Judicial and Inductive Criticism

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      Critics have differed as to the proper function of Criticism - whether it should undertake to judge or stop short at interpretation. Though it may be admitted that criticism at some stage must pass beyond mere ‘exposition’ and attempt ‘evaluation’, a latter-day school of critics have studiously abjured the function of a judge and have merely confined themselves to ‘describing’ what is, rather than opining what ought to be. Critics of an earlier day, schooled in the principles of classical art, and taking Aristotle and Horace as their preceptors, proceeded to judge contemporary works of art by the rules formulated by those venerable ancient masters. The practice of a Ben Jonson, an Addison and a Dr. Johnson illustrates this position of the critic as judge. Addison set himself to finding the beauties essential to an epic poem in Paradise Lost in the light of the rules of epic poetry which Aristotle had laid down and which we may derive by an examination of the classics ourselves. Judged by Aristotelian rules, the subject (‘fable’) of Paradise Lost is found wanting. It does not end happily, as Aristotle says the story of an epic poem should. However, Addison implies, by a self-stultifying admission, that Aristotle’s rules do not cover all kinds of epics. If he (Aristotle) had studied an epic like the Aeneid, which was written hundreds of years after his death, he would have enlarged his rules. This, by the way, establishes the principle of development in literature, which is that what held good for the ancients need no longer be so for us. Dryden put it succinctly when he said: “What pleased the Greeks would not satisfy an English audience”; that, had Aristotle read Shakespeare, he would have thought otherwise. Dr. Johnson, whose taste had been formed by the neo-classical literature of his own days, sometimes erred gravely in his judgment of literature of a different kind. He was partially blinded by his classical bias to the greatness of Milton and the poetic talent of Gray and Collins.

      These aberrations of the judicial critic expose the vulnerability of Judicial Criticism. This is because it takes the laws of art to have been fixed by the ancient masters, and that these laws should at all times be respected and obeyed. Whatever departs from them must be ‘flawed’ and hence condemned. Now this view of rules, and principles, of standards of excellence and criteria of judgment as a matter of unvarying dictates, commanding absolute and universal sway, essentially misses, for one thing, the vital principle of growth in literature, and, for another, the principle of variability of taste and literary values. Later critics, particularly those of the 19th century working under the liberating spirit of Romanticism, saw the fallacy of the judicial critic, who falsely assumed that the so-called laws of art are like the laws of morality or of an autocratic State, made once for all by the literary monarchs of old and demanding unflinching obedience from later generations. Actuated by the contemporary spirit of historicism (which allows each age to be different without being necessarily superior or inferior), and by the investigative spirit of Science, these critics adopted a neutral posture. They said: It is not for us to judge. Our business is to interpret the writer and his works, of whatever kind they are. We do not take sides. We pronounce nothing good or bad, superior or inferior. Praise or blame does not belong to our job. We do not classify poets and artists according to an order of merit. Merit, absolute or relative, is not our concern. It is not even relevant. It is outside the critic’s purview. We undertake to examine literature or literary works in a pure spirit of investigation. We seek to describe what is, and do not presume to lay down what ought to be. We try to discover the principles on which a poet’s work is built, and formulate the results of our findings in the form of generalized statements. The laws we seek are of the individual artist’s own making. It would be inept on the part of the critic to apply the Aristotelian laws of dramatic art to the dramatic compositions of Shakespeare. In the spirit of the geological scientist, who does not hold up one kind of rock formation as good or bad beside another, we seek to describe works of literary art as we find them. We do not let our individual tastes interfere with our task, lest we may be tempted to judge something as good or bad according to our taste. Neither do we concern ourselves with literary values. So we make no invidious comparisons, in fact, no value judgments at all.

      This kind of criticism, which purports to take each author on his own terms, and takes no frame of reference except that provided by each individual author or work, is called the Inductive type. It found its best exponent in the English critic R. G. Moulton. And he gave a classic enunciation to this brand of purely investigative, interpretative kind of literary criticism in his Preface to Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist. The points of difference between the two types may (if only for purposes of driving home what has already been stated in fairly great detail) be indicated thus: (1) That while the older Judicial method concerned itself with questions of merit —absolute or relative—the new Inductive method approaches literary works in a neutral spirit of pure investigation. While it may not difference of kind, it recognizes no differences in degree. (2) Secondly, while the older school believed that the so-called laws of literature are permanent and fixed, absolute and unalterable, and that literary works can be tested by these rules and these alone, and their merit adjudged by reference to standards set by the ancients, the new school of Inductive critics asserted the independence of each artist and the unique character of each literary work. Hence no external laws could be brought to bear upon any work of art, and the laws of each author’s work must be sought within the work itself. (3) Thirdly — and this is a vital point­while the Judicial critic overlooked the principle of growth in literature and of the variability of taste from age to age, the Inductive critic recognized these vital principles, and hence refrained from judging.

      Where we join issue with the Inductive critic is regarding his abjuration of the critic’s function to judge, to evaluate, to estimate the merits and demerits of a literary work. The question of significance and value cannot but engage the attention of the critic. He must pass beyond mere exposition into considerations of ultimate values. Not to recognize this need is to tail to distinguish between masterpieces and ephemeral products (or literary trash). The critic, whether he wills or not, does perform this task at least by implication. Even Moulton, in deciding to take up Shakespeare for study rather than other dramatists, does indicate, by his preference, the overriding merit of this dramatist. The critic needs to distinguish between good and bad, at least for the guidance of the reader. It will not do for the critic to say that his business, like that of the botanist or geologist, is to describe what he finds, without approval or disproval. For, while in the physical sciences we are concerned with ‘facts’, indisputable facts, in literature we are concerned with ‘points of view’, with personal, subjective assessments of life’s experiences, or emotive outpourings. We are of necessity brought to a consideration of how far these assessments are ‘true’ (in the artistic sense) or how the artist’s picture of life relates with life as it is. So we are necessarily bound up with questions of value, of truth and meaningfulness and effective communication. Hence criticism cannot abjure the function of the judge. It must pass beyond interpretation and answer questions of value, of good and bad, and attempt to place works of art in a hierarchy of excellence.

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