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This article is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

The Modern Essay. R.L. Steveson and the Hudson Review Emily R. Grosholz

To explain why the essay is a distinctively modern form, and worthy of our praise, I begin by mentioning what it is not, and then admit that it is in fact everything it is not, which makes it what it is: a confrontation with the world where the subjective voice, perspective and style of the writer is important but peripheral. An essay is not a story. A fictional narrative, as Aristotle tells us in the Poetics, concerns human action. It has a beginning, middle, and end, as our actions do: we generate an intention, carry it out with greater or lesser success, and then reap the consequences. Aristotle’s taxonomy of plots is based on features of human actions: we can act knowingly or unknowingly, and our actions may or may not be successfully concluded. The subject matter of fiction, human action, is known to us from personal experience and from history, even though fictions are neither personal nor historical except by analogy.

An essay is not a treatise. An argument concerns the relation between premises that are given in support of a conclusion. If accepting the premises forces us to accept the conclusion, the argument is deductive, and if the premises are true it is sound. If the premises seem to offer good, but not conclusive, grounds for accepting the conclusion, the argument is inductive; and if the argument just looks like a deductive or respectably inductive argument but isn’t, it’s a fallacy. Here the taxonomy is ...

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