Does Critical Theory Kill Aristotle or Does Aristotle Kill Critical Theory?

Within the humanities, contemporary critical theorizing typically entails left leaning political commitments accompanied by some line of attack or qualification on Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle—his idea that every communicative act necessarily requires three things: an author or speaker (Greek: ethos), a message (logos), and an audience (pathos).

Decoupling the elements within the rhetorical triangle—as tends to be done by critical theorists for purposes of debate (“Is the idea of authorship meaningful?”; “Can a text truly carry a central or privileged meaning?”; “Do readers ever really discover anything in a book but themselves?” etc.)—is considered of dubious value by some; indeed, a form of unwarranted context dropping by others.

In 1982, Stephen Knapp (b. 1951) and Walter Benn Michaels (b. 1948) wrote an essay titled “Against Theory” that got a lot of critical attention among textual theorists within the humanities. In it, they argue that contemporary textual theorists are misguided in two ways: (1) in order to have something to talk about (or at least generalize about), they divide meaning from intentionality and knowledge from “true belief” (interpretation); and (2) they take sides over these false divisions.

Hence some academics, such as E. D. Hirsch, argue that meaning resides in the author of a text alone, while others, such as Roland Barthes, argue that the author is “dead” and that meaning resides in the structure of the artifact alone (the text). Likewise, some scholars argue that knowledge is objective (“out there”) while others argue that it resides in the reader as beliefs alone (there is no objective knowledge).

Knapp and Michaels, as philosophical pragmatists, are having none of this, arguing that we should not “separate things that should not be separated” and that “the separated terms [in the rhetorical triangle] are in fact inseparable.”

In taking this position, Knapp and Michaels are being bomb-throwers into the tower of contemporary theory. They’re essentially siding with Aristotle against their contemporary colleagues, arguing that a communication event always has, pragmatically, three things: (1) an author or speaker; (2) some material artifact of an expressed intention (a letter, a book, a blog, a voice); and (3) a reader or hearer who must engage in an interpretation.

There are no sides to take between these because they all must be present, pragmatically, for communication to take place.

In interpretation, the author, the message, and the audience must be taken into account, exactly as Aristotle said. None of them can be marginalized, dispensed with, or ignored. It is for this reason that Knapp and Michaels argue that contemporary textual theorizing is fatally misguided as a practice, setting up false problems, and so should be abandoned.

One way they illustrate their position is by imagining the following stanza from a Wordsworth poem magically appearing in beach sand in the wake of a receding wave:

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Were you to witness these words appearing before you, apparently written via the action of water, how might you explain to yourself such a Twilight Zone moment? Would you conclude that the sea was a conscious being or that Wordsworth’s ghost had written them? Or might you chalk them up to dumb luck? And if you chalked them up to luck, would you regard them as words?

Knapp and Michaels argue that you would not: “They will merely seem to resemble words” because meaning cannot be separated from intention, language cannot be separated from intentional speech or text acts, and the hearer or reader cannot be separated from interpretation. These constitute, as it were, a communicative ecosystem that “the theoretical impulse” wrongly attempts to separate, but that “should not be separated.”

Put another way, Knapp and Michaels argue (to echo Mark Twain) that the deaths of the author, the text as an artifact of intention, and the reader as an interpreter are all greatly exaggerated. There are only phantom sides to take for or against killing one or more of these things. The debates among textual theorists are a striving after wind.

Is this checkmate for critical theory? Since Knapp and Michaels wrote their essay in 1982, critical theorizing hasn’t gone away, so pragmatically I guess not.


Knapp and Michaels. “Against Theory.” The Norton Anthology of Critical Theory (Second Edition, 2010, pp. 2488-2506).

W. J. T. Mitchell (Editor). Against Theory: Literary Studies and the New Pragmatism (1985).

Below is Paul Fry of Yale arguing against Knapp and Michaels’s anti-theory position, detecting a weakness in their claim that speech and language amount to the same thing. Fry suggests that speech, being performed in time, and texts, being performed in space, possess different implications for interpretation. Speech, for example, might point away from communication and toward such things as alliteration (as when a poet reads out a poem and draws attention to language itself). As for texts, they “explode with meaning,” he says, and so you simply cannot corral their resonances by pointing to an author’s intention. Thus, for Fry, theory is saved.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Does Critical Theory Kill Aristotle or Does Aristotle Kill Critical Theory?

  1. Pingback: Thinking Critically about Critical Theory | Prometheus Unbound

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