Monday, October 05, 2009


Originally, influence was an astrological concept. It was the ethereal fluid streaming from the stars to act upon the character and destiny of men. That at least is how Chaucer used the word. Dr. Johnson uses it repeatedly in his Lives of the Poets, but not to denote one writer’s literary power over another. The closest he comes is in his life of Sir Richard Blackmore, where he observes that, in his Satyr against Wit (1700), Blackmore “degraded himself by conferring that authority over the national taste, which he takes from the poets, upon men of high rank and wide influence, but of less wit and not greater virtue.” The word’s cognate is influenza. Is there such a thing as “swine influence”?

Just recently, Miriam Burstein permitted herself to become grumpy about the very idea of overrated novels, saying that “If the novel has influenced generations of successors, then my aesthetic objections are neither here nor there: I still have to teach the book (if it’s in my field, anyway), whether or not I want to throw it into the nearest recycling bin.” (But wouldn’t your aesthetic objections be part of your teaching?)

In a comment to her post, Brandon Watson restates Burstein’s objection: “We tend to muddle two kinds of importance together: importance in the historical network of causes and effects (extensiveness of influence) and importance relative to the full potential of the genre (comparative excellence as a thing of its kind), and you’re right that we shouldn’t.”

But his example cuts against Watson’s conclusion: “In the early modern period Norris has the best attack on scholasticism (best informed, most careful, and most extensive); but it seems to have influenced nobody (they mostly just repeated the clichés Norris rises above).” Watson is referring here to the English philosopher and poet John Norris of Bemerton (1657–1711) and his Essay towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible Worlds (1701, 1704).

If historical importance is judged by “extensiveness of influence”—what might be called the Citation Index standard—then the repetition of the “clichés Norris rises above” is more important than Norris. Watson names no one who repeats the clichés, however, because they are not important to the history of philosophy. And why? Philosophy is not just anything that is written on philosophical questions or in philosophical language, but the best (“best attack,” “best informed”) and most (“most careful,” “most extensive”).

Isn’t Norris’s historical importance precisely his greatness as a philosopher despite his contemporary neglect? If his excellence as a philosopher is compared to the extensiveness of his influence, wouldn’t Norris be correctly described as an underrated philosopher? “How do we define ‘overrated’?” Burstein asks. But isn’t this how? A writer is overrated if his historical influence is inflated when compared to his true excellence, “aesthetic” or otherwise. And I do mean true.

Like many careful and serious thinkers, Burstein and Watson are terribly suspicious of value terms, which strike them as amateurish approximations that resist demonstration and proof. Theirs is an attitude expressed most memorably (and most snarkily) by the great classicist Basil Gildersleeve. He wished to put literary study, which then passed by the name philology, upon a rigorous scientific footing. The difference between natural science and what he called “historico-philol­ogical sci­ence” was not to be located in their methods, because each relied upon experimen­ta­tion, the verification of research, the certainty of results, and the exclu­sion of error:

“The differ­ence,” Gildersleeve said, “is simply in the material.” Natural science is the exact study of natural phe­nom­ena; histor­ico-philological science is the exact study of the works of man. For Gilder­sleeve the crucial differ­ence was between those who studied the same literary material in two different ways: littérateurs (in his sneer­ing term) versus philologists. The first were florists; the second were botanists. The “florist’s conception of literature,” Gilder­sleeve said, is that “aes­the­tic charm” is the prime deter­minant, the value that qualifies a text for classifi­ca­tion as litera­ture. In truth, how­ever, “aesthetic charm is beside the question.”[1]But I want to reassure Miriam Burstein that she will not be transformed after uneasy dreams into a littérateur if she admits aesthetic considerations into her literary history. Or, if not aesthetic considerations, for I am not convinced that aesthetics are of much use in literary study, then value terms. After all, to speak of a writer’s influence is to assert a value—a historical value, but a value nevertheless. It is, however, an objective value. You can demonstrate that a writer’s influence objectively exists. It has nothing whatever to do with my subjective feelings about him—with, that is, my “aesthetic objections” to his writing.

But nearly thirty years ago Hilary Putnam argued that “at least some value terms stand for properties of the things they are applied to, and not just for feelings of the person who uses the terms.”[2] His examples are the “cognitive virtues” of coherence and functional simplicity, which make scientific thinking rationally acceptable. Literary texts may also display coherence and functional simplicity. They may even be said to have a value that is not “aesthetic” (for lack of a mutally agreeable term), but historical. They may be described as being “leaps and bounds beyond . . . just about every other nineteenth-century conversion novel” or as the “best informed, most careful, and most extensive” work of its kind. They may have value, that is, in comparison to other texts. And perhaps that might even be characterized as their influence.

Perhaps historical influence should be reconceived, not as an infection that is measured by how many come down with it, but as star-fired power and authority that are exercised over other books and writers by reducing them in comparative importance. A writer is influential if he continues to be read—if he continues to display cognitive virtues—long after the clichés that he once rose above have ceased to be repeated.

[1] Quoted in The Elephants Teach (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 26.

[2] Hilary Putnam, Reason, Truth and History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 135.