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Science Wars, ed. Andrew Ross. Durham, NC and London: Duke University
Press, pp. 30-60.
Polanyi, M. (1962) Personal Knowledge. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Andrew Bowie, From Romanticism to Critical Theory: The Philosophy


of German Literary Theory. London and New York: Routledge,
1997. ISBN 0-415-12763-7.

Before saying anything about the positioning of this book within the discur-
sive parameters of current polemics on theory versus literature it would be
as well to assess at least the central thrust of the volume in its own terms. It
is essentially a work of philosophical scholarship which, taking as its basis
various modern theories tending to decentre the author and focus attention
on the role of the interpreter in the constitution of textual meaning, seeks his-
torical antecedents for that approach in German philosophy from the 18th to
20th centuries. Bowie points out that it was in the Romantic period of the
late 18th century that enthusiasm for art and literature came to fill the spiri-
tual void following the rolling back of the tide of western metaphysics, and
he sees a strong parallel between Romantic philosophy and modern literary
theory:
Literary theory is itself a hybrid rather than a unified discipline, com-
bining resources from philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis, femin-
ism, social theory and other areas of the humanities, in order to
question basic assumptions about the understanding of texts and other
bearers of truth and meaning in both the human and natural sciences.
Like Romantic philosophy, literary theory can be understood as part of
a growing reaction against the separation of the
everyday ’life world’
from the systemically determined spheres of science, technology and
modern bureacracy. (16)
Bowie notes that the move away from viewing language as a purely mimetic
medium - that is, as a simple representational code reflecting a pre-existent,
universal reality - also surfaced in the 18th century, coinciding with ’the
decline of theological views of the world in which language, to put it crudely,
was regarded as God’s naming of the furniture of the universe’ (21). Since this
rather basic paradigm shift brought about a sense of ’disenchantment’
(’Entzauberung’ is the not easily translatable German term) for all too
obvious reasons (in the English tradition one sees plangent evidence of that
in a variety of writers from Coleridge to D. H. Lawrence), Bowie sees the

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(somewhat Sisyphean) speculative efforts of a host of post-1750 thinkers as

part of a vast intellectual continuum:


The differing ways in which literature and other art in the modern
period confronts the dangers of meaninglessness which are an inherent
part of the post-theological world are mirrored in the differing
approaches to literary theory from the Romantics to post-structural-
ism. (27)
The body of the volume is concerned with a study of the German philo-
sophical tradition of the ’post-metaphysical’ era, from Kant and Schleierma-
cher to Heidegger, Walter Benjamin and Adorno up to the present. It is in
that sense valuable in grounding present critical debate in the history of
thought; and in general the volume has very lively and engaging discussions
of the perennial philosophical cruxes. The author certainly succeeds in
proving that various problems in present-day literary theory are inseparable
from the main questions of modern philosophy after Kant. But although
Bowie states in his preface that his is ’a still fairly neglected area of literary
theory’ his volume is by no means the only one on the market to go over this
terrain. Mention ought to be made, for instance, of David Simpson’s The
Origins of Modern Critical Thought: German Aesthetic and Literary Criti-
cism from Lessing to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),
a volumenot mentioned in Bowie’s sources but which I would recommend

reading tandem with Bowie since it presents a large anthology of philo-


in
sophical writings translated from the German (although Simpson’s volume
has a narrower chronological focus ending with Hegel).
Some of the liveliest writings can emerge from polemical crucibles.
Luther’s Circular Letter on Translation (1530), for instance, was written as a
combative response to his Catholic detractors who condemned his Bible
translations for being doctrinally incorrect, and it is impossible to imagine
the pamphlet having been written except against that sectarian background.
It is feasible that at least some of the energy of the present book derives from
the rather combative exchange of views which took place between the author
and T. J. Reed (professor of Modern German Literature at Oxford) in Oxford
German Studies 20/1 (1991-2): 186-212. Here Bowie published an article
entitled ’The Presence of Literary Theory in German Studies’, based on his
paper to the inaugural meeting of the Critical Theory group of the Confer-
ence of University Teachers of German (Durham, 1991) in which he put
down a marker for ’the largely forgotten legacy of Romantic philosophy
which it is surely one of the tasks of scholarship to recover’. The present book
will doubtless have emerged from that arena. It is unnecessary to comment
further on that strangely intemperate tussle since it is clearly a special
Germanistic extension of a controversy which is represented more
satisfactorily elsewhere (cf. John M. Ellis, Against Deconstruction [Princeton,

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NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989] or Sean Burke, The Death and Return
of the Author [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992]). In his present
book, however, Bowie consciously eschews (overt) polemic and presents
both his philosophical and Germanistic constituencies with sound historical
analyses that are excitingly brought to bear on present-day debates. At any
rate, writing as a Germanist (rather than as a professional philosopher) I
would recommend the work for its illuminating discussions of philosophical
’background’, which can do nothing but enrich literature studies for students
who will be able to see how the various epistemes confronting creative
writers came to arise in the modern, post-1750 era.
Neil Thomas
Department of German, University of Durham, UK

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