Stewart, Stanley. "Renaissance" Talk. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1997. xvii+306pp. ISBN 0 8207 0274 9.

Tony Williams
Sheffield Hallam University

Williams, Tony. "Review of Stanley Stewart, 'Renaissance' Talk". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 7.1-5 <URL:>.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 fruitful debate.[1]

  5. "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 be.


    [1] 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.

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