Critique, Neo-Kantianism, and Literary Study

by Ross Knecht


Bruno Latour’s 2004 essay “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?” positions itself as a challenge to long-standing orthodoxy in the academic humanities.1 According to Latour, critique—a mode of detached, rigorous analysis that has become standard across a range of disciplines—has led its adherents to abandon the reality of the word, to dismiss matters of fact either as mere fetishes—as repositories of subjective desires and beliefs—or as the effects of grand impersonal systems such as economics, genetics, and ideology. Latour traces this nihilistic tendency of critique to the mistaken idea that “there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible,” an “unfortunate solution inherited from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant” (231-32). In order to counter this nihilism, Latour enjoins critics to model their professional practice on the “healthy sturdy realis[m]” with which they pursue their own passions and interests, the area of their lives typically kept private and jealously guarded against the ruthless process of demystification to which they submit everything else. Latour asks critics to reconnect with the world, to abandon the attitude of superiority which has for too long characterized academic work and adopt a stance of openness and engagement. He characterizes this stance as “concern,” a term borrowed from Heidegger but which Latour seeks to strip of its romanticism and nostalgia so that it embraces not only traditional practices but the technological and bureaucratic forms of life that flourish in the present day.

In the following essay,2 I will trace the influence of Neo-Kantian philosophy on early twentieth century literary study, suggesting that Latour is indeed correct to identify the critical dimension of humanist scholarship with the legacy of Kant. Against Latour, however, I contend that critique is not solely and perhaps not even primarily negative in character: it also has an important synthetic function, uniting historical and interpretive modes of inquiry in such a way as to invest its objects of study with cultural and historical significance.

Calls to advance literary study beyond the limits imposed by the model of critique have grown both more common and more confident since the appearance of Latour’s article. To name a few prominent examples, Rita Felski, Sharon Marcus, Stephen Best, and Heather Love have all offered careful assessments of the character of critique and charted potential avenues for moving beyond it, helping to establish a variety of approaches that have been termed “post-critical.”3The methods that make up this post-critical landscape are diverse, but they might be organized under two broad headings. First, there are those that take an empirical and descriptive approach, eschewing fine-grained analysis for data-driven studies of historical trends in literature and the nature of literary production. Here we might think of such schools as Franco Moretti’s distant reading, the new bibliography, neuroaesthetics and other approaches influenced by cognitive science, and the various modes of computational analysis and mapping associated with the digital humanities. Second are those that focus on the individual encounter with the text, such as affect theory, object-oriented ontology, and surface reading. These approaches, which often draw on a robust philosophical realism inspired by such figures as Graham Harman, involve a turn from epistemology to ontology, a shift from a fixation on representation, mediation, and context to a concern with the vibrant presence and agency of the thing itself. While we were once admonished to “Always historicize!” the new imperative seems to be to de-historicize, to de-contextualize, to contemplate the object in its simple, autonomous being.4

If this is an accurate description, it is striking how much the post-critical era of literary study resembles what we might call the pre-critical period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when departments of literature and modern languages were beginning to take shape. As critics like Gerald Graff, Michael Warner, and John Guillory have shown, literary study at this time was dominated by two doggedly opposed schools: philology and belletrism.5 The former concentrated on rigorously factual accounts of literary production while the latter engaged in the judgment of individual works of literature as a means of cultivating aesthetic sensibility.6 The analogy with the present situation is not absolutely precise: the rivalry that existed between philology and belletrism does not appear among the approaches we see today. Nevertheless, I would argue that the division of the field between data-driven analysis on the one hand and decontextualized, ethically-invested reading on the other echoes the philology-belletrism divide that obtained from the 1870s to the 1940s.

René Wellek, writing near the end of this period in 1946, offers some suggestive comments on the opposition between philology and belletrism. The first, he writes, was dedicated to “the accumulation of isolated facts, usually defended on the vague belief that all these bricks will sometime be used in a great pyramid of learning.”7 Set against this position was “late nineteenth-century aestheticism: it stresse[d] the individual experience of the work of art, which is… the presupposition of all fruitful literary study, but which in itself can lead only to complete subjectivism” (257). The remainder of Wellek’s essay presents a wide-ranging survey of contemporary European critical approaches that challenge positivist orthodoxy. The three writers with which Wellek begins are significant: Wilhelm Dilthey, Wilhelm Windelband, and Heinrich Rickert. Each of these figures is closely associated with Neo-Kantianism; Windelband and Rickert in particular were the leaders of the so-called Baden School, which along with the Marburg School made up the mainstream of Neo-Kantian philosophy at the turn of the century. The influence of Neo-Kantianism in a number of disciplines is well-documented: the revolutionary work of Max Weber in sociology and that of Gaston Bachelard and Thomas Kuhn in the philosophy of science are routinely characterized as Neo-Kantian. But there has been little attention to the influence of Neo-Kantianism on literary study.8

It is possible to see in the impasse between positivism and subjectivism a situation similar to that which prompted the original critical turn, the “Copernican Revolution” staged by Kant as a means of transcending the opposition between rationalism and empiricism. And it was a version of the Kantian transcendental method that served to synthesize factual description and individual interpretation, helping to establish literary study as a specifically critical discipline in the early twentieth century. In a more direct way than is usually acknowledged, then, it was indeed what Latour deems the “unfortunate” legacy of Kant that helped to establish critique as the primary mode of analysis in the academic humanities. But, as I will contend, this legacy did not entail the nihilism that Latour ascribes to it.

Neo-Kantianism, the dominant philosophical school in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Europe, is often dismissed as a backward-looking idealism, but it was not defined by unquestioning acceptance of Kant’s philosophy: Windelband insisted that “understanding Kant means going beyond him,” and this became a widely-echoed motto of the movement.9 For the Marburg School led by Hermann Cohen and Paul Natorp, the essential part of the Kantian inheritance was not any one of his arguments, but his methodological approach: Kant’s innovation was to avoid taking objects of experience for granted and to understand them as necessarily conditioned by the faculties of the experiencing subject. As Kant writes in the first critique, “experience… is a kind of knowledge that requires understanding; and this understanding has its rules which I must presuppose as existing within me even before objects are given to me, and hence a priori. These rules are expressed in a priori concepts to which all objects of experience must necessarily conform.”10 While many would reject the image of the rational subject that this formulation assumes, those modes of inquiry which situate the object within a particular weltanschauung, mentalité, paradigm, episteme, or normative framework nevertheless rely upon Kant’s turn to a priori conditions.11 The Neo-Kantians called such methods transcendental.

As Natorp explains it, the transcendental method involves two distinct steps. “The first is the secure reference back to current, historically verifiable facts of science, morals, art and religion… it strives to root itself firmly in the total creative work of a culture. This includes ‘spelling out appearances’ scientifically” (182). After having secured its foundation in the immanent analysis of a fact of human culture, the second step in the transcendental method is to establish “the basis of the ‘possibility’ of the fact and therewith its ‘warrant’” (182). The method thus transcends the immediate circumstances of the object in order to discover its conditions of possibility, the principles that structure and constrain its creation. Natorp emphasizes that this transcendence implies a methodological rather than a metaphysical distinction. Though it establishes a “higher” viewpoint from which to perceive the object, the method nevertheless remains decisively within the same realm as the object, thus avoiding the subjectivism or psychologism with which Kant had been associated: “this methodological ascendance to a higher plane of observation, implied by the word ‘transcendental,’ in no way conflicts with the immanence of the real experiential standpoint, but instead coincides precisely with it. This is because the method does not force laws upon the experiential act from the outside, nor prematurely lays down the tracks it must follow. Rather, it seeks to uncover in its purity that law which makes experience ‘possible in the first place’” (182). Thus the transcendental method is “a ‘critical’ one: critical of metaphysical encroachments, but also of a lawless, law-eluding empiricism. It makes the autonomy of experience count against both the heteronomy of any metaphysicalism that seeks to master it and the anomy of an empiricism devoid of or even quite hostile to laws” (182).

The career paths of several key figures in modern literary criticism led through Natorp’s University of Marburg, one of the centers of Neo-Kantian philosophy: Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and T. S. Eliot all worked or studied at the university. Here I concentrate on the case of Spitzer, who offers a compelling account of the development of his own critical methodology in an effort to contest the positivist approach in which he was trained. In “Linguistics and Literary History,” Spitzer reflects on his career and the evolution of his critical practice. He begins with an account of his post-graduate career at the University of Vienna, where he studied under the Neogrammarian philologist Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke, the world’s most renowned expert in Romance languages. He attributes his attraction to the subject to a fascination with French that began during his youth in Vienna, where French culture was held in high esteem. But in pursuing his research, he was dismayed by Meyer-Lübke’s bloodless positivism. Hoping to attain a deeper understanding of the culture that so captivated him, he was instead confronted with a grimly factual account of linguistic development that was entirely divorced from French life:


in these classes we saw the Latin a moving, according to relentless phonetic laws, toward French e (pater>père); there we saw a new system of declension spring up from nothingness, a system in which the six Latin cases came to be reduced to two, and late to one… In all this, there were many facts and much rigor in the establishment of facts, but all was vague in regard to the general ideas underlying these facts.12


Fearing that he would never complete his studies in such an atmosphere, he began to take classes in literary history, but there too he found nothing but the accumulation of facts. Questions of meaning and motivation were entirely ignored: “In this attitude of positivism, exterior events were taken thus seriously only to evade the more completely real question: Why did the phenomena Pèlerinage and École des femmes happen at all?” (3-4).

Spitzer overcame his discouragement and completed his PhD under Meyer-Lübke, but for the remainder of his career he worked to develop a critical practice that would take into account the artistic and historical significance of cultural production in an effort to resist the stifling positivism that he still perceived in the academic world around him. To illustrate the method at which he arrived, Spitzer cites the example of an etymological study he undertook during his time at Johns Hopkins. Since coming to America, he had been intrigued by a pair of English words that resembled one another: “conundrum” and “quandary.” Through a painstaking investigation that I will not rehearse here, Spitzer identified the French calembour, “pun,” as the source of both words. While a Neogrammarian might have ceased the investigation at this point, confident that a previously overlooked etymological development had been discovered, Spitzer took the additional step of situating this development within a set of historical and cultural conditions. As Spitzer explains it, the importation of “conundrum” and “quandary” into English was enabled by the cultural influence of the French during the medieval period, and the fact that French was mined for words associated with wit and word-play suggests that even then the French were admired for such qualities. Yet we may also perceive in this linguistic development the tensions that remained between the cultures, tensions to which the multiplicity of forms assumed by the new word testify. That calembour entered English in such a variety of forms—“conundrum,” “quandary,” “colundrum,” “columbrum,” “conimbrum,” “quonundrum,” “quandorum”—suggests resistance to its use, that it was adopted only hesitantly and over a protracted period of time: “the instability and disunity of the word family is symptomatic of its position in the new environment” (7). By intuiting the cultural conditions that made the development of “conundrum” and “quandary” possible, Spitzer’s method “introduces meaning into the meaningless… What seemed an agglomeration of mere sounds now appears motivated” (6). Much rests, then, upon this apparently minor development. The particular linguistic event is revealed to be “symptomatic” of larger cultural forces: “what repeats itself in all word-histories is the possibility of recognizing the signs of a people at work… Wortwandel ist Kulturwandel und Seelenwandel [word-change is culture-change and soul-change]” (8).13 And if even this small etymological innovation may be read as evidence of cultural change, how much more, Spitzer asks, might the literary text speak to the soul of its age?

To briefly conclude, I’d like to suggest once again that the two-step process that Spitzer rehearses here—first an empirical account of a linguistic event, then a careful elaboration of the cultural situation that made it possible—shows the influence of the transcendental method described by Natorp. A few points follow from this: first, it suggests that the tradition of philosophical critique is more fundamental to the practice of literary study than is typically acknowledged, having entered into the field not during the turn to continental theory in the 70s and 80s, but in the early twentieth century when departments of English and Comparative Literature were coming into their own. The second point is that critique does not necessarily entail the cynicism and negativity that its opponents impute to it, for Spitzer’s express purpose in developing his critical method was, to use Eve Sedgewick’s term, reparative. The methodology represents an attempt to redeem the figure he called “the ideal Frenchman,” the desideratum of his Viennese youth, from the deadening grip of the Neogrammarians. Spitzer’s synthesis of interpretive and empirical methodologies allowed French language and literature to be understood as motivated and meaningful phenomena rather than as repositories of data. The critical approach to the linguistic event, then, is not a move away from the fact, as Latour has it, but an attempt to situate the fact within a larger set of cultural conditions and thus to grant it a secure foundation in history, to invest what would otherwise appear a mute and indifferent datum with cultural-historical significance. 

  • 1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (2004): 225-248.
  • 2. This essay was originally written for “Intellectual Labor and the Crisis of Value in the Humanities,” an ACLA seminar organized by Christian Gerzso, Geordie Miller, and Timothy Brennan. I would like to thank the organizers of that seminar as well as Matthew Flaherty and Julie Orlemanski for their generous responses and readings.
  • 3. See Rita Felski, “Suspicious Minds,” Poetics Today 32 (2011): 215-234; “Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion,” M/C Journal 15 (2012); The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Sharon Best and Steven Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21; Heather Love “Close Reading and Thin Description,” Public Culture 25 (2013): 401-34. For the term “post-critical,” see Matthew Mullins’s review of Felski’s Limits of Critique, “Are We Postcritical?” LA Review of Books, December 2015.
  • 4. “Always Historicize” is the well-known motto of Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982). “Surface reading” as a method is conceived as a departure from the “symptomatic reading” pioneered in that book
  • 5. See Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Intellectual History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Michael Warner, “Professionalization and the Rewards of Literature,” Criticism 26 (1985): 1-28; John Guillory, “Literary Study and the Disciplines,” Disciplinarity at the Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 19-43.
  • 6. The comparison to belletrism, often derided as polite dilettantism, may seem unfair to sophisticated practices like affect studies and object-oriented ontology, but, as Guillory points out, belles lettres was itself a sophisticated practice that emerged from the moral philosophy of figures like Hume. See Guillory 20-25. René Wellek, “The Revolt against Positivism in Recent European Literary Scholarship,” Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 256-57.
  • 7. René Wellek, “The Revolt against Positivism in Recent European Literary Scholarship,” Concepts of Criticism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), 256-57.
  • 8. James Comas notes that “The Neo-Kantian foundation of Wellek’s new criticism has not, to my knowledge, been examined,” Between Politics and Ethics: Towards a Vocative History of English Studies (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006), 146n. One exception to the inattention to Neo-Kantianism in literary criticism and philology is Michael Holquist’s “Erich Auerbach and the Fate of Philology Today,” Poetics Today 20 (1999): 77-91. Qtd. in Andrea Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. John Denton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 268n. For a general introduction to the subject, see Frederick Beiser, The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • 9. Qtd. in Andrea Poma, The Critical Philosophy of Hermann Cohen, tr. John Denton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998) 268n. For a general introduction to the subject, see Frederick Beiser, The Genesis of Neo-Kantianism, 1796-1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  • 10. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Marcus Weigelt and Max Muller (New York: Penguin, 2007), 19.
  • 11. Felski helpfully distinguishes between the process of uncovering and revealing characteristic of Marxist and Freudian critique, which she calls “digging deep,” from the process of contextualization that defines historicist critique, which she calls “standing back.” It is the latter that I want to emphasize in this paper. See The Limits of Critique.
  • 12. Leo Spitzer, Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 2.
  • 13. Spitzer’s use of the term “symptomatic” may not merely be an accidental anticipation of Jameson’s. While Jameson attributes the term to Althusser, he also wrote his dissertation at Yale under the direction of Auerbach, who also used the term
Ross Knecht
Ross Knecht is assistant professor of English at Emory University. His work, which has appeared in Comparative Literature and ELH, focuses on early modern literature, critical theory, and the history of philosophy. His current book project, “The Grammar Rules of Affection: Language, Passion, and Pedagogy in Early Modern Literature,” concerns the intersection of emotion and education in sixteenth-century English literature.

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