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Apriorism for empiricists.

When Joseph Carroll's Evolution and Literary Theory appeared in 1995, I read the first hundred pages or so with great interest and took comfort from its critique of the then poststructuralist-dominated literary academy. Carroll's presentation stood out for its comprehensiveness and its uncompromising embrace of empirical values--the same values to which, since 1980, I myself had been appealing against applied deconstruction and its ideologized progeny. (62) In addition, I found that Carroll and I shared an intellectual hero, Charles Darwin, who, for both of us, epitomized a determination to explain observed effects only by reference to commonly ascertainable, temporally prior facts and factors, without appeal to "final causes" and other such remnants of an exhausted supernaturalism.

I had no quarrel in 1995, and I have none now, with the central role that Carroll assigned to Darwin's theory of evolution for an explanatory overview of our species. As I have recently stated, "Only a secular Darwinian perspective ... can make general sense of humankind and its works." (63) But whether that perspective ought to become the guiding philosophy of academic literary studies is a different matter. That proposition struck me as lame when I first encountered it, and the reasons now assembled by Carroll in its behalf haven't caused me to change my opinion.

Carroll's program is truly grand in intended scale. The literary Darwinians, he writes, "aim at fundamentally altering the paradigm within which literary study is now conducted." Their goal is to "subsume all other possible approaches" to the field. And if they succeed, that field's current disrepute in empirical circles will give way to admiration. By responsibly connecting literary analysis to reliable knowledge about human nature and by making their own scrupulous additions to such knowledge, critics will contribute to E. O. Wilson's consilience, helping to chart "an unbroken chain of material causation from the lowest level of subatomic particles to the highest levels of cultural imagination." (64)

In demurring from Carroll's initiative, I do not mean to reject the realm of theorizing to which his program appeals (sometimes rather sheepishly) for its scientific backbone, evolutionary psychology. To be sure, that subdiscipline has been plagued by a scarcity of hard evidence that might substantiate one "Just-so Story" about emergent dispositions at the expense of rival hypotheses. But this drawback may be mitigated someday by new sources of information, and meanwhile there is much to be learned about cross-cultural regularities that are suggestive of biological roots and adaptive functions in a broadly Darwinian sense. That is why I agreed to contribute an encouraging foreword to one of the cultural evolutionists' most promising books, Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson's anthology The Literary, Animal.

The chapters of that volume, along with most of the other studies that Carroll now marshals as evidence of an incipient intellectual revolution, are interdisciplinary efforts. Examining literary productions, from myths and fairy tales through Shakespeare plays, they uncover motifs and narratological patterns pointing to traits of general human nature. The results belong to aesthetics, psychology, and anthropology, but not, as Carroll acknowledges, to literary criticism, because the goal here is data extraction and replicable social-scientific knowledge rather than identification and explanation of the features that set a given work apart from others.

Nevertheless, Carroll doesn't hesitate to claim that critical analysis per se also ought to take an explicitly Darwinian turn. Criticism, he holds, now suffers from a "blank slate" neglect of biological and behavioral universals--a neglect fostered on one side by impressionistic, idealizing, sentimentalizing humanists and on another by poststructuralist obfuscators and ideologues. A Darwinian outlook, in contrast, keeps a steady eye on "the urgent needs and driving forces in life--survival, reproduction, kinship, social affiliation, dominance, aggression, and the needs of the imagination." And thus the Darwinian critic, starting from the expected "life history" concerns of gendered authors, characters, and readers, possesses an objective analytic baseline for showing how a given work exemplifies, challenges, or complicates the norm. Such a critic, Carroll maintains, can be fully sensitive to the work's linguistic uniqueness without neglecting "the world outside the text" and its more or less mimetic representation.

To illustrate the difference that is made by approaching a work from the angle of evolved human interests, Carroll has elsewhere offered us sample analyses of well-known fictions, most notably Pride and Prejudice. In his treatment, the demanding cognitive style of Jane Austen, with its valuation of keen intellect and moral integrity, is shown to work in fruitful tension with that novel's raw life-history themes of "resource acquisition and reproductive activity." (65) This sounds dry and diagrammatic, but in Carroll's hands it is not; his discussion faithfully recounts the structure and tone of Austen's masterpiece. When compared with recent academic practice, with its predetermined lessons about patriarchy, class conflict, imperialism, desire, dialogism, and the self-cancellation of the signified, that is distinctly refreshing.

Here I must ask, however, whether this demonstration piece and others resembling it can be generalized to warrant an overtly Darwinian emphasis in criticism at large. Although Carroll derived his vantage on Pride and Prejudice from evolutionary theory, all that was needed to arrive at the same emphasis was open-minded attention. "Sex and property, family or kin relations, parenting, social relations, and cognitive power" (66) are Austen's manifest concerns, largely forecast in her novel's satirically playful opening paragraph. Indeed, the very choice of a realistic novel about courtship seems all too convenient on Carroll's part. Would his "life history" orientation be an equally good match for Beowulf, "Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God," A Tale of a Tub, Candide, "Kubla Khan," "There's a Certain Slant of Light ...," "Bateau Ivre," "Jabberwocky," "In a Station of the Metro," "Sweeney Agonistes," "The Red Wheelbarrow," "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," Six Characters in Search of an Author, Animal Farm, Waiting for Godot, Dutchman, Rhinoceros, "Daddy," The Crying of Lot 49 ...?

The question here is whether biologically grounded "human nature" themes and their evolutionary background deserve a privileged status in particular critical studies before we have even begun to find out where an author's priorities lie. Apparently so, in Carroll's estimation. He expresses impatience with traditionalist critics who "do not typically seek causal explanations in evolutionary theory," whereas Darwinians, he writes, "can identify the biological forces that are invoked or repressed in any given work and can assess how those forces impinge on meaning." "Invoked or repressed"? Carroll's omnibus rejoinder will perhaps explain what he means here by repression and whether he holds, with Derrideans and Lacanians, that the undetectability of a favored "force" is really a sign of its imperfectly negated, and therefore shaping, presence in the creating mind. (67) Isn't this the apriorism that Carroll decries in others?

In rebuking colleagues who complain about reductive discourse, Carroll points out that all explanatory efforts entail reduction. True enough. The pertinent question, however, is whether much of anything is explained by reduction to the most primordial level we can find, where perceived factors tend to be banal common denominators that aren't helpful for the particular instance. The logic of inquiry would seem to require that we begin tackling a literary problem just below the textual surface, where unified or divided intentions, biographical experiences, psychological stresses, linguistic resources, traditions and conventions, historical events, and social circumstances can all be seen to have played a role. That is the normal practice of most critics, but it is scarcely recognized, much less approved, in Carroll's less than fair division of the non-Darwinian literary professoriate into effete, allegorizing humanists and madcap poststructuralists.

Although he does attempt to promote his own school of literary criticism, Carroll has a larger aim that requires a quite different strategy. In his opinion, students of literature possessing a powerfully explanatory theory and a scrupulous research protocol can unearth what he chooses to call "real knowledge, knowledge that is consilient with the broader world of empirical research." Such lore consists not of apercus about one work or another but of universally valid truths about human propensities. The difference here is crucial, because "the broader world of empirical research" won't be impressed by findings that fail to extend beyond, say, the time scheme of Othello or the quaint theology of Paradise Lost. The rescue of literary study from its current doldrums, Carroll feels, will be effected only if its practitioners show that they, too, can cease being "passive consumers of knowledge" and become, themselves, scientific investigators into human nature. Accordingly, he recommends that literary academics be trained in statistical analysis and other "empirical methods" borrowed from the social sciences.

Underlying my several reservations about this program is an apparent disagreement with Carroll on the meaning of empiricism--a pivotal term for both of us, but one that points to different paths according to whether it is interpreted narrowly or broadly. From Carroll's manifesto I infer that he sees empiricism as the sum of formalized procedures that, employing "the severe logic of quantitative methodology," can uncover verifiable patterns in structure or behavior. By that definition, a critic who is accurately describing one text isn't being fully empirical. To count as such, our findings ought to be generalizable, couched in numbers, procedurally controlled against bias and error, and preferably collaborative, so that our neighbors in the flourishing sciences can trust them as meeting their own standards of acceptability.

Judged by these criteria, even Darwin would come under suspicion of having been a third-rate empiricist. He worked and published alone, didn't conduct experiments, didn't quantify his results, and was content to report his impressions instead of laying out data that others could check. Yet we regard the theory of natural selection as a triumph of scientific reasoning, because later investigators who pressed that theory from every angle have found it to be sturdy and indispensable. This suggests that empiricism resides not in any methodological protocol but in all-around responsibility to evidence.

Such responsibility, I would add, can be exercised in any nonaxiomatic field, regardless of whether the knowledge in view is particular or general. Empiricism entails setting aside partisanship and dogma, weighing the merits of competing hypotheses, attending to objections and recalcitrant facts, and wielding Ockham's razor. Darwin did all that; but so, more modestly, does a literary critic who is taking seriously the task of being as inductive and circumspect as possible about analysis of a text.

The subject matter of literary study is not human nature; it is literature. There is nothing trivial about trying to make rich sense of single works, or single careers, or single moments in literary history, that strike the common understanding as representing a pinnacle of insight and skill. To imply otherwise, as Carroll does in placing sorted and tabulated "real knowledge" ahead of critical judgment, is to exemplify, not to rectify, the low valuation of imaginative writing that is already depopulating our field while its remaining exponents quarrel with one another over methodology. Moreover, students who are still drawn to that field because certain poems and stories have heightened their self-awareness and whetted their appetite for teaching are left cold by charts, graphs, and tables. Carroll is proposing an improvement that would induce them to stay away or drop out, further constricting the already diminished lifeblood of our profession.

Many literary critics and scholars, whether or not they make an occasional perfunctory bow to some Continental guru, do earnestly observe empirical canons in their work. That is, they conduct themselves as if they actually cared about suiting their conclusions to the burden of available facts. Since the 1980s, however, in the face of intimidation from the academic avant-garde, they have been reluctant to speak openly about such "logocentric," "positivistic," "epistemologically naive" empiricism. But the intimidation appears to be easing now that the top poststructuralist lawgivers, to whom few academics are listening any longer, have reached their own nadir of bafflement and demoralization. This would seem to be a propitious hour, not for advancing the interest of one empirical school at the expense of others, but for urging a profession-wide ethic whereby evidence is treated as the only legitimate arbiter between competing theories and hypotheses.

A consensus on that point would surely strike an outsider as uncontroversial and hardly worth articulating. How else can one maintain a discipline than by observing impersonal standards to which all parties are equally accountable? But we who have watched "English" become the doormat of academic specialties know that epistemic cynicism, identity politics, cliquish power plays, animus against science, and a lax hospitality toward any theories that generate abundant discourse have stifled objective ,judgment and even, in some quarters, rendered it a term of abuse. (68)

Joseph Carroll and I are in agreement about this state of affairs. We differ, however, on what should be done about it. Carroll writes as the chief evangelist for a single critical faction that comes near to claiming a monopoly on intellectual seriousness, and he looks forward to a day when we will all pay homage to Darwin as an earlier generation did to Foucault. In contrast, I believe in affirming and rewarding what is already empirical in our field while standing apart from factions and allowing intellectual give-and-take (as in this present forum) to determine which current or forthcoming approaches to literature are most cogent and comprehensive.

As I have suggested, the biological and prehistoric emphasis of critical Darwinism makes for forced or downright irrelevant application to most textual analysis. Instead of conceding this limitation, Carroll draws instances from the most congenial texts he can find, avoiding the harder cases that might test his ambitious claims. Further, in a hermeneutic pirouette that would appear to border on mysticism, he counts the "repression" of adaptationist factors--that is, their failure to show up--as another form of presence. And then he proposes that literary study expand its range, adopting social-scientific problems and methods to which his Darwinian assumptions are, I grant, much better suited. What lies behind all of these moves is loyalty not to the goal of open-ended inquiry but to a theory that Carroll is bent upon exercising at all cost. When he entreats his colleagues to be more empirical and invites their attention to his own example, that partisanship is what they are likely to notice and deplore.

Frederick Crews

University of California, Berkeley
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Title Annotation:Responses
Author:Crews, Frederick
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2008
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