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The Contingency of Theory: Pragmatism, Expressivism, and Deconstruction, by Gary Wihl; xiii & 215 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994, $27.50.

Although the different schools of contemporary literary theory and language philosophy have fought frequently with one another, it is easy to feel that they share common concerns and that a thoughtful reading could form a coherent theoretical framework from them, even where they differ from one another most violently. Wihl’s book offers a strong, compelling instance of such a reading.

The common concern Wihl is interested in is nonfoundationalism, that is, the rejection, by philosophers and literary theorists, of schemes for grounding judgment and interpretation in epistemological or ontological absolutes. It is a familiar objection that doing without absolutes leads to relativism and to what Wihl calls interpretive “holism,” the notion that the world is merely a text. Wihl argues that exponents of the theoretical perspectives named in his title illustrate styles of nonfoundationalist thought that are invulnerable to this objection. On this account, Wihl observes, these writers are particularly valuable for readers in pluralist modern society.

Wihl relies principally on the work of the “expressivist” philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor argues that we form ourselves as individuals in the choices we make, in particular when we are confronted with incommensurable demands. In the void of incommensurability, choice asserts a conviction of what is [End Page 170] valuable; and it is this assertion of conviction that constitutes selfhood. At the same time, we do not simply fall prey to incommensurable demands, but also are responsible for them inasmuch as we can only recognize them through acts of interpretation.

Taylor’s account of selfhood avoids the danger of both relativism and holism but without having recourse to absolutes. The traditional assumption is that convictions and values depend on a stable, unified framework of cultural beliefs, and this is why pluralism seems to imply relativism. In Taylor’s view, the incommensurable cultural forms that mark plural society not only do not imply relativism, but constitute the sort of demands that the expression of convictions depends on. Understanding people means recognizing the specific conflicts they are concerned with and responding to; that is, understanding deals with specific situations, not with absolutes. But it also deals with nonrelativistic values, that is, values that cannot theoretically be exchanged at will for any others.

Wihl argues that Taylor’s discussion of contrast-based judgment can be carried over into literary interpretation, in particular as an investigation of literary moments of incommensurability, which Wihl suggests might be called “texts.” The second half of his book examines the work of several theorists—Stanley Cavell, William Empson, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, and Paul de Man—who, Wihl argues, have sought to clarify and refine the concept of “textuality.”

The book is consistently thoughtful and illuminating. The discussion of the theorists sets their arguments in an expansive, comprehensive (though always precisely delineated) context. There are interesting arguments made in passing: Wihl revisits and reconstrues old controversies, including the Brooks-Winters debate about paraphrase, and the attacks on deconstruction’s “nihilism”; he makes a compelling and careful argument in favor of deconstruction as against Marxist dialectics; and he offers a sharp, fresh appraisal of the issue of canonicity.

In general, he engages productively with a wide range of commanding but conflicting works of literary theory and manages to orchestrate them together uncoercively. In this respect, his book is exemplary.

Thomas Reinert
Wellesley College
...

Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 170-171
Launched on MUSE
1995-04-01
Open Access
No
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