Affective Fallacy Essay Topics

The meaning of a poem may certainly be a personal one, in the sense that a poem expresses a personality or state of soul rather than a physical object like an apple. But even a short lyric poem is dramatic, the response of a speaker (no matter how abstractly conceived) to a situation (no matter how universalized). We ought to impute the thoughts and attitudes of the poem immediately to the dramatic speaker […][From "The Intentional Fallacy"]

We don't want to seem like pinch-nosed, narrow-minded, finger-wagging square pegs about reading poetry. Sure, we'll allow that you may be moved by reading, say, Marvel's "To His Coy Mistress" or Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends." We'll grant you those feelings. We also concede that you may read a poem and think, Wow, that really describes how I felt when that person stomped all over my heart and then spit on the pulsating remains.

We just want to gently encourage you to read a poem as something having its own voice—and not just the author's voice. We call this voice "the dramatic speaker." If it helps, you can picture the dramatic speaker as this invisible being inside the poem who is completely different from the author.

This whole idea may rock your world, but practice reading, as one example, Emily Dickinson "My life had stood—a Loaded Gun" without dwelling on the lonely lady of Amherst up in her room hammering out that poem. Not easy. Just practice. Read that poem as an object unto itself.

The question of "allusiveness," for example, as acutely posed by the poetry of Eliot, is certainly one where a false judgment is likely to involve the intentional fallacy. The frequency and depth of literary allusion in the poetry of Eliot and others has driven so many in pursuit of full meanings to the Golden Bough and the Elizabethan drama that it has become a kind of commonplace to suppose that we do not know what a poet means unless we have traced him in his reading a supposition redolent with intentional implications.[From "The Intentional Fallacy"]

We are confident that this quotation expresses our deep frustration with how "most people" read poems. Ever since 7th-grade English, you've been told to read poems for their allusions. Maybe you learned that Shelley's "Ozymandias" is about tyrannical egos and the decline of mighty empires. But we say that there's also a lot in the poem that deserves the reader's direct attention; all those allusions can really get in the way.

We often turn to Eliot as an example because even as his poems are chock full of allusions, they are still meaningful even if you don't track down and understand all of them. What we're saying in this quotation is that you don't need to spend a bunch of time going back to the Golden Bough or some Shakespeare play to appreciate "The Waste Land." We believe that chasing down every allusion is just distracts you from the words on the page.

The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism, though usually advanced as if it had far stronger claims than the overall forms of skepticism. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism.[From "The Affective Fallacy"]

We admit that we do bang on the Affective Fallacy drum quite relentlessly. But we have strong feelings about not having strong feelings about reading poetry. Like we've said before, this whole Affective Fallacy thing refers to when people confuse their reactions to a work of art with an assessment of the actual objective quality of the artwork.

By "epistemological skepticism," we're referring to the Affective Fallacy leads to a crazy, mixed-up interpretation that makes mincemeat out of knowledge and lets emotions run rampant. If you put your emotions first, all you're going to get is "impressionism and relativism"—people get all sloppy, and soon enough, it seems like one person's thoughts and ideas about a work are as important as anyone else's. Not!

The Central Argument of this essay, concerning what I shall call the "concrete universal," proceeds from the observation that literary theorists have from early times to the present persisted in making statements which in their contexts seem to mean that a work of literary art is in some peculiar sense a very individual thing or a very universal thing or both […] I shall proceed on the theory not only that men have at different times used the same terms and have meant differently, but that they sometimes used different terms and have meant the same or somewhat the same.[From "The Concrete Universal"]

I, Wimsatt, may seem like the last fellow to point the finger at people making statements about the absolute, but I just don't like a lot of the ways that critics have read poetry. Some of them get too narrow, insisting that only one poet at one time made a unique reference to one thing, and that no other poet has ever made a similar reference. I'm here to say: highly unlikely.

I also don't think that all paintings share a universal quality—except maybe canvas and paint, but even that's not true (cave paintings? papyrus and saffron?). Allow me to be direct: Shakespeare's rose is not the same as Hawthorne's rose, which has nothing to do with Gertrude Stein's rose. My larger point is that each poem must be taken on its own terms: I would hate to see an anthology of essays with a title like Tree Branches from Beowulf to Jonathan Safran Foer. Those are not the same tree branches, folks!

My present inclination is to give an answer to the question "What is art?" where this is understood to ask what distinguishes artworks from other things. My answer […] is that an artwork is an arrangement of conditions intended to be capable of affording an experience with marked aesthetic character—that is, an object (loosely speaking) in the fashioning of which the intention to enable it to satisfy an aesthetic interest played a significant causal part.[From Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism]

I, Beardsley, was an aesthetician—someone who studied aesthetics—which means that I spent nine lives thinking about art and what the big deal about it is. For example, what makes Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" a work of art, while the toilet down at your local Del Taco is just a toilet? Why is the Picasso's Les Demoiselles D'Avignon art and a parking meter not art?

Well, here's my unequivocal response: art is art because it has been made with the specific aesthetic intention of gratifying the reader, viewer, or listener. So, art is art because it's made to be art and made to be understood as art.

Wimsatt and Beardsley on "The Affective Fallacy"

Terms for the critical methods attacked by Wimsatt and Beardsley in this essay: affective criticism; historical study of contemporary readers' response; Plato's inspirational model of poesis and reception; Aristotle's katharsis model of poetic effect; the "Sublime"; physiological and psychological response theories of Semantics scholars.

"The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism [ . . .  which . . .] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear." [345]

" . . . a large and obvious area of emotive import depends directly upon descriptive meaning (either with or without words of explicit valuation--as when a person says and is believed: 'General X ordered the execution of 50,000 civilian hostages,' or 'General X is guilty of the murder of 50,000 civilian hostages.'"  [347]

"None of [the examples offered by the semanticists] offers any evidence, in short, that what a word does to a person is to be ascribed to anything except what it means [denotative meaning], or if this connection is not apparent, at the most, by what it suggests [connotative meaning]."  [348]

"The doctrine of emotive meaning propounded recently by the semanticists has seemed to offer a scientific basis for one kind of affective relativism in poetics--the personal . . . a reader may likely feel either 'hot' or 'cold' and report either 'bad' or 'good' on reading either 'liberty' or 'license'--either an ode by Keats or a limerick.  The sequence of licenses is endless."  [349]

 ". . . affective theory has often been less a scientific view of literature than a prerogative--that of the soul adventuring among masterpieces, the contagious teacher, the poetic radiator--a magnetic rhapsode Ion, a Saintsbury, a Quiller-Couch, a William Lyon Phelps.  Criticism on this theory has approximated the tone of . . . the revival meeting . . . The sincerity of the critic becomes an issue, as for the intentionalist the sincerity of the poet."  [351]

"The report of some readers . . . that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account."  [353]

"Certain theorists, notably [Ivor] Richards, have anticipated some difficulties of affective criticism by saying that it is not intensity of emotion that characterizes poetry . . . but the subtle quality of patterned emotions which play at the subdued level of disposition or attitudeWe have psychological theories of aesthetic distance, detachment, or disinterestedness.  A criticism on these principles has already taken important steps towards objectivity."  [353]

"'Tennyson's 'Tears, idle tears,' as it deals with an emotion which the speaker at first seems not to understand, might be thought to be a specifically emotive poem.  'The last stanza,' says [New Critic, Cleanth] Brooks, in his recent analysis, 'evokes an intense emotional response from the reader.'  But this statement is not really a part of Brooks' criticism of the poem--rather a witness of his fondness of it.  'The second stanza'--Brooks might have said at an earlier point in his analysis--'gives us a momentary vivid realization of past happy experiences, then makes us sad at their loss.'  But he says actually: 'The conjunction of the qualities of sadness and freshness is reinforced by the fact that the same basic symbol--the light on the sails of a ship hull down--has been employed to suggest both qualities.'  The distinction between these formulations may seem slight, and in the first example which we furnished may be practically unimportant.  Yetthe difference between translatable emotive formulas and more physiological and psychologically vague ones--cognitively untranslatable--is theoretically of the greatest importance."  [353-54; my underscore, boldface, and red for emphasis, click on the hyperlink to Tennyson's "Tears..." so that you can test their argument about what the poem means]

"The critic is not a contributor to statistical countable reports about the poem, but a teacher or explicator of meanings.  His readers, if they are alert, will not be content to take what he says as testimony, but will scrutinize it as teaching.  [354]

[Paraphrasing Yvor Winters:] . . . that there is a difference between the motive, or logic of an emotion, and the surface or texture of a poem constructed to describe the emotion, and that both are important to the poem.  Winters has shown, we think, how there can be in effect "fine poems" about nothing.  There is rational progression and there is "qualitative progression," in the latter, with several subtly related modes, a characteristic of decadent poetry.  [354-55, hyperlink leads to to Rochester's "Upon Nothing"]

What we have is poetry where kings are only symbols or even a poetry of hornets and crows, rather than of human deeds.  Yet a poetry of things.  How these things are joined in patterns and with what names of emotion remains always the critical question.  "The Romance of the Rose could not, without loss," observes C. S. Lewis, "be rewritten as The Romance of the Onion.  [356]

To the relativist historian of literature falls the uncomfortable task of establishing as discrete cultural moments the past when the poem was written and first appreciated, and the present into which the poem with its clear and nicely interrelated meanings, its completeness, balance, and tension has survived.  A structure of emotive objects so complex and so reliable as to have been taken for great poetry by any past age will never . . . so wane with the waning of human culture as not to be recoverable at least by a willing student.  . ..  If the exegesis of some poems depends upon the understanding of obsolete or exotic customs, the poems themselves are the most precise emotive report on the customs.  In the poet's finely contrived objects of emotion and in other works of art the historian finds his most reliable evidence about the emotions of antiquity--and the anthropologist, about those of contemporary primitivism . . . In short, though cultures have changed, poems remain and explain.  [357, my underlining for emphasis; the hyperlink will take you to Wallace Stevens' "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm"]

Link to "concordances" list--use these, in addition to the O.E.D.,  to explore "[an author's] use of a word, and the associations which the word had for him" [Wimsatt and Beardsley, "Intentional Fallacy" 339].

    A sample student's (flawed but serviceable) New Critical "close reading" analysis of Wallace Stevens' "The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm":

Aaryn Richard, "Subject v. Object: The Condition of the Relationship Between Man and the World," Parataxis Spring 2003, online at  Viewed 2/22/05.

[Bonus points: can you detect in Richard's article any critical moves that Wimsatt and Beardsley would have prohibited?  If so, what are they and on what grounds are they prohibited?]


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