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Grounds of Comparison Author(s): Claudia Brodsky Lacour Source: World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Comparative Literature: States of the Art (Spring, 1995), pp. 271-274 Published by: University of Oklahoma Stable URL: Accessed: 23/12/2009 01:31
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Groundsof Comparison
By CLAUDIABRODSKYLACOUR "Ce n'est que par une comparaisonque nous connaissonsprecisementla verite. . . . Toute connaissancequi ne s'obtientpas par rintuition simple et pure d'une chose isolee, s'obtient par la comparaison de deux ou plusieurs choses entre elles. Et presquetout le travailde la raisonhumaineconsiste sans doute a rendrecette operationpossible"1 is (It only by way of comparisonthat we know the truth precisely.. . . All knowledgewhich is not obtained throughthe simple and pure intuitionof an isolated thing is obtainedby the comparisonof two or more things among themselves.And almost all the work of human reason consists without doubt in making this operation possible). In the terms of "human reason" first laid down by Descartes, knowledge that is not intuitionaldependsupon acts of comparison. Comparisonoperates whenever "an isolated thing"is not the object of knowledge,and theoretical reflection,ratherthan "pureand simple"apprehension, offers the only approach to knowledge possible. Although its reception by idealist neo-Cartesianssuch as Malbrancheled to the hiswith divine intutoricalassociationof Cartesianism of itionalism,Descartes'smodernization philosophical discourse and scientific procedures centered upon the notion of a man-made "method,"an ordered, essentially comparativemode. Never fully defined by Descartes, method nonetheless appears throughout his theoretical writings as the single means rigorousenough to investigatethe real, little of which as the famous exercisesin skepticismof demonstrated is perceivedby us in the Meditations intuitableform.2 The only "thing"we may intuit directly,according to Descartes, is spatial extension; for all other things,including"the thinkingthing"that is the self and "the infinite substance" that is God, Descartes's theory prescribesthe method of comparison.3 If, following Descartes, the fundamentally nonintuitional,made "things"that are literaryand otherculturalformsfirstbecome knownto us not in themselvesbut by way of comparison,the problem
literatureand Claudia Brodsky Lacour teaches comparative theoryat PrincetonUniversity.She is the authorof TheImposi(1987), a study of Kant's epistemologyand fictionalform; numerous articleson English,German,and French literatureand fromthe eighteenthcenturyto the present;and Lines philosophy a (forthcoming), studyof Descartes. losophy
of Thought:Discourse,Architectonics,and the Origin of Modern Phition of Form: Studies in Narrative Representationand Knowledge

comparativeanalysishoned in empiricalfields were transposedto the realms of grammarand shaped cultural phenomena, and a nonnatural basis for comparisoncame to the fore. Yet, by the second half of the twentiethcentury,within a generationof the Czech and Russian formalists, comparative analyses of cultural phenomena turned back into naturalist anatomies: the narratologicalproject of applyingmethods of structural phonetic and syntactic analysisto the languageof literature aimed at establishinga "science"in imitation of taxonomic natural sciences proved a nightmare of vacuous from which it took neither Barthes categorization nor Todorov long to awake.If the patternsof natural morphologywere irrelevant linguisticmorpholto ogy, the scientistic classificationof literaryforms was doublyso, an antiliterary, naturalist mythology. Universalistscientisticanatomieshad at least the from structuralist potentialsalutaryeffect (borrowed of anthropology) wideningthe focus of the humanities beyond predefined canons. Subsequent criticism of scientisticand traditional humanistcomparative projectshas, however,questionedthe value of comparing cultural phenomena in the first place. While taking the need for theoreticalreflectionfor granted, skepticism in the late twentieth century doubts whether comparisons should or can be whethercognitivevalue is not itself a value-neutral, definedculturmyth determinedby an epistemically

Morphology of the Folktale (1928), the methods of

Descartes confrontedwhen he theorizedthe necesand Regulaenow sity of comparingin the Discours confronts contemporary literarytheory that understands the "workof reason"to be, for good or for ill, inherently comparative:on what basis do we makecomparisons the humanities? in In order to understandwhy comparativetheory designedto advancetheoreticalcertaintynow raises instead what seem like inevitabledoubts, one must first examinethe shiftingcourse of the comparative method since Descartes. Inquiryinto the development of modern comparative theoryrevealsa history of disciplinary exchanges.The cognitivevalue attributed to comparison in the humanities would seem to owe most immediatelyto nineteenth-century developmentsin the naturaland social sciences, fields such as ethnography,sociology, psychology, lingustics, political economy, evolutionarybiology, anatomy, and paleontology, some of which came into being with the descriptive,comparativemethods they employed.In the comparative philologyof Bopp and Humboldt and, a century later, Propp's



his Goethe'srhetoricof understatement regarding findingonly servedto underscorewhat he perceived whether the comparativepursuit of knowledge in to be the enormity of its historical significance: the name of progressdoes not fundamentally distort "Lange Zeit wollte sich der Unterschied zwischen the objectswhose effectsit pretendsto explain. Menschen und Tieren nicht finden lassen, endlich What is suspected in skepticismof all compara- glaubte man den Affen dadurch entschieden von tive projects, arising precisely with the "postmod- uns zu trennen, weil er seine vier Schneidezahnein ern" proliferationof different Knochen cultural traditions, is einem empirischwirklichabzusondernden that comparison,understoodas the identificationof (For a long time the differencebetweenmen trage"7 in and animalscould not be found, and finallyit was similarity difference,will effacedifferencein a desire for unity, either self-servinglyor by a weak believedthat the ape could be differentiated fromus that absorbsdifferenceas the necessary in that its incisorswere located in a bone that was Hegelianism ballast to transcendent thought. The nonnatural really empiricallydistinguishable).By transforming to the appearance of a differentiatingcharacteristic groundsof comparisonthat are particular the humanities involve a necessarytension between unity into evidence of a single feature, his comparative and differencethat "neutral"classificationor syn- study, Goethe argues, should eradicateany future thetic resolution must work to efface. Dialectical "doubts"about the sharedtraits (and, by inference, and scientistic schemes which employ the concept the common genealogy) of human and animal of differenceas a means to an end negate the inter- anatomy: "Es wird also wohl kein Zweifel iibrigbleiben, dafi diese Knochenabteilungsich sowohl play of opposingpurposeswhich objects in the humanitiesrepresent. bei Menschen als Tieren findet"8(There will thus The productive tension that characterizesthe no longer remain any doubt that this classification made "things"of the human sciences was the exof bone is to be found in man as well as in animals). of comparisonin one of the most exA discoveryof this nature, Goethe remarks,replicit ground tensive bodies of early modern writing on "natural quireslittle discursiveintroduction,for it is available science." Goethe's lifelong compositionof a "com- to anyone who both "looks and compares."9 Comparative morphology"in the domains of botany, parisonis the indispensablecomplementto empirianatomy, osteology, mineralogy,and geology (Zur cal vision, and if the search for part of a jawbone strikesus as a less than inspiringcomparative Morphologie,1817-24; Zur Naturwissenschaft,1820pro23), largelywrittenin responseto the new descrip- ject, the stakesinvolvedin it should not. By compartive projects of Cuvier, Buffon, Geoffroy Saint- ingvisiblecharacteristics thus seeingwhat could and the Hilaire, and Linne, already betrays the equivocal not be perceivedin isolation,Goethe overturned attraction towarddifferenceand unity demonstrated anthropocentric view of nature that had precluded in contemporarycomparativetheory and the tenthe recognitionof continuityby assertingdifference dencyto exchangenaturalfor culturalbases of commerelyout of fearof the same. Yet Goethe makes the case for the comparative parisonwhich such equivocationentails. From the outset, Goethe declared the centralityof compari- method from the vantagepoint of differenceas well, son to the study of naturalphenomena. His early writing of distant plant types in his botanicalstud"Allgemeine Einleitung in die vergleichende ies: "Die allerentferntesten jedoch haben eine ausAnatomie,ausgehendvon der Osteologie"(General gesprochene Verwandtschaft,sie lassen sich ohne Introductionto ComparativeAnatomy, Based on (The furthest Zwang untereinandervergleichen"10 Osteology;1793) opens with the followingtheoreti- aparthave, nonetheless, a pronouncedrelationship; cal claim: "Naturgeschichteberuht auf Verglei- they can be compared among each other without chung. Aufiere Kennzeichen sind bedeutend, aber forcing the comparison).What permits Goethe as nicht hinreichend,um organischeKorpergehorigzu naturalscientistto compareunlikeno less than like, " sondern und wieder zusammenzustellen"4 (Natural finding "pronouncedrelationship if not empiri[s] historyrests on comparison.Externalcharacteristics cal missing links, is his dynamic "view"of a "naare significant, but not sufficient for the task of ture" directed at once by what he calls "two great bodies and joiningthem drivingwheels" ("die Anschauungder zwei grofien properlyseparating organic back together again). That comparisoncould indi- TriebraderderNatur"): and ("Polaritat") "polarity" cate the underlying"continuity"5 naturalhistory "intensification" "rising"("Steigerung"), forof or the which isolated characteristics belie was the guiding mer signifyingthe "unendingattractionand repulbehind Goethe's celebratedidentification sion" ("immerwahrendem Anziehen und Abstoprinciple of the os intermaxillare "Zwischenknochender fien") or alternating or tendenciestowardidentityand obern Kinlade" (intermediary differencethat take place in "matter," lattersigthe upper-jawbone) in human anatomy, the "small discovery,"as Goethe nifying the "permanentstrivingtoward greaterincalledit, of the missinglink in the naturalhistoryre- tensity" ("immerstrebendem Aufsteigen")of "spirit."11And what makes these two tendencies truly latingapes to men.6
the neoclassical querelledes anciens et des rnodernes,

al context, and, in a late reenactmentand reversalof

LACOUR dynamicin a Goethean(ratherthan Hegelian)sense is that they themselves can be exchanged:just as matterand spirit can never "exist and be effective" ("existiertund wirksamsein") without each other, so mattertoo, accordingto Goethe, increasesin intensity and spirit engages in separationsand joinings.12 Always "mobile," Goethe's nature is, however, not an aimless,Lucretiandance of forms.13 purThe anti-Cartesian conjuncposivenessof the apparently tion of matter and spirit14 describes is perhaps he best exempified in his recorded search for the "Urpflanze,"the description of which memorably caused Schillerto commentthat Goethe sought not a plant "butan idea."15 Goethe's comparative theory of naturalphenomemadid indeed allow for a theory of identity in a realm of ideas: in experience all ("als things appear either "similar"or "dissimilar" ahnlich,ja sogar als vollig unahnlich"),but "in the idea," Goethe writes, they are "the same" ("in der Whetheror not Schiller's"idea"reIdee gleich").16 sembled Goethe's (let alone his notion of a prototypicalplant), one of Goethe's groundsof comparison seems to be a vision of things in which temporary differences between appearances are erased and the drives of matter and spirit are suspended. Yet Goethe the writerof naturalscience was also Goethe the writer,and it should be evidentthat the naturewhose thingsGoethe comparesis less materiin As alist, or idealist,than it is literary conception.17 a makerof fictions, Goethe alreadyknew no other method than comparison. If his comparativeapproach to nature was based upon the notion of an polarity of forces, and his underever-intensifying of standingof the materializations those forces iman "idea"of materialform, the model for that plied approachwas a medium that comes into existence with comparison.Fictions, and other artifacts,are forms whose "things" words, or any other signs The differencesamong are, by nature,comparative. these thingsyield "pronounced [s]," and relationship what unites them also separates.In fiction no things exist in isolation, and there are no "intuitions"of isolated things; all things are part of an artificial continuity, and one makes the knowledge one derivesfrom them. Yet that knowledge,for being artificial and comparative,allows of less doubt than "natural" perceptions if one conceivesof naturein a purelyempirical,non-Goethean,and noncomparativesense. No one approachedthe knowledge of nature in less purely empiricalterms than Descartes. In the course of doubting natural perceptions, Descartes developed a theory of comparison.But in order to effect comparisons, Descartes had to develop a medium in which the method of comparisoncould take place, a medium, that is, which would make


knowledgeof naturepossiblebecauseit was notnatural. We now speak of Cartesiancoordinates,and polynomialequationswritten in ordershigher than three, because for spatial extensions, the basic unit of the physical world, and even for the numbers which identify and distinguish them by length, Descartessubstitutedletters purelydifferential, artificialthings.18 These "veryconcise signs" ("des signes tres concis"), Descartesobserved,can be made as one likes ("queTon peut forgercomme on voudra").19 Things made for the purpose of their comparison, they allow the intellect to act in the mannerof Goethe's nature, to draw from otherwise disconnected elements "a kind of continuousmovementof thought" ("une sorte de mouvementcontinu de la pensee").20 Continuityof thought replacesthe doubtfulperception of things with links of similarityand relationships of difference, creating out of the empirical world for which signs substitute a kind of natural historyof thinking. Descartes'smethod for achievingknowledgeprovides the mind with the means of makingcomparisons, and those means, the groundsof comparison, are neither inherent in nor external to the things compared.If one comparesthese two differentcomparativetheories and procedures Descartes'ssubstitutionof freelychosen signs for simple extensions in space, and Goethe's detailedinvestigationof the characteristicsof empirical objects their grounds and methods of comparisonprove to be equallyunquestionable, due to the very fact that, in both cases, they are not givenbut made. Just as their theories of comparisonmake these sciences appearnot so very naturalafterall, human sciences suffer from a misplaced naturalismwhen they judge the value of comparison in positive terms, forgetting that what they are comparingis formed of the activityof comparisonto begin with. But it may be characteristic the activityof comof parisonthat, in comparingthings with other things they are not, it also lends itself to exchangingfact for fiction, fiction for fact. This would explain not exchangesthat markthe histoonly the disciplinary theory,but also the way in which ry of comparative the human sciences can prove oddly skeptical of comparison.Such skepticismmay be an enlightening form of self-criticism,or it may be an inevitable itself. fiction, partof the verypracticeof comparison
1Rene Descartes, ad Regulae directionem ingenii,Rule XIV, in his CEuvres 3 philosophiques, vols., ed. FerdinandAlquie, Paris, are Gamier, 1963, vol. 1, p. 168. All translations my own. 2As defined by Descartes,even intuitionsare not immediate "Par intuition j'entends, cognitionsbut, rather,representations: non point le temoinageinstabledes sens . . . , maisune representation qui est le fait de l'intelligencepure et attentive, . . . I inaccessibleau doute" (By intuition understand representation


12 Ibid. 13On the changing polarity of appearances, Goethe writes in Zur Morphologie,p. 57: "Darin besteht eigentlich das bewegliche Leben der Natur" (Therein actually lies the mobile life of nature). 14Cf. Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, "Einige Begriffe aus Goethes Naturwissenschaft," Werke,vol. 13, p. 550. 15 Ibid., p. 544. Cf. my "Freedom in Kant and Schiller," in Friedrichvon Schiller and the Drama of Human Existence:Selected "Contributions to Papersfrom the Friedrichvon SchillerConference, the Study of World Literature," no. 25, ed. Alexej Ugrinsky, New York, Greenwood, 1988, p. 132. 16 Goethe, Zur Morphologie,p. 57. 17 note in this Of regard is the presence of Kant and Schiller and the telling absence of Goethe in a recent volume of essays by humanists tracing the intellectual evolution of the separation of the natural and human sciences: Die Trennung von Natur und Geist, eds. Rudiger Bubner, Burkhard Gladigow, and Walter Haug, Munich, Fink, 1990. See especially Hans Robert Jauss's reprinted contribution, "Kunst als Anti-Natur: Zur asthetischen Wende nach 1789," pp. 209-43. 18 See the discussion of Cartesian mathematics, in particular Descartes's introduction of notational signs into geometry, in Lines of Thought, part 2, chapter 5, "Letters and Lines: Algebra and Geometry in Descartes' Geometry." 19 Descartes, Regulae, Rule XVI, vol. 1, p. 186. 20 Descartes, Regulae, Rule VII, vol. 1, p. 109.

not the unstable testimony of the senses . . . , but a representation which is the creation of a pure and attentive intelligence, . . . which is inaccessible to doubt). Regulae, Rule III, vol. 1, p. 87. 3 vol. 2, Descartes, Meditations, in his CEuvres philosophiquess pp. 445, 449-50. Cf. also part 1, chapter 4, "The Things a Thinking Thing Thinks," in my Lines of Thought:Discourse,Arand the Originof ModernPhilosophy,forthcoming from chitectonics, Duke University Press and L'Harmattan in Paris. 4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Werke:Hamburger Ausgabe, 14 vols., Munich, DTV, 1982, vol. 13, p. 170. 5 Ibid., vol. 13, pp. 546-47, 553, 560. 6 Goethe, "Dem Menschen wie den Tieren ist ein Zwischenknochen der obern Kinnlade zuzuschreiben" [An Intermediary Upper-Jaw Bone Is to Be Ascribed to Men as Well as to Animals], Werke,vol. 13, p. 184. 7 Goethe, Zur Morphologie(1817), Werke,vol. 13, p. 62. 8 Goethe, "Dem Menschen wie den Tieren...," p. 194. 9 Ibid., p. 185: "Ich will mich so kurz als moglich fassen, weil durch blofies Anschauen und Vergleichen mehrerer Schadel eine ohnedies sehr einfache Behauptung geschwinde beurteilet werden kann" (I will be brief in my remarks, because a claim that is in any case very simple can be quickly judged by the mere looking at and comparing of several skulls). 10 Goethe, "Geschichte meiner botanischen Studien," Werke, vol. 13, p. 163. 11 Goethe, "Erlauterung zu dem aphoristischen Aufsatz 'Die Natur'," Werke,vol. 13, p. 48.