Untheory

Alexander Nehamas

  • Contest of Faculties: Philosophy and Theory after Deconstruction by Christopher Norris
    Methuen, 247 pp, £16.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 416 39939 8
  • Philosophical Profiles by Richard Bernstein
    Polity, 313 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0226 6
  • Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism edited by W.J.T. Mitchell
    Chicago, 146 pp, £12.75, November 1985, ISBN 0 226 53226 7

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato described, and in which he took part, is still being fought. Poetry today has become, more generally, ‘rhetoric’, ‘fiction’, ‘literature’, ‘literariness’, ‘narrative’ or ‘writing’. It has even found an ally within the enemy’s ranks – the recent anti-philosophical philosophy sometimes known as the New Pragmatism. And though it has now become more pervasive, though the tables appear to have been turned against philosophy, and though the issue no longer seems to be simply the proper domain of each practice, the war between philosophy and poetry goes on. While Plato would have denied that, strictly speaking, poetry is a practice or an ‘art’ (a techne) at all, poets today have struck back by arguing that philosophy itself is a species of poetry. Philosophy differs from the rest of fiction, the argument continues, only by its bad faith. For it is the only branch of literature which deceives itself into claiming that, unlike the others, it can give correct and final answers to deep, serious and substantive questions – to ‘the perennial problems’. Philosophy, the poets claim, is rhetoric which has forgotten that it is rhetoric; it believes it has a theory and methods which can do more than persuade, which can, some day at least, lead us to the truth.

These are heady charges. Yet, though the lines of battle have been starkly drawn, the engagements are seldom direct. Christopher Norris describes the situation perceptively in The Contest of Faculties, paying special attention to one of the parties on the literary side of the dispute: ‘Deconstructionists,’ he writes, ‘continue to snipe from the sidelines at a mainstream philosophy which clings to its deluded belief in truth, logic and sufficient reason. Analytical philosophers content themselves with occasional sallies – book reviews mostly – which deplore the muddle-headed presumption of their literary colleagues.’ Norris’s book is a welcome effort to escape the total domination of the first of these two categories. And the present review, I hope, does not fall squarely within the second.

When Troilus, in Shakespeare’s play, finds that Cressida, whom he has identified with fidelity, is actually unfaithful, he exclaims: ‘This is and isn’t Cressid.’ He also says:

            O madness of discourse,
That cause sets up with and against itself:
Bi-fold authority! Where reason can revolt
Without perdition, and loss assume all reason
Without revolt ...

The passage faithfully expresses, as much as any passage can, the strictly inexpressible tension which deconstructive readings claim to find in every text, literary or philosophical. But it also describes, perhaps aptly, the double and tension-ridden purpose of Norris’s collection of essays. On the one hand, Norris sides with poetry in its quarrel with philosophy. On the other, he argues extensively that ‘critics – let alone philosophers – will be throwing too much away’ if they turn their back completely to philosophy or ‘theory’ as traditionally conceived. They will deprive criticism of one of its cardinal functions: the wholesale critique of our current literary, political and ideological consensus.

This may seem to some, as it does to me, to want to have it both ways. Later on we shall find yet another instance of this bi-fold desire. But it does not prevent Norris’s book from raising a number of important questions.

One word of caution. Philosophers, I suspect, will find a number of weaknesses in Norris’s treatment of authors like Frege, Quine and Davidson. They will certainly remain (at best) unmoved by his confident view that ‘Derrida shows – in exemplary close-reading style – how Aristotle’s entire metaphysics rests on a notion of momentary consciousness which his text simultaneously works to undo.’ But this statement need not be taken to undermine the project of engaging philosophy with literature.

Norris is convinced of the deconstructive view that ‘philosophy is inescapably bound up with fiction, no matter how philosophers may resist the idea,’ and tries to support his claim in an essay on Husserl and Descartes. He credits deconstruction, of which he is one of the clearest expositors and ablest practitioners in England, with having shown that detailed attention to the rhetorical structure of philosophical writing reveals that ‘the more closely one reads philosophical texts, the more one comes across ... evidence of a covert narrative or fictional strain.’

Such an understanding of deconstruction has often led to the view that no writing can engage directly with problems confronting reality. This, for example, is the position Norris attributes to ‘soft’ or ‘non-rigorous’ deconstructive critics like Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller, who rest content with pointing out ‘that all texts are figural’ – rhetorical or fictional – ‘through and through, whatever their self-professed logical status.’ Richard Rorty, who identifies philosophy merely as ‘a kind of writing’, also believes, according to Norris, that ‘literary critics had best give up the idea that philosophy (or “theory”) is capable of solving any problems created by their own interpretative practice.’ The very idea of method simply drops out of the picture; all that matters is producing, by whatever means, new ‘strong’ readings. As Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels put it in Against Theory, ‘the only question ... is not how to interpret but whether to interpret.’

Norris relentlessly attacks such a ‘move to foreclose on certain “technical” aspects of epistemological critique’. His book is centrally concerned to show that such anti-theoretical approaches fall in ‘all too readily with the interests of a present-day cultural status quo’. He also locates this ‘move’ in the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who, in contrast to the critical theory advocated by Jürgen Habermas, assumes ‘that all understanding is embedded in a context of pre-reflective meanings and motives which reason is effectively powerless to criticise.’ And he considers it a shortcoming of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s view that ‘no narrative (or narrative theory) could possess the ultimate, truth-telling power that would lift it decisively above all the others.’ Norris, is convinced that only such ‘truth-telling power’ can allow us to take a properly critical attitude toward our present situation.

You are not logged in