Interpretive Skepticism: Stanley Cavell, New Criticism & Literary Interpretation



By: Ingbore Lofgren
November 2015
Uppsala University
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789155493141
366 Pages
$89.50 Paper original


This dissertation explores and analyzes interpretive skepticism in literary theory. It argues that traditional interpretive theories and debates often harbor unacknowledged forms of skeptical thinking and arguments. As these forms of skepticism are seldom recognized as skepticism, the problem tends to remain hidden and unresolved. The dissertation further argues that interpretive skepticism is (i) the result of a philosophical confusion, and (ii) practically harmful when used in order to regulate interpretive practice. Accordingly, a central purpose of the dissertation is to offer an analysis and taxonomy of what interpretive skepticism is. Only once we are in a position to understand and recognize it in its many guises will we be able to criticize and challenge it.

The first part of the dissertation thus aims at identifying a specific structure of skeptical reasoning within the theory of literary interpretation.  In articulating this taxonomy and analysis, the study builds on the American philosopher Stanley Cavell’s reinterpretation of epistemological skepticism in terms of tragedy, avoidance and repudiation of grammatical criteria. The second part of the study explores, in greater detail, interpretive skepticism within New Criticism. It centers on analyses of two classics within interpretive theory: “The Intentional Fallacy” by Monroe C. Beardsley (and W.K. Wimsatt) and “The Heresy of Paraphrase” by Cleanth Brooks. The study argues that Beardsley becomes both a so-called “skeptical twin” about literary interpretation and a straightforward literary other-minds skeptic with regard to authorial intentions. Brooks, for his part, becomes a straightforward skeptic about poetic interpretation and a “skeptical twin” about poetic meaning. Both theorists are investigated in comparison with Cavell’s explorations of the themes of intention, overinterpretation, fraudulence, modernism, and aesthetic judgment in art, literature and criticism. Despite these skeptical findings, the study also argues that there are important similarities between Cavell’s non-skeptical approach to literature and criticism, and New Critical “close reading.”

The dissertation concludes with a chapter that leaves the confines of the New Critical idiom to explore interpretive skepticism within the tradition of so-called “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Through readings of Susan Sontag, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Cora Diamond, it argues that suspicious or paranoid hermeneutics is not skeptical in itself but can become so through the skeptical temptations of dogmatism, authoritarianism, and fraudulence.