Bauerlein on Eagleton

Mark Bauerlein had some thoughts on Terry Eagleton almost a decade ago.

[I]t is a mistake to treat social constructionism as preached in the academy as a philosophy. Though the position sounds like an epistemology, filled with glib denials of objectivity, truth, and facts backed up by in-the-know philosophical citations (“As Nietzsche says. . .”), its proponents hold those beliefs most unphilosophically. When someone holds a belief philosophically, he or she exposes it to arguments and evidence against it, and tries to mount arguments and evidence for it in return. But in academic contexts, constructionist ideas are not open for debate. They stand as community wisdom, articles of faith…Save for a few near-retirement humanists and realist philosopher holdouts, academics embrace constructionist premises as catechism learning, axioms to be assimilated before one is inducted into the professoriate. To believe that knowledge is a construct, that truth, evidence, fact, and inference all fall under the category of local interpretation, and that interpretations are more or less right by virtue of the interests they satisfy is a professional habit, not an intellectual thesis.

Take, he suggests a couple of pages later, Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction for an example.

[T]he conceptual analysis is thin, the methodological description hasty. Instead, the book reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence. To the patient exposition of terms and concepts Eagleton prefers the oblique adumbration…In the chapter on post-structuralism, Eagleton spends little time detailing the arguments of founding tests like “Différence,” and instead strings together deconstructive platitudes…Literary Theory: An Introduction hardly counts as a serious discussion of literary theory, but its tactics have come to dominate humanities criticism. Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry.

Does it not sound familiar? Does it not sound like the Eagleton (and the Fish too) that we have just been reading, and gently but firmly disputing?

Constructionist notions have become so patent and revered that their articulation need no longer happen, except as reminders to professors who stray from the party line (many utterances begin with “We must remember that. . .”). Those who raise objections soon find themselves trapped in debates shaped by us versus them forensics, enunciated in an idiom of brazen philosophical avowals and insinuations about the character of adversaries. Non-constructionists feel not so much refuted, as ostracized. The humanities become a closed society, captive to a weak epistemology with a mighty elocution.

And the result apparently is that Eagleton and Fish manage to get through their entire careers without ever being compelled to argue properly, with the sad and poignant result that we see before us now – a couple of grizzled sages who think they’re making a case when they’re just making word salad.

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