The Function of Criticism at the Present Time

Maria-Ana Tupan, University of Bucharest, Romania

Why are we posing a question which troubled Victorian Matthew Arnold in an age which is anti-Victorian if anything? Which, moreover, is anti-Arnoldian, in the sense that it has done away with such distinctions as that between high art and pop art, between poetics and politics, between culture and the historical world, working at the fuzzy boundary between text schemata and world schemata? Is scrupulous Arnoldian criticism of Kantian extract (epistemologically grounded) still relevant at a time of enraged battles between subscribers to various schools of postmodernist critical theory and anti-theorists? Siding with the former, we are trying to support our option through a single but telling example of the importance of New Historicist reconstructions of the epistemic background of the central concept in the Romantic poetics of T.S. Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria: the imagination. The reference to Immanuel Kant is not new. Its refutation is. Let us play the role of a referee of sort…

            Present day “sifting” of the “giants” may take such shocking twists and turns as a blunt “Goodbye, Kant!” in conclusion to an examination of What Still Stands of the Critique of Pure Reason – the subtitle of the book published by Maurizio Ferraris and Richard Davies in 2013. Less radical than they, Marshall Brown is not less dismissive on the topic of the Jena philosopher’s influence on the romantics:

         Blaming Immanuel Kant for the “exclusion of authentic selfhood from nature, the association of self-knowledge with passivity and mere continuity of existence, with a temporal experience compounded of stasis and frenzy, and ultimately with madness”, Marshall Brown” (Brown: 73) points in the direction of Horace Walpole as object lesson of the philosopher’s damaging influence on the emergence of Gothic types and generic landscapes: […] ”the true genius of Walpole’s invention” is its “displacement inward […] to the human inside of things […] , the thoughts and feelings of isolated individuals. […]. Or even less, as Walpole’e supernatural is full not so much of ghostly bodies as of parts – an arm here, a leg there, a nose elsewhere. Even the castle acquires something of the aspect of a body without organs, waiting to be animated by its rightful master […]” (Brown: 28, 32).

            One can only regret the stereotyping of critical vocabularies under the pressure of theory (we catch the familiar ring of a Deleuzean topos) or its insufficient assimilation in the context of “anti-theory” demands for relief from theoretic terror …

            Immanuel Kant uses concepts which are identical to those used by Coleridge in Chapter 13 of BL, the following excerpt from his master being absolutely necessary for a correct reading of his poetics, deliberately born of the alliance of poetry and philosophy:

“This synthesis of the manifold of sensible intuition, which is possible and necessary a priori, may be entitled figurative synthesis (synthesis speciosa), to distinguish it from the synthesis which is thought in the mere category in respect of the manifold of an intuition in general, and which is entitled combination through the understanding (synthesis intellectualis). Both are transcendental, not merely as taking place a priori, but also as conditioning the possibility of other a priori knowledge. But the figurative synthesis, if it be directed merely to the original synthetic unity of apperception, that is, to the transcendental unity which is thought in the categories, must, in order to be distinguished from the merely intellectual combination, be called the transcendental synthesis of imagination. Imagination is the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present. Now since all our intuition is sensible, the imagination, owing to the subjective condition under which alone it can give to the concepts of understanding a corresponding intuition, belongs to sensibility. But inasmuch as its synthesis is an expression of spontaneity, which is determinative and not, like sense, determinable merely, and which is therefore able to determine sense a priori  in respect of its form in accordance with the unity of apperception, imagination is to that extent a faculty which determines the sensibility a priori; and its synthesis of intuitions, conforming as it does to the categories, must be the transcendental synthesis of imagination. It is an operation of the understanding on sensibility, and the first application of the understanding to objects of possible intuition, and at the same time the basis for the exercise of the other functions of that faculty. As figurative, it is distinguished from the merely intellectual synthesis, which is produced by the understanding alone, without the aid of imagination. Now, in so far as imagination is spontaneity, I sometimes call it also the productive imagination, and distinguish it from the reproductive, the synthesis of which is subject entirely to empirical laws, those of association, namely, and which, therefore, contributes nothing to the explanation of the possibility of a priori cognition, and for this reason belongs not to transcendental philosophy, but to psychology.” (Kant: &24)

            Was Kant’s influence on Horace Walpole channelled into the triumph of reason or of its demise?

            In a letter addressed to REV. MR. COLE, dated Strawberry Hill, March 9, 1765, the “Prince of English Letters” – to the point where his correspondence may pass for ingenious essays – is taking pains to explain away the supernatural in The Castle of Otranto in terms quite similar to Kant’s theory of the synthetic function of the imagination. Instead of “human inside of things”, Walpole mentions current, mundane events which might have induced his sensational dream, casting about for a natural explanation:

“When you read of the picture quitting its panel,2 did not you recollect the portrait of Lord Falkland, all in white, in my gallery? Shall I even confess to you, what was the origin of this romance! I waked one morning, in the beginning of last June, from a dream, of which, all I could recover was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle, (a very natural dream for a head filled like mine with Gothic story,)”

      Horace Walpole goes on to enlist sites and objects he had known in his experience as traveller, perceived at different times and in different places, but whose common features his imagination had synthesized as belonging to a certain conceptual domain. It had subsumed them under the “medieval” or “Gothic” categories. Things as different as the Versailles Palace, a fabled bower (by Samuel Daniel in “The Complaint of Rosamond” ), built by King Henry II for his mistress, Spenser’s epic of medieval chivalry, fairy tales, lived and read about are synthesized (relational identity) into the generic landscape of gothic space. The reverse, the representation of this landscape in intuition – in the first Gothic novel in the language – in the absence of the real Anschaungen and of the things themselves – is an example of what Kant calls Transcendental Deduction and of the workings of the productive imagination. Such “principles of composition” come closer to cognitive poetics or semiotic aesthetics than “the dreamlike animality of the madman” (Brown: 122):

“My bower is determined, but not at all what it is to be. Though I write romances, I cannot tell how to build all that belongs to them. Madame Danois, in the Fairy Tales, used to tapestry them with jonquils; but as that furniture will not last above a fortnight in the year, I shall prefer something more huckaback. I have decided that the outside shall be of treillage, which, however, I shall not commence, till I have again seen some of old Louis’s old-fashioned Galanteries at Versailles. Rosamond’s bower, you, and I, and Tom Hearne know, was a labyrinth:1 but as my territory will admit of a very short clew, I lay aside all thoughts of a mazy habitation: though a bower is very different from an arbour, and must have more chambers than one. In short, I both know, and don’t know, what it should be. I am almost afraid I must go and read Spenser, and wade through his allegories, and drawling stanzas, to get at a picture.” (Walpole: web).

            If we were to “correct” the philosopher in Lauren Golden’s patronizing tone, we would not suggest “the theory of evolution” as the appropriate answer to “allgemeine Regeln, die wir nicht kennen”:

“This was a difficult question for Kant to answer, and as stated previously, he was writing before the theory of evolution, it was impossible for him to consider that the brain/mind of an organism would develop according to the match between its survival needs and capabilities. the categories contain the bases, on the part of the understanding, of the possibility of all experience as such.” (Golden: 71)

            The aesthetic genius’s associative power can hardly be explained in terms of “theory of evolution” or “survival needs”. Actually Kant mentions the imaginative mind’s capacity to discover links between disciplinary fields. Imagistic poetics rose out of Alfred Binet’s proposition of replacing concepts with images in syllogistic ratiocination (image A triggers an association with image B, which also contains features common with image C, so that a new possible link is revealed to exist between A and C and so on) (Binet 130-145), as, unlike the classical syllogism, whose conclusion confirms the … hypothesis, reasoning through images reveals new and significant connections in the phenomenal world (Logical circularity had previously been refuted by J.S. Mill).

            Other related “sites” or “links” are Husserl’s eidetic reduction, non-locality of information in quantum physics, the reversibility of intrinsic/ extrinsic order (David Bohm), conceptual analysis reducing the infinity of utterances to eleven prototypical propositions of Artificial Intelligence computer programs, a.o. Leibniz was probably guided towards his proto-semiotic model of identitarian logic (relational versus essential identity) by his philosophy of monadic, all-inclusive entities, a form of monism. We incline to believe that, whatever “hints” Hume’s associanist psychology might have given Kant, the latter was never satisfied with less than universalist models of apprehension and judgement. In his 1798 Anthropology, the self-centred mind judging everything – in moral, in aesthetics, etc. – according to private norms, taste, standards is dubbed an “egoist”. One’s judgements need ratification from one’s fellow human beings, a token of universally accepted validity.


Binet, Alfred. La psychologie du raisonnement. (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1886)

Brown, Marshall. The Gothic Text. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Ferraris, Maurizio, Richard Davies. Goodbye, Kant! What Still Stands of the Critique of Pure Reason. Sunny Press Series. New York: State University of New York Press. 2013.

Golden, Lauren. An Enquiry concerning the Imagination in Philosophy, Art History and Evolutionary Theory. University of East Anglia 2001.

Hjelmslev, Louis. Prolegomena to a Theory of Language. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Second Edition (1787). Trans. Norman Kemp Smith Accessed July 2014.

Walpole, Horace. Letters of Horace Walpole. Volume II. E-book. . Accessed July 2014.

Maria-Ana Tupan has been professor at the University of Bucharest, Romania, teaching courses in the history of British literature and in applied literary theory. She got her doctoral degree in 1991 with a thesis in Shakespeare studies. She was affiliated with Penn State University as a Senior Fulbright Grantee in 1994-5. She is a member of the Writers Union . She got awards from the Writers’ Union and Romanian literary reviews. She has published widely in the fields of literary history and theory, comparative literature, genre theory, discourse analysis, and cultural studies. Some of her books are A Discourse Analyst’s Charles Dickens (Bucureşti: Editura Semne ’94, 1999), Discursul modernist (Bucureşti: Editura Cartea Românească, 2000), Discursul postmodern (Bucureşti: Editura Cartea Românească, 2002), British Literature. An Overview (Bucureşti: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2005), The New Literary History (Bucureşti: Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti, 2006), Genre and Postmodernism (Bucuresti: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2008), Modernismul si psihologia. Încercare de epistemologie literara. Modernism and Psychology. An Inquiry into the Epistemology of Literary Modernism (Bucuresti: Editura Academiei Române, 2009), Literary Discourses of the New Physics. With an Introduction by Marin Cilea (Bucuresti: Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2010), Teoria si practica literaturii la inceput de mileniu. (Bucuresti: Editura Contemporanul, 2011), RelativismRelativity: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on a Modern Concept (with Marin Cilea) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), Realismul magic (Bucuresti: Editura Academiei, 2013).


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