"Renaissance" Talk. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,
1997. xvii+306pp. ISBN 0 8207 0274 9.
Sheffield Hallam University
Williams, Tony. "Review
of Stanley Stewart, 'Renaissance' Talk". Early Modern Literary Studies
10.2 (September, 2004) 7.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revstew.htm>.
- In an age in which 'interdisciplinary' has become an academic buzzword,
it is reassuring to find work that crosses disciplinary boundaries with purpose
and effect. Stanley Stewart's "Renaissance" Talk aims to
inject philosophical rigour into literary theoretical discussions, at the
same time as (arguably, indeed, by) "erasing the sense of strangeness
or oddity or puzzlement permitted or encouraged by the 'problematic utterance'"
(5). This is not a book infused with the spirit of extravagant Weltanschauung;
although its two favourite philosophers are German, its tone will be familiar
to Anglo-American philosophy departments the world over.
- The book's subtitle, "Ordinary Language and the Mystique of Critical
Problems", might be misleading. The presiding genius is Wittgenstein,
and Stewart follows both Wittgenstein's method of unravelling problems, and
his pronouncements on literary matters, in order to show how critical debates
have become fossilised or unnecessarily entrenched. Just as Wittgenstein is
easily misunderstood as denying that philosophical problems exist, Stewart's
subtitle might be taken to imply an over-simple reductive approach. In fact
Stewart, like Wittgenstein, is committed to the problems he discusses. The
appeal to ordinary language is really just an insistence on retaining distance
and perspective; and, although Stewart makes much of his Wittgensteinian influence
(to the point where a citation from the master is sometimes given unnecessarily,
a seeming over-reliance that can weaken a perfectly good argument), the book's
interest and real value is derived from the methods of analytical philosophy
generally, rather than specifically from its apostate Wunderkind.
- Even in the era of postmodernism, those who drink of interdisciplinary
Pierian springs had better drink deep, is Stewart's lesson: rather than dismantling
critical problems, he carries out robust and thorough analyses of their logic.
The effect is often to debunk fashionable theoretical fancy, and if the tone
is often conservative as a result, it ought to be noticed that one of the
book's faults is Stewart's determination to be fair-minded, which occasionally
leads him to over-generous - and over-long - consideration of counter-arguments.
- Stewart's commitment to "ordinary language" extends to trying
to make the analytical methods he espouses accessible to readers untrained
in Anglo-American philosophy, without compromising their precision and power.
The use of Wittgenstein, that most dangerously accessible of philosophers,
clearly facilitates this. So too does the dialogic method, which allows an
iterative teasing out of problems as well as a conversational tone. At times
the device is confusing, not least because the various voices are not sufficiently
distinguished on the page, making it hard to see who says what. Most of all
this is true of the first chapter proper, "A Critique of Pure 'Situating'",
designed on the one hand to introduce the method and on the other to anticipate
theoretical objections to it. Here the style seems partly to obscure, rather
than elucidate, Stewart's arguments. The device works better in subsequent
chapters, which deal with specific critical problems. Chapters on Spenser,
Shakespeare, Donne and Herbert are occasions for discussions of figuration
and critical perception, textual and authorial identity, feminism and misogyny,
and the historicity of criticism, respectively. In each case Stewart argues
for a more or less specific position, but the real point of the discussions
is always their wider critical significance in the field. Such an approach,
which looks in detail at particular questions, accords with Stewart's Wittgensteinian
distrust of general theories, even while it insists those theories be consistently
and coherently applied. The final chapter is a discussion of the use of evidence
(or lack of it) in critical discussions. Stewart quotes his other philosophical
touchstone, Nietzsche: "The will to power interprets… In fact,
interpretation is itself a means of becoming master of something" (250);
in discussing how it is possible for critics to "go on together"(250),
Stewart is at pains to show how theoretical commitments can colour and retard
- "Renaissance" Talk is a sane and timely book, and its occasional
stodge can be excused by its refusal to simplify its difficult material. The
rather patchy success of the conversational style, too, must be weighed against
its ambition and originality. Better this book than one that avoided both
its misses and its hits. It ought to be read by literary critics who are inclined
to theory (and not just Renaissance scholars); looking at the interdisciplinary
highway the other way round, it provides philosophers with thorough and detailed
examples of the complexities of literary critical debate. Whether it will
help or hinder undergraduates struggling with Renaissance problems is moot:
at worst it might promote the kind of lazy philosophical name- and idea-dropping
it seeks to embarrass. Most clearly, the book points to the need for literary
scholars to receive some philosophical training, in order for exchanges between
disciplines to be as happy and constructive as they have the potential to
 Thus, Stewart pursues this end,
drawn from Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations (trans. G. E.
M. Anscombe. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), through two connected but distinguishable
techniques: he tries to dismantle unnecessary academic entrenchments that
have been built up around expressions and ideas we want to use; and,
as here, he attacks critical approaches that do not admit of evidence and
so cannot themselves be the subject of ongoing discussion.
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2004-, Matthew
Steggle (Editor, EMLS).