The Fallacy of “Fallacy”

The Fallacy of “Fallacy” and Its Implications for Contemporary Literary Theory

by Charles Altieri

The essay begins:

Despite my initial bewilderment, I have come to love the timeliness of devoting an issue of Representations to the issue of how thinking about fallacies might be apt and even necessary, given the recent US presidential election. What can be the role of logic in public life when the president cannot even pay sufficient attention to produce narrative consistency? Alas, I have no coherent response to this question. But I am reminded of other challenges to rationality closer to my professional life for which similar (although far less pressing) questions prevail. What can be the role of logical analysis in relation to imaginative texts that flaunt their quite different modes of pursuing relational structures?

Clearly, no discursive practice can dispense with logic. But perhaps most discursive practices, including philosophy, can cease fetishizing the language of logic so they can explore complexities in issues where it is difficult to establish just what logic or what kind of logic can apply. For example, the idea of an intentional fallacy requires sharp and clear oppositions between kinds of meaning if we are to bring logical distinctions to bear. Similarly, claims about a pathetic fallacy require judgments that feelings are either subjective or objective, just as intentions have to be either manifestly present or not present forces that determine how we are to read discrete sentences and expressions. But a strong case can be made that feelings involve complex interactions between subjects and objects. And an even stronger case can be made that discourse about intention has to cover a complex variety of cases ranging from the kind of action intending is to the kinds of meaningfulness that intentions can establish. The demand for clarity might be dangerous because it leads to focusing on establishing the meaning of particular discrete sentences rather than the muddy domain of complex relational structures that may be more interested in displaying possible meanings (or meaningfulness) than in securing what is being unequivocally asserted.

So while claims specifically about fallacy rarely occur now in the humanities, the desire to wield the claims to lucidity asserted by the sciences still shapes significant arguments about the status of literary theory tout court. For those scholars seeking clear oppositional conceptual structures, literary theory becomes a bastard usurper always in danger of having to yield authority to the heir designated by Enlightenment progenitors. But if all serious questions concerning meaning cannot be resolved by models based on how sentences structure communication, then there are substantial roles to be played by a distinctive discipline of literary theory. Minimally, theory becomes a domain where we work out how texts can claim meaningfulness even as they resist models of meaning based on or limited to communication and suspicion about communication. More ambitiously, theory can also become the domain where philosophical and historical reflection comes to bear in clarifying how aesthetic objects take on meaningfulness and in establishing why that meaningfulness might matter for social life. Theory becomes not a matter of proving anything, but rather of displaying a range of analytic and historical concerns as general backdrops for the specific kinds of labor literary works can perform.

My ultimate test here will be briefly exploring how Walter Benn Michaels’s arguments about intention in 1982 reveal a penchant for clear oppositions that in his most recent work sustains an elaborate, almost mythical structure of contrasts explicating relations between contemporary art and contemporary politics. I suspect that Michaels is so subtle and lucid a writer that the only way to escape his mode of thinking is to locate it historically in a culture that demands a clarity willing to risk reductionist moves in order to secure first principles. Then I will close by examining how those first principles tend to oversimplify the issues he manipulates so brilliantly. Continue reading …

This essay concentrates on the limitations of logical binaries in constructing arguments for literary theory. My test case is claims about intention. Theorists argue either that intentions can and must be determined or that intention is a psychological entity that cannot be determined simply from textual evidence, even when buttressed by biographical contexts. But such debates center on intentions to mean. The essay argues that literary texts are makings and not statements, so they display a relation to the world rather than assert it. It follows that when dealing with makings we usually have to look not for a specific psychological intention to mean but a way of clarifying how the display works. Therefore it may be best to equate intention with the taking of responsibility that the author assumes when deciding to publish or present materials. What is a plausible account of a series of decisions that led the author to want to make something public?

CHARLES ALTIERI teaches in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent books are Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity (Cornell, 2013) and Reckoning with Imagination: Wittgenstein and the Aesthetics of Literary Experience (Cornell, 2015)He is now working a book on interpreting constructivist features of modernist poetry in conjunction with Hegel’s concept of inner sensuousness.