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Philosophy and Literature 27.2 (2003) 363-381

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Imre Lakatos and Literary Tradition

Suzanne Black

ALTHOUGH THE CANON DEBATES have largely subsided, the categories of tradition and canon remain problematic and unhelpfully contentious. Some authors view tradition as weighty and oppressive, while cultural studies scholars criticize the concept itself as elitist and exclusionary. Yet literature, like other creative pursuits, cannot avoid its past; nor should it seek to do so. Progressive ideas have a history and a logical development; to argue otherwise leaves them vulnerable to accusations of faddish trendiness. Artists learn from the work of other artists, and critics rely on older examples to describe and understand what they study. Thus activist critics, writers, and moderate scholars all need some way to react to and to conceive of literary history.

E. Dean Kolbas has argued that shared assumptions such as a preoccupation with educational institutions limit the arguments of conservative humanists and canon openers alike. 1 If the perspective of literary critics is indeed narrow, they may benefit from broader and more interdisciplinary studies of tradition. For example, historicist philosophy of science devoted considerable energy to understanding how major accomplishments influence the work of scientists. This scholarship offers several complex accounts of the ways science is shaped by its past, and so can offer literary critics another, more structured, more rational, and even more flexible, view of tradition. In addition, some of its preoccupations, like the emergence of consensus or criteria for the selection of representative examples, are relevant to the canon debates. Finally, because writers and scientists understand the past differently and because their ideas develop in distinct social contexts, literary theory and philosophy of science have potentially complementary strengths and weaknesses. [End Page 363]

In this article I first summarize Imre Lakatos's conception of the research program and explain some of its potential benefits for an understanding of literary tradition. Then, to show that the concept of a "literary research program" makes sense, I use the category to examine the ideas of Ricardo Reis, a neo-classical persona created by the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa. Finally, I turn to a discussion of W. H. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" to identify some difficulties in applying Lakatos's model to literature. To view Auden as working within a Byronic program directs attention to his interpretation of the older poet, but the poem's formal innovation and its irony suggest some important differences between artistic and scientific approaches to the past, as well as some limitations of Lakatos's analytical framework.

During the 1960s and 1970s, partly in response to Thomas Kuhn, but also in reaction against other approaches to their field, several important philosophers of science sought to incorporate the history of science into their work. David J. Hess terms this tendency a historicist "period and style" 2 within philosophy of science. As the Hungarian philosopher Imre Lakatos (echoing Kant) contended, "Philosophy of science without history of science is empty; history of science without philosophy of science is blind." 3 Generalizing about how scientists think (or ought to think) while still bearing in mind actual science led some philosophers of science to devise subtle and provocative ways of viewing the past. Kuhn's notion of paradigms as "models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research" 4 is the best known and influenced Stanley Fish and Frank Kermode. Generally, however, literary critics are unaware of philosophers' responses to Kuhn and of their attempts to refine his category of paradigm. Larry Laudan, for example, sought to delineate the role of "research traditions" in the natural sciences. As his terminology suggests, these formulations overlap to some extent with literary understandings of past practice.

But how much overlap is there, and is it significant? While Kuhn and Laudan both mention the arts, they disagree about the relevance of their work to the humanities. In 1969, noting that "topics" such as "competing schools," "changing standards of value" and "altered modes of perception" "have long been basic for the art historian," Kuhn argued that The Structure of Scientific Revolutions "makes them central to...


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