make no difference. Academia exists within a certain relationship to the rest of society. If there truly was a part of academia that was dominated by concepts that it could not communicate to the rest of society, society would in time stop paying for that part of academia, because those concepts would be useless to it. And it would be replaced by academic migrants from elsewhere. It's not like there aren't enough conservatives out there waiting in the wings to set up a Canon again.



Those are good comments. Yes, John can parody the style of Plato without accepting his values. And there are variations within Plato - the dialog with the slave, in "Meno", is hardly a a dialog at all (reflecting the inequality of the participants), but other parts of Plato are between more equal participants.

In the next message, I'll try a different argument.


Rich, John,

I'll make one last attempt at a better argument - I'd better keep quiet after this, because people might be getting fed up with this thread.

Thans to everyone for all the comments - it was really helpful.


I think there are two fundamental issues where John and the “Theorists” disagree:

1. Art is good
2. Learning a new word can enable you to express a new idea

John says that aristocrats who explain their reasoning (like the philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic) are preferable to tyrants who give orders with no reason, an incomprehensible reason, or an invalid reason.

This assumption seems reasonable, but it is incompatible with the assumption that art is good. A poem, a play or a painting does not proceed by means of logical deductions. And yet a work of art can make moral judgements: it can suggest that something is morally good or bad. Art can comment on political events; it can tell us what we should do. It this respect, the artist is like a tyrant: an “aristocrat” who tells us what we ought to do, but does not give us a rational explanation. If artists are tyrants, and art is good, then we must disagree with John and conclude that some tyrants are good.

In “The Republic”, Plato argued that art was bad, and that the government should be run by philosophers. To support the Theorists, I disagree with Plato and John on both these issues.

Both Judith Butler and Terry Eagleton espouse the theory that words can embody theories about the world; that some words cannot be used without assenting to propositions that are morally objectionable or empirically false.

John’s argument relies on this theory of language being implausible. If we do believe this theory, then we can believe Judith Butler’s claim that the technical vocabulary in her publications was necessary: that she could not have expressed her ideas without it. If we believe that the technical terms were necessary, then we can believe that she presented her discoveries in the clearest and most comprehensible way she could. And if we believe that, then we can believe she is acting as an “aristocrat” who explains her reasons.

On the other hand, if we don’t find this linguistic theory plausible, then Judith Butler is giving a bogus explanation for writing in a style that is hard to read. We might regard her as a tyrant. She tells us what to do, but gives explanations that are unnecessarily hard to understand. When people protest that her explanations are too complex to verify, she fobs them off with a bogus excuse.

If we believe that art is good, then we might regard her as an artist and forgive her anyway: for we know that artists are tyrants. But if her theory of language is plausible, then she might not be a tyrant after all.


I really think you are straining to misread me here, SusanC. Of course I think that art is good. And of course I think that learning a new word can enable you to express a new idea. (Everyone agrees with this.) Both of these propositions seem consistent with my dialogue (don't they? If not, why not?) You adduce no evidence to show that they are inconsistent with my dialogue, so you can't plausibly accuse me of denying them.

You write: "In “The Republic”, Plato argued that art was bad, and that the government should be run by philosophers. To support the Theorists, I disagree with Plato and John on both these issues." But why should I have to agree with Plato about this? My dialogue SEEMS to be saying something very different than Plato, so what is your argument that my dialogue is secretly an expression of orthodox Platonism? Just that it is a Platonic dialogue?

OK, you say one thing that seems to me definitely wrong: "that some words cannot be used without assenting to propositions that are morally objectionable or empirically false." Give me an example.

Rich Puchalsky

Well, it's difficult to know where to start here. I agree with everything that John said in response, but want to add a few things.

SusanC: "John says that aristocrats who explain their reasoning (like the philosopher kings of Plato’s Republic) are preferable to tyrants who give orders with no reason, an incomprehensible reason, or an invalid reason."

Well, no. John didn't actually write this anywhere in the dialogue. Let's see, Adobe text search for "tyrant" -- nothing. Why does this matter? Because it sets up a false dichotomy, saying that artists must be like either aristocrats or tyrants. Most of SusanC's continuing argument is based on this false dichotomy, saying that since artists can't be aristocrats because they don't explain their reasoning, they must be tyrants. What if they are like neither aristocrats nor tyrants but like something else?

OK, let's ignore the false dichotomy for now, and turn to "If artists are tyrants, and art is good, then we must disagree with John and conclude that some tyrants are good" -- a conclusion which is not a disagreement with John since he never said that "tyrants" (in the sense meant) are bad. What did John actually say? He said that academic literary critics who appear to be using reasoning but who don't explain their reasons are bad. So the bit about "artists" is a category error. Literary critics are not artists -- that's why one calls what they do criticism and not art. No one expects an artist to give reasons for their painting. One does expect a critic to give reasons why they have come to their conclusions about the painting.

Finally, a note on "Both Judith Butler and Terry Eagleton espouse the theory that words can embody theories about the world; that some words cannot be used without assenting to propositions that are morally objectionable or empirically false." There is a name for this theory, or rather an adjective: Orwellian. And the praxis for the theory was, of course, called Newspeak. Declaring that certain words embody propositions that you find morally objectionable, and that those words should therefore never be used, is the act of a tyrant in the classic sense of the word -- not of one who doesn't give reasons, but of one who wants to control the entire politics of a community according to their own judgement.

William S

(meant to post earlier, but typepad was closed for maintenance.)

John: I am engaged in immanent critique, if you like. I take the other side apart from the inside: logically, psychologically, genealogically. That said, it is significant that 'theory' - to the extent that I am right that is an expression of a sensibility, not a mode of critical inquiry - cannot engage in immanent critique.

To return to the mattress/misfortune joke, would it be proof that theory was nothing more than a sensibility if it could not engage in immanent critique? What sort of misfortune is it that theory is not really theory at all? Simply because it claims to be so? Is the great misfortune of Critical Inquiry its title?


If you use a child or an uneducated person to demonstrate that a point is so simple that even someone without any training or acquired knowledge can understand it, isn’t this a valid method? Does it not prove what you mean it to? Is it simply because the slave is a slave that this is an aristocratic act? If a child would it be a violation of child rights? The assumption that there are no universal languages and the implication that therefore such demonstrations by Socrates are aristocratic and violent in some sense requires a prior assumption that these differences of slave and master, gender, power, etc. are significant. But significant in light of what? In a graduate seminar, there might be a person who acts exactly as the slave acts. But we cannot then infer that he is being ruled, as we would first have to know what his relationship was to the person feeding his program in order to determine that he was being ruled. Otherwise, if inference can go both ways, then anyone who checks lists of assertions cannot be actually agreeing; they must be following obediently. Or, all instances of checking assertions one by one as the slave does are instances of agreement and a proper basis for demonstration. So it seems that perhaps your explanation of the methods of theory is actually a description of a method which seeks to avoid this problem of identifying the true nature of the relationship, but as an ambition. And it is this ambition that establishes how those relationships are significant. But the determination of these relationships comes prior to analysis of the nature of the demonstration Socrates gives. Not only Plato had a negative opinion of slaves in ancient Greece, assuming in this case that choosing the slave was due to his negative opinions. So is the statement really about Socrates as an author having certain assumptions which can be seen in the style of the dialogue? Or is it simply a condemnation of the very existence of a society with slaves and an ambition to prevent their future occurrence or indirect justification? Such ambitions might be good, but they should not be granted a monopoly of actual judgments. The value of philosophy is that it allows for the evaluation of judgments in some general sense; in a general, methodological sense, this is possible.

Jargon specifies unthinking assent, or specialized assent that does not involve the most general and broad judgment faculties which all people are supposed to have. So that to say that jargons are macros would be to say that the use of jargon does not involve the broadest faculties of judgment. But are they meant to? It seems as if the problem is not whether or not there are universal languages, but whether or not trying to speak to everyone is a good thing to do in some general sense. Or, whether or not judgment can be coordinated through those concepts, which is usually dealt with in terms of thinking about meaning and all this stuff about conceptual isolation; but meaning is not really the issue, I say.

If the slave could not understand what Plato was saying, then his proof would fail.

As I understand your points, aristocrats would be those who make demonstrations. But where does this leave education? Are all attempts at education subjugation of some kind?


This criteria of usefulness of concepts and the consequence of disappearance is not good enough as the usefulness of a group which defines itself by the use of a given language may not be felt through that language at all, but through their position and action. To equate existence of some element of society with support of that element founded on some basic understanding of what they are which is similar in some fundamental way with the self conception of that group would not be true, for example, of the slaves of Greece. If there are true aristocrats, then they would have the power to decide what was useful and what was not, not “society”.

William S


"that some words cannot be used without assenting to propositions that are morally objectionable or empirically false... If we do believe this theory, then we can believe Judith Butler’s claim that the technical vocabulary in her publications was necessary: that she could not have expressed her ideas without it."

Without assenting or without implying? Invoking? Evoking? Alluding? And if it is assenting, then her technical vocabulary is not "necessary" for expression but for the communication of her judgements. Perhaps you mean, like the artist, the statements of theorists are judged on their value? tha texpression itself is judgement in some way. If we do not understand a painting, it is no fault of the painting, but should this also be true of theory?

If we believe that the technical terms were necessary, then we can believe that she presented her discoveries in the clearest and most comprehensible way she could. And if we believe that, then we can believe she is acting as an “aristocrat” who explains her reasons.

Rich Puchalsky

William S, you generalized my argument in order to try to disprove it. I didn't say that it held for any possible group, such as the slaves of Greece, I said that it held for academic groups. The relationship of academia to the societies that host academia is such that an academic group that could not communicate its ideas to outsiders would cease to exist.

William S

Indeed I did.

William S

Oh. But they do exist, and the question is still whether or not they can justify a language with special meanings. Meaning may be use, but not usefulness.


WilliamS asks: "Is the great misfortune of Critical Inquiry its title?" Short answer: yes. The title is a changling, keeping you from noticing the baby is missing, hence keeping you from looking for it. For literary studies to get comfortably post-theory we need to get to the point where 'doing theory' is regarded as something that has no obvious bearing on 'engaging in critical inquiry'. The fact that one of the journals most associated with theory is called 'critical inquiry' is not exactly helping.



I apologise for writing complete nonsense. I was going down with a fever, and my writing was much less coherent than I thought it was - and I wasn't being serious to start with.

William S

Simply to say that if they tried, they would cease to exist, does not speak to whether they could justify it. Though perhaps it implies that if such a thing were jutsifiable, it would never be part of a group's self-consciousness, nor would it be justifiable by them to others, nor justifiable at all, really, but not in the sense that it would be invalid.

And isn't it sort of silly to talk about societies "hosting" academia? As if academia were not fundamentally a part of these societies? I mean, this is not Magister Ludi.


William, I have actually been working up a post on The Glass-Bead Game. How funny that you mention it.

William S

Well, the sooner you post it the better, I say. I have never been entirely comfortable with my attraction to that book...

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