Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature

By Claude J. Summers; Ted-Larry Pebworth | Go to book overview

Robert C. Evans


“What Is Truth?”

Defining and Defending Theoretical Pluralism

Anyone studying literature today faces pressing questions that would have seemed less insistent earlier. Several decades of heated theoretical debate have called many basic assumptions of traditional literary study into doubt. Who, any longer, can answer with any confidence (or hope of consensus) such apparently simple questions as these: What is literature? What is an author? What is a fact? Are “facts” even possible? What makes an interpretation legitimate? Indeed, are “legitimate” interpretations possible? Why even study literature? In a real sense, all such questions boil down to Pilate's famous query (echoed by Francis Bacon): what is truth?

Obviously, such crucial questions deserve serious attention. To complicate matters even further, however, it is unclear if any of them can easily (or ever) be answered. In academe today, so many apparently mutually exclusive answers to such questions exist that many students and teachers are likely to feel a kind of intellectual vertigo. Moreover, debates about such issues are often so polemical, and advocates so adamant, and the means for deciding truth so uncertain or disputed, that many intelligent students will be tempted either to abandon literary study altogether or, perhaps worse, simply to take the line of least resistance, adopting whatever approach happens to seem most fashionable or marketable at the moment.

One way to confront the difficulties just outlined is to explore one approach in particular: critical pluralism. Pluralism is less a theory about literature itself than a method of evaluating competing theoretical claims. Long associated with the work of Ronald Crane and Wayne Booth (but also advocated by other important theorists), pluralism assumes that every theory, by asking different kinds of questions, will provide different kinds of answers and that each

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