Robert Pippin in The New York Times, “In Defense of Naïve Reading.” He notes that “it is still the teaching of literature that generates the most academic, and especially non-academic, discussion.” Part of his discussion notes that the teaching of vernacular literature in higher education is relatively new and that, consequently, “we have not yet settled on the right or commonly agreed upon way to go about it.” And so:
Clearly, poems and novels and paintings were not produced as objects for future academic study; there is no a priori reason to think that they could be suitable objects of “research.” By and large they were produced for the pleasure and enlightenment of those who enjoyed them. But just as clearly, the teaching of literature in universities ─ especially after the 19th-century research model of Humboldt University of Berlin was widely copied ─ needed a justification consistent with the aims of that academic setting: that fact alone has always shaped the way vernacular literature has been taught.
That is to say, in most times and places literary culture got along just fine without the benefits of learned study and commentary on the texts, though I will note that, in contrast, religious texts have attracted enormous bodies of learned commentary, elaboration, and exegesis.
Getting back to Pippin’s argument, the proper academic study of literature required a means of creating and transmitting knowledge and encouraged collaboration with other disciplines. At the same time it also required a way of evaluating student performance: “Students’ papers must be graded and no faculty member wants to face the inevitable ‘that’s just your opinion’ unarmed, as it were.”
Pippin goes on to note that, in the first place:
Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or “researched” by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of “first level,” an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.
This is, of course, a traditional and venerable observation, often invoked in arguments against academic criticism or, indeed, criticism of any kind whatsoever. Pippin also suggests that
such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge. There is no reason to think that such knowledge . . . is any less knowledge because it cannot be so formalized or even taught as such. Call this a plea for a place for “naïve” reading, teaching and writing — an appreciation and discussion not mediated by a theoretical research question recognizable as such by the modern academy.
He rightly observes that this is a controversial claim, but I’m willing to grant it. For example, current arguments about whether or not literature (or the arts more generally) are biologically adaptive speak to this point. As far as I can tell, such arguments are about naïve reading, though they don’t use that term. They do not say that the value of literature requires explicit interpretation. And a good thing that they don’t, because, as we know, explicit interpretive activity is relatively new in human history. Homer's audience, and Dante's and Shakespeare's and Austen's, and so forth, they're all naïve in Pippin's sense. And if one doesn’t like these arguments – I certainly have doubts about them myself – other arguments are available (I’ve made some myself). Biological adaptiveness is by no means the only theoretical approach.
Pippin then goes on to grant that, of course, “we certainly need a theory about how artistic works mean anything at all, why or in what sense, reading a novel, say, is different from reading a detailed case history.” And so forth. In this I, of course, concur. My suspicion about Pippin, given what else he has to say, is that he doesn’t have any particular suggestions about how we ought to go about this, how we can improve current thinking on such matters. Maybe he thinks we have such matters well in hand (if so, I disagree); maybe he doesn't. There's no way to tell from what he's written here.
But he does go on to observe that, while there is developing interest in using neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to such ends, “such applications are spectacular examples of bad literary criticism, not good examples of some revolutionary approach.” He doesn’t even so much as hint at the possibility that the problem is not inherent in neuroscience or evolutionary psychology, or, for that matter, the cognitive sciences more broadly considered, but simply in what has been most readily done to date. He doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that good use can in fact be made of these newer psychologies. On that point, of course, I believe he is wrong. I’ve argued the matter informally here, in this “quasifesto” for a naturalist criticism, and more formally in this long programmatic article on literary morphology and this somewhat shorter piece on cultural evolution and the human sciences.
Which is to say, he offers no positive program beyond advocating “naïve” reading. What does he think should be taught in undergraduate literature courses? Is he simply saying, drop the ‘Theory’ and do what they did in the golden days of yesteryear? If not that, then what? Surely he isn’t suggesting what one might call The New Naïveté, for, if he is, what’s to distinguish it from the Old Naïveté? Wouldn’t those distinguishing marks constitute some kind of theory, and wouldn’t that theory need justification and elaboration? And wouldn’t that, in turn, end up, in effect, reprising the last 50 years in literary criticism? And what about the research program? I don’t see that naïve reading has any, not as Pippin describes it.
He wants us to stop doing something – though just what isn’t entirely clear – and do more of something that’s been going on all along. By all means, naïve reading, yes. People do it all the time. It goes on in reading groups, off-line and on-line. It’s all over the blogosphere. And I’m sure the non-academic literary blogosphere thanks Pippin for his endorsement.
But really, I’m afraid this academic mandarin, this Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago, this panjandrum supreme, has no clothes. It would be naïve to think otherwise.