Anthropology, Humanism, Interpretation

With the philosophy of William James as the backbone, this essay explores the contemporary notion of literary anthropology and poses broader questions about interpreting both literature and life, showcasing a human being in his attempt to make sense of the world armed with a different understanding of truth.

1. “Anthropology is a lovely, really lovely science!”1 Admittedly, this sentence did not refer to literary anthropology per se; still, it is valid with regard to literature. Literary anthropology is indeed a lovely science; the only question is whether it is a separate science or the newest mutation of literary studies. It seems it is the latter. While changing its subject matter, literary anthropology also changes its previous reading methods. An anthropological reading of a literary text wants us to mistrust the commonalities about literary texts. If structuralists believed that they are more independent than Marxists because they analyzed the very texts and not their economic conditions, and if deconstructionists believed that they are more refined than structuralists because they see that the coherence of a text is a metaphysical premise and not a fact, then anthropologists today jointly believe that their sagaciousness transcends both the structuralist independence and the deconstructive refinement, for texts show us not artefacts and their internal incongruities but most of all a human being who, with their [texts] help, tries to somehow orient himself* in his own world. Today, on the eve or perhaps already at the time of the anthropological changing of the guard, I wish to say a few words about how I see the relationship between anthropology and interpretation.

2. In his lectures, William James aptly described the discord between the tough-minded and the tender-minded people. The former believe only in facts, beyond which there is nothing else and whose incoherence attests to the permanent fragmentation of the unity of our world; the latter, on the other hand, as a result of the same fragmentation, demand an external acknowledgment, an absolute justification of that which is arbitrary. The world “exists in reticulated and concatenated forms,”2 says James, and we either accept it (the tough-minded) or not (the tender-minded choose this option). This, says James, is indeed a serious discord, though in both cases it deprives us of our will and the possibility to influence our lives; or – as Nietzsche would put it – it deprives us of creativity. In both cases, there is no room for experience, which would not only adjust to the varying stream of life but also regulate this stream. In both cases, there is equally no room for time, and so for change. When the tough-minded declare reality to be ready and finite, the tender-minded everything that occurs see as a mere shadow of the invariable. Both see the world through the prism of an absolute (and that is why they invalidate time), except that for the tough-minded absolute are the received laws of reality (and their ensuing facts); and for the tender-minded absolute are the pre-existing laws and that is why facts are completely insignificant.

3. What James calls pragmatism or humanism, today we promptly call an anthropological perspective. The most succinct way to describe it is the following: the meaning of the world exists neither in the very facts nor beyond them – in any sphere of a transcendent explanation of them – but is rather a result of human creativity. This creativity is a negotiation with the world based on established rules. These rules are not a single but a collective discovery; that is why James aptly claimed that “into the field of fresh experience, we plunge forward with the beliefs our ancestors have made already.”3 That said, a human being with an intellect at the disposal is not opposed to the world according to the dichotomy subject-object, but is into this world submerged and does not so much discover it as creates it through mental and physical activity. In other words, he experiences the world and in this notion lies both the fact that the world concerns and surrounds the human being and that he cannot free himself from this world. The world that concerns and surrounds a human being does not allow him to become a subject of cognition per se, i.e., a producer, but rather makes of him a subject of experience. And the category of experience leads us clearly toward anthropology. The turn from the structural-phenomenological literary studies toward anthropological literary studies, I believe, lies specifically in departing from the epistemological subject of research and choosing instead a pragmatic subject of experience. Better yet, a humanistic subject of experience, as James, the integrator of experience and humanism, would put it.

4. Experience, according to James, is “getting into fruitful relations with reality.”4 There is both the more stable subject of experience and the more changeable – what he experiences. Experience then is something that enables us to say something about the subject. Upon translation into the language interesting to us, we could say that if we read books professionally, and so think of reading as an experience (which is impossible not to do), then we ought to agree that the reading method describes more the subject than anything else.

From this transactional conception of a subject experiencing the world follows that if that which is changeable defines that which is stable, then the subject is multilaterally defined by what happens to him in [his] experience or by what he reads. But also the other way around: reality is changeable and its changeability depends on the subject who bestows upon reality its interpretation. This is in fact the best definition of the anthropological take on interpretation: “a fruitful relation with reality,” which can also be described differently: interpretation is a transaction a human being makes with the world. Why relation and why transaction? Because it not only connects the subject with the world but is also a kind of interchangeable activity: I affect the world (texts) and the world (texts) affects me. Why should this transaction be fruitful? Because it permits the reading subject to situate himself in the world as he pleases and at the same time to say something meaningful to others, which is the most humanist feature of human activity imaginable.

5. Experience is also a constantly developing process from which certain consequences follow. A human being builds his beliefs based on what happens to him, and it either matches his beliefs or modifies them. Because experience is changeable, “no point of view can ever be the last one.”5 And that in turn means that experience is by nature perspectival; devoid, however, of a uniting perspective from which – as in Leibniz – we could see everything the way God sees is. The processuality and perspectivism of experience brings about never-ending negotiations between the subject and the world, which means that if we think our beliefs and convictions attain a closed and polished form, we simply relinquish experience for the benefit of theory, from which we demand salvation from the stream of reality. Experience, to the extent James understands it, questions the opposition between practice and theory just as much as it questions the opposition between the tough (practical) and the tender (theoretical) minds. In experience, the (reading) subject affects reality (texts) by way of his created ideas (interpretations), from which follows a certain philosophy of truth. For truth, in James’ definition, is a relation between our sensational experience and our ideas. True is for us not what is in the text but what does not cause dissonance between what comes from the outside (senses) and the state of our intellectual property. It is in fact the only moment when a humanist can speak of any congruence or adequacy, for it is the congruence between experience and belief that is the foundation of interpretation. “If a new experience, conceptual or sensible, contradicts too emphatically our pre-existing system of beliefs, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred it is treated as false.”6 For true in such cases is only what does not contradict this system of beliefs. And because this system of convictions and beliefs does not create itself separately from experience but rather in its duration, humanism is released from the accusations of any form of transcendentalism.

6. Before I explain why James’ humanism should become a primary source of inspiration for contemporary literary anthropologists, I shall briefly respond to the most serious accusation that may present itself when truth is dispossessed of its power of absolute objectivity. So, they say, if the only criterion of truth is the congruence between one’s experience and beliefs, then how can we protect this truth from complete arbitrariness? James suggests that “truths should have practical consequences.”7 That is, every sentence we suspect to be true (as it corresponds to our beliefs) must undergo a test of experience, which is the only verifying filter. It is the very experience that is the authority by which some judgements are rejected and others accepted. James writes:

The true is the opposite of whatever is instable, of whatever is practically disappointing, of whatever is useless […] of whatever is inconsistent and contradictory […] of whatever is unreal in the sense of being of no practical account.8

Being of no practical account means here unjustifiable, equalling what is false. False then is something to which no one can be convinced and that is because it cannot be justified. However, if I can rationally justify my belief to someone, as it is a belief congruent with my convictions, and that person will accept my belief, then we both believe that our beliefs are true.
Are we at the risk of being accused of arbitrariness by adopting a pragmatic conception of truth? Not in the least. From the fact that absolute truths are defined as truths accepted by the majority does not by all means follow that this acceptance does not belong to the definition of what is true. Quite the contrary, truth does not depend on what it is but rather on who and why accepts it. This acceptance or refusal does not originate from a mythical congruence between our judgements and reality but rather from the congruence between what someone declares and our own experience. And that in turn means that an agreement is easier to reach for those who share similar experiences rather than for those who are divided by profound differences. If people cannot agree upon their experiences, they will not establish truth of their beliefs, which does not mean, however, that it is at all impossible. Truth is desired and necessary but it should not be sought in reality but rather in our relation to it. True, I shall repeat, is what triumphantly undergoes a test of experience so that we are able to justify, confirm, and verify it. If our beliefs about the world flunk this test, then they automatically approach falseness. There are no ideas or beliefs about the world that would be true in themselves. As James aptly puts it: “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events.”8 The verification of ideas that mean something to us occurs during the experience we are sharing or want to share with others. Clearly, there is no room for arbitrariness.

7. In his reflections, James uses an economy-related imagery. Truth, he says, must be interchangeable, i.e., certain judgements are true if we can pay with them for someone’s experience. It is important to remember that these judgements cannot be uncovered because then, without referring to anything else but themselves, they turn out to be void, and so useless. The usefulness of truth, against which we protest so abruptly, accusing it of relativism, is merely one example of the functioning of cultural economy: everything that circles in a given culture and becomes true (i.e., we agree that it is true) must refer to something other than itself, to something that is accessible also to others. Just as the truthfulness of our words, with which we write an interpretation of a text, which means that they have some kind of coverage; that is to say, they are subject to some kind of test.

8. That is precisely what the meaning of humanism is for interpretation. If experience is the only sanction legitimizing any interpretation, then it becomes true only insofar as we accept it and that is because we have been thinking the same way for a long time or we have been convinced to a new interpretation. The existence of canonical interpretations does not result, therefore, from the fact that what they claim is true (in the sense of objective truth, independent from what is said about the text), but rather from the fact that nearly everyone agrees with this interpretation as it does not stand against our beliefs. Of course, canonical interpretations retain a large level of generality as it is easiest to reach consensus between various individuals. However, what has to be regretfully acknowledged is that that which is canonical often equals that which is banal. If, with what I readily agree, truth is the result of agreed upon experiences (i.e., the result of social negotiation), then the biggest chance for acknowledgement have the most common and palest judgements, and so those which refer to the most commonplace experiences. It is in fact the best proof of the truthfulness of the humanist theory of truth: true is typically what does not cause dissonance in our system of beliefs. What causes such dissonance becomes referred to as untrue.

9. What are then the consequences of the humanist conception of the subject and related to it conception of truth for literary studies today? Following James, I assume that both subject and truth are the effect and not the cause of experience, which is impossible to separate from both its controlling cultural context and from the sphere of social negotiations that grant it legitimacy. The key category, then, becomes experience contrasted with both theory understood epistemologically as an a priori knowledge about the world and with idiosyncratic madness that is unable to substantiate its own rationale. The category of experience allows us to avoid extreme poles of universal theories and isolated gibberish. In this sense, it is a basic anthropological category which describes a human being immersed in life and attempting to say something about this life to others so that they can also understand it. If we agree that we see some continuity between our life and profession, then we should take into account that the profession we exercise is not safe as it is immersed in life that – as James puts it – “wags on”10 without any certainty and warranty, which means that no one and nothing beforehand will explain our actions and we must continuously ensure their rightness. That we must make a good number of mistakes while doing it, dogmatic theoreticians and trivial observers do not want to take into account as they deem satisfactory knowledge which does not belong to their lives. And in this life (the reading and writing of which is its substantial part), there are no interesting experiences they could share. For one who cannot say anything interesting about life should not concern himself with literature. Those are the consequences of James’ humanism and those are the consequences of the anthropology of literature, which, indeed, is “a lovely, really lovely science.”

University of Illinois at Chicago

1 Stefan Żeromski, Dzieje grzechu [The Wages of Sin] (Warsaw: PIW, 1976, vol. 1), 129.
2 William James, Pragmatism. An Old Name for Some New Ways of Thinking (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1907), 137.
3 Ibid., 255.
4 William James, The Meaning of Truth. A Sequel to Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1910), 80.
5 Ibid., 90.
6 Ibid., 134.
7 Ibid., 52.
8 Ibid., 76.
9 James, Pragmatism…, 201.
10 Ibid., 123.
*Translator’s note: ‘himself’, ‘his’, and any other derivative encompass the feminine gender as well.

Michał Paweł Markowski is Chair in Polish Language and Literature as well as Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of numerous articles and books, among them on Gombrowicz, Schulz, and Kafka. His current research focuses on nominalist temptation in twentieth century European literature.

Izabela Zdun is a doctoral candidate and Russian language instructor at McGill University, Canada. Her research focuses on genre studies and contemporary Russian literature, specifically on Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s fairy tales. She is also a certified English/Polish translator and regularly translates academic texts from French.