Science Fiction Studies

#3 = Volume 1, No. 3 =  Spring 1974

Robert M. Philmus

A Dialogue Between Ideaphilos and Philologos (Intended to Prove Little and Clarify Much)

NOTE. In the following dialogue, no correspondence is intended between the fictitious characters therein and any particular students of literature, living or dead. It is admissible, however, to read the general term literature as a surrogate for the more specific science fiction.

The opposite of a true statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth. --Niels  Bohr.

Ideaphilos. I confess to being more than a little annoyed with you for your refusal to take sides in my argument with that no-good Idiokrasios over the outright reactionary tendencies of so much modern literature.

Philotogus. I explained to you the reason for my refusal.

I. So you did. And I must say I am a bit more puzzled by it than I was chagrined by your not expressing the sympathy I know you have for my point of view. What is this distinction between criticism and interpretation that so obsesses you?

P. It is, my dear Ideaphilos, quite simple, really. Criticism, as I see the enterprise, orients itself primarily and overtly towards value judgments, which may have--in a more or less narrow sense of the terms--a moral, esthetic, or ideological basis--and bias. As an interpreter, on the other hand, I aim principally at understanding literature rather than imposing normative criteria on it.

I. You will, I hope, excuse the bluntness of my observing that what you say is as naive as it is pretentious. Surely this pretense of neutrality on your part is just that: a pretense. You will not be so disingenuous as to deny that the interpretative effort is hardly value-free, as you call it.

P. Admittedly, the dividing line between criticism and interpretation is in practice sometimes as obscure--or obscured--as that separating pedantry from precision. Still, from the fact that the distinction is not always clear it is fallacious to infer that it altogether doesn't exist. You will not contend that it is pointless to distinguish music from noise merely on the grounds that the one occasionally modulates into the other?

I. Is that to say you concede the difference to be a matter of degree rather than of kind?

P. If you wish.

I. Well then, let me press the point. What is the degree of difference between criticism and interpretation? Surely if you elect to give your time and attention to a work of literature you imply judgment of value? And if you choose to attend to this work rather than that you are making a normative discrimination?

P. True enough.

I. In which case, your professed neutrality is really hypocritical. You assume certain values but don't bring them out into the open.

P. If a hypocrite is anyone who assumes some things without explicitly saying what they are, I shall have to accept the epithet. And indeed it is true that the profession of neutrality is a hypocritical evasion in all too many instances. But I did not claim, you may recall, that an interpreter is neutral: what I said is that the interpreter, unlike the critic, does not deal in overt value judgments. Moreover, if I am a hypocrite, you may be one also--or something worse.

I. What do you mean?

P. Exactly this: you admit that you have a weakness for literature that is good by literary standards? That just as I have some sympathy for your politics you have some for my aesthetics (excuse my using the terms loosely; we both understand that epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics tend to shade into one another)?

I. I suppose I can make that admission.

P. You suppose so? I certainly hope that is true, for otherwise you would be something of a hypocrite yourself, wouldn't you? After all, it is a bit hypocritical to devote your life to the study of literature, as you do, and not be interested in the stuff at all? Do you begin to see how the other side of the argument you used a moment ago begins to cut you?

I. I guess so. But look here, I don't see that there's any problem or difficulty in being concerned with literary and non-literary values at the same time.

P. Maybe not. But let's examine the matter. When you were arguing with Idiokrasios, you remember, you denounced the ideological bent of certain literary works, thinking it your duty as a critic to do so.

I. Yes, though by the way your distinction does not seem strictly valid here, since criticism in this instance requires interpretative understanding.

P. In this instance, perhaps-- though that is not always true. But I will grant the point for the moment since I am trying to get at something else. Now: the works you inveighed against you disapprove of, of course?

I. Of course.

P. You think them pernicious and would not want others to read them and be influenced by them: It would be well if they were consigned to oblivion?

I. True.

P. But isn't that end more likely to be effected by ignoring them altogether instead of carping about them and thus Deserving their names for posterity as well as giving them currency in our time? [Pause] I assume your silence indicates assent, and will therefore proceed to another, related matter. Do you suppose that your concern with the ideas expressed in a work of literature will persuade our writers to adhere to high literary standards and increase the demand for such standards on the part of their readers?

I. Isn't that self-evident? Obviously an insistence on well thought out and responsible ideas will ultimately produce great literature.

P. No doubt Idiokrasios would go along with you there, though the two of you could never get together on the meaning of your terms. But if your assumptions were correct, any of our philosophers should have produced works of greater literary value than have our poets; and on the same grounds treatises on, say, law or economics should be preferred by your would-be literary criteria to works of "pure literature" themselves. If you are not willing to accept that consequence, you must, I fear, admit to the error of your critical ways, which ignore what makes literature literature.

I. I shall admit no such thing. Apart from the fact that you seem to be reformulating the anathema of literature for literature's sake, the kind of literature I am interested in does deal with ideas, clearly and undeniably.

P. I have not denied it. What I have said, however, is that critics should not expect that by insisting on ideas they encourage good literature--indeed, they may discourage it. As for your anathema, I consider it equally heretical to divorce what a work of literature means from how it means--in effect, your practice when you abstract what you judge to be its ideational content.

I. But surely that is the function of criticism: to identify and elucidate the ideas in a literary work.

P. The function of criticism, possibly, but not of interpretation--unless idea is defined in a very special sense, one which connects it with structure and so on. In any other sense, literary merit has no essential relation to ideational content per se.

I. I cannot accept that, but I begin to see that the differences between us are greater than I had supposed.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home