mark in conversation, or a novel—is to make all sorts ofrnbeyond-the-dictionary assumptions and to make them withrnunspoken certainty. Those who put up notices against billrnposting know perfectly well they will be understood, thoughrnnot necessarily obeyed. They do not need to explain what theyrndo or do not mean.rnWe live in an age when the humanities arernskeptic-credulous. Everyone knows that expertsrndisagree about the best solution to inflation, therndistances between heavenly bodies, and thernpresent population of China, and that thoserndisagreements represent no sufficient reason torndoubt that economics, astronomy, andrndemography are objective inquiries. So why dornwe have so much moral and critical skepticism?rnThe academic demand for justification goes on nonetheless,rnin spite of the self-evident case against it; it may not be pure coincidencernthat Justification is a term in theology, usually concerningrnfaith and works. The skeptic who gives up religion, likernthe sad clergyman in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall whornstarts worrying about the foundations of his faith, may easily failrnto find them in literary studies too. Waugh’s unfortunaternclergyman, in the first and most farcical of his novels, loses hisrnreligion because he cannot see why God created the world atrnall, which is an extreme instance of what Wittgenstein used torncall “starting too far back”; there may be a lot of spilt religion,rnor spilt atheism, in the desperate foundation-seeking that agonizesrnthe humanities in the present age.rn”How do you know Emily Bronte is better than JackiernCollins?” The challenge is of course meant to be unanswerable.rnI was once attacked in a lively seminar at a Scottish university,rnand in a building aptly named after the famous 18thcenturyrnskeptic David Hume, for suggesting that one can havernknowledge—even certain knowledge—without being able tornjustify it, whether by proof, verbal definition, or expert agreement,rnand the storm the suggestion aroused was almost equalrnto the theological debates about justification by faith or worksrnthat shook Scotland four centuries ago. Plainly there is a bigrndemand for justification in departments of literature and, in arnsecular age, a fretful sense that if divine authority can nornlonger be appealed to then another authority must quickly bernfound; that without such an authority—a new theoretical basisrn—no certitude can be had. Hence the chaotic, anythinggoesrnDerridean wodd, once applauded in Paris and now shiftedrnto Chicago and points west, of accepting defeat and drawingrnall possible deductions from all possible hypotheses.rnThe modern skeptic is commonly a disappointed foundationist.rnHe has noticed that there are no stated and agreedrnfoundations to critical values, but he still believes, in his oldfashionedrnway, that there should be: hence the Derridean formularnof endlessly drawing all possible interpretations. Butrneven that is problematical. For if possible interpretations are tornbe admitted, and only such, then impossible interpretations arernpresumably excluded. But what, in that case, are the criteria forrnjudging whether an interpretation is possible or impossible? Inrna recent Cornell collection, Arden Reed’s Romanticism andrnLanguage (1984), for example, it is suggested without ironyrnthat the crucial and hitherto unnoticed point about the boatstealingrnscene in Wordsworth’s Prelude is the near-homophonyrnof pinnace—”elfin pinnace”—and penis:rnOnce this homophony is recognized, the logic . . . isrnclear. . . . The associations of “heaving through thernwater like a swan” alleged by psychoanalysis—thatrnpenetrating the water is the penetration of a femalernelement, that the swan represents a particularly malernor phallic symbol.. .rnAfter all, as the critic Timothy Bahti points out in a mood ofrnmounting self-excitement, the poem reads “lustily I dipped myrnoars”; so one probable hypothesis of this boyish escapade is lust.rnIf that is a possible interpretation, however, one begins to wonderrnwhat an impossible interpretation would look like.rnAn Irishman, when asked the way, once replied, “I wouldn’trnstart from here at all.” Nobody who wanted to read would startrnfrom here. He would behave, rather, like the scientist whornknows perfectly well that what looks red is red. He would getrnon with it. In the topsy-turvy world of critical thought, however,rnthat view is dismissed as pretending that the problems dornnot exist. But surely just the reverse is true. The nearhomophonyrnof “pinnace” and “penis” in Wordsworth’s poemrnisn’t a problem at all, and anybody who wastes time on thatrnmust be secretly convinced that there are no real Wordsworthianrnproblems worth tackling. It is the critical theorist whornis pretending problems do not exist, not the critical historian.rnThe theorist in that style presumably imagines there is nothingrnserious left for the critical mind to do.rnIt would be interesting to ask why arguments that practicingrnscientists know to be a waste of time—like “How do we knowrnthat what looks red is red?”—appear enormously taxing tornmany who work across the fence in the humanities. Disagreementrnof experts, for example, which is commonplace in thernphysical sciences, leads few involved in science to doubt thatrnthey are engaged in an objective inquiry. They know and takernfor granted that experts disagree about objective questions. Inrnmoral and literary controversy, by contrast, disagreement is seenrnas fatal to the case for objectivity. An argument that counts forrnnothing in the laboratory can mean everything, apparently, inrnthe library. We live in an age when the humanities are skepticcredulous.rnEveryone knows that experts disagree about the bestrnsolution to inflation, the distances between heavenly bodies,rnand the present population of China, and that those disagreementsrnrepresent no sufficient reason to doubt that economics,rnastronomy, and demography are objective inquiries. So why dornwe have so much moral and critical skepticism?rnThe catastrophe recently suffered by humanism is seen, byrnsome, in sweeping and apocalyptic terms. In After Virtue: ArnStudy in Moral Theory (1981), for example, Alasdair Maclntyrc,rna British philosopher teaching in the United States, sets outrnfrom a double hypothesis which, being largely unargued, one isrnplainly meant to accept as self-evident: that there are no moralrncertainties now, but that there once were. “The language ofrnmorality is in the same state of grave disorder” as the naturalrnsciences would be, he argues, after a catastrophe in which lab-rn20/CHRONICLESrnrnrn