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Before the Trenches

A Mapping of Problems in Literary Interpretation

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Ricardo Namora

Throughout much of the 20th century, literary theory came to be considered the queen discipline of literary studies. It failed, though, to deliver the promises it carried from its onset as an academic field of inquiry and, came to be shrunk and side-lined in the last three or four decades. The author describes and discusses 20th century literary theory and its appeal to scientific methodology. His aim is to depict the intrinsic motives of its downfall. The book focuses on the appeal to scientific methods and epistemology, the status and nature of literary meaning and the role of authorial intention in interpretation.

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1. Anchors and ghosts

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1.  Anchors and ghosts

In most of scientific environments, literary practitioners are consistently demoted to a position of epistemological subordination. The process, often bestowed from the outside and deemed as hopeless, tends to create a state of hypochondriasis (like in a famous Molière play) among literary believers and, consequently, a striving for more scientific forms of behaviour – extending to methods, procedure and, notably, discourse. The striving (not always intrinsic, and often borrowed with the contempt of those who believe in less imperfect forms of knowledge) inevitably leads to the pursuit of objective criteria that, supposedly, would guarantee interpretive objectivity and legitimacy. Following a script that was penned down centuries ago, the study of literature has accepted the rules of the game – the superiority of the scientific method over the humanities’ gibberish, the strict division between subjective and objective knowledge – and struggled to get accepted within the epistemological pantheon. The key to doing so, everybody thought, was to find out a consensus method that would allow for an objective sanction of interpretation. Thus, the claim came to become strongly dependant on science and its methods, and so this may be the exact place to find out what really happened. The relation between humanistic and scientific knowledge seems to be paramount for the concrete arrangement of the terms of epistemology. Accordingly, the main purpose of this chapter would be to show: i) how hard science’s methods for knowledge-acquisition can be as “unreliable” as those used...

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