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The Myth of a Theoretical Base

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

In the English-speaking world, at least, the prevailing mood in literary theory is baffled. It once tried to find a theoretical basis to the study of literature, and it is sorry to have to report that it did not find it.

I believe we should now give credence, or at least attention, to another view: that there is no such thing as a theoretical basis to literary studies and never was; and, what is more, it is good news that there is none. Theorists are not to blame. They did not fail to find it. It was not there to be found. In arguing that I shall group together a set of familiar propositions close enough to be exposed and refuted together: that there is (or ought to be) a theoretical basis; that critics need standards to make judgements; that it is right and natural to ask them what their criteria are. The philosophical term for that group of propositions is foundationism, since it is a claim implicit in all of them that we need to know the foundations of knowledge—the stated and agreed foundations, that is—in order to lay claim to something more than subjectivity or mere opinion. The characteristic challenge of that school of thought, which still echoes through classrooms and seminars, is “What are your criteria?”

Foundationism has often been doubted and denied by moral philosophers in recent years, and it is perhaps surprising that literary critics doubt and deny it so little. It is striking, moreover, that a secular age like ours should have anguished itself in seeking a foundation or authority for what it thinks; perhaps the death of God has left a silent hunger for faith, and it is undeniably difficult to think of any devout critical theorists in recent years. Odd, too, that it should be supposed that theory has nothing more important to do than to reveal the foundations of literary studies; it is highly exceptional in the present age to come upon a book like Alastair Fowler’s Kinds of Literature (1982), which refreshingly makes no foundationist claims at all. It learnedly traces the theory of the literary kinds, mainly in the Renaissance and 18th century, finding the genre critics of that age “especially energetic and illuminating”; but it sensibly sees literature as an “aggregate,” disdains to ask what its defining characteristics might be, and emphasizes above all its historical flow. “Discourse is an order of words,” Fowler writes, hitting out bravely at structuralism, “but literature is an order of works.” Anyone who thinks theory has nothing to do but provide a basis for knowledge should read this book.

The easy assumption that theory is basic or nothing now needs to be reexamined, and Fowler’s book is a rare instance of how it might be done. It shows that theory can be helpful in the way maps and diagrams are, and without being basic to anything. It can be said even of the best diagram, after all, that it is in no way final or fundamental, and that a better one might some day be made; maps can help you to explore, but you can still explore without them. Critical theory is like a map. It can save time; but the next step is to see that saving time is all it can do. That is not where we now are. The present mood of bafflement still makes a lot of foundationist assumptions, rather as if critics were vainly seeking a new God or at least a new scripture; and if that mood is to be outlived those assumptions will have to be reconsidered. There is less to be baffled about, I suggest, than is often supposed.


Two large reasons can be offered to show that no theoretical basis is needed to study literature. The first is that any theory claiming to be basic would represent an exception to itself. If all beliefs, to count as true, need a theoretical basis, then so would any theory that claimed to be that which, in its turn, would need another, and so on without end. In other words, the demand for a theoretical basis, if it is universal, is self-contradictory. If on the other hand it is not universal—if some knowledge is exempt—then the theorist would need to offer a convincing reason why. I am not aware that recent critical theorists have offered, or even attempted to offer, any such reason.

The other objection is that many propositions, and for that matter a lot of non-propositional truths like the taste of food and drink, are known and certainly known without any theorizing at all. You cannot theorize the taste of coffee, but you can still identify it infallibly, distinguish it in blindfold from other drinks, and tell good from bad. That sort of certainty attaches equally to a number of stated truths that are known beyond all debate: that all men are mortal, for example; that every human being had two parents, one male and one female; that the grass outside my college window is green; and (more daringly, perhaps) that every blade in it is physically unique. One could stop there, if not sooner, and it would already amount to an enormous amount of unassailable knowledge—many thousands of millions of facts which belong to what Cardinal Newman in A Grammar of Assent (1870) once memorably called Invincible Knowledge, meaning knowledge so impregnable that anything offering itself as a counter-instance would discredit itself. You would know without investigation that it was wrong.

To say that mortality is certain is to understate the matter. We are certain that people live only so long. If you were told, for example, that somebody in Indonesia is over a thousand years old, you would be quite sure, and without investigating the instance or even asking for his name and address, that it is not so. We all know, and with total certitude, that nobody lives as long as that. That is a classic instance of invincible knowledge. Double parentage is another; and if, in a paternity suit in a court of law, it were claimed that an infant had never had a father, the court would be utterly certain that it was not so. The father might be dead or undiscoverable, but no court would doubt for a moment that there had been one; and if it were asked for the theoretical basis of its certainty it would rightly dismiss the question as a waste of time.

These instances, non-literary though they are, should interest literary theorists more than they do. For one, they are far from trivial. Again, they are very numerous, representing many billions of vital and significant facts. If the present population of the world is nearly six billion, then the certain knowledge that every one of them will die and had two parents of different sex is an enormous body of knowledge, and knowledge of an impressive precision. Not one parent, or three, but exactly two, of whom one was male and the other female. It is idle to ask how we know all that—not in the sense that no answer at all is possible, but in the same sense that none bears on certainty itself. No answer, that is to say, could either strengthen or impair that certainty. To say that we know how babies happen does not help; how, the foundationist might insist, do we know it is always so? Nor is it a justification to say that there are no known counter-instances, because the simple truth is that there could be none, and we waste no time in looking for them because it is plain that there could be none. It would be like the case of the thousand-year-old Indonesian. Anything claiming to be evidence would be viewed, at best, with amusement before being dismissed out of hand.

The last point carries some weight, since it overturns something that education has encouraged the civilized world to believe. Whatever illiterate savages may think, modern educated man usually feels bound to argue that one should always be ready to attend to counter-evidence, and would probably wish to argue that it would be a betrayal of an intellectual duty not to do so. But instances like universal mortality and double parentage show that this is not always so. There is no such general intellectual duty; in fact it can be a good idea, on occasion, to dismiss counter-claims without examining them. Everybody does it, and must. It is part of the daily life of a rational being. Not the whole of his life, which is no doubt where the nonsense begins. It is surprisingly common, even among intelligent people, to suppose that because the demand for evidence is often justified, it follows that it must always be so: that all knowledge is of a single kind in terms of how it was acquired and with what certitude it is believed. But you only have to articulate that assumption to realize how implausible it is.

Recent critical theory has tended to ignore all that. Jean-Paul Sartre’s doctrine of the Absurd, for example, concerned the gap between what is known and what can be expressed, as if it were self-evident that knowledge and account-giving were the same. There is a famous moment in his first book, La Nausee (1938), a novel that shows his hero Roquentin realizing with a sense of horror that real things can be indescribable: “They are there, grotesque, stubborn, huge,” he says to himself, gazing dumbly at the seats on a tram: “it seems crazy to call them seats or to say anything whatever about them.” There speaks a very bookish young man; and many years later, in his autobiography Les Mots (1964), Sartre confessed what hardly anyone had ever doubted: “I have lived my life, and will no doubt end it, among books.” He was so bookish that he could be surprised that things exist in themselves and defy, at times, all attempts at verbal description.

It was out of that bookish sense of the Absurd that postwar critical theory was born. If you are surprised that things exist independently of their names, you are likely to be even more surprised—frankly incredulous, in fact—to be told that we do not, in all cases, need names, reasons, or explanations, still less stated criteria, in order to know. The next step was to raise the stakes on what is required to constitute a description. Roland Rarthes, in a famous phrase, once called literature the Art of Disappointment (“l’art de la deception”) meaning that it is an illusion to suppose that even realistic novelists like Ralzac or Flaubert present true pictures of French life. He justified that conclusion, or thought he had justified it, by a theory of language: if words are arbitrary, as Saussure had said, then they do not reflect reality; and it says much about the intellectual atmosphere of the 1960’s and after that there were those who accepted that argument. In Derridean Deconstruction, which followed soon after, the goal of knowledge came to look even more remote: since language can never be deconstructed, it could never do more than contemplate its own impotence. It was never explained by Derrida, and could not be explained, how mankind was to behave if it accepted all that. The dilemma was selfconsciously and deliberately insoluble. The motorist who leaves his car at the garage believes it can be mended. Deconstruction, in its day, offered no such hope for language. Not much point in getting out and walking, either. The best offer is to stay where you are and explain, at considerable length, why there is nowhere to go.


The amazing truth is that all this was once seen as exciting. Now a new mood has dawned, and it is accepted that critical theory in that radically skeptical vein went nowhere and, worse still, had nowhere to go. The theoretical basis of literary judgement was not found. I want to argue here that this is good news, both for literature and for theory. There should be general rejoicing that it was never found, with dancing in the streets and on the campus. Literary studies have survived not a defeat but a victory. For if theory were basic to literature—if you had to accept a theory in order to understand and value it—then literature, though perhaps still worth reading, would hardly be worth studying in any formal and extended sense.

The reasons are twofold. Suppose, as a first reason, that you had to accept a theory of drama or fiction before you could read Hamlet or David Copperfield in any critical way. A number of alarming consequences would follow. Most reading begins before any interest in theory, after all; so any sense one had of Shakespeare or Dickens before studying theory would be of little value or none. That suggests an enormous condescension towards what most people do, and toward what all young people do; and it runs counter to ordinary experience and observation. If you watch a school-party enjoying Laurence Olivier’s Henry V film, for example, and discuss it with them afterward, it seems plainly untrue to say that nothing Shakespearian has reached them. Knowledge of that sort parallels, as literary experience often does, a knowledge of morality. Some years ago Iris Murdoch, in The Sovereignty of Good (1970), remarked that where virtue is concerned “we often apprehend more than we clearly understand, and grow by looking.” The claim that apprehension has to be theorized in order to count as knowledge looks plainly false and grossly patronizing too.

The conclusion can be tested. Suppose someone were reading Hamlet for the first time, or looking at Michelangelo’s statue of David, or hearing a Beethoven symphony; and suppose he were then to say to himself: “This seems good to me, even very good. But before I decide that it is, I must first theorize the work, establishing and applying criteria of excellence. Then, and only then, will I be sure that it is good.” Surely it is not even possible to imagine such a state of mind. Nobody behaves like that. Nobody, it seems likely, ever did. And yet this was the implicit demand that Sartre, Barthes, and Derrida once laid upon the moral and literary life.

The second reason for rejoicing is even more remotely hypothetical. Suppose the theoretical basis to literary judgement had in fact been discovered, a formula of universal application: that the foundationist ambition, in short, had been achieved; that critics had at last, after more than two thousand years, answered and correctly answered the Socratic challenge to say what is meant by beauty, virtue, or justice, and in no merely truistic sense. In other words, the formula did the whole job of sorting out good works from bad.

Even the most ardent foundationist can hardly need to be persuaded that, in that unlikely event, the case for schools of literature would have weakened enormously. If there were such a formula, everyone would be an expert. Or rather nobody would, since it is in the nature of expert knowledge that not everyone can have it. But there could be no point in having schools of literature if it were enough to learn and apply a single formula. Nobody needs class work in order to do that. So the subject would have committed a sort of intellectual suicide. It would have abolished itself.


The dour perseverance of the myth of a theoretical basis is remarkable, for all that, and it calls for an explanation.

Like skepticism itself, the myth is old, and known to the Ancients. Plato in the Republic banished poets from his ideal state because he thought the truth-claims of fiction without foundation; and though his reasons were his own, and far different from those of Barthes or Derrida, his despairing conclusion foreshadows our own despair. In the 19th century the Hegelian search for truth led easily into skepticism, partial or absolute. The young T.S. Elliot, for example, in his 1914 Harvard thesis on F.H. Bradley, an English Hegelian, eventually published as Knowledge and Experience (1964), concluded that “we have no direct (immediate) knowledge of anything,” since what appears as that is no more than “the bag of gold at the end of the rainbow’; and his thesis ends in this sobering vein: “You cannot put your finger upon even the simplest datum and say ‘This we know.’ ” That stops short of total skepticism, as the Four Quartets do. But only just short, and it leaves you wondering what Eliot would have said about universal mortality or the two-times table. When critical skepticism was reborn in postwar Paris it amounted to a return and a renewal, though there were new motives for turning back to old pastures. The French Communist Party failed, then Marxism itself, and soon after, in the judgement of many, all hope of a purposeful pursuit of utopia or even of social justice. Critical theory in that world became a way of filling in time. For Sartre philosophy was something you did while awaiting for an inevitable workers’ revolution, but after 1968 that revolution ceased to look inevitable or even probable. It dropped, so to speak, from the agenda of history; time began to look infinite. Theory, as the German philosopher Odo Marquardt has recently remarked, is what gets done when there is nothing to be done—theory in the familiar skeptical style. No doubt he meant that theory is what gets done when people imagine there is nothing to be done. Despair about knowledge can soon turn playful. It can be fun. “There are so many things lacking in the world,” I once heard Umberto Eco say in a lecture, “that if one more thing were lacking, there wouldn’t be room for it.” So youthful fanaticism gives place to middle-aged whimsy; and if knowledge is not to be had, one might as well laugh it off. The mood, which might be called rococo, is rather like that of the French aristocracy before the revolution.

That is to characterize the moment. But it does not explain why the myth of a theoretical basis was recently so fashionable in English-speaking countries or why it is still accepted there. The reasons may include the death of God and the failure of Marxism, but I suspect there is much more at work here. For one, a widespread sense that theory is exotic. There is still a feeling in Britain and America that there is something continental about theory, whereas literary history is no more than crab and homespun, the dull domestic product of a cloudy clime. This, as it happens, is wholly untrue. Literary history is not an English invention; and between the two world wars England was the world center of literary theory, with LA. Richards and William Empson, and at a time when the French bothered with it hardly at all. That is a point which, though unanswerable, is somehow made to feel unwelcome to anyone brave enough to make it, so perhaps it should be heard more often. Since the 1950’s, the theoretical buzz has all been from Paris and outlying colonies of Paris like Yale or California. The late Allan Rloom of Chicago loved to tell how, as a student in Paris, he was accosted in the street one night by a young woman and explained that he was only a pauvre etudiant. “Mais f adore la theorie,” she replied. Difficult, no doubt, to imagine that incident occurring in the streets of London or New York, and the implication that to be a student is to be interested in theory is admittedly not very Anglo-Saxon. But though prostitution is said to be the oldest profession, it is worth remembering that literary theory is not much younger. Plato and Aristotle did it, after all. (Literary theory, that is.) So did Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Johnson. That the English-speaking peoples can have forgotten their long theoretical tradition, now more than four centuries old, is highly significant in itself. That they can think theory exotic shows how wrong you can be about history when you stop studying it.


The myth of a theoretical basis can be believed by people who know or suspect that it is not there but still believe that it should be.

It may be interesting to press further with the question why anyone would think that. The likeliest reason of all, perhaps, is that the scholastic mind has been trained to arrange its thoughts in a formal pattern, and not least the French scholastic mind. Every French schoolchild learns, or until recently used to learn, to write essays beginning with a general introduction and followed by three points and a conclusion. That was school drill. Encyclopedia articles are often organized, broadly speaking, in that way, with a theoretical statement followed by instances in ascending order of particularity. One well known encyclopedia, for example, starts its article on botany like this:

the branch of biology that deals with plants. It involves the study of the structure, properties and biochemical processes of all forms of plant life, including trees… . taking more than 20 words before it mentions the category of trees and even more before it mentions any kind of tree; and the first sentence mentions an abstraction even wider than botany, called biology, of which botany is only a part. So it works, as such articles do, from the highly theoretical to the narrowly particular.

The arrangement has its evident advantages. You want to be told what botany is, as a totality, before you get down to cases like trees and flowers. It is right and natural to set out formal descriptions in this way. But the order of the description is not the order in which mankind learned about trees and flowers: all that started with real flowers and real trees. So formal descriptions invert the order by which knowledge was acquired. They invert it for good reason. But the inversion has one grave disadvantage: it can easily lead you, if you are bookish, to suppose that knowledge itself happens in that way—that it is theory that props up the particular. That is how you learn out of books. But then most of what we know was not learnt out of books.


Critical skepticism usually begins when the vain search for the foundations of knowledge is seen to have failed, and most recent skeptics have been disappointed foundationists. On the continent of Europe that has often led to total skepticism, as with Barthes and Derrida; in Anglo-America, more often, to a revived pragmatism. In a candid and eloquent essay called “Intellectuals at the End of Socialism” in the Yale Review (1992) Richard Rorty makes it plain that his own pragmatism is an effect of the collapse of the Socialist dream of his youth. “I hope we can admit,” he wrote, soon after the death of the Soviet empire, “that we have practically nothing in the way of a ‘theoretical basis’ for political action, and that we may not need one.” But that is only mildly encouraging. Rorty is announcing his late, reluctant conversion to a cautious acceptance of a reformed market economy—the only kind of economy, as he perceptively puts it, capable of producing enough wealth to sustain a generous program of social welfare. He now wants to “give up,” as he bluntly puts it, on Marxism.

But his abandonment of grand theory still means, in his view, abandoning all claims to certitude. Pragmatism in this fashion is nothing like a declaration of faith. It is his sad way of rubbing along in a world where certainty, as he thinks, is no longer possible. “We are still, alas, on the look-out for a successor to Marxism—for a large theoretical framework that will enable us to put our society in an excitingly new context.” So he still wants to be excited, apparently, and still finds theory exciting. Meanwhile, he concludes, to make our social system work, we should all try to be kind and generous. But there is no theory, as he knows, to require anyone to do that. Things just work out better that way.

It is a conclusion already reached by countless others in the long retreat from Moscow. In The Poverty of Theory (1978) E.P. Thompson, the British Marxist historian, wrote his saddest book, and it ended in a mood barely short of ideological despair. In a final paragraph Thompson announced his retirement from theory into history—”my proper work”— and, only half metaphorically for a country lover, “to my own garden,” as if the search for a theoretical basis had at long last revealed itself as a tragic waste. “I will watch how things grow.” So it is a depressed mood that prevails among theorists on both sides of the Atlantic. No dancing in the streets here: the discovery that there are no foundations to knowledge, or at least none that anyone can find, leads not to rejoicing but to a profound sense of tragic loss, and it can move the aging ideologue to tears.

That drama, which is the classic tragedy of our age, is replete with human interest. The end of Utopia has left the world scattered with disappointed thinkers who once believed they had the answer and who now know they never did. They took a promising short cut and got lost. It is all terribly sad. It is also damaging. The world may not owe them happiness, and they are not usually ill provided with the material things of life; but mankind may still have an interest, practical as well as benevolent, in cheering them up. Their effect on intellectual life, if they are left to dominate it, could be dampening over the years. I want here to propose a way of cheering them up. Reing content with answers that work, like Rorty, or watching your garden grow, like Thompson, are harmless pursuits. But if you believe (as many still do) that there is work to be done, in morality as well as in literature, neither Rorty or Thompson offers much incentive to get on with it. An extinct volcano is harmless to live with, but the demands of action call for something vibrant and alive.

One way forward might be for critics and moralists to look at how people actually think and make judgements; to lay aside, for a little, the contentious question how they ought to do so. Instead of telling us how to think about morality and the arts, they might pay attention to how people do it. It is notable that Marxists like Rorty and Thompson, for all their professed admiration for the common man, never in their enthusiastic years thought to do anything in the least like that. The Left, in its heyday, was anti-elitist in theory but highly elitist in practice, and its love of the polysyllable has left much of its writings frankly unreadable. Now it might be encouraged to turn over a new leaf and look at what people do.

Nobody, in practice, on contemplating an action in real life or a play in the theater, waits to construct a theoretical basis for his judgement before he concludes that action or play to be good. You know it to be good, or not, before you ask such questions at all. Theory is no more than an explanation— usually an incomplete and inadequate explanation—of what you already know or think you know. You do not arrive at a judgement but have one, since judgement is where you start: much as you live a life in the invincible knowledge that all men must die and that everybody had a father as well as a mother.

No need, then, for ideological despair. No need to ask how we know such things. Our certainty that they are true would be unaffected by any account of how we know them and by any instance claiming to be a counter-instance. Knowledge is there before reasons are supplied. There is no theoretical basis, and never was. Theory is not the foundation of knowledge but its top story. It sometimes affords a wonderful view, as Marxism and structuralism once did in the age of faith; it seems all the way to the horizon and beyond. But it is what you see on the ground that tells you what you know.


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