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Is Criticism an Art or a Science?

Over at The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman profiles Franco Moretti, who does work in “computational criticism,” and asks:

Should literary criticism be an art or a science? A surprising amount depends on the answer to that question. If you’re an English major, what should you study: the idiosyncratic group of writers who happen to interest you (art), or literary history and theory (science)? If you’re an English professor, how should you spend your time: producing “readings” of the literary works that you care about (art), or looking for the patterns that shape whole literary forms or periods (science)?

Rothman says it’s both:

In ordinary literary criticism—the kind that splits the difference between art and science—there is a give-and-take between the general and the particular. You circle back from theory to text; you compromise, or ennoble, science with art. But Moretti’s criticism doesn’t work that way. Generality is the whole point. By the end of his journey, Moretti may be able to see all of literature, but he’ll see it as an astronaut on Mars might see the Earth: from afar, with no way home.

He’s right of course, but I wonder if a better way to think about criticism is to avoid the false distinction between art and science in the first place.

The fact is both art and science are a result of a personal curiosity that pushes the individual towards the exploration and analysis of “laws” or patterns. In art, the exploration is of color, language, sound, emotions, and so forth. In science, it is of material phenomenon. Science, of course, states explicitly the criteria that must be met for an analysis to be considered valid. Art does not. But the two are not so different.

While Moretti has done some interesting work, the problem with many “scientific” approaches to literature is that too often they don’t begin with a question to be answered or a problem to be solved but are interested simply in proving the validity of a method for merely professional reasons. It’s the difference between a scientist who is fascinated with isotopes and energy conservation and who uses the scientific method to help answer his pressing questions, and one who is interested in the scientific method alone and who chooses to look at isotopes and energy conservation as a means of proving the validity of a method. The results are data dumps no one reads, answers to questions no one is asking or answers to questions that have already been answered.

In short, such approaches to the humanities—unlike both real science and real art—often lack imagination. In an excellent reexamination of C.P Snow’s (often misunderstood) two cultures argument in the current issue of Books & Culture, Alan Jacobs passes on this wonderful critique of “professionalism” from Loren Eiseley in a 1964 essay for The American Scholar:

Happily, the very great in science, or even those unique scientist-artists such as Leonardo, who foreran the emergence of science as an institution, have been singularly free from this folly. Darwin decried it even as he recognized that he had paid a certain price in concentrated specialization for his achievement. Einstein, it is well known, retained a simple sense of wonder; Newton felt like a child playing with pretty shells on a beach. All show a deep humility and an emotional hunger which is the prerogative of the artist. It is with the lesser men, with the institutionalization of method, with the appearance of dogma and mapped-out territories that an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves begins to dominate the university atmosphere.

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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