BMCR 2007.05.27

The Selected Writings of Richard McKeon. Volume II: Culture, Education, and the Arts. Edited by Zahava K. McKeon and William G. Swenson, introduction by Wayne Booth

, , , Selected writings of Richard McKeon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998-2005. volumes 1-2 ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226560368 $50.00.

This is the second in a projected set of three volumes collecting important essays produced over six decades by the late philosopher Richard McKeon. Like its predecessor, Selected Writings of Richard McKeon Volume I: Science, Philosophy and Culture,1 this book reprints seventeen of McKeon’s 158-odd articles, here under three headings: Creation and Criticism, Arts and Themes of Cultures, and Education and Philosophy for the New Culture (the previous volume treated philosophy, science and history; a third volume, History, Politics and World Cultures, will cover practical problems of doing).

According to the editor, William Swenson, one aim of the book is to “demonstrate the close connection of culture, education, and the arts, including technologies, or arts associated with sciences”. A foreword by Prof. Swenson and an introduction by the critic Wayne Booth endeavor to situate McKeon’s work, to encourage new readers, and to underline McKeon’s importance. The major themes treated in these papers are criticism, rhetoric, education, philosophy, culture, the humanities, tradition and innovation, pluralism, inquiry, controversy. The pieces range from critical essays [“Pride and Prejudice: Thought, Character, Argument, and Plot”], through conference presentations with associated discussion [“Discourse, Demonstration, Verification, and Justification”], to essays in the history of ideas [“The Battle of the Books”; “The Organization of Sciences and the Relations of Cultures in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”]. Dates of composition or first publication extend from 1934 to 1987; most of the pieces date from the 1960s (8) or 1970s (4).

There is a lot of material here, though the book is shorter than the previous volume (362 vs. 507 pages). Despite his 11 published books, McKeon’s natural, preferred medium was the essay, which presents problems for the reception and even the accessibility of his work: some of these pieces would be hard to find outside a major research library.2

Chapter I, “Criticism and the Liberal Arts”, is McKeon’s account of the Chicago Critics. McKeon recounts the discussions of a group of humanist scholars at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s, who later became (in)famous as the Chicago School: he denies they ever constituted a school. He reprints a lengthy history of grammar, written for the group in 1934 and never previously published, which forms a nice companion piece to his related work on imitation3 and on logic, rhetoric, and dialectic (such as Chapters 4, 6, 10, 13, 14, 15, and 17 in the present volume).

Chapter 2, “Creativity and the Commonplace”, is grounded in a history of the use of commonplaces [topoi] to discover novelty: to construct the unknown from the known. “Commonplace” is an ambiguous term, designating originally an empty place for invention in rhetoric, later a cliché, a mere received idea. Here as elsewhere McKeon argues that a modernized art of rhetoric can promote innovation in criticism, in philosophy and in the culture as a whole.

Chapter 3: “Pluralism of Interpretations and Pluralism of Objects, Actions, and Statements Interpreted”. This paper tracks the vagrant meanings of “criticism” and “judgment” from Hellenic times to the twentieth century, and the differing meanings of “rhetoric”, “criticism”, and “book” in the paradigmatic modes of knowing (discrimination, composition, assimilation, resolution: see below). Different critical perspectives generate from the same “named object”—say, the Odyssey-different “objects of judgment”. Critical pluralism uses resulting contradictory judgments as hypotheses to open up new possibilities for judgment and appreciation.

Chapter 4, “Pride and Prejudice: Thought, Character, Argument, and Plot”, is an exercise in practical criticism illustrating how a single “named-object”, Pride and Prejudice, may be variously considered, by means of the arts (of dialectic, grammar, rhetoric and poetics, as philosophical novel (dialectic); as novel of manners (grammar); as psychotherapeutic exploration of the laws of human nature (rhetoric); or as novel of plot or narrated civility (poetics). This sketch of practical criticism is followed by a brief account of the four critical approaches: a poetic science (stemming from Aristotle) of artificial objects which studies structures created by art; a rhetorical art (originating with Isocrates) which “places the art object between the artist as speaker and his audience and seeks its characteristics in functions such as teaching, pleasing or moving audiences of various kinds”; Plato’s dialectic method in which “the art object is placed in a context of ideas which transcend it”; and a grammatical approach (in the tradition of Democritus) in which the object is “placed in a context of material elements and parts” which underlie and compose it.

Chapter 5, “The Judgment of ‘Judgment'”, is a summary paper from a symposium on aesthetic judgment. “Judgment” is an ambiguous and contested term, like “commonplace”, or “freedom”. Philosophers and critics have always disagreed not only over particular judgments but also about the grounds, objects, warrant and the very nature of judgment. This ambiguity, once we move beyond mere dogmatic controversy, feeds and catalyzes creative ferment. McKeon sees the field of aesthetic judgment as a model for how we might introduce freedom and diversity into all philosophical enterprises that result in judgment, be they aesthetic, practical or theoretical. As he often does, McKeon builds his account of judgment by surveying selected patches of intellectual history, in this instance Greek and Roman, modern, and twentieth century.

Chapter 6: “The Methods of Rhetoric and Philosophy: Invention and Judgment”. The early twentieth century was marked by a philosophical revolution, a pragmatic and linguistic focus on words and deeds where rhetoric became a central discipline. McKeon argues that we stand in need of a transformed rhetoric, an architectonic productive art to handle the problems posed by the contemporary explosion of knowledge and by the increasing contact of peoples and subject matters. Rhetoric as an art of invention can generate new insights, using a new set of commonplaces “to make exploration of the new a proper method for philosophy”.

Chapter 7, “Man and Mankind in the Development of Culture and the Humanities”, traces the history and meanings of related terms like culture, humanity, encyclopedia, freedom, liberal arts, and general education in order to explore the complex relations of man and culture. Tracking the paths and the interplay of these themes through Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and modern times, McKeon explores the reflexive process whereby humans make culture and culture makes humanity, and suggests that the plurality of seemingly contradictory positions can in practice enrich and advance learning, freedom, and education.

Chapter 8: “The Organization of Sciences and the Relations of Cultures in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries”. Like chapter 9, this is a conference paper with ensuing discussion, and the discussion, in English and French, clarifies the paper. McKeon presents a history and comparison of four encyclopedias (“circles of learning”) in the Roman, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic traditions. He works through close readings of medieval texts, including a lengthy stretch of the dialectic and logic of Abailard. McKeon explains in his discussion that he had approached the paper with two questions in mind: 1) why (given similar cultural roots) science first developed in the Arabic tradition but not in the Latin and 2) why modern science developed in the Latin tradition.

Chapter 9: “Discourse, Demonstration, Verification, and Justification”. This again is a conference paper, followed by McKeon’s explanation of what he was trying to do in the paper, followed by a contentious and sometimes amusing exchange in English and French between McKeon and the other symposiasts, including Chaim Perelman (sympathetic but puzzled), A.J. Ayer (hostile and mocking), and J.P. Murdoch (guardedly receptive). As is appropriate in connection with a paper on the virtues of dialectic, McKeon addresses the value of discussion in his remarks: “Discussion is neither a chain of understandings nor a chaos of misunderstandings; it is a complex of crossed monologues which occasionally spark, for a period of time or a period of discourse, into dialogue. This is the reason why I engage in discussion and use perplexity as a spark to melt the crossed dialogues of semantic disquisition into a dialogue of philosophical inquiry”.

Chapter 10: “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts”. In the course of Western intellectual history, rhetoric periodically expands and contracts, shifting its methods and scope in response to grand cultural shifts. One expansion occurred when Cicero attempted, using rhetoric, to heal what he saw as the diremption between wisdom and eloquence by merging rhetoric and philosophy; another expansion occurred when Renaissance humanists, inspired by classical models, attempted to heal a similar disruption?? by devising a new architectonic productive art of rhetoric, in the process launching two novel enterprises, “belles lettres” and “beaux arts”. In the modern age, we again need a fresh architectonic productive art. In our case, it must be a rhetoricized technology, a “science of art”.

Chapter 11: “The Battle of the Books”. This paper, part of a symposium on general education at the University of Chicago, sketches the history of battles of the books from ancient times to the present, then examines the history and prospect of general education at the University of Chicago. Battles of the books have been a recurring feature of Western intellectual history, from Alexandria to Swift’s England (and beyond, to our recent canon wars). On the surface, the disputes are confused, ambiguous, and ultimately trivial, but the underlying question is important: What knowledge (what disciplines? which arts?) is most worth having? Neoterics and traditionalists are agreed that we need both innovation and tradition, and that we must use the past to solve problems of the present; but neoterics favor formation of new arts and disciplines to deal with novel problems and circumstances, while traditionalists favor “a pluralism of fields and approaches that experts think proper to different fields”. In his conclusion, McKeon advances a neoterist’s brief for using the circle of learning (enkuklos paideia) to solve novel problems by constructing and applying plural innovative disciplines.

Chapter 12, “The Nature and Teaching of the Humanities”, is a very rich account, covering in four sections 1) the plight of humanistic education in the twentieth century; 2) the nature of the humanities; 3) the arts of the humanities; and 4) techniques of teaching the great humanistic works. Great works of art—the centerpieces of humanistic education—may be quite variously considered (for example, as form in content, expression of intent, imitation of action, or communication between artist and audience). Unless balance is maintained, there is a tendency for one of four approaches to take over analysis of these objects: 1) use of the medium—language and symbols; 2) cultural history; 3) discovery of values—formal analysis; or 4) analysis of ideas. What saves humanistic studies from being hijacked by party lines or narrow preferred views is steady focus on the great works themselves, which are capable of surviving even quite tendentious or tangential pedagogy. If the teacher’s agenda does not get in the way and eclipse the work, mere exposure to great works will change the student’s life.

Chapter 13: “The Liberating Arts and the Humanizing Arts in Education”. The history of the liberal arts is a history of recurring cycles of conflict and fragmentation (ancients vs. moderns, tradition vs. innovation, the Two Cultures, and so on), followed by healing and reconciliation, followed by renewed conflict, and so on. Roman culture in the time of Cicero, Renaissance culture in Europe, contemporary culture: all have evoked revitalized arts to strengthen, enrich and harmonize their cultural life. For Cicero, the requisite “new” arts—primarily rhetoric—were borrowed from the Greeks; Italian Renaissance culture found new life in renewed study of the Greek and Roman classics. In our time, faced with the explosion and fragmentation of knowledge and the increasing contact of world cultures, we must constitute new liberal arts of communication, of factual precision, of sensitive awareness and judgment, and of responsible action.

Chapter 14: “The Future of the Liberal Arts”. The degradation and the plight of the liberal arts is an old, familiar story. Disciplines arise to solve problems; over time they decline into mere marks of elite status; they are reformed to meet new problems. We are in one of these latter, reforming stages. We need a new art of communication combining tolerance and freedom: respect for others’ views and responsibility to advance one’s own. We need a new art of knowledge and interpretation that is both descriptive (expressing the facts of the case) and normative (expressing the values of the culture). We need a new art of appreciation, combining perception and criticism, insight into the consequences of particular things and application of the consequences of universal laws. We need, finally, a new art of individuality and systematization “which, coordinating and summarizing the other three arts, will combine increased individual spontaneity with increased complexity of external circumstances, producing freedom in diversity”. Despite the novel circumstances of our time, we continue to make do with the liberal arts inherited from the nineteenth century, with minor additions and subtractions in the name of interdisciplinary studies. The arts we have inherited no longer serve; we need a new set of disciplines to meet new problems.

Chapter 15: “Character and the Arts and Disciplines”. Here McKeon explores how education works to form character. Character may be viewed in four ways (as natural, as moral, as social, as dramatic), and education will be differently conceived accordingly. If character is seen as natural, then education inculcates virtue; if character is viewed as moral, then education is therapy to remove alienations and provide insight; if character is conceived as social, then education is a species of adjustment; if character is viewed in dramatic terms, as successful role playing, then education imparts the power to be accepted in a role. Higher education forms character through the use of four arts: interpretation, discovery, presentation, and systematization. Adequate grounding in these arts produces a student commanding disciplined sensitivity, disciplined originality, disciplined coherence, and disciplined purposiveness. Failure of education in these arts leads to the tyranny of fads, the tyranny of novelty, the tyranny of precision, and the tyranny of randomness. Liberal education should be humanizing and liberating; and teaching for character requires not injecting some novel content into the curriculum, but making more effective use of the four arts.

Chapter 16: “Love and Wisdom: The Teaching of Philosophy”. Any problem, pushed to its extreme, becomes a philosophical problem. In posing problems, philosophy raises questions about the individual, society, and the cosmos. Love serves as a motive power in individuals, a bond uniting communities, and an ordering principle of systems of facts and knowledge. If a man of supreme wisdom existed, and were universally recognized, we would be justified in indoctrinating students in a dogmatic system; but in the world as it is, the teaching of philosophy “should employ love and wisdom to open up orientations and inculcate arts which make men free in action, responsible in society, and wise in the pursuit of knowledge.”

Chapter 17: “Philosophy of Communications and the Arts”. A new world requires new arts and a new philosophy. New circumstances, subject matters, and problems require novel, transformed arts: a new rhetoric that covers all elements of existence and uses topics for discovery of the unknown; a new grammar, expanded from composition of statements to the use of the hypotheses of semantics to discover the known; a new logic, expanded from inquiry and proof to cover all discursive sequences using themes of the arts for presentation of connections; and a new dialectic, expanded from a system of thought and being to an art using all ordering principles, elements and causes—using theses of inquiry to unify world orders and human orders. Finally, a new philosophy is needed: neither a monolithic shared ideology nor opposing dogmatisms of partial and divisive universalisms but a philosophy of communication and the arts. Philosophy becomes an art of communication, and communication becomes the method of all arts joined in a philosophy of the arts.

McKeon was a professor of Philosophy and of Greek at the University of Chicago, and he told his students that he aimed to bring together the philological approach to the Greek classics with the philosophical approach [“Two Platos and two Aristotles exist and flourish, one pair in classics departments, the other in philosophy departments. The one pair has Greek texts to be construed but no philosophy to be discussed; the other has philosophies closely akin to the modern philosophies in the languages into which they were translated but not always easily retranslated into idiomatic Greek.”] His “semantic schema” for ordering philosophies was based on the paradigmatic approaches of four Greek schools: that of the sophists (“Discrimination”); that of Democritus (“Composition”); that of Plato (“Assimilation”), and that of Aristotle (“Resolution”). Classicists will find much of interest in the present collection. For example, the first reprinted piece, “Criticism and the Liberal Arts: The Chicago School of Criticism”, embodies a longish history of grammars, from the Greeks through the middle ages and into the modern era, that relates and distinguishes four chief arts of language—grammar, rhetoric, dialectic and logic. In the course of the argument McKeon sheds light on Plato’s Republic and Cratylus, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Demetrius’s Peri Hermeneus, and Priscian’s Institutiones Grammaticae, and offers an ingenious reconstruction of Democritus’s philosophy of language.

Many barriers stand between the reader and McKeon’s work — a wide-ranging erudition; a restless focus of attention; a style that is dense, abstract, sometimes rebarbative; a tendency to find complexity, distinction, and paradox everywhere. William Swenson cautions that McKeon is liable to be misunderstood by most readers, who, exposed to a small sample of his work, will take too narrow a view of his project. Swenson attempts in his foreword to correct this misunderstanding by urging that McKeon be read in the light of the themes that run through his work and the universal arts he invents and to deal with those themes.

This book is a useful compilation of hard-to-find papers by a neglected scholar whose work still speaks to classicists, philosophers, intellectual historians, and educators. Students of pluralism, rhetoric, the history of ideas, education, and literary theory will find stimulating essays in this collection. The editors, the Press, and all who have supported the publication of McKeon’s work have done a service to humanistic scholarship. This volume, together with the other two volumes in the set, deserves a place in any serious research library.


1. Zahava K. McKeon and William Swenson, eds. (1998). Selected Works of Richard McKeon, Volume I: Philosophy Science and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

2. For example, McKeon, R. (1958), “The Judgment of ‘Judgment'”. In Atti de Simposio di estetica. Padua: Edizioni della Revista di estetica.

3. See for example “Literary Criticism and the Concept of Imitation in Antiquity”, in Crane, R.S., ed. (1952). Critics and Criticism. University of Chicago Press; also “Imitation and Poetry”, in R. McKeon, (1954) Thought, Action, and Passion. University of Chicago Press.