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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 343-360

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Literary Criticism Among the Disciplines

Jonathan Brody Kramnick

Almost ten years ago, Eighteenth-Century Studiesconvened a special number to inaugurate its new design and format. Varied though the contributions were, each shared a desire to complicate the claim for "interdisciplinarity" that had long been a hallmark of the journal. 1 One common theme was a need for greater sensitivity to the origins and meanings of the disciplines themselves. With new attention to the emergence of such fields as history and political theory, natural science and economics, scholars of the eighteenth century ought to become aware of the advantages as well as the limits of specialization. The goal of the present essay is to consider how the problem of specialization worked itself out in literary criticism written in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. 2 I hope to demonstrate that a certain worry over expertise is integral to the period and forms an important feature of our long history. The now familiar desire to transcend the confines of disciplinary thinking was an important element of the building of disciplines. Criticism is particularly interesting in this respect, I argue, because it was there that expert knowledge had to defend its public vocation most vociferously. The procedures of analysis that belonged to criticism as a discipline appeared to many as a threat to the intended object of study. Should one person have more to say than another about what is, after all, a shared culture of literary works? Should criticism become a science? These questions accompanied the emergence of criticism and gave shape to its methods. To show this, I'll begin with the largest context in which criticism had to make its way as a discipline: the advent of science as a category of restricted knowledge. [End Page 343] I'll then turn my attention to the particular institutions of literary study: the treatise, the periodical, the edition, and the university.


The problem of expert systems has long been a centerpiece of social theory, where it describes an important point of transition between "traditional" and "modern" culture. 3 On this view, modernity is the name for the historical condition in which society has differentiated its parts into linked domains of practice, each with its own aura of technical concentration. In a modern society, one must cede authority over many areas of knowledge, which then appear as distant realms of specialization. 4 Like Swift's floating island of Laputa, the expert cultures of science, technology, law, and art drift away from the world to which they should be anchored. Swift's is perhaps the most memorable image of this concern, which roiled learned and popular writing from the seventeenth-century invention of "science" onward. The disciplines were greeted with anxiety at their birth, as the languages of prestige untangled themselves from the languages of common life. One result was a search for forms of mediation that could redirect specialized knowledge back to the culture from which it had broken. Viewed from this summit of abstraction, the long-term evolution of disciplinary culture never shucks a certain ambivalence toward specialists: we entrust others to bring knowledge to us, but we suspect their distance and authority. This dilemma will be easier to see if we move closer to the foundation of language use and institutional practice.

In what did the eighteenth century's establishment of the disciplines of knowledge consist? Clifford Siskin has offered this answer: "a shift in the ways of knowing from the older organization, in which every kind was a branch of philosophy, into our present system: narrow but deep disciplines divided between humanities and sciences." 5 To this succinct thesis I would add that philosophy was itself the initial occasion for the slender depth Siskin finds in the separate disciplines. That is, the modern division of knowledge began earlier, during the seventeenth century, in a revolt against an older system of classification derived from Scholastic Aristotelianism. 6 Modern thought was supposed to be both more disciplined and less authoritarian than its antique forebear...


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