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Physics is Physics, Literature is Literature, and Criticism is Something Else Again
Wendell V. Harris
The Arts and Sciences of Criticism, ed. David Fuller and Patricia Waugh; x & 265 pp. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, $39.95.
A recent issue of The New York Review of Books opens with an anecdote leading to the statement, "everyone knows that if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English Department." If the posture of English departments is increasingly risible to much of the rest of the academy, no small part of that reaction is generated by what at bottom is the uncertainty in the discipline (if it is a discipline--that is also a debatable question these days) about its relationship to science. I write "uncertainty" because even though a great many professors of English affirm their own answers with belligerent assurance, there is no majority opinion.
One simple statement of the question might be, "Do the methods of science have relevance to the study of literature?" But any such statement quickly metamorphoses itself into many another; all of which is to understand why the question is both central and without an answer that can be generally agreed upon. Which methods of which sciences? Can any such methods in fact be usefully applied, that is, if one tries to employ methods of science, does anything of value result? If the application of such methods to literary questions seems to yield interesting results, are there aspects of literature to which no scientific methodologies are relevant? If the kind of approaches taken by the [End Page 210] sciences are not applicable, what is the nature of literature and what values can it have? Does literature use language in a way different from its ordinary use? From its use in science? Such questions are of course older ones, the kind addressed in the earlier part of the century from both the positivist and humanist sides. Then come what we might call the post-Sausurrean and post-Kuhnian questions which quickly lead more deeply into ontological and epistemological issues. What is the relationship of any language, or use of language, to the real world? What do we mean when we speak of a "real" world? How can we know if something is real? If language constitutes what we understand as real, and our conceptualizations of "the real" are necessarily embodied in or perhaps created by language, is there actually any difference between the way science operates and the way readers' minds operate? In what sense can any statement be said to be true? Finally, can scientists be any closer to saying what the world is like, or the way humans exist in or should exist in that world than poets, playwrights, and novelists? None of these is a separate question: a convincing answer to any one of them entails implicit or explicit answers to all the others.
While The Arts and Sciences of Criticism seeks to answer a version of the question with which I began, the careful phrasing of the editors' first statement of the question testifies to their awareness of the difficulties of approaching it: "The underlying purpose of this collection of essays is to reflect, directly and obliquely, on developments in criticism which bear on a debate between different models of knowledge--a science model and its place in the university versus other ways of conceiving knowledge for which the arts have traditionally been seen as vehicles but which the science model makes currently problematic" (p. 1). Because the question is so multi-faceted, such a collection will almost necessarily be disappointing to anyone hoping to find satisfyingly comprehensive answers. What one finds, as in most collections of this sort, are essays pursuing whichever portion of this tangle of questions is of primary current interest to each writer.
Rather than attempt to trace out the agreements, oppositions, and interrelations between the thirteen essays (a task partially...