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Karl Popper and Literary Theory

Critical Rationalism as a Philosophy of Literature


Thomas Trzyna


Schriftenreihe zur Philosophie Karl R. Poppers und des Kritischen Rationalismus /

 Series in the Philosophy of Karl R. Popper and Critical Rationalism, Vol. 22

Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2017

Paperback. xi+211 p. ISBN 978-9004321625. €69 / $83


Reviewed by Rafe Champion

University of Sydney




“I may be wrong and you may be right and by an effort we may get nearer to the truth.” Karl Popper(1)

Thomas Trzyna has taken on a challenging assignment to support the vanishing liberal humanist tradition in literary studies with the conceptual resources of the almost invisible school of critical rationalism in philosophy launched by Karl Popper (1902-1994). His book supports the work of the American literary scholar James Battersby, who has written a series of books challenging the principles and practices of the dominant schools of literary studies.

The current situation is the outcome of a process that was causing alarm in 1989 when the philosophy and politics journal Critical Review devoted a double issue to the theme of liberalism and post-structuralism studies. One of the contributions reviewed Beyond Deconstruction: The Uses and Abuses of Literary Theory, a book by Howard Felperin that described how deconstruction had found a place in the academies and how other schools of thought were responding to it. The other schools mentioned were the ageing New Critics, residual followers of F.R. Leavis and the structuralists. The latter were especially disturbed by the upstarts because they pioneered the notion that language provides the true ground of literary being and they did not appreciate the way their approach evolved into its own “shadow-side” (as Felperin described it) in the form of deconstruction.

Felperin posed three possible responses to the challenge of post-structuralism; first to ignore it as an alien influence that is not worthy of serious study, second to take it seriously and fight against it with redoubled vigor and third to find some creative way to live with it. He favored the third way and he dismissed the possibility that the deconstructionists would achieve a Kuhnian revolution to establish themselves as the new paradigm although that is what has happened in the three decades since he wrote. The review of his book suggested that the third way could work if the ideas of critical rationalism were taken up to provide a philosophically sophisticated challenge to the deconstructioniststhat shared their critique of foundationalism without leading to conceptual anarchy.(2)

Not long after that issue of Critical Review another rejoinder to the deconstructionists came from two Australians working in collaboration; a literary scholar Richard Freadman and a philosopher Seumas Miller.(3) Miller brought a degree of philosophical expertise to the critique of “constructive anti-humanism” that literary scholars generally lacked, rendering them easily intimidated by the apparent depth and profundity of the deconstructionists.(4) They took issue with three central themes of the new “anti-humanism” as they described it: first the denial of truth in reference, second the repudiation of the individual subject and third the dissolution of substantive moral and aesthetic evaluation. The new theory sets itself against the old 'humanism' which is said to lack rigour, self-awareness and methodological sophistication. The authors gave an extended exposition and a defence of theory and criticism along lines that are at once humanistic, illuminating and rigorous.

That was a generation ago and now it appears Freadman and Miller exerted no more impact than the efforts of Felperin, Wellek and all the other traditional scholars in the trade. Michel Foucault described one of the weapons of the deconstructionists as “obscurantist terrorism”. He was well placed to describe the phenomenon because he was one of the Paris-based figures linked to the new movement. In conversation with the philosopher John Searle he described how it works, with reference to Derrida. “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”(5)

Now the intellectual progeny of the deconstructionists have carried the field and scholars with rival views find themselves marginalised in their departments and in the academic literature. One response is the on-line periodical Quillette, 'a platform for free thought'. Claire Lehmann, a young Australian refugee from the academy created Quillette to provide a platform for dialogue between rival camps including views that are not welcome in the academic journals. Some of the contributors feel obliged to conceal their identities for self-protection.

Trzyna overcame the problem of publishing by placing his book in a series of volumes on Popper and Critical Rationalism produced by Brill. Karl Popper and Literary Theory is unlikely to have much readership among the current generation of literary scholars but it is a welcome contribution to the project of exploring the implications and applications of Popper’s critical rationalism. Much remains to be done to follow the lead of Ernst Gombrich in art and DeSalvo and Creed in literature.(6)  Not much is happening along those lines because the ideas of Popper and his followers are marginalised in the academic world. This was the case even while Popper was alive.

The book starts with an introduction to the aspects of critical rationalism that shape Trzyna’s approach, especially “Popper’s philosophy of science, with its emphasis on conjecture, refutation, problem situations and the three worlds of mental operations that he hypothesized with his friend and collaborator Sir John Eccles, the Nobel laureate in neurology.” [2] If Rene Wellek was still a living presence in literary studies Trzyna could have usefully compared the close similarity of the literary object that emerges from the work of Wellek and Popper.(7)

Trzyna’s aim is to demonstrate that a philosophically robust critical framework can help readers to find more of the contents, complexities and implications of works of imaginative literature. The first part of the book is concerned with critical frameworks and the second is a series of studies of interesting and complex works of fiction. The centrepiece of the first part is a comparison and contrast of James Battersby’s philosophical framework with critical rationalism with reference to Karl Popper and William W. Bartley. Bringing Bartley’s work to attention is a significant contribution in itself because his explication of Popper’s “non-justificationist” or non-foundationalist approach can be revelatory in grasping where Popper is coming from.(8) 

The use of the terms justification and non-justification signals a challenge to the longstanding obsession in philosophy with the quest for knowledge in the form of justified true beliefs. The major rival schools looked to different foundations for justification: for Rationalists it is intellectual intuition or reason that provides the foundation; in contrast the Empiricists look to sensory perception (seeing is believing). The critical rationalists deny that foundational justification can be achieved on any basis but it may be possible to justify a preference (a critical preference), for the time being, for a particular theory or proposal or interpretation rather than others, based on its performance and especially its capacity to stand up to criticism. The preference can change in a comprehensible and measured manner the light of new evidence, arguments and ideas. One might even specify in advance what sort of evidence and arguments would be required to modify a preference. The concern for critical preferences provides a more fluid and flexible approach to the evaluation of complex materials than the over-simplified interpretation of falsificationism (naïve falsificationism) that demands decisive knock-down decisions to resolve differences of opinion.

The nuanced critical rationalist approach is close to Battersby’s stance that is informed by American pragmatism including the work of Hilary Putnam. For example Trzyna [51] cites Battersby:

a large part of this prospective project…would be concerned with showing that some schemes are demonstrably truer, more right, and better than others and that some statements within a given scheme are right, fit and true and some are wrong, unfit and false.(9)

Trzyna notes that there is some tension between “truer, more right and better” and the uncompromising “wrong, unfit and false”. The tension can be overcome by taking the line of critical preference to allow for degrees of fitness and unfitness, better and worse interpretations within a given framework and also to allow for the possibility of choosing between better and worse frameworks.

Trzyna broached the topic of interpretive frameworks using the example of the poet Anne Finch (1661-1720). She injected what came to be known as romantic elements (dwelling on shades of moods) into her poetry. Her work was initially shaped by the Augustan classicism of the period and her innovation was not rated highly until Wordsworth discovered her some time later and saluted her “proto-romanticism” to acknowledge her “full worth” [38]. The suggestion is that Anne Finch did not have the stature or influence in her own time that was warranted by her achievement, partly because her work did not fit the Augustan paradigm (framework) and probably for other reasons including her gender. The point is that access to a theory of criticism that heightens the awareness of alternative frameworks and allows for comparison and contrast of different frameworks will help readers to engage with new directions in writing.

Trzyna notes that “Battersby’s three books on critical theory do not offer extended examples of how his method can be applied” [56]. That is unfortunate because that is where the rubber of critical theory meets the road of living works of literature. What does the theory add to the reading? Does the theory help the reader to extract more from the works, including enjoyment and a sense of spiritual elevation? This is no simple question because literary works have very different things to offer, and some challenging and confronting books are not obviously enjoyable or inspirational. This applies to several of the pieces that Trzyna selected to study.

The first is a densely layered and disturbing short story by Jean Toomer from a book about his first trip to the Deep South of the United States. The theme of the story is hidden menace and the unresolved mystery of a prostitute and her dead child. Trzyna describes how the students in a small class read and reread the few pages of the story testing different conjectures about the meaning and implication of various passages in the text. The process was rewarding in coming to grips with the complexities in the work although no consensus emerged.

Trzyna’s doctoral work at the University of Washington focused on literary interpretations of Christian forgiveness and there is a chapter on the treatment of forgiveness in the work of Henry Fielding, novelist and magistrate. Forgiveness was more than a literary concern for Fielding because in this time on the bench he had occasion to sentence at least one criminal to hang and that marked a limitation on the possibility of forgiveness in Fielding’s opinion. The nuances of the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness are themes that he explored in his novels such as Joseph Andrews.

In “Le Clézio, Levinas, Popper and the Problem of Parmenides” Trzyna explored works by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio and Emmanuel Levinas, who were both fascinated with the ideas of Parmenides. The connection with critical rationalism is that Popper was also a deep student of Parmenides. Le Clézio is an academic and a prolific author of fiction. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2008 and he was described as "an author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.” His body of work speaks to the concerns of colonialism and the marginalisation of disadvantaged groups such as North Africans in Europe. When he was based in France he travelled extensively in North Africa and explored the varieties of Islamic faith. He now lives in New Mexico after spending some time with a tribe in Mexico. The novel Desert that Trzyna selected for close reading is a densely layered mediation on the nature of being and personal identity, set among desert tribes.

Levinas (1906-1995) is an equally complex case because he was Lithuanian-born with Jewish ancestry, grew up in the Ukraine during the Russian Revolution and became a French national writing in French. He was an academic and he did not write fiction. He is distinguished for work on Jewish philosophy, existentialism, ethics, phenomenology and ontology. His work is only explored briefly in this chapter to record his interest in the complexities of the self-aware mind in relation to issues of death and infinity.

There is a chapter on J.M. Coetzee with reference to Elizabeth Costello (2003) and The Childhood of Jesus (2013). The first touches on themes of mathematics and radical vegetarianism using satire in a way that recalls Thomas Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The dystopian theme persists in The Childhood of Jesus, which appears to be an elaborate satire on Christianity or maybe Christianity misunderstood.

Trzyna pursues the issue of interpretation with Shakespeare’s most problematic play Timon of Athens. This was probably written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton and there are questions about whether it should be in the Folio at all, how often it was performed and whether it was unfinished because various aspects of the plot and the character of Timon appear to be incomplete and unresolved.

The longest reading is “The Eumenides : We Suffer into Truth”, a study of Jonathan Littell’s 2006 novel Les Bienveillantes, translated as The Kindly Ones. The book runs to almost a thousand pages, it won the most prestigious French literary awards and it was translated into several languages. Trzyna suggests that the title is best translated by the name of the third play in the trilogy by Aeschylus, The Eumenides. That is the story of Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who killed his mother in order to avenge her murder of his father and was pursued by the Furies to punish him. That title would be helpful for readers who are familiar with the original and this raises the question of how much (or how little) background knowledge can be assumed among modern readers, especially undergraduate students.

The book is a long novel written as the autobiography of a German who lived a seriously deranged existence before World War 2 and then participated in horrendous crimes in a death squad during the war. The author explores the mental states of the protagonist during and after the war when he returns to a more or less normal life as a manager of a lace factory with a wife and grandchildren. The account of the brutalisation that is summarised in Trzyna’s study will not encourage everyone to read the original! The deeper issues that concern the author are the human proclivity for evil and the capacity to survive it and resume normal existence. The capacity for forgiveness revisited.

“The Limits of the Theory : The Gospel of Mark and the Ineffable” is an excursion into biblical exegesis with some references to Willlam W. Bartley and his account of the research on the historical Jesus in Retreat to Commitment. The last study is just three pages on “Patrick Modiano and the Bucket : A Note”. Modiano won the Nobel for literature in 2014 on the basis of some thirty short novels mostly concerned with imaginative constructions of aspects of his own life. Trzyna selected this work to illustrate the difficulty of interpreting work where there is no clear organising principle, like a “bucket” of observations collected by a researcher without a systematic purpose.

The commentary on these works defies paraphrase and one can only urge readers to pursue the books to form their own opinion of Trzyna’s exegesis. The final chapter of the book lists thirteen points on the ways that the critical rationalism can promote imaginative criticism and the appreciation of complex writing. These include some implications for writers, readers, teachers, critics and literary scholars. In short, something for everyone, including philosophers.

A Popperian approach to literary studies offers freedom to ask any questions and to avoid the constraints mandated by theories…that various systems of thought are independent and incommensurable language games. Battersby, Bartley and Popper provide similar and mutually reinforcing cases for this conclusion, which opens the reader to use many approaches simultaneously. Or, as Battersby puts it with his good humor, these critical approaches give us ‘paradigms regained’. [198]


(1) That is how Popper described critical rationalism in The Open Society and Its Enemies (London 1962), Chapter 24, originally published in 1945.

(2) Rafe Champion, ‘Towards Constructive Deconstruction’, Critical Review 4 1/2 (1989).

(3) Richard Freadman and Seumas Miller, Re-Thinking Theory : A Critique of contemporary literary Theory and an alternative Account. Cambridge, 1992.  Summarized here.

(4) Andrew Reimer, a senior academic in English at the University of Sydney told me in conversation in 1990 that literary studies had achieved “unprecedented philosophical sophistication”. Incidentally he published an engrossing account of the protracted “war” in the English department when a follower of F.R. Leavis unsuccessfully attempted to transform the school in the 1960s: Sandstone Gothic: Confessions of an Accidental Academic. Sydney, 1998. His son Nicholas emerged as a leading light in the new criticism. The reference to “unprecedented sophistication” is a serious slight on the work of Rene Wellek.

(5) The reference to Searle and Foucault comes from Eugene Wolters, ‘Foucault on Obscurantism: “They Made Me Do It”’. I experienced this when the editor of Critical Review invited Professor Gerald Graf, a prominent protagonist of the new ideas, to discuss my paper. His piece made no reference to my central point regarding the application of critical rationalism as expounded by Popper and Bartley but instead indicated some of his social and ideological preoccupations. The editor invited me to continue the exchange and in response to my invitation to engage with the ideas of critical rationalism. Graf wrote “The point of my response was that Mr. Champion ought not to have written about deconstruction because he doesn’t know what the thing is. As if to prove my point, he now writes again without the benefit of knowledge of the subject, and evidently no interest in getting any”.

(6) Ernst Gombrich (1909-2001) applied Popper’s institutional approach for explaining social phenomena to the rise and fall of fashions with a range of examples from architecture to music and clothin: ‘The Logic of Vanity Fair : Alternatives to Historicism in the Study of Fashions, Style and Taste’. In The Philosophy of Karl Popper, edited by P.A. Shilpp. The Library of Living Philosophers, vol. xiv. La Salle, Illinois, 1974. This approach could be applied to the social and political factors that contributed to the triumph of the new schools of criticism. Louise DeSalvo contributed ‘Popper in the Realm of Literary Criticism’ in Levinson, Paul (ed.), In Pursuit of Truth. New Jersey, 1982. Walter G. Creed, ‘Rene Wellek and Karl Popper on the Mode of Existence of Ideas in Literature and Science’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 44-4 (1983). See also Rafe Champion, ‘Unchanged Meanings : The Kind of Literary Criticism We Need,’ Chapter 8 in Reason and Imagination (Amazon ebook, 2013).

(7) Rene Wellek (1903-1995) was a twentieth-century titan of literary studies, reading and writing on every aspect of literary studies in several languages. This site provides a catalogue of his major works and achievements. This essay is his 1990 rejoinder to ‘The New Nihilism in Literary Studies’.

(8) William W. Bartley (1935-1990) was a prolific scholar, editor and biographer. A list of his major works can be found at this site and the theme of non-justificationism is treated especially in Appendices of the revised edition of The Retreat to Commitment. La Salle, Illinois, 1983); Appendix 1 ‘Metacontext for Rationality’ and Appendix 2 ‘Logical Strength’. A brief introduction to non-justification can be found in ‘Cracking the Dogmatic Framework of Thought’ by Rafe Champion in the ebook Reason and Imagination (Amazon, 2013) and in paper (Amazon, 2015).

(9) James Battersby. Unorthodox Views : Reflections on Reality, Truth and Meaning in Current Social, Cultural and Critical Discourse. Westport, Connecticut, 2002.


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