The best critics are the best readers; what they see in a text is the judgment at work and at play. When they read most vividly, transported to see not only the text, but life and the world as they are apprehended and clarified in the text, anew, they are most appreciative of what the text’s or author’s judgment effects; their sense of its rightness has moved them. Their reading depends on their trusting, and helping others trust, in the range, precision, sensitivity, and depth of apprehension they see in a work; from that trust, they can speak to and from it, in an act of interpretation, making sense of its judgments, each judgment resting on others. That means, though, that they must be willing and able to evaluate, and here, in the generalized articulation of value, whether specific to an author, or, most precariously, across an era, even the best critics are most likely to falter. Disagreements can arise at any level, from multiple angles, with twentieth-century critics as intensely alive and profoundly intelligent as Eliot, Davie, Empson, Lewis, or—Nabokov or Trilling—or, with more stringent and narrow horizons, Winters or Blackmur or Leavis. But from such critics, what can be learned is not the pronouncement of value or worth, but the knowledge of what has been read: the knowing not just what something means, but the knowledge of the judgment that effected those choices, that knew life to be one way rather than another, and that rests upon deeper judgments left implicit but active.
In speaking of judgment as I do, in appreciating critics so broadly, I am elucidating their activity in quasi-philosophical terms, and more specifically in philosophical terms that have been set out in the idealist tradition. Without doing the true scholarly work of retracing the aesthetic tradition of German philosophy (though Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Man is the obvious point of reference), I am imagining evaluative criticism as a hermeneutic activity by way of Sebastian Rödl’s post-Frege, post-Wittgenstein, post-Anscombe, post-McDowell reconstruction of German idealism, initially tilted to Kant, and increasingly embracing Hegel.
As a summary of the view I’d put forward, a work of art is an achievement of judgment, but represents also a particular unity of judgments: a manifold of judgments that, in their relation to one another, sustain the burden of self-explanation in the same way as any judgment by a person (that is, redundantly stated, any first-person, self-conscious judgment), even in the absence of the person who created it; that is why we do not need biography to understand a work of art, we do not need biography to elucidate its truths; we do however need to situate a work within the horizon of meanings and beliefs available to the person that the work of art is (we must historicize; the temporality of all judgment, including the thought of the person that is a work of art, its personhood, cannot be understood apart from a particular point in time). Biography might be helpful in situating a work of art, in giving bounds to its meanings, and it is a viable tool for making sense of the manifold of judgments that a work of art is, but it is wrong to conflate the personhood of a work of art with the personhood of the artist. Accounting for a work of art as a manifold of judgments that establishes a sort of self-conscious personhood, we can appreciate the hermeneutic conception of conversation and dialogue as something other than a figure of speech, and instead as a genuine method of encounter.
The term “judgment” is doing the most work in my account, and it is this term that owes most to Rödl. It is central to all of his latest work, but he offers in a 2020 paper, “Nature and the Good,” a relevant account:
This is the self-understanding of judgment that is—is called—inference. Therefore, it is the self-understanding of any judgment that may be just or not and hence is such as to be made just. For such a judgment is an understanding of itself as being that. If it were not, it would be inconceivable that it figure in inference. Any judgment understands itself to be such as to be justified and therein thinks itself through the form of explanation that inference is: It knows itself to be such as to be explained by what it judges alone. Being explained by what it judges, a judgment is explained by itself. In its self-understanding, then, judgment is understood
to be absolute.
And, in a note to that passage:
It is easy to see that a judgment, precisely insofar as it is such as to figure in, and thus to be, an inference, is incapable of completing its consciousness of its grounds and achieving the idea of itself expounded here: providing for the recognition of its truth by what it judges alone. For, inferring that things are so, I see my judgment that they are so to be validated by certain truths, and in this thought, I exclude that my recognition of these truths be explained by anything other than what validates my judgment of them and thus the judgment I rest on them. However, what is apt to justify a judgment is judged in a judgment that in turn may be just or not and hence is such as to figure in, and thus to be, an inference. (Cf. Self-Consciousness and Objectivity, chapter 7.) Judgment is never content with itself. This does nothing to invite a return to the empty idea of an explanation of judgment from outside the recognition of its truth. On the contrary, it underscores that every inference, uniting a judgment’s explanation with the recognition of its truth, evinces the idea of judgment as absolute. Without this idea, there would be no inner unrest in judgment; it would lie in the mind dumb and still.
I include the note because the incompletion of a complete judgment that permits the “inner unrest” of judgment is the true judgment of personhood that distinguishes a work of art from the “dumb and still” incompletion of a work of art, which is not the incompletion of judgment, but its falsification, its fake.
Critics don’t need to bother with metaphysics or philosophy—it’s probably a distraction more often than not. But evaluative criticism—criticism that gets into the judgments of a work by way of finding some judgments righter than others—is not much done anymore. In their reading, the critics I’ve mentioned were most fruitfully inspired by theories of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and by historical knowledge; but in recalling what they did, in defending it as something more than a skirmish over the best place at the table of high culture, philosophy might have a role to play.