- From Inference to Insight: A Peircean Model of Literary Reasoning
In 1960, some years before the theoretical vulnerability of the New Criticism had become undeniable, two quite peculiar essays appeared, one in French, “Structure Intentionelle de l’image romantique,”—“The Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image,”1—the other in English, “Objective Interpretation,” by two critics whose work has been received very differently in subsequent years: Paul de Man and E. D. Hirsch.2 While de Man went on to become one of the principal voices in the emergence of deconstruction, celebrated for the acuity and subtlety of his readings of texts and often hailed for his contributions to literary theory,3 Hirsch moved as steadily in what may look like a contrary direction, back to the historical research which the New Criticism is thought to have opposed.
The particular instances I have selected here are of interest for what I think is the more than coincidental reason that they mark a point of theoretical division amounting to something like a practical antinomy in professional discourse, where arguments that defy reconciliation arise from common philosophical assumptions—not necessarily identified or analyzed but rather treated as if they were in some way axioms of intelligibility that could not be called into question [End Page 1006] without bringing down the very possibility of finding meaning in and through language. I will try not to belabor the obvious or pass too quickly over matters that may be unfamiliar or dense, though there certainly is a risk here that the material treated in the first part of this essay may be already so familiar and “pre-digested” that the analysis might simply get appended to conclusions already reached. But in critical argument, though we often forget it, being off by a millimeter is frequently far worse than being off by a mile.
The juxtaposition of de Man’s and Hirsch’s two essays displays the resolutely dialectical character of critical discourse. I take “dialectic” not, as Plato thought, as a pathway to the Forms, nor as Hegel or Marx dreamed, as a valid or “scientific” method, but as Aristotle more accurately understood, as a form of argument based on commonplaces and already received beliefs.4 Dialectic, so considered, does not depend on ascertainable fact or logical demonstration but proceeds everywhere and always from what people (or the best people, or “smart” people) already accept. It is grounded in what Kant accurately called common understanding or sensus communis, differentiated from “common sense” taken as including, in addition to our bodily senses, the power of judgment.5 In this sense, dialectic is how we all learn to argue (it is what probably best characterizes what gets taught in freshman composition courses), and its great virtue is that it proceeds by seeking out contradictions, inconsistencies, or unanticipated connections in the available stock of topoi, or commonplaces, upon which any community draws. It does not require protracted apprenticeships or any real mastery of technical information or learning, just as it offers a quick and exhilarating point of entry into intellectual life.6 That said, dialectic is also an unreliable instrument if the end in view is to develop a specific theory of anything, since it invariably begins and ends in commonplaces.
To begin with, the topics of dialectical argument are mainly the themes that must be accepted even to enter the argument, so usually they are not themselves argued at all. They constitute what one is arguing about. One jumps in simply because the topic is of interest or seems important for reasons usually no better evaluated and critiqued than are the terms and assumptions embedded in the original themes. But this implies that a good portion of the problems found or surprising discoveries that may be made later on were already implicit in the topoi themselves, in the things we thought we already knew. Not coincidentally, this goes far to explain the obvious pattern in critical discourse of periodic returns to earlier arguments that, [End Page 1007] having fallen into disregard, if not earlier disrepute, are revived for the purpose of recontextualization, treating earlier thinkers—Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Wittgenstein, Austin, Gramsci, Habermas, and so...