ninety-five theses (plus or minus ninety-three)

1.) Resolved: Exercises in literary theory are analogous to exercises in mathematics. This will (should?) probably offend both humanists and mathematicians, of which I am neither; in fact, I’ve never actually studied literary theory, whereas I have studied a little bit of math. The basic idea arises from the received insight (from my brother, a medievalist scornful of theory, and my wife, a biology and English major enthusiastic about it) that virtue inheres in adopting a “theoretical” standpoint to see a text differently, irrespective of the truth of that perspective.

You might now wish to argue that “irrespective” is categorical to the point of dismissiveness. I don’t intend dismissiveness, but consider the problem of adding a proviso like “… subject to boundary conditions of obvious falsity” to that previous sentence: Is the statement “Achilles is not a character in THE ILIAD” inadmissible in literary theory? In the utter absence of information, I strongly, strongly doubt it is inadmissible. I’m not certain this is a weakness…

… just as it is undeniably not a weakness in, say, geometry, to relax Euclidean axioms, or in logic to relax the law of the excluded middle, and so on in various mathematical territories where no one questions the utility of assumptions that are not only questionable in their applicability to the real world (which is the worst that can be said of literary assumptions, although the best that can be said is likewise “likely true of…”), but in active contradiction of known truths.

This has unpalatable consequences for hard-nosed cognitive neuroscientists like myself, who must now admit that Freudian literary analysis may have some value. It’s interesting to think about what that value might be — certainly there’s the obvious case in which our knowledge of the world is revised to make the theory applicable, which happens frequently for mathematics, or so my physicist friends would have me believe. But what about cases where the prospect of the theory being applicable seems vanishingly small? The question of applicability doesn’t seem to concern literary theorists or pure mathematicians. You could say that mathematicians are in pursuit of truth, but aren’t they really just in pursuit of validity — valid deductions from ZFC? Which is arguably similar, at least in form, to what literary theorists are pursuing — valid deductions from, e.g., Freudian assumptions. I am, of course, equally in pursuit of valid deductions from countless internalized cognitive neuroscience axioms — but if those axioms are disproved, I concede that my deductions are devalued; I don’t think literary theorists or pure mathematicians would make that concession. Nor am I necessarily convinced they should.

I suppose this is all just syntactic ornamentation on the tired question of what, other than a means to optimize our actions, knowledge is good for. I know other people have thought more deeply about this than I have, so I’m not going to try, except maybe to observe (possibly wrongly) that all the answers seem to have an aesthetic character. Alternatively, maybe their value is metacognitive or otherwise instrumental — deep pursuit of knowledge for its own sake teaches you to appreciate the consequences of assumptions, to allow yourself to pursue things without obvious immediate-term value, or something of that nature. Interestingly, though, the utility of this kind of preoccupation would seem to manifest at the species, not the individual, level — out of a lot of very competent theoretical chemists, you only get a few Ted Taylors. But now we’ve really veered off into Bat Country…

2.) Resolved: The Supreme Court is worthless to the extent that its decisions can be predicted by the lay public. This statement, perhaps even more ignorant than the preceding one, arose from a brief comment in a BOSTON LEGAL episode (4.17, “The Court Supreme”; gist: “Four of the justices will vote with you and four against you, so target Kennedy”) and has recently been the subject of bitter debate between me and my wife. My reasoning: If a justice’s vote can be consistently predicted by a half-bright person on the street — i.e. one who understands the broad strokes of American liberalism and conservatism and knows the justice’s position on that continuum — then the actual jurisprudence is nothing more than ornamentation on a decision that any half-bright political partisan could make. SY feels that the jurisprudence has some inherent value even if the outcome is predictable from extrajudicial principles. She’d object to my characterization of the principles underlying American partisanship as extrajudicial; I do acknowledge a strong relationship between law and politics, but I don’t see why legal decisions should be disposed to fall in line with partisan dispositions. The very fact that the practice of law requires expertise would suggest that, if a half-bright political partisan were called upon to make legal decisions, he or she should deviate from expert judgment a substantial portion of the time. (I am obviously presenting SY’s argument in denatured form, partially because I disagree and partially, related, because there’s probably a key piece of it I don’t understand; if I’ve made it seem like she’s made an obvious error, the error is mine, not hers.)

Anyway, the interesting thing about this disagreement is that, if I’m right about the intellectual exercise of literary theory having utility irrespective of its veracity, I’m plausibly wrong in my assertion that the high-flown legal reasoning of a Supreme Court justice is valueless just because its end product is reliably partisan. An exercise in strict constructionism might have the same kind of value as an exercise in Freudian theory. If that smacks of damning with faint praise, well, don’t hang out with Freudian theorists — or, alternatively, consider that partisan justices might better polish their opinions elbow by elbow with their fellow theoreticians, at a university.

It is worth noting at this time that, although the Supreme Court has a reputation for being quite partisan, I do not actually have anything resembling proof that it is, hence the slyly conditional form of my thesis. I view blog posts as more akin to math or literary theory than cognitive neuroscience — relatively unmarred, that is, by disproof of their axioms.


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