The Critic as Participant-observer




“War”, said Georges Clémenceau, the French statesman, “is too important a business to be left to the generals”.  The whole raison deter of the so-called interdisciplinary approaches to literature is obviously a similar feeling that literature is too important a business to be left entirely to the literary critics.  So, the argument would go on, let the historian, the sociologist, the psychologist, the linguist also have the run of literature.


            The literary critics may naturally be suspicious if not resentful.  Now surely there is more to these feelings than mere professional jealousy.  Actually, while the term “interdisciplinary” suggests equal partnership, what we find is that literary critics and literary historians are much more active in the so-called interdisciplinary field than their supposed partners.  The literary critics and historians tend to prefer to do-it-yourself plan and be their own cultural historians, historians of ideas, sociologists, psychologists, of linguists.  I think that the earlier and less fashionable term “the extrinsic approach” is better than “interdisciplinary”—provided, of course, that “extrinsic” is not pejoratively interpreted as ‘irrelevant”.


            The literary critic is quite justified in deeming literature to be his special property and deeming his activity to be ‘intrinsic” to literature.  In the first place, the creative writer has some-thing of the critic in him.  (And, of course, I do not mean the time when the writer is his own reader like any other after it is all over.  It is through the critic in him that the literary culture in which the literary work has its being makes itself felt in the making of that work.  Though the writer is a critic primarily for his own benefit (cf. Auden for a very good discussion of this point).2  Some of this criticism may be built into the work or appended to it in the form of a title, notes, or preface.   An example of such built-in comment, pointed out by Wayne C. Booth, occurs when Homer speaks, in the invocation of Iliad, of “the anger of  Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastations”—as the subject-matter of the epic.  Here he is telling us “to care more about the Greeks than the Trojans’.  Indeed Homer is “constantly at our elbow, controlling rigorously our beliefs, our interests, and our sympathies”3 Secondly, the critic has something of the creative writer in him.  The quip that the literary critic is a frustrated writer or the writer manqué is only a snide way of recognizing this fact.  Finally, the ordinary Rader of literature has to have something of the critic in him if his reading is to qualify as a literary transaction and if the literary culture is to make itself felt in his reading.  The two activities—making and reading—are inseparables within a complex fact that I have just called the literary transaction.


            If, therefore, the literary transaction is the special province of the critic—the critic in the maker and the critic in the reader—how is it that the possibility and relevance of the extrinsic approach arises? The reason is not far to seek.  We have already mentioned literary culture within which the literary work has its being.   The literary transaction is what philosophers call an institutional fact.  Why does a piece of speech delivered in a certain solemn tone and accompanied by certain gestures count as a promise in one case or a prayer in another case?  Because they are so categorized in the social-cultural matrix.  Similarly a transaction is deemed to be a literary transaction just because a shared literary sensibility deems it to be so.  The literary transaction has its being only within literature as an  institution.


            There are, as is commonly recognized in social-science methodology, three modes of relationship that one can enter into towards a social institution and transactions encompassed by that institution.  One can be either a participant pure and simple or a participant-observer.  In social-science methodology, participant-observation is frequently adopted as a research strategy, as when a linguist is urged not merely to observe the speech of a tribe but to insinuate himself into the speech community the better to get an insider’s feel of the language.  Of course, when a social scientist is studying his own society and culture, he has no choice in the matter.  He has to be participant-observer to begin with.  Whether participant-observation is optional or obligatory for the social scientist, he indulges in it only to end up a better observer.  But there is another possibility namely, not participant-observation for the sake of better participation but participant-observation for the sake of better participation.  It is this latter sort of thing that makes the difference between a mere politician and a statesman.  A statesman is no political scientist; he is a politician who is a part-time political critic.  A literary critic is a participant-observer of this second kind.





The creative writer and his reader are, of course, participants, indeed the participants in a literary transaction.  Their concern is to enjoy and to be in communication.  They are more conscious of poems than of poetry, of literary works than of literature as an institution.  Their relationship with the prevailing sensibility and the continuing tradition can range from hearty partisanship to revolt but hardly remain one of detached assessment—after all, the creative writer and his reader are making literary history, not writing it.  In some literary cultures the literary amateur-reader is occasionally called upon to verbalize the attitude that he has formed towards a literary work whether globally or piecemeal beyond simple exclamation of acceptance or rejection.  What sometimes goes under the name of criticism, typically the so-called impressionistic criticism, is actually literary appreciation.  The author of literary appreciation is not a participant-observer but simply a participant. *


* A good deal of writing in India on specific pieces of music falls in an analogous category of music appreciation rather than music criticism proper—it appreciates, and sometimes also explicates the musical grammar of rāga, tāla and the rest.



            Literary criticism proper goes beyond simple appreciation to participant-observation, and in so doing often arouses the suspicion and resentment of the literary amateurs.  In the face of such hostile or contemptuous reaction, the literary critic who believes in his job, to use the words of Leo Spitzer, “would maintain that to formulate observations by means of words is not to cause artistic beauty to evaporate in vain intellectualities; rather, it makes for a widening and deepening of the aesthetic taste.  It is only a frivolous love that cannot survive intellectual definition; great love prospers with understanding” 3a Less rhetorically put, participant-observation is in the se5rvice of more effectiv3e participation; it is simply more observant participation.  The literary critic, then, is as much conscious of single poems as of a whole body of poems and the institution of poetry they represent.  He is quite likely to go in for a continual reassessment of tradition.   Indeed he is the one who brings a self-conscious literary tradition into existence.  He is not content with expressing his enjoyment and explicating what is communicated.  He must justify his evaluations and interpretations and he must account for or explain what is happening in a work of literature and literary transaction.  Now when you want to explain anything—including literature—you have to go beyond what you are explaining and place it within a wider context.  Literary criticism is no exception.  It not only places the single work in the context of some literary the Greek anthology or the Shakespeare canon.  It also places such traditions or corpora themselves in the wider context.  To this end, the literary critic has to project his understanding of man and the human condition into his critical activity.  In short, he has to be his own philosopher, historian, social scientist, psychologist, and linguist.  At the same time, however, no such approach can be formulated as a modus operandi and claim the critic’s “commitment”.  For “in the end it is the quality of imagination and intelligence of the critic that is in question, not his method”. 4 The separation between the intrinsic and the extrinsic approaches can only be a device for intellectual convenience.  These observations apply as much to text-cent red or formalist criticism as to criticism of other kinds that is professedly less single-minded in its concern for the central experience associated with the text that is at the heart of the literary transaction.


            So far we have seen the possibilities of two stances towards literature—that of the participant doing literary creation or appreciation, and that of the participation-oriented participant-observer doing literary criticism.  Next we shall take up the possibilities of the stance of the observation-oriented participant-observer and observer perhaps it will be simpler to speak of the participant, the observing participant, the participating observer, and the observer in listing the four stances.  This is really a single stance, participant-observation being only a tool in the service of observation.  The observer’s interest is not centered on literature in and for itself but rather on literature as exemplifying this or that phenomenon or principle that happens to be the observer’s main concern.  His interest is motivated in purely extrinsic terms.  The prime example of this is literary scholarship, the application of philological techniques to literature.  The scope of philology is wider than literature in the narrow sense.  Let us use the term “letters’ for this purpose—letters are all those texts whether artistic or not that are re-performed in a given linguistic community from time to time in essentially unchanged form (the transmission being oral or written) and are considered to be worthy of such repeated performance.(The definition of ‘letters’ is indebted to Charles F.Hockett’s definition of the literature of a society5 which is “essentially that of Martin Joos (unpublished)”.* The philologist detaches himself from the intrinsic worth of letters as literary art, mythology, scripture, and the like and studies them as cultural artifacts.  He is no participant.  Indeed he is typically an antiquarian.  He either proceeds from a thorough knowledge of the sociocultural envelope of these artifacts to throwing light on the text or proceeds from the close study of the text to using its evidence for reconstructing the sociocultural circumstances in which it is produced and re-performed.  Philology applied to literature, i.e. artistic letters, is literary scholarship.  There are signs of late of psychologists, sociologists, linguists, and others taking an extrinsic interest in literature.  Let us use the term “perliterary studies’ for all such studies, literary scholarship being the oldest member of this group.


*This broader definition thus covers not only literature proper but also letters, advertisements, jokes, riddles, slogans, laws, inscriptions which are all respoken, reheard, re-written, re-read from time to time         



Both literary criticism and literary scholarship can be given a historical slant.  What goes under the name of literary history is commonly extrinsic or scholarly history of literature and is an extension of literary scholarship and the ethnography of literature.  The intrinsic or critical history of literature is only now coming into its own.  It reconstructs, for example, the changing literary sensibility as revealed in literary creation and literary appreciation.  A work of literature thrives in the company of other works of literature.  The existing literary monuments constitute, in T.S. Eliot’s classic phrase (1919), “an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (really new) work of art among them”.  Critical history reconstructs this order for each generation after its sensibility.  The discrimination between the really new and the not so really new points in another direction for critical history to proceed in.  To the extent that a literary transaction is not just enjoyment but communication, the literary critic is always going  to use the yardstick of originality and authenticity and look down upon plagiarism, forgery, imitation, even self-imitation of the kind indulged in by a writer resting on his laurels.  The literary critic does so not because he is a moralist or legalist, but because he is concerned that the communicative act in a literary transaction may not be vacuous.


            But then what is the kind of activity in which we are now indulging in this study? It is neither literary appreciation nor literary criticism nor literary scholarship.  Rather, it is literary theorizing.  The theory of literature is a branch of the theory of art which in turn is a branch of aesthetics.  Thus the theory of literature is essentially a philosophical activity; as such it cannot replace literary criticism nor (and literary critics need to be remind of this) can it be replaced by literary criticism.  It takes up the critic’s interpretative insights and evaluative commitments seen in relation to specific works or bodies of works and seeks to interrelate them and bring out their coherence.  The theory of literary style is a branch of the theory of literature.  Literary theorizing has the same relation to literary criticism that literary criticism has to literary appreciation.  Literary theorizing proceeds form participant-observation of literary critical activity.  Ancient India presents a remarkable case in that the surviving texts testify to a sophisticated theory of literature, but there is little discourse by way of literary criticism of specific texts.


            The four kinds of activity, literary appreciation, literary criticism, literary theorizing, and literary scholarship can now be brought into a single frame work with the help of two Para-meters (see Figure 1):


(a)    (1) Participation: the specific and exploratory.

(2) Observation: the general and systematic.

(b)   (1) the subjective.

(2)    Observation: the objective.




Fig. 1. the general and systematic


Literary appreciation by the participant from the subjective view of the specific (a1, b1) to the subjective view of the general (a2, b1)—from “I like/ don’t like this piece” to, at the most, “I like/ don’t like pieces of this sort”.  Literary criticism by the observing participant same point of departure as literary appreciation (a1, b1) but aims at the objective view of the specific (a1, b2) through the introduction of relatively less subjective consideration of the general.  This last is the point of departure of literary theorizing.  By the participating observer, which proceeds from the relatively subjective view of the general 9a2m, b1) to the objective systematization of the general (a1, b2) through the introduction of relatively less subjective consideration of the specific.  Finally;, literary scholarship by the observer applies general objective considerations (a2, b2) to obtain an objective view of the specific (a1. b2).


            It must be born3e in mind that we are not here.  Classifying persons but their activities.  It is quite possible that a literary critic who has started a true participant-observer may get dissatisfied with the do-it-yourself plan, decide to go professional in psychology or linguistics, and do a straight peri-literary study.  Or it is just that he gets carried away by the approach and so committed to it as a method; this may lead to distortion in his account of the specific work of art.  It is equally possible, though perhaps less common, that an observer, who after all is also a participant, an ordinary citizen of the literary common wealth outside his study and occasionally even inside his study, may forget his detachment, get involved, and become a part-time critic and so a participation-oriented participant-observer.  A Marxist student of literature may thus become a Marxist critic.


            No harm done so long as one does not confuse the different rôles—we have just mentioned the distorting of a literary critical approach into a set extrinsic method, the result being neither good criticism nor good periliterary study by a psychologist or a linguist.  Loose fashions in “interdisciplinary” approaches may lead to just such distortions.  The hoped for fusion turns out to be a piece of confusion.




It may be argued at this point that we have really begged the question of seeing the literary critic’s activity as observant participation.  There would be some justice in such a complaint in that we have thrown out the merest hints.  What we need to do is to show how this assessment of the dual nature of literary criticism accounts for the existence of certain recurring dilemmas in literary criticism.  In more grandiose terms, we shall speak of the antinomies of literary criticism, each antinomy pointing to the pole of participation and the pole of observation.  It will also be seen that the pole of participation has  a slight edge in appeal over the other pole: after all, literary criticism is not participating observation but observant participation.  We have recognized six such antinomies, though it must be admitted that not all of them may be of equal weight and that the six may be open to being collapsed to some fewer of them.  The first horn in each pair will lean towards participation, the second towards observation.


(1)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    let the work stand on pedestal and submit to it?

(b)   Stand on the pedestal himself in judgement of the work before him?


If we find a poem that we are unable to come to terms with as a good poem, we have to determine whether the poem has been found wanting or our sensibility has been found wanting.  (1a) is disposed to accept the second alternative and (1b) the first.


            Participation with (a) seems better suited to the critic’s job of interpretation, “a reconstruction of vision” that “tends to merge into the work it analyses”, observation with (b) the job of evaluation, “a judgement of vision” that discriminates “good” from “bad”, “better” from “worse”, “major” from “minor”.  “The greater part of poetic commentary pursues a middle course…. Bur sometimes work is created of so resplendent a quality, so massive a solidity of imagination that … any profitable commentary on such work must necessarily tend towards a pure interpretation”  Interpretation and evaluation cannot but involve each other.


(2)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    go more by the effect of the words on the page on the reader?

(b)    Go more by the known and inferable intentions of the writer behind the words on the page?


The young critic has recently been advised to shun equally the Scylla of affective fallacy (a) and the Charybdis of intentional fallacy8 (b) and stick to exploring the complexities of the words on the page.9  But surely this last advice is a worse fallacy than the ones it is designed to combat?  Words on the page matter precisely because they are institutional facts: otherwise they are merely pigments (or vapour, if we think of spoken words).  And the institutions concerned are the language in the first instance and the literary culture in the last instance.  So any genuine exploration of the words on the page (as distinct from pretty diagrams or uninformed statistical jugglery) leads us back to the communicative intention and forward to the unimpeachable effect.


            A participant reader is more likely to go by the effects of the words on the page on him.  He is likely to take the known intentions of the participant maker for granted.  A systematic consideration of the intentions—inferring what they are and comparing them with the effect—calls for a certain detachment.  Also, an observer is more likely to feel the need for such a consideration.


            Participation with (a) is better suited to deal with traditional or familiar works and observation with (b) with innovative or novel works.  (Familiar/Novel is also associable with contemporary/Older and Native/ Foreign).


(3)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    exhibit leniency, the quality of generosity to the writer?

(b)   Exhibit stringency, and pay the compliment of exactingness to the writer?


Involvement with (a) is fairer to the inexperienced artist—to the young, the “folk”, or the “primitive” artist.  (The primitive artist may, of course, be active in a metropolitan city.  The painters Fousseau (Le Douanier) and early Hussain come to one’s mind).  A certain detachment with (b) is fairer to the experienced artist—to the established, the “popular”, or the sophisticated artist.


(4)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    remain robustly untutored, seeking no extraneous aid?

(b)   Be educated and knowledgeable, fully aware of the context?


Participation with (a) can do without extraneous aid only to the extent that the literary critic has fully internalized the language and the literary culture.  The inevitable gaps have to be plugged with explicative or exegetical interpretation.  Observation with (b) can equally do without external aid since the critic is fully aware of the context surrounding the text.  The critic knows he must be “against interpretation”10 but cannot help undertaking explanatory or hermeneutical interpretation.  The distinction between the explicative and the explanatory levels of interpretative criticism can be formulated rather simply as follows: exegesis supported by philology tells you what some text or text-fragment means when it does not mean anything to you (as with obsolete words or unfamiliar allusion); hermeneutics supported by a critical history tells you what some text or text-fragment really ought to mean to you when it does mean something to you that is unacceptable or inadequate (as with spiritual interpretations of the erotic “Song of Solomon” in the Old Testament).  Interdisciplinary extrinsic criticism is simply an outgrowth of hermeneutical criticism.


(5)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    be willing to distinguish between what is being said and how it is being said?

(b)   Insist that what is being said cannot be separated from how it is being said?


The literary amateur thinks nothing of so distinguishing between what is being said and how it is being said if need be.  Style is conceived as finding the right means for the end in view.  The sophisticated critic sooner or later comes to see the ultimate inadequacy of this notion of style when applied to art as distinct from craft.  At the same time one must admit that position (a) is suited to dealing with minor works, while position (b) cannot be avoided with major works.


(6)   Shall the literary critic—

(a)    be willing to distinguish between how the work is formed (“what goes where?”) and the enjoyment it yields?

(b)   Insist that how the work is formed (its texture and structure) cannot be separated from the enjoyment it yields?


The literary amateur thinks nothing of so distinguishing between devices, techniques, ornaments and the pleasure and enjoyment.  Style is conceived as finding the right devices for the end in view—amusement, pleasure, enjoyment.  The sophisticated critic comes to see the ultimate inadequacy of this notion of style when applied to art as distinct from entertainment or decoration.  At the same time one must admit that position (a) is suited to dealing with minor works, while position (b) cannot be avoided with major works.


            The last two antinomies are obviously related to each other: both call for a passage from a  recognition of technique to a recognition of the organic unity of a work of art.  The fifth antinomy does so in the context of intentions, the sixth in the context of effects.  (The distinction between intention and effects takes us back to the second antinomy).  The position taken here is that for the participant in the literary transaction—be the maker or reader—technique is a more immediately felt reality than for others.  Major artist and sophisticated critics do not bypass “mere craftsmanship” : the artist can take infinite pains and the critic knows a piece of painstaking work when he seed one.  Rather, they manage to rise above such consideration.  By the same token, the really promising artist takes his craft quite seriously—at any rate he revels in gaining a virtuoso control of his medium.


            A purely “technical” criticism. However, is as much “extrinsic” in approach as the approach of the critic turned psychologist or social historian or ethnologist or whatever.  The “intrinsic” approach is predicated on the organic unity of the literary work.


            The following will serve as a conspectus of literature related studies.

1.1      Literary appreciation

1.2  .1 Literary criticism—which may be

            Intrinsic, holistic/Extrinsic, analytic         Interpretative, i.e., explanatory or hermeneutic/Evaluative and which may or may not single out for attention Technique mediating between effects and Intentions History, i.e., intrinsic critical history

1.2.2 Literary theory- which places art within the theory of art, which in turn places art            within aesthetics

2.1              Literary scholarship—which includes Interpretation, i.e., explicatory or exegetic History, i.e., extrinsic, scholarly history

2.2              Other preliterary studies taken up by psychologists, sociologists linguists, etc.




The observations made in the course of this study about the nature of literary criticism in terms of certain polarities are presumably valid mutates mutandis for the criticism of the other arts like painting, music, or the theatre.  The necessary mutations will have to do with the fact that some of the observations hinge on literature being a linguistic art.  Language, of course, enters into certain other arts, namely, dramatic theatre, song, and talking film, but does so less exclusively when these arts are compared with literature.


`           The observations made in the course of this study about the interrelationship between participation and observation and between intrinsic and extrinsic approaches to study are likely to be applicable to social institutions other than literature and the arts.


            Finally, the distinction made in the course of this study between the three levels: initial attitude formation and assessment, evaluative and exploratory judgement, and philosophical ground-seeking and coherence-finding is presumably as much valid for the ethical domain as it is for the aesthetic domain.  There is an overlap between adjacent levels.  See Figure 2 below which distinguishes between appreciation (levels 0,1) and





3                    Meta-aesthetic Principle after

2              Aesthetic insight


3        Critical principle after

1    Critical judgement






1Appreciative assessment after


0 Initial attitude     formation





criticism (levels 1,2) and philosophizing (levels 2,3).  At level 2, for instance, literary criticism and theory of literature overlap.  “Not all critics….  Have a taste for literary theory—yet the greatest must have, and I suppose it is inevitable that any really perceptive and lucid critical study must reach this threshold and then, if it turns back, disappoint”.11  Coincidentally, philosophizing about literature does not merely pick up after literary criticism has left and confine itself to meta-aesthetic discourse.  Indeed, as I have indicated earlier, it has to concern itself with specific judgements in which critical principles are rooted.  Linguistic acts at levels 0, 1 and 2 are only incidentally knowledge-communicating acts: they are primarily acts forming, manipulating, and communicating attitudes.  In spite of the intellectual trappings, art criticism and moral criticism are not primarily modes of knowledge at all, but are, like art and moral appreciation, forms of gestures in some large sense.  Criticism and appreciation are close kin to the artistic and moral acts which inspire them and not to scholarship and science which may be called in to assist them.  (Indeed it is less of a distortion to claim that literary criticism is a moral gesture than it is to claim for it the status of a science).  Literary theorizing and “technical analysis” may demote the work of art from Thou to It.  But literary participation is true to the “the essential encounter between a person and a work of art, a ‘spiritual being’,” “an I-Thou encounter” as distinct from an I-It relationship.12


            These proposals are to be taken not so much for proposals for analogical extension as for proposals for placing the literary art, the institution of art, and the aesthetic domain in a wider context and the right perspective provided respectively by the other arts, other social institutions, and the other domain of intrinsic value.  And you will agree that this concern for contexts and perspectives is a very philosophical business and can thus be counted on to impose discipline on the interdisciplinary approach and prevent the desired fusion from lapsing into mere confusion.




1    Ren Welleck and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (Penguin Books, 1956, first published in 1949), pp. 73-74.

2     W. H. Auden, Making, Knowing and Judging : An Argument (Oxford: Carendon

        Press, 1956).  Reprinted in his The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (London, 1963.)

3    Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, University of Chicago Press,   961),

4     S. W. Dawson, Drama and the Dramatic: London, 1970), p. 47. The idea goes back to T. S. Eliot who said, “There is no method except to be very intelligent. . . swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition.” In the perfect Critic in his .  wood (London 1920: Section II).

5      A Course in Modern Linguistics (New York : Macmillar, 1958), p 554.

6      “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (The Egoist, Oct, 1919)  in The Sacred Wood (London, reviced ed. 1967, p.50) and selected writing (London 1932, revised ed.1951).

   7    G.  Wilson Knight, The Wheel of  Fire (London Oxford University Press, 1930), pp. lff. IN his “Introduction” T. S. Eliot concurs.  Ibid. p. xvii. (Revised ed. London:  Methuen 1949)

8   W. K. Wimsatt, Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The International Fallacy”, The Sewanee Review, LIV (1946), pp. 455-88, and “The Affective Fallacy”, The Sewanee Review, LVII(1949), pp. 31-55.

9     For a recent mise  au point on the international fallacy see Graham Hough, “An Eighth Type of Ambiguity, “ in Roma Gill, ed. William Empson:  The Man and His Work (London Route********1974,) pp. 76-77


10     Cf. Susan Sontag, Against, Interpretation  and other Essays (New York: Delhi, 1966, also: London:  & Spottiswoods, 1967 *******

11     Laurence Lerner, “Demoralizing Dickens”, Encounter (Feb., 1975), p. 78. The idea goes back to Rémy

12     Ich Und Du (Leipzlg: Insel, 1923). English translation, Ronald Gregor, I and Thou (Edinburgh, 1973), pp. 41-42.



The initial stimulus came in the course of a discussion at the Seminar on Twentieth-Century American Literary Criticism: Interdisciplinary Approaches held at Mussoorie, U.P., India in September 1974 under the auspices of the U.S. Information Service.  Later, much shorter versions were presented at some talks.  A revised and enlarged version was presented at the 50th session of the Indian Philosophical Congress held at Delhi (December 1975-January 1976) and published in Vdgartha quarterly (No. 11, October 1975, published March 1976).  The present version published in twentieth century American Criticism Interdisciplinary approaches, New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann, 1977(p.13`-45), includes some additions (some of which I owe to the queries raised by my friend Dr. Prajapati Shah, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur).  Hindi and Marathi versions have appeared respectively in Alochand, July-September 1976 (Delhi) and Satyakathā, January 1977 (Mumbai).