#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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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.
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