MA English Criticism: ‘Critical Practice’ by Catherine Belsey


The terms “modernism,” “postmodernism,” “rationalism,” “empiricism,” “idealism,” etc. do not mean in the “aesthetic domains” (art, architecture, and now literary critical theory) what they mean in philosophy.

The sense of liberation from an oppresive “modernity” or “modernism” in the aesthetic domains makes great sense – given what “modernity” and “modernism” have meant in those domains. By contrast, “modernity” and “modernism” in philosophy are sufficiently different that it is difficult to make direct comparisons between the aesthetic and the philosophical.

In the philosophical world, what the aesthetic postmodernist rejection of “modernity” and “rationalism” appears to mean is really a rejection of Cartesian rationalism and Descartes’ propensity to think dualistically. But this is in many ways a major theme of philosophical inquiry since Parmenides made so abundantly clear the limits of dualistic thought in the early 6th ct. B.C.E.
Similarly, Belsey is most interesting as she works towards what appears to be a pluralistic theory of interpretation – one which runs between the assumption of a single, transcendent, fixed, universal Truth and sheer relativism. Perhaps this is “postmodern,” if the assumption of a single transcendent truth is somehow “modern” in the terms of literary theory. But it is by no means uniquely “postmodern” in the philosophical domain. On the contrary, much of the work of the major Western philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, and their contemporary representatives (e.g., Habermas) – is precisely the project of overcoming dualistic modes of thinking and establishing pluralistic middle grounds between dogmatic assertions of single universal truths and (equally dogmatic) relativistic assertions of there existing no truth whatsoever.

Finally, while Belsey in some ways seems to be stretching towards an explicitly philosophical approach to literary theory – she does not make the complete plunge into philosophy and its traditions. By stepping only halfway towards the philosophical domain, she thereby cuts herself off from the tools and insights which would serve her so well in her project. Correlatively, despite her explicit interest in logic and logical consistency, she consistently falls prey to a number of common logical fallacies (question-begging, false dilemma, etc.). And her lack of awareness regarding the many philosophical versions of the sort of pluralistic middle ground she interested in leaves her to reinventing the wheel without the aid of these earlier and contemporary counterparts.

Her observations on critical theory vis-à-vis “common sense” run in close parallel to Robert Dreier and Christi Lewis’ observations on the resistance to philosophy in art and architecture:

Common sense [approaches] literature not as a self-conscious and deliberate practice, a method based on a reasoned theoretical position, but as the ‘obvious’ mode of reading, the ‘natural’ way of approaching literary works. Critical theory accordingly appears as a perfectly respectable but to some degree peripheral area, almost a distinct discipline, a suitable activity for graduate students or perhaps as a special option for undergraduates, having no necessary connection with the practice of reading itself. At best it is seen as a way of explaining in theoretical terms what we already – and on the whole without encountering any difficulties – do when we read; at worst it is held to be misleading, interfering with the natural way of reading, perplexing the minds of readers with nice speculations of philosophy and so leading to over-ingenuity, jargon and a loss of direct and spontaneous contact with the immediately perceptible reality of the text. 

Over against the self-evident assumption of the common sense view, she will urge the view of Saussure, that “common sense itself is ideologically and discursively constructed, rooted in a specific historical situation and operating in conjunction with a particular social formation.”

Her critique, I would note, is squarely logical and philosophical: “In reality, common sense betrays its own inadequacy by its incoherences, its contradictions and its silences.” Indeed, she makes the essential philosophical point: over against the anti-theoretical pretensions of the common sense approach, she states “But there is no practice without theory, however much that theory is suppressed, unformulated or perceived as ‘obvious’.”

She uses ideology in a specific way:

My use of the term, derived from Althusser’s, assumes that ideology is not an optional extra, deliberately adopted by self-conscious individuals (‘Conservative ideology’, for instance), but the very condition of our experience of the world, unconscious precisely in that it is unquestioned, taken for granted. Ideology, in Althusser’s use of the term, works in conjunction with political practice and economic practice to constitute the social formation, a formulation which promotes a more complex and radical analysis of social relations than the familiar term, ‘society’, which often evokes either a single homogenous mass, or alternatively a loosely connected group of autonomous individuals, and thus offers no challenge to the assumptions of common sense. 

Her comment on the strategy of common sense in response to the new terms of her (ostensibly more radical) critical theory is worth reproducing:

…the last resort of common sense is to dismiss as ‘unnecessary jargon’ any discourse which conflicts with its own. This is an easy way of evading conceptual challenges, of course (and of eliciting reassuring sneers), but it negates the repeated liberal humanist claim to open-mindedness and pluralism….To resist all linguistic innovation is by implication to claim that we already know all we need to know.

As she provides a definition of the common sense view, however, she illustrates a point we’ve already seen in our discussion of architecture: the use of terms in one discipline may be only vaguely related to their use in another. Consider:

Common sense proposes a humanism based on an empiricist-idealist interpretation of the world. In other words, common sense urges that ‘man’ is the origin and source of meaning, of action, and of history (humanism). Our concepts and our knowledge are held to be the product of experience (empiricism), and this experience is preceded and interpreted by the mind, reason or thought, the property of a transcendent human nature whose essence is the attribute of each individual (idealism). These propositions, radically called in question by the implications of post-Saussurean linguistics, constitute the basis of a practice of reading which assumes, whether explicitly or implicitly, the theory of expressive realism. This is the theory that literature reflects the reality of experience as it is perceived by one (especially gifted) individual, who expresses it in a discourse which enables other individuals to recognize it as true. 

This necessarily general picture paints with such a broad brush that the key terms – humanism, empiricism, idealism, and reality – are necessarily equivocal, if they are to refer to any of the many currents of thought which use these terms as labels and organizing categories. As but one example: in the philosophical tradition, empiricism and idealism are generally opposed notions of how knowledge emerges – two distinct traditions of reflections on epistemology which Belsey joins neatly together without further comment. While such a conjunction vaguely recalls Kant (who is not named here) – the Kantian synthesis of idealism and empiricism excludes in turn Belsey’s use of “transcendent” here to describe human nature.

From a philosophical perspective, then, the terms are used so broadly here as to jumble together what in philosophy is carefully kept separate. This is not to say that Belsey cannot use the terms in this way – only to say that we should be careful not to assume that her use of the terms perfectly matches their use in philosophy. Accordingly, whatever conclusions she may draw about idealism, empiricism, etc. may hold quite nicely in the domain of literary theory – but not necessarily beyond the bounds thereof.
This same problem reappears later when she criticizes the New Criticism for failing to confront

“the idealist assumption that the text constituted an expression of an idea, a presence which existed in some shadowy realm of subjectivity anterior to and independent of the text itself.” 

Just what sort of “idealism” is this? Platonic? Kantian? Neither? Both?

For that, following her summary of the emergence of the expressive realist position point to the precisely philosophical character of the questions she wants to address:

…expressive realism presents a number of problems not easily resolved within the framework of common sense. Difficulties which have emerged include the problem of access to the idea or experience which is held to precede the expression of it. What form does it take? Do ideas exist outside discourse? Is the idea formulated in one discourse (a letter or a diary) the same as an idea formulated in different words in another discourse (a literary text)? In what sense is fiction ‘true’, and what constitutes evidence of that truth? What is the relationship between a text (a discursive construct) and the world? To what extent is it possible to perceive the world independently of the conventional ways in which it is represented? To what extent is experience contained by language, society, history? 

To my eyes, these are the questions a philosopher would raise regarding epistemology, (our account of knowledge and theories of truth, including the role of perception), ontology or metaphysics (what is real? what are the relationship[s] between realities?), and philosophy of language. Yet Belsey will not take up the theoretical approaches and lessons of philosophy to address these questions, but will rather remain within the frameworks of literary theory and critical theory. From my – admittedly biased – perspective, she thereby cuts herself off from a variety of theoretical tools which would prove useful in addressing her questions.

And in remaining within the framework of literary theory and critical theory, she further cuts herself off from the history of philosophy – and from a full appreciation of logic.

She does not recognize, for example, in her quoting Wimsatt and Beardsley (as representative new critics), that they echo Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus. Recognizing this connection not only would have helped enrich her understanding of the long history of the recognition that words, once written down, are no longer the property of the author; thereby, she would be able to observe that the apparently contemporary debate between what she takes to be the common sense approach and her own, allegedly more radical approach, is by no means an entirely new thing under the sun. Indeed, it is conceivable that understanding the larger historical context – and in particular, some of the earlier responses to Plato’s critique of writing (including Plato’s own as the obvious author of many written works…) – would suggest still other responses to this debate than she is able to uncover.

As a specific example: she criticizes the New Criticism on the problem of meaning:

Within the expressive theory the text could be seen to possess a single, determinate meaning, however complex, and the authority for this meaning was the author. Meaning was what the author put into the text. 

Not only does Belsey (following Saussure) reject this view – so does Plato after a fashion. Moreover, the insistence on a single meaning seems to a turn regarding language made in the rejection of certain forms of equivocal language (analogical equivocals, for example) by John Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages. Ever since Scotus, Western philosophers and scientists have largely argued that univocal terms are preferable to ambiguous terms – despite the observation made in Plato and Aristotle that language is perhaps intrinsically ambiguous, and some forms of ambiguity (analogical equivocals) may reflect important structures of connection and difference in both language and reality.

This failure to recognize the more nuanced and complex understanding of language in history seems to contribute to an simple dichotomy fundamental to Belsey’s project. This simple dichotomy runs the risk of amounting to a false dilemma. In her analysis of expressive realism in general and New Criticism in particular, she pushes the understanding of meaning in expressive realism to an overly simple extreme:

…the continued assumption that meaning is single, and the continued quest for a guarantee of this single meaning results in a conviction that the meaning of any text is timeless, universal and transhistorical: ‘though cultures have change and will change, poems remain and explain’ 

This extreme version of some sort of idealism – or is it simply fundamentalism? – is then countered by her alternative, introduced here in a question-begging way:

The problem is…the failure to recognize that meaning exists only within a specific language, or more precisely within a specific discourse, and that it cannot therefore inhere timelessly within the words on the page.

This is Belsey’s post-Saussurean view – but it is a view which is yet to be demonstrated. To assume it, as she does here – and then criticize an alternative view for failing to see this point, is to beg a very important question.

And to return to the initial problem, Belsey seems to present us with a simple either/or:
either a single, timeless, universal, and transhistorical meaning exists
or meaning is solely constructed within and is thus valid only in relation to a given, historically-conditioned discourse.

But is this really the only choice? Or are these but the poles on a continuum of choices – including choices which include both the recognition of the role of history, culture, and subjectivity and independent frameworks and realities in the construction of meaning?

Belsey repeats this dichotomy later on, as she approves of Northrop Frye for glimpsing the “fact” that “…meaning is conventional, a matter of familiarity rather than intuition.”

Without demonstration that (a) in fact these are the only two (exclusive) alternatives and (b) that the second alternative is more likely to be true – to presume the truth of the second alternative remains question-begging. Belsey does this on the next page as she again critiques the New Critics as they are forced back on a naive empiricism-idealism which maintains that words stand either for things or for experiences, and that these inhere timelessly in the phenomenal world or in the continuity of essential human nature. Thus history becomes an anticipation of the present in all important aspects, and the specific, ideologically constructed experience of the twentieth century is universalized as the unchanging natural order….


The weakness of the theory originates in the attempt to locate meaning in a single place, in the words of the text, ‘on the page’. In reality texts do offer positions from which they are intelligible, but these positions are never single because they are always positions in specific discourses. It is language which provides the possibility of meaning, but because language is not static but perpetually in process, what is inherent in the text is a range of possibilities of meaning. Texts, in other words, are plural, open to a number of interpretations (see 2.3 below). Meanings are not fixed or given, but are released in the process of reading, and criticism is concerned with range of possible readings.

Beyond the question-begging – we need to notice a distinction which Belsey does not make: it is one thing to argue for an infinite range of possible meanings/interpretations (in a kind of hermeneutical relativism – the position I see Belsey heading towards) – and another thing to acknowledge that texts may issue in a perhaps very large but essentially limited plurality of possible meanings. The latter position does not force us into relativism – and is characteristic of such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, etc. (I’m not sure about Nietzsche: let us see!)

Belsey’s question-begging takes an irritating turn when she comments:

New Criticism thus constitutes a contradictory moment, in a sense a liberation from the authoritarianism of the expressive theory, but inhibited from taking advantage of this liberation by its own commitment to empiricism and a concomitant idealism. (20)

I may have missed something – but how does expressive theory get linked up with authoritarianism? Moreover, while I generally endorse liberation – why is liberation clearly good, and authoritarianism clearly bad?

Similarly: “It is disappointing, therefore, to discover that this rich plurality is destined to be contained within a repressive pluralism which argues that conflict between points of view only inhibits the advancement of learning.” (28) Why is such a pluralism repressive?

Another example of question-begging: Belsey critiques Northrop Frye’s “liberal humanism,” not only as it is ostensibly founded on empiricism-idealism, but also as it, “as part of a liberal education, can make it possible to conceive of a free and classless society, transcending the world we know, ‘clear of the bondage of history’ (Anatomy of Criticism, 347).” Belsey takes this independence of the determinism of history to mean a kind of transcendence which makes such conceptions ultimately irrelevant to the world we live in:

“The human mind, forever isolated from the social formation in which in reality it is constructed, is seen as unable to influence the course of history in any substantial way.” 

The question-begging at work in “the social formation in which in reality it is constructed” is made more explicit in her concluding paragraph:

No theoretical position can exist in isolation: any conceptual framework for literary criticism has implications which stretch beyond criticism itself to ideology and the place of ideology in the social formation as a whole. Assumptions about literature involve assumptions about language and about meaning, and these in turn involve assumptions about human society. The independent universe of literature and the autonomy of criticism are illusory. 

Again, she asserts here a position she has to prove – and one that confronts us with a simple either/or: either meaning and criticism are thoroughly imbedded in and thus relative to a specific historical moment – or they are utterly independent (and thus irrelevant).

Beyond the logical fallacy of false dilemma at work here – the dilemma is disappointing because it misses the philosophical response to this dilemma as worked out by Plato, Aristotle, and subsequent philosophers. The third possibility which Belsey’s dilemma overlooks is the Platonic ideal which is both transcendent of ordinary existence and intimately connected with it (through “participation,” to use the Platonic phrase). This third possibility makes it possible to have a ground distinct from what is – i.e., a ground on which one stands in achieving a critical distance from the status quo, which may offer conceptions of important values such as justice, goodness, equality, etc. which fund both a critique of the status quo and provide standards towards which individuals and societies may move – while yet not entirely divorcing oneself from the ordinary world (and thus becoming irrelevant to it).

I suspect, in fact, that Belsey seeks to occupy this third position – but as her very limited understanding of Western philosophy prevents her from seeing it, I’m not sure she succeeds in occupying this third position entirely consistently.
Another quibble: I simply don’t follow Belsey’s understanding of philosophers and philosophical schools. Example:

Where they [the New Critics] are atomistic and detailed, he is categorical and sweeping; where they are Aristotelian, he is Neoplatonic, seeing literature as realizing a potential golden world rather than imitating a brazen one. 

As I understand him, realizing the potential of the ideal is at least as much Aristotle as it is Neoplatonic; furthermore, Aristotle is more likely to be categorical rather than atomistic – while he is also quite detailed.

All of this is to say: beware of the (over)simplifications regarding philosophy introduced by literary theorists who apparently do not intend to become overly familiar with philosophical approaches and frameworks.
Yet: Belsey (perhaps inevitably) strains towards the philosophical. The point of her summary of recent literary criticism is to make the argument:

The Anglo-American tradition of critical theory begins to appear as a series of such developments [i.e., faltering efforts to overcome the limits of expressive realism], based on a recognition of the inadequacies of the commonsense account of literature, but unable to resolve the problems it presents from within the empiricist-idealist conceptual framework. What is needed is a fundamental break with the empiricist-idealist position. 

Countless philosophical steps have been made through the realization that the problems with a given theory issue not so much from a mistaken development of basic premises (what Aristotle called the first principles) – especially as these are often implicit, inarticulate, and thus not available for critical inspection – but with the limitations of the premises/first principles themselves. Belsey, perhaps without knowing it, is directly adopting that historical structure in her presentation of expressive realism as a tradition whose limits can only be overcome by moving beyond its fundamental principles. Aristotle (as one of the first to explicitly argue in this fashion – e.g., with his many references to the Presocratics and his explicit debates with Plato) would be pleased.

But this leads to one of my central points of discomfort with much of the argument I see in literary theory: while straining in this (and other ways) towards the philosophical – by remaining within the boundaries of literary criticism, such theorists cut themselves off from a whole tradition whose tools and lessons might well be essential to a more productive engagement with the ultimately philosophical issues raised.

More question-begging and false dilemma:

At its best, interest in the reader is entirely liberating, a rejection of authorial tyranny in favour of the participation of readers in the production of a plurality of meanings….

This question-begging is further at work in the language Belsey herself uses to discuss other views. It is, as these and earlier examples (‘liberation’) already make clear, the language of political power. So she goes on from here to critique Walter J. Slatoff as holding to a position marked by “authoritarianism” which she sees in his terms defining “…the practices of ‘good readers and critics’ , who learn to ‘submit’ to the work and let their ‘responses’ be ‘directed and limited’ by it.” Now why is this “authoritarianism”?

And on the next page, she accuses the empiricist-idealist position as guilty of “suppression of language,” something she says is by now familiar. But, by my reading, this is the first time she’s suggested such a thing.

She also does not like Stanley Fish, despite his account of a dialectical relationship between reader and text:

A dialectical presentation…is disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe in and live by. It is didactic in a special sense; it does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves, and this discovery is often made at the expense not only of a reader’s opinions and values, but of his self-esteem….For the end of a dialectical experience is (or should be) nothing less than a conversion, not only a changing, but an exchanging of minds.

[This account, we might notice, seems consistent with Platonic notions of dialogue and dialectical readings of the dialogues.]
But for Belsey, this account is still lacking:

Its weakness, however, is its failure to recognize that a plurality of readers must necessarily produce a plurality of readings. Fish’s reader is disarmingly singular..

She further asserts that such a singular reader amounts to a “suppression of differences” – one that is appropriated from Anglo-American, specifically Chomsky’s, linguistics, over against Saussure. 
Again, there’s a questionable either/or: either a single reader and the suppression of differences / or a plurality of readers. I’m not sure it’s that simple.

A similar simplicity: “…literary competence is learned, and as a result it cannot possibly be transhistorical.” 

Like the most elementary (and fallacious) arguments for relativism, this conclusion follows only if we assume that either there is a single, transhistorical truth which is immediately accessible to all human beings in a perfectly identical form/content – or everything is learned and thus utterly relative to specific histories/cultures.
A (Socratic/Platonic/Aristotelian/Thomistic/Kantian) middle is possible: what if there are transhistorical truths understood/applied/interpreted in different was in different histories/cultures? This is a logical possibility – and such truths, further, would involve “learning” of some sort, including the appropriation of a given language.

Given the possibility of such a middle, we can see that Belsey’s either/or further confuses necessary with sufficient conditions. Given the possibility of such a Socratic–Kantian middle, such a middle might require learning as a necessary condition for understanding. But it would also require a second condition – namely, its own transhistorical existence. This is different from taking learning as a sufficient condition for acquiring such understanding – in which case, learning would fully determine such understanding, and such understanding would be entirely relative to a specific history/culture.
Finally, Belsey turns to the German Aesthetic Response school of literary criticism, represented by Iser – one she still finds lacking, again in terms of political power:

…Iser’s theory suppresses the relationship between language and experience.
This is because, apparently, Iser doesn’t explicate that relationship. But is silence the same as suppression?

Couple this with her intended project, now that she has ostensibly demonstrated the inadequacies of Iser’s theory – “To liberate new ways of reading which overcome the theoretical problems and the practical limitations I have discussed….” 
Again, an either/or: we either suppress or liberate. Obviously, most of us would value the latter…

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