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Critical Discussions Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism, by Wayne C. Booth; xiii & 408 pp. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979, $20.00. Discussed by Monroe C. Beardsley The strife of systems has often been featured in the life of criticism, and sometimes, though not always, it is a sign of health. From time to time, it has erupted into historic confrontations which have more amused than instructed later ages. In the past, such vigorous debates about what criticism is and ought to be have been conducted under the rules of sporting competition: each combatant plays to win and the victors believe they deserve their laurels. What is noteworthy about the present scene is not only the unprecedented multiplicity and strangeness of criticisms but the resultant resignation: that is, the widespread conviction that somehow we must come to amicable terms with all of them and find some intelligible way of acknowledging that they are all victors, in their fashion. Hence the problem posed for Wayne Booth's new book; and, admirably, it faces up to, comes to close grips with, this problem more directly, fully, comprehendingly, and judiciously than any other book so far. Booth, of course, brings to his task uncommon qualifications. He knows the ways in which critics of all varieties go about their business of explicating, interpreting, judging, defending their judgments, and equally the ways in which metacritics (those who take this role) talk about their problems: the aims of interpretation, the nature of literature, the functions of criticism itself, and so forth. He knows about philosophical issues and positions that are reflected in disputes about criticism. He has looked into the writings of the leading figures on the current critical scene, and studied some of them very carefully—notably the three metacritical critics to whom he gives sustained, chapter-long attention: Ronald Crane, Kenneth Burke, and Meyer Abrams. He contains, without concealing, his concern for the matters at stake by 257 258Philosophy and Literature a tone of sometimes ironic detachment and a determined impartiality. He makes a serious effort to find non-question-begging strategies for transforming altercations into rational disputes by suggesting premises that must be reasonably acceptable to all parties and inquiring what further agreement can be based on them. He strives for a generous "pluralism" (and even a "pluralism of pluralisms," embracing Crane, Burke, and Abrams as pluraliste), but makes clear the extraordinary difficulty of formulating a coherent pluralism (cf. p. 92). What, then, is pluralism, or is worth so labelling? Shortly we shall give careful and sympathetic consideration to Booth's answer, but I think we may get more out of it (or at least make a more just estimate of its merits) if we consider the preliminary, task-orienting, question for a bit. If I have my critical method, and you have yours, and I confess that I can learn something from what you have discovered by using your method, I might boast of being a pluralist. But this would not be a very difficult admission or an exciting breakthrough in doctrine. It takes on more substance if I add that what I learned from you is highly relevant to the literary work we are discussing, is well worth knowing, and could not be discovered by my method. But then the two methods, being complementary and amicable, can readily be conjoined into a single method, only more complicated—and I am still, as Wayne Booth points out, a methodological "monist," in some important sense: I am still not embracing genuinely discordant methods, but claiming sole acceptability (rightness? validity? authority?) for our combined method. The conflicts that pluralism is supposed to cope with are basically between critical methods—or "modes of criticism," in Booth's phrase, which has the advantage of not implying anything necessarily systematic or highly self-conscious. And these confrontations are presumably reflected in critical practice, that is, in the interpretations and judgments issuing from their application. One of the messy features of the current scene is the widespread tendency to offer crazy "readings" in a way that makes no commitment to any very definite claim. Derrida is a master of this. Another example that springs...


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pp. 257-265
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