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Can Analytic Philosophy and Literary Criticism be Friends?
by Andrew Escobedo

When David Lee Miller, knowing of my interest in Anglo-American philosophy, asked me to write something about what benefits this philosophy might offer literary critics, I was pleased but also surprised. I did not think that anyone would be interested enough to ask. After all, there is not so much an active feud between our two disciplines as there is simply hostile silence. When I began using concepts from analytic philosophy a few years ago, I did so in a very piecemeal fashion without any intention of applying the field’s methodology more broadly. I was curious, for example, if one could adjudicate clearly the attribution of agency implied by Redcrosse Knight’s claim, regarding Terwin’s suicide, that the villain Despaire was “[t]he author of this fact” (The Faerie Queene I.ix.37). Whom did Terwin’s death actually belong to? Likewise, it struck me that Milton criticism was not as precise as it might be about what Milton meant by asking “what cause” (Paradise Lost I.28) led Adam and Eve to violate divine law. What is the relation between causes and choices? I even wondered if one could spell out clearly the level in commitment indicated by Macbeth’s description of his stroll to Duncan’s chamber as “the way that I was going” (Macbeth 2.1.42) when he might have said “the way that I am going.” Does the former in fact amount to a statement of intention? These are somewhat strange questions, I will confess, and they led to somewhat strange answers, but insofar as I made progress on them I did so with the help of analytic philosophy.

So, my answer to the question contained in the title of this essay is: yes, of course analytic philosophy and literary criticism can be friends, and they should! Both disciplines sprang from a similar moment in modernity, a late-nineteenth-century clustering of British and Vienna-based logicians and philosophers of science and language, on the one hand, and a clustering of American and British rhetoricians, humanist critics, linguists, and philologists, on the other. This friendship is a match made in heaven, provided that one has faith, as a couple like Britomart and Amoret demonstrates, that opposites attract. Each supplies the deficits of the other. We literary critics tend to work by rich association, whereas philosophers work by painstaking analysis. Critics strive for resonance, philosophers for lucidity. We’re usually lumpers, they’re usually splitters. We both believe in intellectual rigor, but for us that often means asking if one has added enough examples and analogues, whereas for them it often means asking if one has subtracted irrelevant examples and analogues. Given how much we have to offer each other, we certainly can and should be friends. But I have no rod of Cambina that might magically end the discord that has for some time divided this Triamond and Cambell. Instead, this essay will try to offer “reasons to restraine / From blouddy strife, and blessed peace to seeke” (The Faerie Queene IV.iii.47).

“Blouddy strife” is an exaggeration, but some bad blood lingers between literature and philosophy departments in America, and also, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Britain. Part of the ill feeling can be traced to the exchange, starting in the mid-1970s, between John Searle and Jacques Derrida. The discourtesies and misunderstandings involved in this debate are the subject of a recent book,[1] and for his part Searle extended his dissatisfactions with deconstruction to the suggestion, inter alia, that literary critics ignore authorial intention because they dislike the hard work of discovering it. (A rather implausible claim: academics are far more likely to fabricate avenues of work and research than to ignore existing ones.) In any case, this and other exchanges created a chilly relationship between the two disciplines, and in part contributed to an isolation of analytic philosophy within the humanities in general, an isolation that philosophers did not always try to remedy. At a Carnegie Mellon graduate student conference I attended in 1991, a philosophy doctoral candidate had organized a panel titled “Can Philosophers Talk to Other Humanists?” He was mostly pleased to conclude that the answer was “no.” Analytic types can be prickly in this way. The philosopher David Hill has joked that analytic philosophy comprises “the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.”

Of course, analytic philosophy is no more a single, unified practice than is literary criticism. Its history through the twentieth century features many changes. The turn against philosophical idealism in the early decades of the century, by philosophers such as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell, was characterized by symbolic logic, ideal-language analysis, and concept analysis. A distinctly scientific emphasis became central in the 1930s and 40s, associated with the Vienna Circle’s efforts to link the meaningfulness of propositions to empirical verification, a view generally known as logical positivism. The decades following World War II saw a reaction against this view in the turn to ordinary-language analysis, the phase of analytic philosophy probably best known to literary critics. Yet since the 1970s it would probably be impossible to identify analytic philosophy with any single view or method: it encompasses moral philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of action, possible worlds semantics, empirically-oriented philosophy of mind, experimental philosophy, and many more topics. Despite this diversity, most analytic philosophers are united in the view that thinkers should make their arguments as explicit as possible, clearly defining terms and anticipating counter-arguments. Perhaps even more distinctly, they mostly agree that a philosophical investigation should ideally break its problems down into parts small enough to handle with precision. This is where literary critics have been the least inclined to accord with analytic philosophy and where, I suspect, we are most likely to benefit from it.

Now, before proceeding I should note that literary critics have certainly made use of Anglo-American philosophy. J. L. Austin’s work on speech acts, Wittgenstein’s ideas about rule-following and language games, and Stanley Cavell’s treatment of skepticism have played important roles in literary criticism generally and Renaissance literary studies more specifically. But critics have tended to understand such work as a negative response to certain earlier trends in analytic philosophy (which to some degree it certainly was), and have been less interested in how this work has continuity with and continues to be used in the analytical tradition. Many critics are likely to have read Philosophical Investigations and How to Do Things with Words, but fewer have worked their way through the Tractatus and Philosophical Papers. This is not a complaint, but simply an observation that the limited engagement with analytic philosophy undertaken by literary critics has tended to be couched in anti-analytic sentiments.

The philosophy that has been crucial for critics, as everyone knows, comes from the continental tradition. To take a local example: two recent (and excellent) essays for The Spenser Review are devoted to Derrida and Hegel.[2]  Obviously, philosophy in general does not repel critics; it is the analytic variety in particular that sometimes makes them scowl. In a 2014 collection of essays titled Shakespeare and Continental Philosophy, for example, the editors describe the volume’s intended purpose to counter the “obliviousness” of “Anglophone philosophical critiques with the richness of the engagement with the works of Shakespeare … by continental philosophy.”[3] Indeed, literary critics usually see analytic philosophy through the eyes of continental philosophers, and those eyes are often hostile. Santiago Zabala and Creston Davis have recently complained that “analytic philosophers … are stuck on the act of policing a rule of linguistic meaning… . These are the ones who still today turn philosophy into a slave to the hard sciences, especially physics. But analytic philosophers are enslaved to their own methods, which ignore humans’ existential and spontaneous creative powers of thought—the very cornerstone of philosophy since its inception.”

Alain Badiou has likewise suggested that analytic philosophy’s assumption of “unilateral privilege to scientific language” involves “disdain or contempt or the closing of one’s eyes to the fact that even today the overwhelming majority of humanity is out of reach of such a language.”[4] The dislike of other philosophers for the analytic method extends even to writing style, which Martha Nussbaum has dismissed as “a style correct, scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid, a style that seemed to be regarded as an all-purpose solvent in which philosophical issues of any kind at all could be efficiently disentangled.” Literary critics tend to enjoy these potshots by other philosophers. Charles Martindale quotes Nussbaum’s judgment with approval, adding that “analytic philosophers can easily be accused of talking only to themselves. For me, one of the great scandals of the modern academy is the way that Anglo-American philosophers have, in the main, ceased all constructive engagement with the rest of the humanities, employing a special hermetic style, full of equations and virile language.”[5]

These assessments, to put it bluntly, are not just. True, analytic philosophers have developed a specialized and carefully defined vocabulary, but they use this vocabulary to talk about just about everything under the sun: time, space, belief, politics, emotion, action, luck, minds and bodies, art, math, God, love, evolution, humor, race, and on and on. True, they tend not to care for the methods of continental philosophy and literary theory, but so what? They admire much literary criticism, and sometimes use it when they write about art, narrative, metaphor, and the like.[6] There are literary critics, after all, who don’t care much for literary theory, or what used to be called Theory. As for the battery of jargon in analytic philosophy—yes, it is a formidable lexicon, but it is almost never gratuitous or pretentious. Terms such as compatibilist, intension [sic], externalist, brute luck and option luck, non-cognitivist, fictionalism, iff, abduction, mereology, and the like do real conceptual work for the philosophers who employ them.

Nor can I accede to the animadversions against analytic writing style. I would confidently pit the prose of Sarah Stroud, Galen Strawson, Gary Watson, Jennifer Saul, Harry Frankfurt, and Susan Wolf against that of Nussbaum at any time. If analytic philosophy has a signature style, it is clarity. Certainly, clarity offers no panacea when one is confronted with a sea of unfamiliar terminology or symbols, but such terminology need not amount to what Martindale calls a “hermetic style.” Take as an example this passage from an essay by Kit Fine, in which he considers whether possible-worlds logic can give an adequate account of the truth conditions of “permission statements”; his case study comes from the Adam and Eve story:

Let us use p0 for “Eve eats the apple from the Tree of Knowledge,” p1 for the sentence “Eve eats the first apple from Alternative Eden,” p2 for “Eve eats the second apple from Alternative Eden,” and so on. What God initially permits might then be expressed in the form:

G1: P [C1 ∨ C2 ∨ C3 ∨ …],

where C1, C2, C3, … run through all the infinite conjunctions of the sentences p1, p2, p3, … .

Now let C1′, C2′, C3′, run through all of the infinite conjunctions of the sentences p0, p1, p2, … (adding p0). Then the infinite disjunction C1 ∨ C2 ∨ C3 ∨ … is logically equivalent to the “expanded” disjunction C1′ ∨ C2′ ∨ C3′ ∨ … (since to eat infinitely many of the apples a1, a2, a3, … is to eat infinitely many of the apples a0, a1, a2, a3, …). So by the Substitutivity of Logical Equivalents, God’s initial permission statement should be equivalent to:

G1′: P [C1′ ∨ C′2 ∨ C3′ ∨ …].[7]

I do not understand most of this. I think Fine is working toward the possibility that the divine permission to eat infinitely from the fruit of Eden might be understood to conflict with the divine prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But overall the paragraph relies on a system of logical notation with which most non-philosophers are simply unfamiliar. This, I take it, exemplifies Martindale’s complaint about equations and virile language. But a page later Fine restates the problem in a different form:

Of course, it is not required, when one has been permitted to do something, that one should do one of the things explicitly permitted. If God permits Eve to eat the first or second apple (and says nothing else), then she is free to eat either apple. But she is also free to refrain from eating either apple. She must of course do something, if only twiddle her thumbs. But she cannot do anything she likes. She cannot burn down the Garden of Eden, say, or poison Adam. But we must therefore suppose, if we are to make sense of the idea that she is free to refrain from eating either apple, that she is already permitted to do certain things “by default.” (Fine 320)

This is a perfectly clear, amiable, and reasonably funny comment on what “permission to do something” involves with reference to Eve in Eden. It is not, certainly, the heart of Fine’s argument about possible worlds and permission statements, but it indicates that Fine assumes that his symbolic logic ought to have a connection to our ordinary intuitions about things like permission, prohibition, and obligation. The vast majority of analytic philosophers, I would suggest, share this assumption, even when elsewhere describing problems in terms that most non-specialists cannot follow.

Most analytic philosophy is not as technical as Fine’s work, and more readily accessible to a range of humanist scholars. Nonetheless, I will acknowledge that the precision demanded by the practitioners of this school will often not be appropriate for literary interpretation. The demand for exact formulation sometimes leads analytic types to unsuitable approaches to literary interpretation. One winces, for example, at the subtitle to Colin McGinn’s 2006 philosophical study of Shakespeare: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays. This will not do, of course. If the meaning is “behind” the play, then one presumably can peel away the latter to reveal the former, an assumption that appears to govern a number of McGinn’s interpretations, alas. Yet literary texts perform their meaning as much as they communicate it, and so this meaning often cannot be captured in strict logical formulations or extracted as propositions. If analytic precision must not divorce meaning from its form, however, it can nonetheless help provide more lucid and accurate descriptions of the interplay between the two.

Likewise, in recommending a rapprochement with analytic philosophy, I am not urging that literary criticism abandon its decades-long affair with the continental tradition. Continental philosophy’s attention to how one says something along with what one says makes it a natural companion for the study of literature. Analytic and continental traditions have their characteristic concerns and styles, and Gary Gutting is unduly pessimistic when he concludes that “the continental-analytic gap will begin to be bridged only when seminal thinkers of the Continent begin to write more clearly.”[8] In terms of philosophy’s relationship to literary study, I prefer a formulation that Lars Engle once proposed to me, which takes literary art to involve in a fundamental way an experience of the sublime. Analytic philosophy, with its commitment to logical clarity, works out its problems step-by-step, and you can’t get to the sublime by going step-by-step. Continental philosophy, by contrast, works more often by what Engle calls “vatic generalization,” wherein the philosopher, confronted with a logical tension or contradiction, leaps via a sublime intuition to a more general and fundamental level of the problem.[9] (For example, it is hard to see how one goes step-by-step to reach the conclusion that the bloom does not negate the bud or that language is the house of being.) Literary interpretation shares with continental philosophy an investment in the sublime that is less crucial for analytic thinking. Insofar as the sublime puts us in mind of Kant, I might further describe the methodological distinction between analytic philosophy and literary criticism in terms of what the Critique of Judgment calls “disputing” and “quarreling.”[10] According to Kant, people dispute about what they think is provable according to determinate concepts, whereas they quarrel about matters that they suspect must remain to some degree indeterminate. Quarreling refuses both relativism (everyone has her own taste) and universal objectivity, and this double refusal is characteristic of much literary scholarship. Now, in practice, analytic philosophers do plenty of quarreling and literary critics often dispute, but some of the former have an avowed goal of scientific precision whereas the latter usually do not.

Having acknowledged the real methodological and disciplinary differences between analytic philosophy and literary scholarship, what can we point to as instances of common ground and useful appropriations? Plenty of instances, even when we confine ourselves to Renaissance studies. A.D. Nuttall throughout his career made rich employment of philosophy of all stripes, including the analytic variety. My favorite is perhaps his use of A.J. Ayer’s comments about Calvinism to make sense of the temporal causality of election: “being one of the elect would be a necessary condition for being virtuous, from which it would follow, that being virtuous would be a sufficient condition of having been chosen one of the elect … [Calvinists] abstained from sin in order to have been saved.”[11] In Milton studies, critics such as Dennis Danielson, Stephen M. Fallon, and Harold Skulsky have appealed to analytic philosophical categories of libertarianism, compatibilism, and hard determinism to discuss the problem of free will in Paradise Lost. Tzachi Zamir’s Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama, operating in a largely analytic frame, has used the notion of invalid-yet-rational reasoning to talk about the kind of truth claims that imaginative literature advances.[12] The philosopher and literary critic Andrew Cutrofello slips analytic terminology into the Shakespeare collection I mentioned earlier, Shakespeare and Continental Philosophy, with an essay about Othello that challenges Stanley Cavell’s interpretation of the Moor as unconsciously looking for a pretext to kill his wife whom he knows to be innocent. Cutrofello employs Bertrand Russell’s distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance to suggest, in a closely argued interpretation, that Othello does not suffer from skepticism but rather from delusion.[13]

Stepping away from Renaissance literary studies for a moment, we can also appreciate the role that analytic philosophy has played in theoretical projects both past and recent. Charles Altieri’s Act and Quality remains, in my view, one of the most impressive accounts of literary hermeneutics in late-twentieth century American letters, and much of its achievement relies on an engagement with and criticism of the philosopher Donald Davidson’s notions of action and intention.[14] Davidson’s potential value for literary theory was the subject of a collection a few years ago, edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock: Literary Theory after Davidson.[15] This collection covered a variety of literary topics, including hermeneutics, metaphor and literal meaning, fiction and truth claims, intention, narrative, and more. More recently, Richard Strier has influentially employed W. V. Quine’s distinction between use and mention to talk about the interplay of formalism and historicism in modern literary scholarship.[16] Steven Shaviro’s book on speculative realism discusses issues of growing interest to Renaissance studies—such as object-oriented ontology and process-metaphysics—and Shaviro bases his theory not primarily on continental thinkers but rather on the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.[17] Furthermore, I would argue that some of the most lucid and successful portions of the book (e.g., 85-107) occur during Shaviro’s exposition of Thomas Nagel and Galen Strawson, who discuss the problem of other minds.

But what do all these examples add up to? Is there a common method or style toward which literary critics gravitate when using analytic philosophy? Differences among individual writers are vast, of course, but commonalities do emerge, shared attributes that nearly everyone in literary studies should find valuable. One is a tendency toward clarity. That it is good to write clearly is a truism, and all sorts of academic spheres prize lucidity, but it amounts to almost a principle in analytic philosophy that you should set out to make your readers understand you more than you should set out to impress them (although if you can do both no one will complain). Some people have worried in this regard that analytic philosophers set too high a premium on rationality in both their arguments and their exposition, but these philosophers do not in fact regard rhetoric or emotion as irrational. Most of them set the bar for “irrationality” rather high, reserving it for statements such as “the camera is not in the attic, but I am going there to fetch it” or “p is true, but I don’t believe p.” A commitment to clarity of exposition does not entail denying the rhetorical and affective dimension of discourse.

A second attribute, related to the first, is that much analytic philosophy encourages an attention to ordinary intuitions. This was, to be sure, most prominent in the ordinary language movement of the 1950s and 60s, and is less common in specialties such as formal logic, but with topics most likely to interest literary critics—such as moral philosophy, epistemology, and philosophy of action—analytic philosophy does usually try to match up even the most abstruse reasoning with quotidian experience. This, I think, offers a real benefit to our interpretive work, which involves among other things tracking readerly response to fictional events and poetic language. Such responses rely on ordinary intuitions about actions and language even more than they rely on complex theoretical formulations. Literary scholarship has long hewn to the hermeneutics of suspicion, whereby the critic exposes the hidden agenda of the text, and lots of people are looking for other avenues of analysis. (For a Spenserian take on this question, see Leah Whittington’s recent essay in The Spenser Review.)[18] Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique (Chicago, 2015) is merely the latest expression of this search in a long line of commentary. Her solution is Latourian network-theory (more about that later), but analytic philosophy offers another resource. Although it can be skeptical, it is not suspicious. It assesses arguments more than it questions motives. If this stance sounds naïve, I will only say that there is plenty of suspicion to go around in literary criticism and we need not fear running out of it.[19]

A third attribute, related to the second, involves an emphasis on argument rather than on “position.” This is not to deny that analytical philosophers situate their arguments in relation to previous ones. But they spend comparatively little time on the reflexive meditation about the shape of their discipline and the relation of their argument to this shape. Of course, it matters to them if an argument is neo-Kantian, hard determinist, pragmatist, positivist, etc., but they use such characterizations to distinguish arguments from each other rather than to assess their merit. That assessment depends on the degree to which conclusions follow from premises. I would not mind seeing more of this attitude among literary critics, such that the question “how good are your arguments?” stands on equal footing with “where are you coming from?” Certainly, everyone is coming from somewhere, and there is no ground-zero of conceptual thinking—nor would we want there to be, as Cora Diamond has argued.[20] But this recognition does not negate the fact that some arguments are better than others: some claims are better substantiated by evidence, and some conclusions follow more clearly from premises. If we think the premises are mistaken, we can argue about it. If a given position has been marginalized in scholarship, then that should be a matter of argument.

Looking in the other direction, what attributes of literary criticism might benefit analytic philosophers? Many, but two in particular come to mind regarding the exposition of texts. One is our inclination to call paraphrase a heresy. To describe a text in other terms, although opening rich possibilities of interpretation, also risks a distortion of that text. We have long held this view of literary art, but have recently applied it to nonliterary texts as well. We now assume, I think rightly, that although an exposition of, say, The Bondage of the Will should attempt to reconstruct a coherent sense of Martin Luther’s argument, it should also record the lack of sense that might emerge in detailing these arguments. This lack of sense is not just a deficiency; it is part of the text. The other attribute involves literary critics’ sensitivity to generic and contextual associations informing the meaning of texts. For instance, the philosopher Linda Zagzebski objects to Boethius’s sixth-century definition of a person—an individual substance of a rational nature— by claiming that “some of what is involved in being rational seems to be irrelevant to being a person, for example, the ability to perform mathematical calculations.”[21] It is actually the literary critic, or the cultural or intellectual historian, most likely to point out that Boethius would not have understood “rational” as simply a calculative ability. The premodern notion of reason involved among other things a teleological relation to the world; one cannot apply the modern notion of reason to Boethius without risk of distortion. I think that more often incorporating these attributes into their work would make analytic types not just better readers, but better philosophical readers, more alert to “the tendency to substitute rational reconstructions of a philosopher’s views for the views themselves,” as Daniel Garber has described it.[22]

In any case, returning to philosophy’s benefit for us: to see value in the analytic emphasis on clarity, ordinary intuition, and argument does not require literary criticism to give up anything, but simply capitalizes on strengths it already possesses. We are talking about general intellectual virtues that many disciplines—and many friends—can share. I would like now to shift to a few more specific topics and arguments in analytic philosophy that are not widely known by Renaissance literary scholars and that might be of interest to them. One such subject involves the problem of identity. This has been a recurring topic in our field, going back to the nineteenth-century claim that the modern “self” emerged in our period. It has raised a whole debate about periodization wherein the Renaissance is variously aligned with the medieval, the modern, or a phase somewhere in-between. Most recent scholarship has been anxious to eschew a modern Cartesian model of selfhood for the study of Early Modern culture and literature. Historical phenomenology and Foucauldian discourse theory have provided crucial ways of describing selfhood as it might have been experienced before it was defined by an autonomous ego.

But critics have been less inclined to avail themselves of analytic models, most of which refuse essentialist notions of the self, some of them aggressively so. Derek Parfit, for example, has influentially (and controversially) developed a model of selfhood that more or less dispenses with personal identity, arguing that the question of what psychological relations the self bears—including relations to other people—trumps the question of which self is the real “me.” In this model, as Parfit has put it, persons are more like nations than Cartesian egos, a variety of memories, reflections, and anticipations occupying the same territory, with contested borders and colonies. Not all philosophers have been happy with this radically decentralized notion of self. Christine Korsgaard, without disputing the anti-essentialist dimension of Parfit’s picture, has criticized it by offering a Kantian model of agency in which the very act of choosing among competing desires and values assumes a continuity between one’s present self and those of the past and future. In her view, persons are less like nations and more like states, formal and deliberative organizations that attempt (sometimes unsuccessfully) to resolve conflicts through a hierarchy of values.[23] In part, the difference between these two views rests on the difference between conceiving of persons as subjects of experience and conceiving of them as agents of action. It would perhaps be an interesting question to ask of Spenserians, if we think of the landscape of The Faerie Queene as also a mindscape, whether the poem is more like a nation or a state. Is it a territory with blurry borders and little hierarchy, or a formal configuration that uses a hierarchy of values to try (and conspicuously fail) to resolve tensions?

A similar set of questions about the consistency of identity occupies Galen Strawson in an essay about narrative, which critiques the pieties of narrativist ethics that insist that an authentic sense of personhood depends on viewing one’s life as a complete story. Why would anyone want to live that way, wonders Strawson, opposing a “diachronic” orientation (in which the I that exists now shares identity with the I of the past) to an “episodist” orientation (in which the I* that exists now is discontinuous with the I of the past). This present I* certainly has autobiographical memories of past experiences, and some of these memories have a first-person character. But they are episodes rather than a continuous narrative, and in a crucial sense did not happen to me*. (Again, a question for Spenserians: is Spenser a diachronic or episodic poet?) On the other hand, Harry Frankfurt has proposed a hierarchical model of self and agency that depends—not on a coincidence of past and future selves—but on a coincidence of first- and second-order desires. First-order desires (desires for things) may conflict in ways over which we have little control, but second-order desires (desires about our desires) indicate a preference for which desire wins out and prompts us into action. Notice that even though this model of self is hierarchical, it operates according to self-identification rather than on self-mastery. For Frankfurt, we cannot force the first- and second- orders to correspond, but when they do we have personal agency, our evaluative system coinciding with our motivational system.[24] If this picture of self-reflexive autonomy sounds anachronistic and alien to the premodern world, consider how an Elizabethan author such as William Perkins describes the faculty of conscience, which operates by creating a doubled order of consciousness: “The mind thinks a thought, now conscience goes beyond the mind, and knows what the mind thinks … and from hence also it seems to borrow his name, because conscience is a science or knowledge joined with an other knowledge; for by it I conceive and know what I know.”[25] Given that the notion of conscience informs the psyche of so many Early Modern literary characters, Frankfurt’s account of second-order desires potentially offers interesting possibilities of interpretation and analysis.

As is apparent from the above comments, the question of identity and selfhood in analytic philosophy broaches the question of action, and this raises another topic of potential interest to Renaissance scholars. In recent years there has been an upsurge of literary attention to this issue, ranging from questions of stage performance and premodern models of action to questions about nonhuman animal agency and the agency of groups. But, again, critics have been disinclined to make much use of analytic distinctions among phenomena such as desire, wish, intention, cause, weakness of will, and compulsion, in part because critics worry that such precision will be at best irrelevant and at worse obfuscatory with regard to the literary representation of action. This is a missed opportunity, I think. A little more precision does not ruin the mystery. It helps rather than impedes our interpretive efforts, for example, to recognize clearly that the fact that circumstances cause an action does not amount to circumstances compelling it. (A relevant link to Spenserian poetry: a personification’s nature causes it to do what it does, but does not compel it, despite many scholarly claims to the contrary.) There is nothing anachronistic about the distinction between causing and compelling for a premodern setting: it goes back to Aristotle, and Luther and Calvin developed their psychology of action by means of a version of it. A natural ambiguity lies in the sentence, “His innate sinfulness makes Redcrosse Knight abandon Una,” and analytic philosophy of action can help us more exactly define the ambiguity without dissipating it. Indeed, philosophers of action sometimes work by positing distinctions and then watching carefully the ways in which the distinctions fall apart. For example, weakness of will is taken to refer to a failure to repel resistible impulses (and therefore taken to be blameworthy), whereas compulsion is taken to refer to an inability to repel irresistible impulses (not blameworthy). This is a useful division, refining but also harmonizing with ordinary intuitions about such matters. But philosophers also appreciate how hard it is to keep this division stable: at what point does an impulse become so strong that we stop calling the will weak and start calling it insufficient? Might not any failure of will call into question the difference between weak and insufficient?[26] Philosophers of action don’t expect to expunge all of the confusions, but they do try to describe the confusions as lucidly as possible.

Regarding such problems of action, take as an example a play that I have been thinking about a great deal lately, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. On the one hand, the play features numerous acts of decision: Bassanio decides to woo Portia, Portia decides to marry according to the terms of the lottery, Antonio decides to agree to Shylock’s bond, Jessica decides to elope with Lorenzo, Morocco decides to select that gold casket, Shylock decides to call in his bond, and so on. On the other hand, the play casts these decisions under the umbra of obligation and coercion: Bassanio’s financial straits, Portia’s father’s will, Antonio’s lack of immediate funds, Jessica’s unhappy domestic situation, Morocco’s limited interpretive skills—all these things obligate, pressure, or incline the characters to decide as they do. Shylock, when asked why he demands the profitless pound of flesh, even compares himself to people who compulsively fear cats or who urinate when they hear bagpipe music (4.1.46-61). Literary critics tend to look at a scenario such as this and see a message about the mysterious or paradoxical or self-subversive nature of human agency. Henry Turner remarks of Merchant, for example, that “we would be perfectly justified in arguing that no character decides anything and that the play’s central philosophical dilemma concerns neither the act of decision-making nor the decision to act, but the impossibility of decision.” Drew Daniel draws a similar lesson from the play: “Agency is constituted in and by a subjection that is not merely external and separate from agency, but is itself one of its modes of expression… . [F]reedom and its pleasures issue from a constitutive underlying subjection.” Richard Strier reads Shylock’s list of compulsive behaviors as a template for the compulsive nature of all action, one that illustrates “how little grip ‘motives’—what we say are the reasons for our behavior—have on our behavior.”[27]

I am, needless to say, quoting these remarks out of context, remarks which occur in searching and nuanced studies that I admire immensely. Compulsion is not in fact the central concern of any of these essays. But the comments quoted above do rely on an assumption that, I think, underwrites much literary interpretation today, namely, that doing something under pressure or out of obligation rather than preference effectively turns our actions into compulsions. Yet such a view risks making the choice to consent to a normative demand indistinguishable from the assault of an uncontrollable urge. This implied collapse of decision into reflex or impulse would seem to question the very category of human action, insofar as “action” amounts to something other than events that happen to occur or behavior that someone exhibits.

From an analytic philosophy of action perspective, this is too hasty. Certainly, the relations among consent, coercion, and compulsion are complicated—and especially so in The Merchant of Venice—but one can try to work out the complications rather than setting aside the distinctions in favor of paradox or negation. With his list of neurotic agents, Shylock arguably describes not the deep truth of human action but rather a kind of behaviorism gone mad, wherein our most momentous, ethically self-defining choices amount to little more than compulsively pissing ourselves when we hear the bagpipe play. The terrifying nature of this vision of compulsion depends on the felt difference between hysterically fleeing from pigs and cats, on the one hand, and deciding based on reasons whether to avoid them or not, on the other. I do not deny that one may find the subversion or mystification of agency in The Merchant of Venice, but the analytic perspective would encourage us to approach the issue in step-by-step terms that stay in touch with ordinary intuitions about human action. It may seem trivial, for example, to ask whether the suitors, when they select among the three caskets, are judging, choosing, or guessing, but one’s interpretation of the play will vary significantly depending on how one answers such a question.

Let me conclude by offering a few remarks about analytic philosophy’s relation to recent posthumanist thought, which has been going gangbusters among Renaissance critics. Posthumanism has valuably reframed the problems of action that we have been discussing, encouraging Renaissance scholars to view these problems through the lenses of physics, evolutionary biology, ecology, animal rights, metaphysics, and more. The upcoming volume of Spenser Studies, I am happy to say, will be a special issue devoted to the question of “Spenser and the Human,” guest-edited by Melissa Sanchez and Ayesha Ramachandran. The essays in this volume query the category of the human vis-à-vis a wide variety of Spenserian texts and issues. Especially for Renaissance literary scholars interested in action and agency, posthumanism is having a stimulating effect. Furthermore, there is no reason to assume a prima facie conflict between this movement and the protocols of analytic philosophy, as the above-mentioned example of Steven Shaviro suggests.

Yet analytic philosophy, like a good friend, does provide alternative perspectives by which posthumanist literary critics can double-check their accounts of agency. Posthumanist writers usually emphasize the distribution of agency to nonhuman things, describing objects and processes as themselves performing actions. Bruno Latour insists that “an actor is what is made to act by many others”; Karen Barad takes it that the causal interaction of things in the world constitutes “discursive practices”; Timothy Morton credits the oil under our feet with “dark designs of its own.”[28] One way to generalize about such claims is to say that things we treat as events—things that happen—are really actions performed by a multitude of agents. (It is very Spenserian.) Humans have no special ownership over actions: rivers, cows, storms, automobiles, and amoebae all change in the world in some way, and so equally deserve the title of “agent.” In a sense, there are no events, only actions.

Analytic philosophy provides a reverse mirror image of this claim via a doctrine, or set of doctrines, referred to variously as “hard determinism,” “epiphenomenalism,” and other titles. These doctrines, espoused by psychologists and neuroscientists as well as philosophers, state that the things that we treat as the springs of action—beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.—are the result of physical events in the brain, which are in turn results of antecedent physical conditions operating according to natural laws. In this view, mental phenomena play no causal role in the movements of the body, and so such movements are not different, essentially, from occurrences such as wind blowing and synapses firing.[29] We might still think of bodily movements as “actions” in a minimalist sense, as in Daniel Dennett’s account of the intentional stance we take toward computer chess programs and the behavior of mice.[30] But in the sense that we usually use the term, this view implies that there are no actions, only events. Other analytic philosophers have complained that even if this view is correct in some respects, it fails to address the relevant concern implied by the question “why did she do that?” If the response is, “she did that because synapse #4,345 fired,” one has arguably not answered the question but rather has changed the subject.[31] Action qua action needs to occur at a certain scale—perhaps a “human” scale—and the deterministic synapse answer is cast at an inappropriate level, or so the argument goes.

This debate in analytic philosophy would, I suspect, be a profitable one for posthumanist literary critics to consider, given that they often deal with fictional plots that appear to distinguish actions from events. This again involves a question of scale. If one zooms out to the planetary or solar level, or zooms in to the subatomic level, are there still “actions”? Do oceans have intentional “designs”; do quarks have “practices”? Are such terms still coherent if we redeploy them so far from their ordinary uses? These are not self-evident questions, and I do not suggest that analytic philosophy has the answers—most philosophers would probably concede that they do not know ultimately what the difference is between an event and an action. But we should perhaps consider that in literary art it is precisely the sometimes blurry line between action and event that creates dramatic and aesthetic interest. When Redcrosse Knight trips and falls into the well of life (The Faerie Queene I.xi.29), and when Glauce asks Merlin why Britomart needs to bother to fulfill an already-fated destiny (The Faerie Queene III.iii.25), part of the poetic effect arguably involves an ambiguity about whether the poem is describing an event or an action at these moments. A posthumanist perspective that turns every entity into an agent and every happening into an action may have to jettison this ambiguity as a casualty of doctrine.

If I had one analytic treat to offer to Renaissance literary critics, it would be Donald Davidson’s concept of “anomalous monism,” which he developed in a 1970 paper.[32] The monist part of this formulation takes mental and physical events to be made of the same stuff, refusing Cartesian dualism, and so very congenial to the metaphysics preferred in posthumanist thought. The anomalous part, however, denies that mental events can be explained nomologically according to general laws in the way that physical events can. This formulation allows us to describe actions according to our ordinary intuitions about desires, beliefs, motives, intentions, and mistakes, while affirming that such phenomena constitute a species of causality. Davidson, for example, argues that we should treat the reasons for our actions as the causes of our actions. Anomalous monism has received plenty of philosophical complaints, but I recommend it to critics because it resonates with popular posthumanist concepts, such as panpsychism and interobjectivity. Yet, unlike these concepts, anomalous monism operates on a scale that leaves intact much of our ordinary experience and understanding of action.

I have attempted to offer reasons why literary criticism and analytic philosophy can and should be friends. They are fellow humanists, both attentive to the workings of language, even if one tends toward formal logic and the other toward creative association. If poetry and philosophy must sometimes quarrel, as Plato says they do, then so be it: friendly quarrels often make better friends. It is true that in this essay I have put more emphasis on what analytic philosophy might offer literary criticism and less on what criticism might offer philosophy. I have done this partly because my audience is composed of literary critics, and more specifically Spenserians, who know their own virtues but are probably less familiar with the virtues of philosophers. I have also done it because we critics are natural associationists, ready to try out new lenses and filters, whereas analytic philosophers are not. Of course literary critics have much to offer philosophers. We can offer them a model of textual commentary that seeks not primarily coherence but instead a close attention to and admiration of gaps, inconsistencies, and reversals. We can offer them glimpses into the ways that art sometimes transports one vast intellectual distances that would otherwise require time-consuming hard thinking. If they do not immediately take our offerings, we should not scowl and turn away, but instead cheerfully offer again. After all, what are friends for?


Andrew Escobedo
Ohio University 

[1] Raoul Moati, Derrida/Searle: Deconstruction and Ordinary Language, trans. Timothy Attanucci and Maureen Chun (New York: Columbia UP, 2014).

[2] Gordon Teskey, “Edmund Spenser Meets Jacques Derrida: On the Travail of Systems,” Spenser Review 43.3.50 (Winter 2014), online, accessed 4 Dec. 2015, and Joe Moshenska, “Why Can’t Spenserians Stop Talking About Hegel? A Response to Gordon Teskey,” Spenser Review 44.1.2 (Spring-Summer 2014), online, accessed 4 Dec. 2015.

[3] Jennifer Ann Bates and Richard Wilson, eds., Shakespeare and Continental Philosophy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), 1.

[4] Santiago Zabala and Creston Davis, “Which Philosophy is Dead?” Aljazeera, 11 June 2013, online, accessed 2 Dec. 2015, and Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return of Philosophy, trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2004), 48. It should be noted that Badiou also offers criticism of continental philosophy and what he calls “postmodern” philosophy.

[5] Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Absence of the Ethical: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory,” in Stephen K. George, ed., Ethics, Literature, and Theory: An Introductory Reader (Lanham: Roman and Littlefield, 2005), 148, and Charles Martindale, “Shakespeare Philosophus,” in William Poole and Richard Scholar, eds., Thinking with Shakespeare (London: Legenda, 2007), 36.

[6] Paisley Livingston’s Art and Intention (Oxford: Clarendon P, 2005) is a good example of this inclination to dislike the theory and like the criticism.

[7] Kit Fine, “Permission and Possible Worlds,” Dialectica 68.3 (2014): 317–336, at 319.

[8] Gary Gutting, “Bridging the Analytic-Continental Divide,” The Stone, New York Times, 19 Feb. 2012, online, accessed 2 Dec. 2015.

[9] Lars Engle, Shakespeare & Philosophy of Action Seminar, SAA 2015, Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, 4 April 2015, response paper.

[10] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. Warner S. Pluhar (Hacket, 1987), sec. 56-57.

[11] A.J. Ayer, The Problem of Knowledge (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956), 174, qtd. in A.D. Nuttall, The Alternative Trinity: Gnostic Heresy in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake (1998; rpt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 34.

[12] Tzachi Zamir, Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006).

[13] “Is Othello Jealous? Coleridge and Russell contra Wittgenstein and Cavell,” in Bates and Wilson, eds., 121-35. I should note that by vocation Cutrofello is a specialist in the continental tradition and author of Continental Philosophy: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005).

[14] Charles Altieri, Act and Quality (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1981).

[15] Reed Way Dasenbrock, Literary Theory after Davidson (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1993).

[16] Richard Strier, “How Formalism Became a Dirty Word, and Why We Can’t Do without It,” in Renaissance Lit­erature and Its Formal Engagements, Mark David Rasmussen, ed. (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 207–15.

[17] Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2014).

[18] Leah Whittington, “Wallowing and Getting Lost: Reading Spenser with Heather James,” Spenser Review 44.3.54 (Winter 2015), accessed 15 Dec. 2015.

[19] E.g., see John Kucich, “The Unfinished Historicist Project: In Praise of Suspicion,” Victoriographies 1.1 (2011): 58–78.

[20] Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts,” Ethics 98.2 (1988): 255-277.

[21] Linda Zagzebski, “The Uniqueness of Persons,” Journal of Religious Ethics 29.3 (2001): 401-23.

[22] Daniel Garber, “Philosophy and the Scientific Revolution,” in Teaching New Histories of Philosophy, J. B. Schneewind, ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Center for Human Values, 2004), at 2.

[23] Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984), and Christine M. Korsgaard, “Personal Identity and the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 18.2 (1989): 101-132.

[24] Galen Strawson, “Against Narrativity,” Ratio (new series) 17 (2004): 428-52, and Harry G. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68.1 (1971): 5-20.

[25] William Perkins, A Discourse of Conscience (London: Legate, 1596), 6-7.

[26] On these questions see Gary Watson, “Skepticism about Weakness of Will,” in Agency and Answerability (Oxford: Clarendon P, 2004), 33-58.

[27] Henry S. Turner, “The Problem of the More-than-One: Friendship, Calculation, and Political Association in The Merchant of Venice,” Shakespeare Quarterly 57.4 (2006): 413-42, at 419, Drew Daniel, “‘Let me have judgment, and the Jew his will’: Melancholy Epistemology and Masochistic Fantasy in The Merchant of Venice,Shakespeare Quarterly 61.2 (2010): 206-34, at 232, and Richard Strier, “Excuses, Bepissing, and Non-Being: Shakespearean Puzzles about Agency,” in Shakespeare and Moral Agency, Michael D. Bristol, ed. (London: Continuum, 2010), 62.

[28] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005), 46, Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Durham: Duke UP, 2007), 149, and Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2013), 53.

[29] See, e.g., Daniel Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), who states at the opening of his study that “our actions happen to us” (ix).

[30] Dennett, “Intentional Systems,” Journal of Philosophy 68.4 (1971): 87-106.

[31] E.g., Charles Taylor, The Explanation of Behavior (New York: Routledge, 1964) and Norman Malcolm, “The Conceivability of Mechanism,” Philosophical Review 77 (1968): 45–72.

[32] Donald Davidson, “Mental Events” [1970], in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon P, 2002), 207-24.


  • Andrew Escobedo 8 years, 2 months ago

    A comment from the author on his essay. Readers have kindly noted a few errors: Bertrand, not Bertram, Russell; Morocco chooses the gold casket, not lead; and the plural of those tiny critters is "amoebae," not amoeba. Sorry to all for these lapses! Also, regarding my comments on Merchant, one reader suggests Samson Agonistes 1369 ff as an analogue. Great stuff; to write is to learn.

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    • David Lee Miller 8 years, 2 months ago

      I've made the first three changes, although personally I would prefer the more colloquial "amoebas" to the inkhorn plural "amoebae." To publish is to learn that you never finish proofreading . . .

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Cite as:

Andrew Escobedo, "Can Analytic Philosophy and Literary Criticism be Friends?," Spenser Review 45.3.1 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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