MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 403-405
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Reed Way Dasenbrock. Truth and Consequences: Intentions, Conventions, and the New Thematics. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 2001. xvii + 330.
Writing from his perspective as both a literary theorist and as an associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at New Mexico State University, Reed Way Dasenbrock suggests in his conclusion to this book that conventionalism has devastated the health of humanities departments. Without providing clear proof for his claim, Dasenbrock believes that there is "a direct connection" between the [End Page 403] apparent predominance of pragmatism and poststructuralism within the humanities and "the proletarianization of the profession"—caused by a decline in funding, the dramatic loss of tenure-track positions, and the proliferation of temporary appointments (249-50). "Our pragmatism," he argues, "has proved highly unpragmatic" (253). Dasenbrock's book is in part an effort to correct this problem: first, by his demonstration of the philosophical weaknesses of conventionalist positions, and then by his use of a few arguments (drawn from recent developments in analytic philosophy) about truth as a limit-condition. Given the context and the way he has set up the problem, Dasenbrock's arguments and conclusions will strike radical and liberal readers as concessions to the conservative politics that currently seem to be having their way with the humanities—even though he often claims to occupy the middle ground between these two opposing camps.
Intentions, truth, and value, Dasenbrock argues, "should replace conventions as central principles of literary theory" (xiv; emphasis added). While contemporary interpretive theories (represented by Stanley Fish on meaning and intentions, Richard Rorty on truth, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith on value) claim to have drawn upon the work of Wittgenstein, Austin, and Kuhn (among others), Dasenbrock argues that "their 'take' on analytic philosophy is in need of amendment because it is over thirty years out of date" (5). His book updates the discussion by referring to Hilary Putnam's critique of the contradictory assertions within Thomas Kuhn's writing, Donald Davidson's insistence upon meaning and intention (in the interpretation of malapropisms, for instance), and Charles Taylor's sense that the self and value cannot be eliminated from our conception of things. Working among these texts and positions, Dasenbrock claims that conventionalists cannot discard truth and then claim that their positions have been misrepresented: "Whether our eschewal of truth has a Foucauldian or a Rortyan inflection, as long as we insist on the community-specific nature of truth and stop there, we have no coherent response to any hostile description of our community, for that hostile description may be true to the beliefs and desires of the community responsible for the hostile description" (253; emphasis added). Readers who think that Putnam, Davidson, and Taylor merely reiterate (or modestly qualify) positions about intention, truth, and value that have been substantively displaced or decentered by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze (among others) will probably be unconvinced by Dasenbrock's appeal to these later analytic philosophers. These same readers may have a harder time wrestling with Dasenbrock's more substantive arguments—which rarely transcend many of our common sense notions about communication, [End Page 404] reading, and the achievement of beauty in literary works of art. Dasenbrock's book in this way makes a contribution: his arguments suggest that there is something (beyond the community-specific nature of truth) that resists being reduced to conventions and the communities that use them; however, I think Heidegger's work demonstrates that this something cannot be adequately described from Dasenbrock's analytic perspective.
As I understand it, conventionalist positions were not designed to replace intentions, truth, and value; instead, these various critiques attempted to redescribe (or "transvalue") intentions, truth, and value (and the ontological assumptions which they share) in the pursuit of more adequate or probable descriptions freed from the distortions of authority, custom, and error—while acknowledging the impossibility of a transcendental, ahistorical truth. What is missing from both the conventionalist views of Rorty, Fish, and Smith and from Dasenbrock's critical use...