Thursday, December 7, 2023

GOAT Literary Critics: Part 1.2, Lit Crit Compared to Economics; Aristotle, No

Tyler Cowen was kind enough to put a link to my GOAT Literary Critics post over at Marginal Revolution. It got a bit of commentary over there as well as sending some folks over here, so I thought I’d make some observations in response. First up, I’m copying a longish comment I posted over at Marginal Revolution (lightly edited). Then I’m going to explain why I didn’t nominate Aristotle for the list. I don’t know why ChatGPT failed to do so, though I do doubt that Aristotle would turn up if it perused its model for literary critics. I’m attaching an appendix that lists all the critics Wikipedia includes in its entry on literary criticism.

A comparison between lit crit and economics

I've been looking over the various comments on the GOAT literary critic, which I've since christened GOATLiC (Literary Critic), and I have a couple general observations. The first is that, as far as I can tell, when Tyler set out to write about the GOAT economists the population of thinkers from which he had to draw was pretty clear. That population does not include, for example, Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is a journalist who writes excellent books about business. But he's not an economist. Nor did he include someone like Peter Drucker, who has lots of interesting things to say about business, but he's not an economist.

The term "literary critic" is not so clear cut. Edmund Wilson, for example, is a distinguished man of letters – notice the term I used. He is not an academic literary critic – notice that I used the term "academic." When academics think of academic disciplines, they think of intellectual activities that can provide for the cumulative development and growth of knowledge. The kind of intellectual work Edmund Wilson did was valuable, but it is not the sort of thing that lends itself to cumulative elaboration and development. The same is true for the work of Michael Lewis.

Now, anyone who reads a poem or a novel or sees a play, and so forth, may want to discuss it with their friends. They may also want to read something that deepens their knowledge of and appreciation of those texts. Edmund Wilson will do that. Edward Said perhaps, politics aside, not so much. So they may well then say, “A pox on you and your mother, Edward Said, with your obscure words and knotted syntax.” Readers of Michael Lewis, I suspect, are somewhat less likely to dismiss professional economicists because of the technical vocabulary, dry prose, and the math. They're willing enough to acknowledge that business journalism is one thing, and that's for them. Professional economics is something different, and not for them.

(And, yes, Tyler, I know a number of your GOATs wrote stuff that's readable by any reasonably well-educated person. After all, you ARE interested in economists as purveyors of ideas participating in general intellectual discourse. But they are writing as economists, more or less, not journalists. And, yes, what you write for Bloomberg is journalism, as is Krugman for the Times, but both of you are writing as economists. It’s complicated.)

For as long as I can remember, academic literary critics have been anxious about their status as academics and so have worked hard to figure just what it is they do that qualifies as the basis for academic inquiry. I don’t sense the economists have had the same problem. Physicists certainly haven’t. These anxieties are not quelled by the fact that much of the time of academic literary critics is devoted to teaching undergraduates how to write, which has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the study of literature. Are economists expected to teach undergraduates how to balance their checkbooks, file their taxes, and open savings accounts? I’m almost, but not quite, serious in that comparison.

And then there is the fact that literary study is tied to nationalism. The French study French literature, the Germans study German literature, the English study British literature, and Americans, until the last 50 or 60 years, Americans studied British literature as well. Seriously, when I was an undergraduate at Hopkins the English Department have 12-15 faculty, but only one of them taught American literature. That was a fairly common arrangement, at least at elite schools – see the highlighted remarks by J. Hillis Miller in this post (Miller should probably be a candidate for GOATLic). It took a while for American literature to be thought serious enough for inclusion in college and university courses.

Why Aristotle isn’t on the list & conceptual emergence in the late 18th century

Basically, too long ago. For one thing, if I gave Aristotle serious consideration, then there’s a long list of thinkers between him and the 18th century who must be considered as well (see the list in the appendix). Grouping things by centuries is standard practice in literary criticism, and it's a bit arbitrary with respect to the phenomena being grouped; centuries are artifacts of calendars, not causal forces in cultural change.

But there’s a more principled reason why the 18th century marks a reasonable demarcation zone. Malthus is the oldest economist on Cowen’s GOAT list [1]. He was born in the 18th century and died in the 19th. Why didn’t Cowen have an older thinker of the list? I’m guessing that there aren’t any he could have picked. It really wasn’t until the late 18th century that people arrived at a modern conception of the future. Here’s how I opened an old post:

We’ve always thought about the future: Where’s the next meal coming from? How do we prepare for the festival? Will the harvest be good this year? What’ll I leave the grand kids? I have something different in mind. When did we start thinking about the future as a time and place when things would be different from they are now, when they would be better, and made so by effort we can undertake now? When did the future become that (kind of) place?

Now, Malthus wasn’t looking forward to a better time, he was fearing a time made worse by overpopulation. But the underlying conceptual requirement is the same.

Of course economics isn’t a discipline about the future, it’s not a species of science fiction (see my post, Adam Roberts on the future as imaginative territory). It’s about, well, the economy, about resources and their allocation, exchange of goods, investment and growth – how often has Cowen said that GROWTH is THE subject of economics? The future is essential to the conceptual foundations in which its concepts are grounded.

That particular conceptual change wasn’t the only thing going on at the time. Conceptual change was widespread and thorough-going. David Hays and I wrote about the general phenomenon in “The Evolution of Cognition” (1990) and Hays went on to write a book about technological evolution from that standpoint. I put Coleridge (first) on my list of GOAT critics because, as far as I know he was the first major thinker to absorb and interpret the emerging philosophical ideas in a way that allowed him to think about the literary mind in new way. I’ll have more to say about Coleridge in a later post, so I’ll let that statement stand for now.

When I think of the discipline of literary criticism, then, I think about a discipline that followed from the line of thinking that Coleridge initiated. Thinkers have been commenting on literary texts for as long as such texts have existed. That’s where we find Aristotle and a host of others (see the appendix). They are certainly players in the larger phenomenon of literary culture, but they aren’t literary critics in the modern sense of the term. Rather, they belong to the phenomenon that literary critics study. 


[1]  Actually, after I wrote this post I realized that Malthus is the second oldest; Adam Smith is the oldest. That's a detail that doesn't really matter to my argument.

Appendix: Wikipedia list of literary critics

Here’s a list of the literary critics included in the Wikipedia article on literary criticism. I’ve put numbers next to the period labels to indicate the number of critics in that period. I’ve highlighted Coleridge in yellow. I’ve done the same for a number of ‘critics’ listed in the 20th century. It seems to me that their inclusion in a list of literary critics is, shall we say, problematic – and they aren’t the only problematic ones on the list. I highlighted those particular figures because they were important in a movement toward the use of linguistics in literary study, a movement that had largely fizzled out by 1980. For the most part I’m talking about structuralism, which quickly gave way to post-structuralism.

The Classical and medieval periods [20]

Plato: Ion, Republic, Cratylus
Aristotle: Poetics, Rhetoric
Horace: Art of Poetry
Longinus: On the Sublime
Plotinus: On the Intellectual Beauties
St. Augustine: On Christian Doctrine
Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy
Aquinas: The Nature and Domain of Sacred Doctrine
Dante: The Banquet, Letter to Can Grande Della Scala
Boccaccio: Life of Dante, Genealogy of the Gentile Gods
Christine de Pizan: The Book of the City of Ladies
Bharata Muni: Natya Shastra
Rajashekhara: Inquiry into Literature
Valmiki: The Invention of Poetry (from the Ramayana)
Anandavardhana: Light on Suggestion
Cao Pi: A Discourse on Literature
Lu Ji: Rhymeprose on Literature
Liu Xie: The Literary Mind
Wang Changling: A Discussion of Literature and Meaning
Sikong Tu: The Twenty-Four Classes of Poetry

The Renaissance period [7]

Lodovico Castelvetro: The Poetics of Aristotle Translated and Explained
Philip Sidney: An Apology for Poetry
Jacopo Mazzoni: On the Defense of the Comedy of Dante
Torquato Tasso: Discourses on the Heroic Poem
Francis Bacon: The Advancement of Learning
Henry Reynolds: Mythomystes
John Mandaville: Composed in the mid-14th century – most probably by a French physician

The Enlightenment period [23]

Thomas Hobbes: Answer to Davenant's preface to Gondibert
Pierre Corneille: Of the Three Unities of Action, Time, and Place
John Dryden: An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux: The Art of Poetry
John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
John Dennis: The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry
Alexander Pope: An Essay on Criticism
Joseph Addison: On the Pleasures of the Imagination (Spectator essays)
Giambattista Vico: The New Science
Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
David Hume: Of the Standard of Taste
Samuel Johnson: On Fiction, Rasselas, Preface to Shakespeare
Edward Young: Conjectures on Original Composition
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: Laocoön
Joshua Reynolds: Discourses on Art
Richard "Conversation" Sharp Letters & Essays in Prose & Verse
James Usher :Clio: or a Discourse on Taste (1767)
Denis Diderot: The Paradox of Acting
Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgment
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven or Hell, Letter to Thomas Butts, Annotations to Reynolds' Discourses, A Descriptive Catalogue, A Vision of the Last Judgment, On Homer's Poetry
Friedrich Schiller: Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man
Friedrich Schlegel: Critical Fragments, Athenaeum Fragments, On Incomprehensibility

The 19th century [31]

William Wordsworth: Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads
Anne Louise Germaine de Staël: Literature in its Relation to Social Institutions
Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling: On the Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Shakespeare's Judgment Equal to His Genius, On the Principles of Genial Criticism, The Statesman's Manual, Biographia Literaria
Wilhelm von Humboldt: Collected Works
John Keats: letters to Benjamin Bailey, George & Thomas Keats, John Taylor, and Richard Woodhouse
Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Idea
Thomas Love Peacock: The Four Ages of Poetry
Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Defence of Poetry
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Conversations with Eckermann, Maxim No. 279
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: The Philosophy of Fine Art
Giacomo Leopardi: Zibaldone (notebooks)
Francesco de Sanctis: Critical Essays; History of the Italian Literature
Thomas Carlyle: Symbols
John Stuart Mill: What is Poetry?
Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Poet
Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve: What Is a Classic?
James Russell Lowell: A Fable for Critics
Edgar Allan Poe: The Poetic Principlev Matthew Arnold: Preface to the 1853 Edition of Poems, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, The Study of Poetry
Hippolyte Taine: History of English Literature and Language
Charles Baudelaire: The Salon of 1859
Karl Marx: The German Ideology, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
Søren Kierkegaard: Two Ages: A Literary Review, The Concept of Irony
Friedrich Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Truth and Falsity in an Ultramoral Sense
Walter Pater: Studies in the History of the Renaissance
Émile Zola: The Experimental Novel
Anatole France: The Adventures of the Soul
Oscar Wilde: The Decay of Lying
Stéphane Mallarmé: The Evolution of Literature, The Book: A Spiritual Mystery, Mystery in Literature
Leo Tolstoy: What is Art?

The 20th century [79]

Benedetto Croce: Aesthetic
Antonio Gramsci : Prison Notebooks
Umberto Eco: The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas; The Open Work
A. C. Bradley: Poetry for Poetry's Sake
Sigmund Freud: Creative Writers and Daydreaming
Ferdinand de Saussure: Course in General Linguistics
Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Structural Study of Myth

T. E. Hulme: Romanticism and Classicism; Bergson's Theory of Art
Walter Benjamin: On Language as Such and On the Language of Man
Viktor Shklovsky: Art as Technique
T. S. Eliot: Tradition and the Individual Talent; Hamlet and His Problems
Irving Babbitt: Romantic Melancholy
Carl Jung: On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry
Leon Trotsky: The Formalist School of Poetry and Marxism
Boris Eikhenbaum: The Theory of the "Formal Method"
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own
I. A. Richards: Practical Criticism
Mikhail Bakhtin: Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel
Georges Bataille: The Notion of Expenditure
John Crowe Ransom: Poetry: A Note in Ontology; Criticism as Pure Speculation
R. P. Blackmur: A Critic's Job of Work
Jacques Lacan: The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience; The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason Since Freud
György Lukács: The Ideal of the Harmonious Man in Bourgeois Aesthetics; Art and Objective Truth
Paul Valéry: Poetry and Abstract Thought
Kenneth Burke: Literature as Equipment for Living
Ernst Cassirer: Art
W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley: The Intentional Fallacy, The Affective Fallacy
Cleanth Brooks: The Heresy of Paraphrase; Irony as a Principle of Structure
Jan Mukařovský: Standard Language and Poetic Language
Jean-Paul Sartre: Why Write?
Simone de Beauvoir: The Second Sex
Ronald Crane: Toward a More Adequate Criticism of Poetic Structure
Philip Wheelwright: The Burning Fountain
Theodor Adorno: Cultural Criticism and Society; Aesthetic Theory
Roman Jakobson: The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles
Northrop Frye: Anatomy of Criticism; The Critical Path
Gaston Bachelard: The Poetics of Space
Ernst Gombrich: Art and Illusion
Martin Heidegger: The Nature of Language; Language in the Poem; Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry
E. D. Hirsch Jr.: Objective Interpretation
Noam Chomsky: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax
Jacques Derrida: Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
Roland Barthes: The Structuralist Activity; The Death of the Author
Michel Foucault: Truth and Power; What Is an Author?; The Discourse on Language
Hans Robert Jauss: Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory
Georges Poulet: Phenomenology of Reading
Raymond Williams: The Country and the City
Lionel Trilling: The Liberal Imagination;
Julia Kristeva: From One Identity to Another; Women's Time
Paul de Man: Semiology and Rhetoric; The Rhetoric of Temporality
Harold Bloom: The Anxiety of Influence; The Dialectics of Poetic Tradition; Poetry, Revisionism, Repression
Chinua Achebe: Colonialist Criticism
Stanley Fish: Normal Circumstances, Literal Language, Direct Speech Acts, the Ordinary, the Everyday, the Obvious, What Goes Without Saying, and Other Special Cases; Is There a Text in This Class?
Edward Said: The World, the Text, and the Critic; Secular Criticism
Elaine Showalter: Toward a Feminist Poetics
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: Infection in the Sentence; The Madwoman in the Attic
Murray Krieger: "A Waking Dream": The Symbolic Alternative to Allegory
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia
René Girard: The Sacrificial Crisis
Hélène Cixous: The Laugh of the Medusa
Jonathan Culler: Beyond Interpretation
Geoffrey Hartman: Literary Commentary as Literature
Wolfgang Iser: The Repertoire
Hayden White: The Historical Text as Literary Artifact
Hans-Georg Gadamer: Truth and Method
Paul Ricoeur: The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling
Peter Szondi: On Textual Understanding
M. H. Abrams: How to Do Things with Texts
J. Hillis Miller: The Critic as Host
Clifford Geertz: Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti: The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism
Tristan Tzara: Unpretentious Proclamation
André Breton: The Surrealist Manifesto; The Declaration of January 27, 1925
Mina Loy: Feminist Manifesto Yokomitsu Riichi: Sensation and New Sensation
Oswald de Andrade: Cannibalist Manifesto
André Breton, Leon Trotsky and Diego Rivera: Manifesto: Towards a Free Revolutionary Art
Hu Shih: Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature
Octavio Paz: The Bow and the Lire

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