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by Alan Jacobs


Theory Against Everything

Frank Lentricchia, a prominent literary critic who teaches at Duke University, made news recently by confessing that he loves literature: a retrograde sentiment in English departments nowadays, and maybe even subversive.

The sway of "theory" in the academic study of literature is usually accounted for in culture-war terms, as one manifestation of the sweeping changes that began in the sixties; but here Alan Jacobs sees it in a different context, as the latest episode in a perennial contest that predates Plato.

Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida: A Defence of Poetry
By Mark Edmundson
Cambridge University Press
243 pp.; $59.95, hardcover;
$17.95, paper

Modern culture seems doomed to the perpetual re-enactment of a tense and suspicious dance, a dance with which Christians are thoroughly familiar. There are only two partners in this dance, though they are known by various names: Theory and Practice, the Head and the Heart, Contemplation and Action, the Abstract and the Concrete. Christians use these names, and add some of their own: Theology and Piety, for instance. Not everyone would agree to the names I have given--few people want to stand for Abstraction--but we all understand what this dance is about. The proponents of Column A (Theory, Theology, etc.) fear unreflective and heedless activity and boldly assert that "the unexamined life is not worth living"; while the proponents of Column B fear, as Hamlet put it, that "conscience [that is, reflection] makes cowards of us all" and causes "enterprises of great pitch and moment" to "lose the name of action." Or, as Wordsworth pithily says, "We murder to dissect."

It is no accident, I suppose, that when I try to sum up the second position, quotations from poets immediately come to mind, while the first camp finds its representative in Socrates. For Plato, more than two millennia ago, could already refer to the "ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry." Mark Edmundson's book gives every appearance of ...

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