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This article is taken from PN Review 48, Volume 12 Number 4, March - April 1986.

Europe's Writ Elinor Shaffer

As editor of a periodical, Comparative Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1979-), that considers its function is to discern and advance what is sound - new or old - in current literary theory and literature itself on the international scene - to winnow the wheat from the chaff, however difficult this may be - I deplore the note of self-induced journalistic hysteria in the would-be provocative remarks of PNR. Yet they do reflect the fact that what is happening around us is a minor shift of thought and taste that, like every other such historical shift, is experienced as a 'crisis' and produces crude and gross polemical overstatements on all sides of the question which do not stand up to scrutiny and belong to the ephemera of controversy. The methods of polemic and controversy in literary criticism, and their relation to modes of argument acceptable in other more tough-minded disciplines are not well understood and are in need of analysis. If the arguments are poor, what makes them psychologically convincing? Even in apparently more tough-minded disciplines the question is a real one: some famous philosophical arguments, like Descartes' for knowledge of one's own consciousness, have been seen as bad but persuasive arguments that brought about or epitomized major shifts in sensibility. As the philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, 'Bad arguments for brilliant hunches must necessarily precede normalization of a new vocabulary which incorporates the hunch.' Others may make their mark with wit or style. With luck, our own times may ...


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