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Literary Criticism and Epistemology

February 1st, 2005 | 1 min read

By Andrew Selby

For some time I have been bothered by the phenomenon of 20th C. literary criticism of all varieties: Marxist, feminist, post-colonial and the other smatterings. It just rubs me the wrong way. After remembering Rodrick Chisholm's insightful article, "The Problem of the Criterion", I realized that literary critics are analogous to what Chisholm dubs, "methodists" (which is complete unrelated to the evangelical denomination started by Wesley!).

In the article, Chishom argues that it is better to approach things like perception from a "particularist" stand-point, i.e. from common-sense. It is best to believe that the world represents itself to us the way that it actually is - why would we believe anything to the contrary?

Perhaps we should approach literature in the same way as perception. Let us have faith that the text accurately reveals to us its meaning. It might take some digging around and hard work, but we shouldn't impose our pet theory on the text, just as we don't (and shouldn't) impose our perception on the real world. A particulary good or an obscure text will be, by analogy, "hard to see": only one with trained eyes will be able to see clearly.