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Quarrelsome: Response to Camp, Harold, and Chodat

Editorial Note: In this article Jonathan Kramnick responds to Elisabeth Camp, James Harold, and Robert Chodat, whose articles can be found in Issue #3

Talk about interdisciplinarity has been so concerned lately with the relation between the humanities and the natural sciences that one sometimes forgets that the term has any other meaning. So it is refreshing to see this crop of papers about the much older “quarrel” between literature and philosophy. Although the three papers I was asked to comment upon share little in the way of common ground—Camp discusses the self; Harold is concerned with genre; and Chodat takes up pragmatism—they do have a common structure. The philosophers spend some time with literary texts; the literary scholar reaches over into philosophical debate. And in doing so, each reveals something about the art of the other: how philosophy or literary study poses questions, treat texts, and make arguments.

Elizabeth Camp for example pursues a theory of the “rich, substantive selves” she thinks we need “to evaluate our past actions and to guide future ones” by first looking back at Wordsworth's The Prelude. The paper quotes liberally from the poem to establish what she takes to be Wordsworth's model of a teleological selfhood grounded in the natural order of things. On this view, nature provides Wordsworth with an already formed self. He need only discover that he is a “Poet of Nature” through the various incidents he chooses to recount in his great autobiographical poem. Crossing the Alps, stealing a boat, mourning the boy of Winander, and the like reveal his “'true self', 'Nature's self,' waiting to be actualized.” Wordsworth describes a “robust” selfhood, but his terms are untenably ontological and teleological. He is committed to the discovery of real, actually existing selves and believes that every self has a pre-set task. So even though Wordsworth's self may be “robust,” it fails to provide a model for us, loathe as we are to commit ourselves either to ontology or teleology: “It is most certainly not the case that Nature designates individual people for particular tasks, like being a Poet, and then manipulates their surrounding circumstances—conjuring an advancing storm, say, or orchestrating their discovery of a little boat on a lake—to mold those individuals into agents capable of performing their allotted tasks.” It is most certainly not the case, in other words, that Wordsworth is right, so we had better look elsewhere to “generate robust, substantive selves.” Thus ends Camp's use of a work of literature, but not her use of literary terminology. Passing quickly over the “analytic debunking” that would dispense with the need for robust selves in the first place (a tradition here represented by Hume and Strawson), Camp spends the rest of the essay engaging critically with ideas of “narrative” selfhood and outlining at the end a solution to the problem of the self founded on “character.”

I don't have much to say about the discussion that follows the section on Wordsworth. My own inclinations lead toward the analytic debunking for which Camp has no patience. I'm with Hume. Every time I try to catch my “self” all I apprehend are some perceptions. I also don't see why we need to have a theory of the self in order to talk about actions, or why the self need be “robust” (whatever precisely that means) in order for agents to deliberate on their behavior. No matter. I'm sure Camp has good answers to these questions. And for what it's worth, I like the turn to character at the end. Where narrative selves are supposed to be the coherent subjects of their own stories, characters show simply a unified comportment over a given slice of time. We should “drop the insistence on life-long autobiographies in favor of many short overlapping stories.” Hear hear.

My concerns are instead with the handling of Wordsworth. Camp cites the poem copiously in the early going and seems genuinely interested in setting up her theory of selfhood in contradistinction to what she imagines to be his. Wordsworth thus provides both an historical foil and literary background. Even so, I found the discussion of The Prelude quite unsatisfying. Camp doesn't misrepresent the poem. Her quotations are in context and accurate. (Or they're accurate at least for the nonstandard 1850 edition she uses.1) Camp doesn't exactly misread the poem either. Rather, she doesn't read the poem at all. She treats the speaker's romantic autobiography as if it were Wordsworth's. This collapse of any distinction between the speaker of the poem and the poem's author produces a certain naiveté, as if all utterances in the poetic first person are actually Wordsworth's account of himself rather than lines of a poem he was writing. Camp jumps out of the gate with Wordsworth as the “lucky guy” who is endowed by nature with a “vital soul,” and from thence all bets are off: “Wordsworth's growing awareness of Man's place within an animate and spiritual Nature culminates in his choice to become a Poet, creating works of art that reveal the beauty and power of Nature to his fellow man.” Again, this sort of thing rings naïve for a reason: it fails to recognize the distinction between speaker and author, which, like the distinction between narrator and author in works of fiction, founds the critical sensibility. To recognize the distinction and distance between the speaker of a poem and the poem's author after all is to recognize that a poem is a made artifact, with a certain form. And to recognize that is to begin to get to work.

I'm pretty sure Camp knows this. In a revealing series of sentences midway through the discussion of the poem, she says that Wordsworth might be saved from   accusations of philosophical simplemindedness by an invocation of the poem's “'literary' status”: “A natural way to respond to the accusation that The Prelude manifests nothing so much as self-serving delusion is to point out the accusation depends on treating The Prelude in a flat-footedly literal manner, one which ignores the various ways in which Wordsworth the author signals that he is creating a character.” Yet, she thinks we can only take this so far. While the response is “fair enough as a matter of literary analysis,” it “renders The Prelude problematic as a model for a narrative conception of self-identity.” Why is this rendering a bad thing? Why shouldn't Wordsworth's creation of his speaker as a character in the poem feed into the sort of character-centered model of the self she advocates at the essay's end? Camp doesn't say. So these hints at a “literary” part of the puzzle are something of a missed opportunity. And that is too bad. We can fit Wordsworth precisely to the project Camp designs but that would require us to move past bare content and engage the poem as a formed artifact.

On the face of it, James Harold's thoughts about popular and serious writing are at some distance from Camp's discussion of the self. She uses Wordsworth to do some philosophy. Harold talks philosophically about a literary topic. Yet, here too I felt a certain grating against my own practices and expectations. Harold wants to “defend the view that there are real differences between the pleasures of genre fiction and literature” and in doing so he also wants to defend “critical evaluation, criticism that attempts to show how and why some works are better than others.” Harold's point is not to say that one shouldn't read genre fiction or that discerning what works are better than others makes any sort of statement about value. He defends a “highly context-sensitive sense of 'better'” and is motivated throughout to discover a rationale for reading and valuing mysteries, thrillers, horror fiction, and the like. I would agree with all this, were I asked, but I'm usually not. I think that is by itself interesting. For some time now, audible talk of judgment has rarely been heard in academic literary study. While many of us would surely say that the works we write about and teach are worth studying for a reason, overt acts of ranking and evaluating—this work is better than that; this facet of a work is why it's great—receded from the literary disciplines years ago as something like the mark of professionalism: the putting of the object of one's study at a distance of analysis. We buried judgment into the practical acts of veneration that go into making a living in English: this work repays one's interest, we say without saying, in different registers over the lifespan of the business. Likewise, spending much time on evaluative statements of one or another kind is typically a sign that one has left disciplinary pursuits for something else, like selling books. Witness the career of Harold Bloom. So I think a conversation with philosophy in which the terms involve judgment is likely to be one-way and brief.

And yet I also welcome Harold's provocation to lessen the analytic distance on occasion and ask whether detached critical reading should be the only kind we take seriously. Harold speaks of pleasure, which is certainly one part of the reading experience, but doubtless there are others: curiosity, shock, delight, fear, and so on and on through the many-faceted domain of the imagination. We've seen as of late some renewed interest in taking literary experience seriously as experience, in for example the work of Rita Felski. Much of that work would profit, or has already profited, by contact with philosophy, especially of the phenomenological bent that is not represented in these essays (the tradition of Merleau-Ponty, for example). We needn't consider the turn to experience as one away from rigor, however, so much as a bringing of our techniques of formal analysis to the qualities of literary experience itself.

I think there is reason to consider this kind of conversation as a quarrel-free point of contact between philosophy and literature. Both have something to say about the contours and character of phenomenal experience. Harold's comments on the importance of theme in the constitution of great works however ultimately get us on the wrong track. Talk of universal themes produces a certain eye-glaze, or worse an eye-roll, and I think ought to do so. The sort of argument Harold takes from Lamarque and Olsen—that the “characteristic purpose” of literary works is to develop in depth some allegedly universal theme (“family, mortality, inevitability, and freedom,” and so on)—advances little over Samuel Johnson, for whom identifying the universal was an important way to distinguish literature from other forms of writing at a moment when such distinction could provide energy to critical prose rather than run it into banality. In any case, talk of universal themes glazes the eyes because such themes always disappear when looked at closely. And they do so because they have neither formal nor phenomenal properties. But we needn't be detained by themes in order to soften the habitual detachment of critical reading. Neither critical reading nor philosophical argument has to forswear literary experience; indeed it is likely such experience has a form illuminated by each.

Robert Chodat's paper takes a different approach from either Camp or Harold. He doesn't use philosophy to demarcate kinds of literature or literature to establish an account of the self. He remains instead within the historical bounds of most work in his discipline and asks instead how one tradition of twentieth-century thinking (pragmatism) might or might not have influenced the work of one of its major authors (Walker Percy). Chodat weaves in an out of Percy's novels and works of non-fiction alike in order to reveal the author's attraction to a philosophical tradition with which he was also in considerable tension. The stakes are high: nothing less than the revolution in the mind-body problem brought about by combined developments in artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology. On Chodat's account, Percy finds in Pierce a resistance to the possibility of physical reduction elsewhere countenanced by the pragmatists themselves. According to Percy, humans “represent a break in the universe,” a “cleft in the order of being” which accommodates a set of terms different in kind from our talk about mere matter: selves and egos and, “upgraded into the theological register,” even “souls” and “spirits.” In contrast, contemporary pragmatists like Rorty and Dennett brush off such ontology-talk by answering “our most urgent questions—are we fundamentally material creatures or something more? — with a casual 'It all depends'.” So we are left with a choice between the commitment to “potent ideals of spiritual perfection” and “meliorist ideals of intellectual growth and progress.”

Chodat leaves this as an open question and yet, for all the delicate working in and out of Percy's texts, I felt myself missing some of the declarative brio of Camp and Harold, if only to make Percy feel a little less of a museum piece. The questions haunting this elegant and moving essay are indeed “urgent,” and yet the intellectual and literary terrain seem unnecessarily narrow. Pragmatism nudges out other areas of philosophy where the mind-body problem was at center stage, the tradition from Nagel through Chalmers and well beyond for example. And I couldn't quite see what in Percy's work itself spoke to the dilemmas of reduction with which he seemed evidently to be concerned, or how he attempted any sort of resolution other than by means of plot.

One famously urgent problem is how, in Chodat's words, the “view of the brain scientist, focusing on neural and other physical processes” could account for the felt experience these processes yield. With their presentation of first-person experience in third-person form, literary works do their part in addressing this problem. They don't solve it, but they do provide some ground for conversation.


1. Insofar as standard practice is to use the 1805 edition unless one has a particular interest in the 1850 edition, Camp's use of the 1850 edition as “The Prelude” rather than “The 1850 Prelude” does speak to disciplinary protocols, as well as to the fact that this poem supposedly about Wordsworth's ontologically grounded and teleologically unfolding self was, ironically enough, constantly revised, never finished, and not published in his lifetime.