Re: A critical education (Feb. 12): Matthew Shaffer writes a thought-provoking criticism of criticism, examining the form of interacting actively with texts and developing reasons for deciding what any given work means and whether it ultimately succeeds or fails.
But in his argument, Shaffer seems to misunderstand the point of critical theory. The mere act of reading is an act of criticism, in and of itself. If we read with any thought at all — if we consider how words interact with one another, how scenes and characters develop, even if we find that by reading we become more “whole people,” — we notice some words and ideas more than we do others and that which we notice forms our interpretations. That’s criticism.
To read uncritically is not to read at all. If we put any thought into reading, enough to influence the slightest aspect about who we are, then we can’t help but notice patterns and begin to interpret.
As the late Yale professor Paul de Man notes in his essay, “The Resistance to Theory,” resisting criticism, as Shaffer does, is a form of criticism. Contrary to Shaffer’s assertion that we “let our texts stand in judgment of us,” those who have written literature and philosophy are mortal. They are as much flawed, subject to bias and prejudice and pettiness, as any among us. The only way to treat these writers with the dignity they deserve, and to culture and progress ourselves and society, is to realize that criticism is inherent in our understanding of literature and philosophy and to proceed in interacting, for better or worse, with the work of the past.
The writer is a freshman in Saybrook College.