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Replies to Against Theory

replies to against theory

Two weeks ago I wrote about Knapp and Michael’s “Against Theory.” I’ve started going through the book Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism, which is a compilation of all the major papers arguing for/against the points brought up in “Against Theory.”

Here’s the main point of Knapp-Michaels, which I never articulated in a clear way. All theory is effectively an illusion based on making distinctions that don’t actually exist (meaning/intention; true belief/knowledge).

Thus, the only thing we should do is “practice” (i.e. read/interpret), and we may as well skip out on the unnecessary “theory” part.

against theory literary studies

One of the most interesting things about these articles is that no one has mentioned the point I raised (so far), but many, many other issues are raised.

Some Responses

The first response is titled “Revisionary Madness: The Prospects of American Literary Theory at the Present Time” by Daniel T. O’Hara. It is quite good but hard to summarize since it’s points are made rhetorically through satire.

Against Theory?

The next one is Hirsch’s “Against Theory?”

This was the piece I was most excited to read because I wanted to hear how Hirsch defended himself. He begins by reiterating that Knapp and Michaels seem to firmly agree with him, and it is somewhat odd that they took so much effort to call him out over what appear to be misunderstandings.

Hirsch reiterates that intentionalists never imagine a moment of interpretation before intention.

That is the whole point of this school of thought!

One must have intention for there to be a meaning to interpret. Hirsch also agrees with them that intentionalists choose among a range of possible speakers.

He takes it for granted that this avoids the intentionless meaning issue, but I think this grants Knapp-Michaels too much ground.

My Analogy

I diverge from Hirsch here because this is such a bizarre way to frame what an intentionalist does.

I still like my analogy. When one works out the answer to 2583 x 3921, one doesn’t posit a range of plausible answers in order to choose the correct one.

There is only ever one correct answer, and just because you don’t know it at first glance doesn’t mean there are other possibilities you are “choosing between.”

The interesting thing about this example is that it shows how both practice and theory can be necessary even if there is only ever one right answer.

Deriving the correct answer is “practice.” But you won’t know the derivation gave the correct answer without the “theory” to ground the method.

Under this framing, intentionless meaning is avoided. The collection of symbols on the page only ever has the meaning the author intended. You may have to do work to find that meaning, but you don’t have to posit a bunch of meanings by fictional people to choose among to do it.

Theoretical Interest

Hirsch’s main criticism of Knapp-Michaels is with their leap from “intention and meaning have no distinction” to “intention has no theoretical interest” (also a point I alluded to in my article).

He claims some semantic sleight of hand goes on here by pointing out that text-authorship and meaning-authorship are not the same.

In other words, there’s no theoretical interest if a text only means what “its” author intends, but there is theoretical interest if a text can mean what “an” author intends.

Again, this feels slippery to me, because I think Knapp-Michaels do have a point if one allows “theoretical” intention to be relevant. I’m not sure Hirsch really wants to allow this either, because it basically nullifies the whole point of the intentionalist project.

This would allow all of the New Criticism in, which Hirsch wholeheartedly wanted to reject with his book. So, I think I must be misunderstanding his point here.

Intends vs Intended

Hirsch also brings up the distinction between “what an author intends” and “what an author intended,” another scary distinction for intentionalists in my view.

It seems to me that in an attempt to refute Knapp-Michaels, Hirsch is almost bringing on more problems than he solves. I think there was a section in his book about this, but it again seems scary to think intention can change at the whim of the author twenty years after writing something.

Surely intention must mean: by the author at the time of writing; otherwise, it doesn’t seem to mean anything.

Philosophy Without Principles

rorty replies to against theory

Continuing on with the responses to “Against Theory,” I was kind of excited to see that Richard Rorty wrote one. I’ve written about him before, and he is one of my favorite philosophers.

Here are my notes on Rorty’s “Philosophy Without Principles.”

Recall that the original Knapp-Michaels piece tried to take out E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. The main point of Rorty’s piece is to identify the philosophical first principles from which such an (anti-Hirsch) argument could be made.

For the record, Rorty disagrees with Hirsch but also think the Knapp-Michaels approach did not succeed.

Symbols and Meaning

Rorty begins by pointing out that not everyone agrees with their assessment that a random string of symbols appearing to be language has no meaning if there was no authorial intent.

H.P. Grice is one person in this camp.

There is a more subtle question that still leaves some room for theory:

Granted that the sentence means such and such, did its author use it to mean that on this particular occasion?

Rorty takes what seems to be a radical view here. He claims that anything should be counted as language if a human construes it as such (he even includes “an arrangement of stars” as an example).

Recall that Rorty is a pragmatist, so basically he wants to say that Knapp-Michaels are being wildly unpragmatic with their view that we must always identify an author before considering something that looks like language to be language (i.e. have meaning).

How do they know that the random symbols in the sand at the beach have no meaning if they come across them and can’t tell if it is an accident or intended?

Intrinsic Properties

Trying to identify intrinsic properties is futile in a pragmatic framework. Rorty wants to forget the question of what was intended and instead examine the language in various contexts and describe the advantages/disadvantages as such.

We can never “know” the true authorial intent as a pragmatic matter anyway.

This view is clearly against Hirsch and an argument “against theory” (stop theorizing and interpret already!). But I’m not sure how he escapes the paradox that by describing why he feels this way, he has laid out the foundation for a pragmatic “theory” of interpretation.

It’s a Catch-22. No one has the answer to why we should be pragmatic without the theory to back it up.

Poststructuralists

Rorty tries to escape these endless circles by appealing to Heidegger and Derrida. The philosophers who developed theory have skewed the debate by the terms they’ve deemed important enough to study: intention/meaning/etc.

This jargon is in place because of tradition, and we should first ask if we have any reason to continue to go along with it.

We can’t argue against theory by using the language of theory. The vocabulary must be changed first, and vocabulary doesn’t change through arguments. It changes because a new vocabulary comes into usage and serves the discussion better.

Rorty takes the view that we shouldn’t stop teaching theory because it gives philosophers the opportunity to discuss novels, poems, and essays with literature students.

It is wrong-headed for Knapp-Michaels to think of teaching theory as some sort of indoctrination into a particular view of interpretation that skips out on the actual interpretation of texts (personal note: I don’t blame them if you think back to the New Critical climate in which the original essay was written).

Knapp and Michaels Reply

knapp and michaels

Knapp and Michaels actually wrote a direct response to the Rorty article entitled “A Reply to Richard Rorty: What is Pragmatism?” So now we’ll look at that.

First, they clarify that they are not against making critical arguments about a text. We can analyze texts without engaging in “theory.” The theory they attack is the attempt “to stand outside practice in order to govern practice from without.”

Without going further yet, I have to insert my own reservations about this. I get the distinction, but they seem to run into the same epistemological problems they worry about in the original article.

Sure, you can do some analysis, but I’m worried how you’ll know it makes any sense without some theoretical grounding.

It’s sort of like saying:

  • do math
  • wait, stop formulating a theory: just manipulate the symbols
  • what do you mean you want to make sure you’ve done something legitimate?

The Author

Next, they push back on the issue of “an author” vs “its author.” Knapp-Michaels reiterate that the same set of words authored by various people can have different meanings (one can’t help but think of Borges’ Pierre Menard here).

This is because these are different texts. It is problematic to refer to the same text having different (even if fictional) authors.

Knapp and Michaels make a very strong case that the its/an distinction is irrelevant.

When someone says “fire,” they could be talking about burning or discharging a weapon or terminating someone’s employment or any number of things.

The only meaning that matters in interpretation is the one intended by the speaker. To even contemplate alternate meanings that “an” author could have meant is at best a masturbatory indulgence and at worst a complete waste of time.

Final Thoughts on Replies to Against Theory

Well, I think I’m done with this for now.

I had planned on doing more, but I’m finding this quite tedious and exhausting.

For now, I land somewhere in between the pragmatist and Hirsch viewpoints.

On the pragmatic side, it does seem a waste to contemplate intentionless meanings. On the Hirsch side, we need some sort of foundation and theory to work out a range of valid interpretations (we get a range because we can never truly know the intention of the author).

Hopefully, someone found all of this useful.

2 thoughts on “Replies to Against Theory”

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