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The Critical Imagination$

James Grant

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199661794

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199661794.001.0001

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(p.173) Conclusion
The Critical Imagination

James Grant

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This conclusion provides an overview of the argument of the book as a whole. It highlights the principal claims defended in the book and shows how they relate to one another. The conclusion also discusses the relevance of the book’s conclusions to other questions about metaphor, imaginativeness, and criticism.

Keywords:   art criticism, literary criticism, imaginativeness, creativity, metaphor, seeing-as, barthes

Criticism of the arts is a major part of our cultural life. Critics help determine which films and plays get seen and which books get read, and criticism commonly affects our experience and evaluation of paintings, poems, music, the urban environment, fashion, and much else. But as I said in the introduction, many people find it rather mystifying how critics do what they do. Critics cannot explain what they do by identifying definite procedures, rules, or algorithms which they consult and which ensure they get things right if they follow them. As in other areas in which this is the case—such as, notably, the creation of art—it can be mysterious how those who are good at it succeed. One aim of this book has been to make criticism less mystifying. If my arguments have succeeded, they have given us a better understanding of what critics do and how they do it.

The first step was to consider what appreciation involves. Appreciating an artwork involves having appropriate perceptual, cognitive, cogitative, affective, or conative responses to the right aspects of a work for the right reasons. Much more, of course, could be said about appreciation; but clarifying even this much about its nature allows us to identify an aim shared by all criticism. A critic aims to communicate what appreciation can involve responding to, what responses appreciation can involve, or what appropriate reasons there are for such responses. This, I argued, is a constitutive aim of criticism.

Knowing this much enables us to understand many other features of criticism. It explains why a critic is required to be acquainted with a work in the same way (e.g., perceptually) as one must be to appreciate it. It helps us see how criticism differs from similar forms of discourse about art, such as art history, which have different aims and are subject to different requirements. Finally, identifying this constitutive aim prompts us to look at the question of the aims of criticism itself in a new light. It prompts us to distinguish criticism’s constitutive aims from its non-constitutive aims. Aiding appreciation, I argued, is a non-constitutive aim of criticism.

(p.174) Knowing both of these aims helps us to make sense of further aspects of criticism. First, it helps us to see what unites a great variety of things critics do, such as describe responses to works, and evaluate, interpret, and explain works. Critics do much of what they do in order to achieve the aims of criticism I identified. They describe responses and interpret in order to communicate what appreciation involves; they guide perception to aid appreciation. In other cases, critics achieve these aims of criticism in order to achieve something further. Critics sometimes communicate facts about appreciation to help their readers decide what works to experience; often, too, they communicate such facts to aid appreciation. Seeing this allows us to understand both what is wrong and what is right about the five rival views on the aims of criticism in the philosophical literature.

Second, knowing these aims makes it clear how critics produce good criticism. If I am right about appreciation, there are three basic kinds of change critics can cause to help us better appreciate a work. They can affect what we respond to, how we respond, and why we respond. Accordingly, the endowments that make someone good at criticism are those that make a person good at effecting these changes by achieving the constitutive aim of criticism. I singled out nine endowments that make critics good at this.

Metaphor is no less mystifying than criticism. A second primary concern of this book has been to shed light on it. Why some metaphors are so effective, how they work, and what their distinctive effects are, are questions of perennial interest. They have received especially close attention in recent decades. My arguments give us new answers to these questions.

Three widely held views have made a correct understanding of metaphor difficult to attain: anti-realism about metaphor, the Indispensability Thesis, and the denial that all metaphors are based on likenesses. I have argued that these views are false or poorly supported. Instead, I have based my account of metaphor on the Minimal Thesis about what metaphors communicate. The Minimal Thesis can withstand an array of objections and putative counterexamples, as we have seen. And just as my view of the aims of criticism puts us in a position to explain many other aspects of criticism, so the Minimal Thesis enables us to explain many other aspects of metaphor.

The Minimal Thesis helps us understand how metaphors guide our thinking. Much has been made of the impact of metaphor on thought. The history of science and the history of philosophy both bear witness to the hold a metaphor can exert on our minds. The metaphor of the mind as (p.175) a computer, of the body as a machine, of knowledge as a structure supported on foundations, and many others have exercised a powerful influence on our thinking.

We fail to see how metaphors influence thought if we ignore the Minimal Thesis. Metaphors prompt us to seek likeness-makers for an indicated likeness. As we saw in Chapter 5, the cognitive scientist guided by the computer-file metaphor is looking for properties that would make memory like a computer file. This may lead her to discover properties of memory she would not otherwise have looked for. It may lead her to postulate further likeness-makers to explain properties she discovers. And it may, of course, cause her to overlook important differences as well (recognizing the limitations of a useful metaphor can also constitute progress). We can thus explain metaphor’s influence on our thinking without making the vague claim that metaphors make us think of one thing ‘in terms of’ another, the unwarranted claim that our concepts are themselves metaphorical, or the false claim that metaphor is indispensable for thinking in these ways.

We also have a better understanding of what makes some metaphors effective. Some metaphors cause us not only to seek likeness-makers for an indicated likeness, but to perceive or imagine perceiving that the subject has them. Some characterize their subjects very specifically. Both features make metaphor especially well-suited to the critic’s task.

My conclusions also have a bearing on other questions about the effects of metaphor. For example, it has been common since Davidson to appeal to perceiving-as to explain various features of metaphor. My account, however, has explained many of the same features (such as metaphor’s open-endedness and the difficulty of paraphrase) without reference to perceiving-as. When I have discussed perception, I have appealed only to the connection between metaphor and perceiving that something is the case. We should reconsider what, if anything, is explained by the claim that metaphors make us perceive one thing as another.

Finally, the third principal aim of this book has been to provide us with a better understanding of the nature of imaginativeness and its role in criticism. Imaginativeness is a propensity to think of unobvious achievements. It contrasts with perceptiveness, which is an aptitude for acquiring the knowledge that p when it is not obvious that p. The role of imaginativeness in criticism is to enable critics to think of unobvious ways of better appreciating a work and unobvious ways of communicating effectively. Imaginative art-critical metaphors exemplify both aspects of this role. (p.176) Many are unobvious ways of effectively communicating what appreciation involves. And in many cases, what they communicate is itself an unobvious way of better appreciating the work to think of.

This says what imaginativeness’s role in criticism is. It does not say how large its role is. I will conclude with some remarks about how my account of the role of imaginativeness in criticism should guide reflection about how much scope there is for imaginativeness in criticism.

Claims about the role of imaginativeness in criticism are often coupled with the claim that the critic’s task offers broad scope for imaginativeness, or even that it requires her to be imaginative. For example, it follows, from Scruton’s claim that aesthetic descriptions express an experience of perceiving the work imaginatively, that critics need to be imaginative to provide aesthetic descriptions. Again, much of the appeal of Roland Barthes’s claim that some texts are scriptible is due to the suggestion that there is broad scope for imaginativeness on the part of the reader. Barthes writes: ‘Why is the scriptible our value? Because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.’1 A purely lisible text, by contrast, denies the reader access ‘to the pleasure of writing’ and would leave him ‘no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text’.2

My explanation of the role of imaginativeness in criticism can contribute to an assessment of these influential views. On the one hand, it clearly is not true that a critic always needs to be imaginative in order to achieve the aims of criticism—for example, in order to aid the reader’s appreciation. Depending on the readership being addressed, thinking only of obvious ways of better appreciating the work and of communicating effectively may be adequate.

On the other hand, if there are many unobvious ways of better appreciating a work (for instance, because there are many unobvious but appropriate responses to it), or many unobvious yet effective ways of communicating what the ways of better appreciating it are, then there is much scope for imaginativeness in criticizing the work. But whether philosophical argument can show that one of these conditions is satisfied by many, most, or all works of art is another question. Perhaps the best prospect for someone who wants to argue that the role imaginativeness (p.177) plays in criticism is (or can be) a large one is to consider a certain claim often made about great artworks, but less often examined. This is the claim that the works of art we value most lend themselves to criticism by generation after generation. It is not just that we continue to value them—that, in other words, they stand the test of time. It is that critics keep finding new things to say about them. For many works, it seems absurd to suppose critics will ever finish thinking of the responses to them that appreciation can involve having, or finish thinking of appropriate reasons for such responses. Of course, the claims made for the inexhaustibility of great artworks may be exaggerated. But even if they are, the truth they exaggerate may provide reason to believe that there is broad scope for imaginativeness in criticism of such works. The critical attention lavished on canonical works certainly suggests that, at any given time, there are indeed many unobvious ways of better appreciating them that remain to be thought of.

Coleridge said of Shakespeare: ‘You feel him to be a poet inasmuch as, for a time, he has made you one—an active creative being.’3 If my account here has been successful, it helps us to make sense of the thought that engaging with art can make poets out of critics.


(1) Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Howard (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 4.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton in Illustration of the Principles of Poetry’, in Lectures 1808–1819: On Literature, ed. R. A. Foakes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 251.