Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory
Howard Felperin. New York . Oxford University Press . 1985 . 226pp.

This review was written for an edition of Critical Review containing a number of articles on literary criticism from different points of view. The editorial intention was to engage with the deconstructionists in a constructive way (if possible) and for this reason my review was written in a way that soft-pedaled criticism in the hope of finding some common ground for ongoing dialogue. The invited commentator from the deconstructionists did not adopt the same spirit of dialogue but resorted to the tactic described by Foucault as 'obscurantist terrorism'.  With this in mind, this version has been slightly modified to be more critical, and less forgiving towards Howard Felperin's limited knowledge of philosophy.

The deconstructionist movement has been widely perceived as a threat to the individualistic tradition and it has led to some reconsideration of which parts of the liberal tradition need to be defended or indeed can be defended.  Without claiming that these exhaust the liberal program, two principles seem to be essential. First, the political program of protecting the freedoms of individuals from various forms of power, including the naked physical force which the strong and the armed can wield against the weak and unarmed, and from the political power and influence of rulers at all levels of government. Second, the methodological principle of individualism, which maintains that it is individuals and not collectives who think, feel, live, love, suffer, deliberate and make decisions. This does not deny the fact that we find ourselves in situations that are not of our own making, that we act under the influence of many traditions of which we are unaware, and that our actions usually produce unintended consequences. These essential liberal positions can be maintained without making the claim that individuals have some kind of priority over societies or groups or any privileged status in making judgements on matters of fact or value, and there is no need to make exaggerated claims for the powers of reason or rationality. 

So far as rationality is concerned, it appears that the deconstructionists have adroitly located the weak point of Western philosophy. This is the problem of establishing firm foundations for rational or supposedly justified beliefs. It might be more appropriately formulated as the problem of the limits of criticism; the problem of working out where to stop when a critic persists in asking for a statement to justify the previous statement that was offered in support of a position. This formulation of the problem of rational belief can be traced back to the ancient skeptics, among whom the work of Sextus Empiricus provides the first motto in Howard Felperin's Beyond Deconstruction. What the deconstructionists have not yet done, however, is to pursue the kind of response to this problem that has been suggested by W. W. Bartley's work on the limits of criticism and the ecology of rationality. Following Bartley it can be argued that the deconstructionists proceed from a correct premise (there are no authorities to justify the foundations of belief) to a false conclusion (there is no way to form a tentative critical preference for one theory rather than another).

The Genial Host

Felperin is clearly not intimidated by the deconstructionist turn and he acts as a genial host at the deconstructionists' party. This does not mean that he presents himself as an advocate of deconstruction or any other school. He explains in his preface that he is in sympathy with the ongoing critique of institutional practice, and the polemic against purist or imperialist tendencies wherever they are found.

Felperin welcomes the ferment over literary theory in the last two decades as a sign that the discipline has reached maturity, achieving a much-needed philosophical sophistication, which it previously lacked. This is hardly fair to Wellek and many others who have written on these matters in the past. In fact it is an absurd claim, unsupported by any argument and it appears that Felperin's contact with the philosophical literature is very limited.  Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Heidegger are mentioned and Kuhn's paradigm theory is swallowed whole, with no indication that there might be serious counter-arguments against this view of intellectual history. He assigns a certain degree of sophistication to the deconstructionists because they have found how to exploit a profound structural weakness in the Western tradition of rationality and belief. The nature of this weakness is described below; here it is necessary to grasp the nature of the revolt by the radical critics against the idea that statements or theories can be justified by an appeal to the authority of the author, the reader or the world outside the text. As Felperin explains,

Derridean textualism was conceived as a critique - and transcendence- of the metaphysics of presence supposed to imprison European thought, the logocentric, ultimately religious, superstitious or nostalgic, impulse to ground or centre discourse in an original author, response in a unitary subject, and textuality on a re-presentable world, when all are nothing other than effects and functions of linguistic differences (35).

It seems that 'rejection of authority' is the keynote of the deconstructionist challenge to the various literary establishments. Felperin acknowledges that there are a number of rival armies in the field including the aged New Critics, residual followers of Leavis, feminists and Marxists, but he claims that the deconstructionists hold the initiative in any serious encounter because they have the capacity to undermine any criticism that is directed against them. They have 'the advantages of wit, style, elegance, and the rhetorical agility that derive from their unrepentant literariness' and this enables them to deny (deconstruct) the suggestion that there is any ground where they can be confronted and defeated. 'If deconstruction can be historicized or contextualized, so can any historical context be deconstructed' (220). 

It has to be said that if the deconstructionists indeed had the wit, style, elegance and rhetorical agility that Felperin attributes to them, they would be a lot more fun to read and they would have less need for the 'obscurantist terrorism' that is their most striking characteristic in debate. Foucault coined the term 'obscurantist terrorism' to describe the tactic of writing in a manner that is incomprehensible, then accusing critics of failure to comprehend, as though the fault resides with the critics rather than the original writer.

The deconstruction of grounds is a particularly galling blow to the structuralists, who pioneered the notion that language provides the true ground of literary being. What Felperin calls its technological optimism soon evolved its own shadow-side in the form of deconstruction, which shared the same language-oriented starting point and so engaged structuralism directly on its own territory.

Amidst howls of outrage, especially from the new Marxists of structuralism and the old New Critics, deconstruction has made itself at home in the academy, so now the question for other people is how to live with it. Felperin sketches three possible responses: first, to ignore it as a destructive and alien influence that is not even worthy of serious study. Second, to take it sufficiently seriously to argue with it while asserting the claims of some other method with redoubled vigor. Third, to find some creative way to make use of its insights and move forward without attempting to create another dogmatic and imperialistic school of thought.    

He is prepared to look on the bright side and hope that good will come from the loss of foundations of belief. Commenting on the disappearance of privileged vantage points for authoritative statements, he suggests that this may be a very sad situation if literature and criticism are viewed 'by analogy with science, as a body of knowledge.'  But he goes on to suggest that literature does not have to be approached like this, perhaps we might become liberated from the obsession with positive knowledge, and so 'if literary activity is conceived not as issuing in a body of knowledge but in a mode of being, the absence of certainty or consensus in the study of texts is no longer a disability' (41). Of course his reference to science as a body of knowledge betrays complete ignorance of post-Popperian philosophy of science, but this was only to be expected following his uncritical references to Wittgenstein and Kuhn.

This, then, is the challenge of deconstruction as interpreted by Felperin - to find some way to move forward without foundations of belief, to achieve progress in knowledge and understanding of literature without expecting to produce a body of positive knowledge that is immune to change and revision. But what is the 'mode of being' that makes this possible? Here we may obtain some help from Bartley's theory of positions, contexts and metacontexts. [1]

An Alternative to Deconstruction

Bartley's work responds to the deconstructionist challenge at a deeper philosophical level than is usually offered by literary scholars and critics, certainly a deeper level than Felperin has ventured. Bartley follows Popper in exploring the implications of the breakdown of traditional theories of knowledge and rationality which depend on various authorities for belief. This may seem to give Popper and Bartley some common ground with the deconstructionists and their work contributes to the current literary debate in two ways. First, it clarifies the logical core of the position that the deconstructionists have occupied to conduct their reign of terror against opponents. (Though I am not aware of any really clear articulation of this position, it appears to operate as a powerful and pervasive but unstated subtext of debate). Second, it suggests a way to move forward to create a kind of philosophical space (a metacontext) where the absence of certainty or consensus in the study of texts is no longer a source of anxiety nor an excuse for obscurantism, seemingly for its own sake or for the sake of intimidating opponents.

The relevant work by Popper and Bartley begins with the recognition of the authoritarian way of thinking which permeates Western thought. This creates demands for true or justified beliefs, along the lines indicated by the formula:

Beliefs must be justified by an appeal to an authority of some kind (usually the source of the belief in question) and this justification by an appropriate authority makes the belief either rational, or if not rational, at least valid for the person who holds it.

However, this requirement can never be adequately met due to the problem of validation or 'the limits of criticism' (as Bartley calls it) or the dilemma of 'infinite regress versus dogmatism'. Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 AD) was one of the first to draw attention to this problem.  More recently David Hume made it a central issue for modern science and rationality with his devastating critique of induction, the process whereby scientific knowledge was supposed to grow on the foundation of empirical evidence.

The dilemma of infinite regress versus dogmatism arises like this: if a belief claims validation by a supporting argument, what justifies that argument? If a critic persists in asking for further supporting statements, when and how does the chain of justification stop? An infinite regress (that is, an endless sequence of questions, without hope of a final answer) can be forced by anyone who keeps on asking, 'Why do you believe that? How do you justify that claim?' This is the opening that is always available for the deconstructionists in their demolition of the 'grounds' of rival schools. It appears that it can only be avoided by a dogmatic or arbitrary decision to break the chain at some stage and settle on a belief at that point. Throughout this inquisition the skeptic (here read the deconstructionist) can avoid making any strong positive claims on his own behalf, provided that the pressure is maintained on the opponent to justify a position.

Bartley's theory of positions, contexts and metacontexts is an attempt to transcend the limitations that are imposed on criticism by the authoritarian structure of Western thought, a structure that generates the apparently crippling dilemma of infinite regress versus dogmatism. A position indicates a theory or a belief about something. Positions are adopted or proposed in contexts, such as the context of lunchtime. Different positions are possible in any context; this raises the issue of choice, and, at another level, the decision procedure for making choices. Possibly at another level again (at the level which Bartley describes as the metacontext) is the question of the way that choices are reviewed and revised, of the attitude that prevails toward the way positions are held, modified or relinquished. Bartley considers this attitude as a higher-order theory or tradition about the way lower-order theories or beliefs may be justified (or criticized). Bartley has located three of these higher-order traditions, which create climates of thought that he calls metacontexts. One is the Western tradition of justificationisrn. The second is the Eastern tradition of non-attachment. The third is a tradition of non-dogmatic critical preference, which Bartley calls 'pancritical rationalism' or 'comprehensively critical rationalism'.  The third way is at this stage hardly more than a gleam in the eye of admirers of Popper and Bartley, who have on occasion spent literally hours and hours and hours in fruitless discussion with mainstream philosophers, trying to persuade them to try a different approach on beliefs and justification.

The justificationist tradition, or metacontext, is exemplified by the authoritarian structure of Western thought which generates attachment, entrenchment and the rigid adherence to positions and party lines. This metacontext generates two very different responses to the problem of rationality and belief. One is the relativist stance, adopted by disappointed justificationists who realize that positive justification cannot be achieved. From this (correct) premise they proceed to the conclusion that there is no point in trying to find if any positions or beliefs are better than any others. For them, there is no such thing as truth, no way to get nearer the truth and no such thing as a rational position. 

Western scepticism arches its brows at all attempts at knowing, all formulations, definitions, identifications - including any definition of its own position...It is born out of the defeat of, and permeated by the spirit of, justificationism. It rejects attachments not out of a positive quest for nonattachment but out of reaction to the internal contradictions of the Western justificationist metacontext. [2]

The other response is that of the 'true believers'. sometimes called fideists, who insist that some positions must be justified even if there is no logical way to do so. They accept that we make our decision regardless of reason: 'Here I stand!' Most forms of rationalism up to date have at rock bottom adopted this attitude, and have suffered severely whenever critics bothered to force this realization upon them. The Eastern way of non-attachment offers an alternative stance which does not sponsor dogmatic commitments, but it tends to result in apathy about the affairs of the world and the growth of scientific knowledge. It does not produce a dynamic of growth and progress.

It may be that Bartley's third metacontext provides the necessary mix of non-attachment and dynamism that is required to promote inquiry and error-elimination without the hope of certainty. This would appear to satisfy some of the requirements of the mode of being that Felperin desires in order that we may live without the hope of locating foundations of belief. In this metacontext no position can be positively justified, but it is quite likely that one (or more than one) will turn out to be better than others in the light of criticism and tests. The quest for justified beliefs is given up; instead the purpose of inquiry is to form tentative critical preferences for one option rather than another, or perhaps simply to specify what criteria would need to be met for a new theory to provide a better solution to the problem at hand. This is a poised position, not a flatfooted final resting place, because it is ready to shift in a measured and considered way in response to new evidence and new arguments. It also appears to be highly compatible with the perspectivism of Wellek and Warren noted above, that is, a process of getting to know the object from different points of view which may be defined and criticized in their turn.

Rival Schools United in Creative Self-Criticism

This analysis suggests the conclusion that deconstruction is not so much a radical novelty as a revival of skepticism in fancy dress. It draws its plausibility from the breakdown of virtually all theories of rationality and criticism in the face of the 'dogmatism versus infinite regress' dilemma. This in turn arises from the authoritarian tradition (the justificationist metacontext) of Western thought. However, it seems that Popper and Bartley have shown that this authoritarian tradition is not required to sustain viable theories of knowledge and rationality.

Can these ideas of Popper and Bartley solve the problem sketched by Felperin, where rival schools either ignore the challenge of the deconstructionists or attempt to entrench their own position so as to resist the invaders? Can non-deconsructionists liberate themselves from what Northrop Frye called 'the Archimedes fallacy, the notion that if we plant our feet firmly enough in Christian or democratic or Marxist values we shall be able to lift the whole of criticism at once with a dialectic crowbar?'  [3] Is there any way that the warring factions can learn from each other, even if they continue to disagree on fundamental issues?

One of the possibilities (which Felperin considers to be most unlikely) is that one or other faction will manage to win out in a Kuhnian revolution and establish itself as the new ruling paradigm for studies of literature.  M. A. Notturno has addressed a similar situation in psychology where he reports that the representatives of different schools proceed from opposing perspectives and employ different methods, so they scarcely communicate with each other at all [4].  Notturno points out that training in psychology usually starts with an 'indoctrination' into one or another of the competing theories. Later, career prospects depend upon approval from the leaders of the same school. This of course discourages students from exploring alternative views. The resulting lack of communication between schools could reflect the basic incommensurability of the rival frameworks (or paradigms, in the language of Khun), but Notturno instead blames the unwillingness of scholars to investigate the conceptual foundations of other theories. He detects a tendency to use Kuhn's theories to legitimate this situation, as though Kuhn's historiography is a normative statement about the way things should be rather than a contested historical theory. Notturno deplores the dream that one school might emerge as the "unchallenged and universally accepted paradigm of psychology" because this would probably owe more to the political affiliations or expertise of the dominant party than the capacity of the new framework to stand up to criticism.

As an alternative to a takeover by one party or an another, he advocates the "'ort of unification that results from the critical examination of foundational principles'. This is precisely the kind of criticism that is facilitated by the metacontext of pancritical nationalism or critical preference described above. This metacontext does not impose any limit on the criticism of fundamental principles and it provides no pressure for premature closure of options or for entrenching in fixed positions. It promotes creative self-criticism, a process that could enable people in different research traditions to find that they have more in common than they ever realised.

In such a climate of open-ended debate the deconstructionists will need to have more to offer than their capacity to destroy foundations of their opponents - because nobody will attempt to base their arguments on foundations. This may be a difficult situation to imagine at present (like a world without war) in view of the institutional pressures towards ritualistic confrontation, shadowboxing and defense of academic turf. But still, the challenge to operate without foundations of belief has been offered - by Popper and Bartley, and, in their very different way, by the deconstructionists. It remains to be seen whether the challenge will be accepted, and if so, what sort of dialogue will result.               


1. Bartley was inspired by Popper's 1960 lecture before the British Royal Academy titled "On the Sources of Knowledge and Ignorance," later published in Conjectures and Refutations (London. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963). This paper laid bare the authoritarian structure of Western thought and proposed a non-authoritarian theory of knowledge. Bartley followed with a non-authoritarian theory of rationality which he presented in The Retreat to Commitment (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1962) and " Rationality versus the Theory of Rationality" in Mario Bunge, ed., The Critical Approach to Science and Philosophy (London: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1964).  His more recent thoughts on metacontexts are summarized in Appendix 1 to the revised edition of The Retreat to Commitment (La Salle, Ill: Open Court, 1985).

2. Bartley, The Retreat to Commitment (rev. ed.), 176.

3. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 957),

4. M. A. Notturno, "The Popper/Kuhn Debate: Truth and Two Faces of Relativism", in  Psychological Medicine 14 (1984): 273-89.

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