an wkward echo[The following is an excerpt from: An Awkward Echo: Matthew Arnold and John Dewey]

In an easily overlooked passage of Culture and Anarchy, Arnold presented a crisp, hermeneutic argument,— almost a hesitant appeal rather than a persuasive exclamation; in it he deployed a single word that draws him toward pragmatism in his own unique way and sets him beyond the pale of Humean skepticism.  That single word is “near.”

 …perfectly to seize another man’s meaning, as it stood in his own mind, is not easy; especially when the man is separated from us by such differences of race, training, time, and circumstances as St. Paul.  But there are degrees of nearness in getting at a man’s meaning; and though we cannot arrive quite at what St. Paul had in his mind, yet we may come near it.

“Near.”  Not exact, not perfect, merely “near.”  The movement of a thought from one mind to another may never be perfect, but perhaps we may approach to “nearness.”  Metaphysics, ontology, teleology, classical logic and a great host of other scholarly studies each in its own way is a tribute to the subtlety and evasiveness of the human mind.  Epistemology has, today, been reduced to a cartoon battle of positivistic absolutes and metaphysical traces.  But the movement of thought from mind to mind remains a curious beast, untamed and unrepentantly present in those casual experiences that Dewey believed were the most important aspects of modern philosophy.  We might join Samuel Johnson and kick a stone in an attempt to relieve ourselves of Berkeley’s and Hume’s dubiety, or we might join Dewey in overleaping the limits of our perceptions with our octopus-tentacle minds.  But this movement of thought from mind to mind with its necessity of traveling through the hard, casual world, and its penchant for baffling even the most commonsensical and empirical amongst us remains at the core of philosophical enquiry, whether that enquirer wishes to be traditionally metaphysical, radically post-structural, or pragmatic and worldly.

Rhetorical-hermeneutic model showing how Arnold came “near” to understanding St. Paul

The problem that Arnold addresses here is, nonetheless, easily diagrammed (see illustration).  In this diagram, St. Paul appears in the left-hand box; his thoughts or intentions are represented by X1.  Arnold’s understanding of St. Paul is shown on the right-hand side, labeled X3.  Standing between the two are the texts of the Pauline epistles, X2.  The problem that Arnold raised is whether it is possible to “seize another man’s meaning, as it stood in his own mind.”

Continuing in our systematic approach, let us rephrase this problem as something of an algorithm.  Again, X1 represents St. Paul’s intention, “as it stood in his own mind.”  X2 represents the texts of the Pauline epistles.  X3, then, represents Arnold’s inferences from reading these texts.

Arnold is essentially asking, What is the relationship between X1 and X3?  Given the “differences of race, training, time, and circumstances,” can the thoughts of Paul, X1, ever come to equal the thoughts of one of his readers, X3, so many years on?  Our initial response must be, no.  No, they cannot be equal.

Does it follow then that X1 and X3 are unequal?  Is the distance from one man’s mind to another’s so great that the resultant algorithm can only be expressed as an absolute inequality?  Is the divide that Hume described between a man’s mind and a billiard ball doubled when we move through that object (in this case the texts of the Pauline epistles) and try to discover the intention of the text’s author?

Well, says Arnold, “…perfectly to seize another man’s meaning, as it stood in his own mind, is not easy.”  However, “though we cannot arrive quite at what St. Paul had in his mind, yet we may come near it.”

In other words, if we were to state our problem as purely mathematical algorithms, we would reject X1 = X2 = X3; but at the same time, we would think X1 ≠ X2 ≠ X3 too emphatic and too suggestive that the divide is utterly impassable and that no such thing as nearness may be attained.

X1 ≈ X2 ≈ X3 (reading this as X1 is congruent or near to X2; X2 is congruent or near to X3), seems to better suggest what Arnold had in mind; and, by the commutative law of the Deweyan leap, X1 is congruent or near to X3.

But, of course, we have stated this a little too emphatically, instead of “is congruent or near to” we should, no doubt, read “may be congruent or near to.”  Now we have Arnold’s point quite mathematically, and those who are quantitatively inclined will, no doubt race forward seeking an opportunity to plug real numbers into these metaphorical equations.

More relevant to us is the realization that even if the absolute states of equality and inequality are not relevant (and, arguably, even in the simplest or most opaque texts absolute equality and absolute inequality never really exist), the state of nearness is not a passive state into which we may fall by accident; as Arnold tells us, it “is not easy.”  Getting near to the meaning of another requires effort,— it requires a desire “to see the object as in itself it really is,”— which, as we have already seen is somewhat along the lines of the Deweyan leap, but it includes something of a leap of faith, a willingness to believe that the object does exist and that to some extent it is knowable; it requires a reader who is disinterested,— in the Arnoldian sense of course, which we may vulgarly translate as meaning curiosity, but which Arnold clarifies as an ability to act (learn, come to know something) whether one’s own interests are present or not; it, also requires a reader who is willing to engage in a “free play of mind.”  This “free play of mind” involves much more than mere, capricious play, as we have already pointed out,— it means attempting to see the object from many points of view, but it also means willing to accept a certain degree of uncertainty as the experience unfolds.

Arnold’s was not a simple, posited world in which, upon a whim, we may have “things as they really are,”— for Arnold, seizing another’s thoughts, understanding the intention of the writer, “is not easy … yet we may come near it.”  And Arnold insisted upon a critical role for the reader whose “free play of mind” enabled the process, allowed an approach to “nearness.”  Arnold made his own rather triumphant leap, although admittedly he did so before our agnosticism had grown so round as to doubt the possibility of authorial meaning.  He simply tells us “we may come near it” and in his simple conception of “nearness” we have all we need to overcome the waywardness of our dubiety, provided we are willing and capable of handling the uncertainty within which Arnoldian criticism inevitably deposits us.[1]


[1] Much has been made of Arnold’s critical method and critical judgments as a continuation of a kind of criticism that is overly sure of itself, dogmatic, and parochial.  I little doubt that Arnold can at times come across as much too cock-sure and prepossessing, but Arnold’s irony and playful method cut against his own attempts at certainty.  Moreover, as Dewey well understood, the Arnoldian critical method and critical judgment are necessary for any attempt to deal with a world of uncertainty.