Previous Next Up Comments
SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

a view from another culture

Bliss Carnochan


Herbert Simon's "Literary Criticism: A Cognitive Approach" provides a view from another culture such as literary studies surely need. Simon reminds me of Montesquieu's Persians or Goldsmith's Chinese, intrepid travellers who see Paris and London in ways surprising to the natives. One can only welcome the view from the other side.

What struck me forcibly, however, was Simon's passing comment that "to a cognitive scientist is not at all clear why there are schools of literary criticism." Why, indeed? One does not so regularly speak of "schools" of historians nor perhaps even of "schools" of physicists. But that is not because all is harmonious agreement in the study of history or of the cosmos. Big bang or steady state? Social history or, in Simon's words, "the old-fashioned kind"? Why should there not, therefore, be "internecine battles" amongst critics and theorists? Is there reason to believe, on Simon's criteria, that the meaning of a text is any less determinate than, say, the causes of the French Revolution? Or, conversely, that the causes of the French Revolution are any more determinate than the meaning of The Charterhouse of Parma? Even granting differences between text and event, one may wonder why anyone is surprised by the internecine battles of criticism.

Perhaps Simon would argue that the difference between text and event or between text and the structure of thought or of matter makes all the difference. In that case, he and I could agree to disagree. But I wonder if the real issue is not to be found in the prevalence of literary-critical "schools." "We might argue," runs Simon's gloss, "that one way of reading has certain personal or social values not possessed by another and might thereby prefer the former to the latter." But then he leaves the matter there, at a point where the critic well might wish to take it up. "Schools"-of moral philosophy, for example-typically rely on predication of values; and this is largely true of critical schools as well, sometimes more so than even their adherents know. Formalist criticism, however resolutely descriptive of things in a certain text as they are perceived really to be, presupposes that judgments of literary value rest on formal criteria. Affective criticism presupposes that such judgments rest on affective criteria. Other critical schools-for example, the Marxist-may or may not presuppose criteria of aesthetic value but do presuppose-again in the Marxist case-that since reformation of society is the goal, socio-economic conditions as reflected in the text are what matters most. And so on. "Leaving aside such normative concerns," as Simon chooses to do in his essay, is not what any self-aware critic or theorist will do, even he or she ultimately adopts (as far as is possible) a value-neutral position.

All this is why literary critical disputes are hard to settle "easily and pacifically." But I agree that some of these disputes are waged more for the purposes of being disputatious than for every other reason. A more modest goal than completely peaceful coexistence, and a more realizable one, is a better understanding of where peaceful coexistence can best be encouraged and perhaps achieved.

Previous Next Up Comments