Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979)

Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.


Booth has identified Critical Understanding “as his most serious probing of understanding” (personal communication). This text is Booth’s treatment of the need for critical understanding within the context of what he calls an “immensely confusing world of contemporary literary criticism” (3).

Published only five years after Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, this text can be seen as a more methodological counterpart to the philosophy of human relations based on a common practice of assent that Booth develops in that book: Antczak calls Critical Understanding Booth’s “pragmatic turn” (7) from his philosophical perspective in Modern Dogma.

Antczak also notes that the pragmatics of critical understanding can be seen in action in the afterword to the 2nd edition of The Rhetoric of Fiction, where Booth responds to “the self-avowed ‘failure’ of the last chapter” (7) and various other “understandings of the text.

Ironically—given Booth’s objective for Critical Understanding, his push for a pluralistic community that strives to give just treatment to all texts, authors, and the critical community as a whole—finding critical inquiries into this text, or any inquiries at all, has proven to be difficult (besides the responses from Crane, Burke, and Abrams that Booth includes in the text). Our objective here, accordingly, is to present Booth’s text based on our attempt at a critical understanding of this work.

In Critical Understanding, Booth encourages critics to develop a pluralistic approach to their treatment of all texts, an approach that gives critics the greatest possible access to understanding because it draws on other points of views. Booth’s overarching message in this text is the universal value of a sustained critical community, vitalized through the practice of pluralism, through critical efforts to understand, and through warranted overstanding.

Through practical commitment to the three essential principles of pluralism, understanding, and "overstanding," Booth argues, critics can achieve a literary critical community that permits as much access to critical understanding as possible.

The Need For Critical Understanding

In the preface to Critical Understanding, Booth points out that while compositions are part of all cultures, our culture has “taken a second step, filling libraries with hundreds of thousands of secondary compositions that recommend or damn or explain what our would-be Homers have sung” (xi-xii).

Amongst all of these critical understandings, written in “dozens, perhaps hundreds, of crucial languages” (xii), how can we, as readers and critics, discern which are valuable critical understandings? How can we find a practical way to discuss critically primary and secondary compositions even when they seem to contradict each other? How can we find ways of “living with critical variety” (3). Hanna Gray summarizes Booth’s discussion of a need for critical understanding in his address to the MLA and how Booth envisions its effects:

He talked about the ultimate need for, the overriding goal of, critical understanding--one of his favorite and important phrases. He said in his presidential address that whatever it is that he's doing, whether working on his book, teaching graduate students, or teaching an introductory course, he should be trying at every point "to increase the chances, always painfully low, that critical understanding will replace, on the one hand, sentimental and uncritical identifications that leave minds undisturbed, and on the other, the hypercritical negations that freeze or alienate.

What Pluralism Isn't

To move towards critical understanding, Booth urges readers towards a pluralist attitude which (while not without its own problems) is less threatening and problematic than the other five contemporary attitudes toward critical conflict that Booth addresses: chaotic pluralism (4-7); semantic resolutionism (8-12); monism (13-17); skepticism (17-21); and eclecticism (21-24).

The Approaches to Avoid

“Pluralistic” Stimulation of Chaotic Warfare

Booth sums up this approach as a plea to “Let the voices multiply; the more voices we have, the more truth will finally emerge” ( 4). Of course, Booth shows that this attitude does not in reality lead to the emergence of truth, but rather the emergence of mass confusion, a state where people fail to do two of the things that Booth values most: finding common ground to stimulate practical discussion and understanding each other.

He describes a multiplication of voices where any critical reading counts, even those which “hack a way at bloodless manikins they have themselves invented” (7). To Booth, this type of free-for-all criticism is “destructive of life itself” (7) by cluttering the field of critical inquiry and making it more difficult to distinguish the critical accounts that “understand” the works they discuss. Booth encapsulates his argument against the chaotic-pluralist attitude in his description of the approach as “ a free-for-all prizefight among blind folded sluggers swinging at the air, only occasionally landing on an accidental blow” (7).

    Hope for a Semantic Resolution

    This undesirable approach tackles pluralistic disaccord with the view that “much crucial warfare would disappear if . . . semantic resolution were habitual in working with critical terms” (8); that is, if we compare the languages that each side of a conflict employs, we will often find that there is no conflict at all, that we’ve been talking about the same thing all along.

    Yet, Booth shows us that this is a superficial approach to solving critical disagreement, one that does not “take us very far” (9). For one thing, an examination of key terms needs to include the context of those terms, a context that Booth asserts is usually the entire work and often a collection of several works. This approach also depends on what Booth calls two implausible assumptions:

      1. That all inquirers are willing to put forth a “passionate commitment to eliminate all conflicting passions, including the desire to win by stifling voices” (10).
      2. That all misunderstandings come from unclear language (10) and thus can be reduced to “simple and unambiguous choices between true and false views” (11).

    Because this approach depends on these implausible assumptions, Booth concludes that “the day of ultimate semantic resolution is at best far off” (11)

    and, thus, we need another approach to handle conflicting critical views.


    The next approach that Booth rules out, Monism, obviously by its name takes the stance that amongst conflicting views, one view is true while the other(s) are false. Booth doesn’t deny that this is sometimes the case, but stresses that the problem with monism “is not whether some or many question scan be resolved with single answers but whether the assumptions of monism apply to all controversy” (17).


      Skepticism is essentially the opposite approach to monism: instead of looking for one real truth, skeptics conclude that when there are varying critical views “there is no real truth in any of them” (17). Such an approach, Booth admonishes, is a “form of critical doubt that would make inquiry into question of these kinds necessarily pointless” (20).


        Eclectics approach criticism with the attitude that “bits of each position are true or valid, other bits false” (21).

        While Booth concedes that all pluralists are to some degree eclectic, he differentiates here between eclectics who “deliberately hack other critics’ works into fragments, salvaging whatever proves useful” and the pluralists Booth praises, who “embrace at least two enterprises in their full integrity, without reducing two to one” (21). His differentiation illustrates the problem with eclecticism: rather than “understanding” several viewpoints in their entireties, this approach breaks apart points of view and pieces them back together in what often turns about to be a form of monism. Booth further warns against eclecticism because eclectics often advocate a single approach to taking the good and bad from conflicting inquiries.

        What Pluralism Is

        Booth sees pluralism as the approach that will come closest to crediting accuracy, validity and adequacy “to at least two critical modes” (33). As Booth explains, the fact that he devotes this book to developing a way to “reduce meaningless critical conflict” necessarily “assumes that there is such a thing as meaningless conflict,” and depends on the acknowledgement that “to assume that conflict can have meaning implies that criticism needs, or at least can tolerate, at least two voices” (197).

        Booth strongly believes that critical inquiry needs at least two voices (see Booth’s term coduction from The Company We Keep). According to Booth even the act of writing and publishing proves that exchange between points of view is essential (197). Booth address his readers to draw attention to the pluralism that is already taking place through their acts of reading: “you and I are necessarily pluralists. . . it takes two to do this tango” (198).

        Booth devotes three chapters to the writers he identifies as good examples of pluralists: Ronald Crane, Kenneth Burke, and Meyer Abrams. These men share in common evidence of pluralism in practice: they resist monism, skepticism, and eclecticism (see page 198) and, most importantly, “they all claim not simply to tolerate rival voices but to require them; all three hold that critical truth can never be exhausted in any one mode” (198). 

        How Some of the “Problems” with Pluralism Reinforce Pluralism

        For all that he upholds pluralism as an ideal strategy for critical inquiry, Booth does not suggest that Pluralism is without difficulties. In fact, he deliberately exposes the points of pluralism that come out of his argument in the text which seem to suggest its theoretical weaknesses: his failure of correspondence, adequacy, and coherence in his argument for pluralism. However, as Antczak puts it, “pluralism is so important a good for criticism that not arguments nor argumentative failures can overturn it” ( 7).

        Pluralists Fail to Understand Each Other (Failure of Correspondence)

        Booth also points to the problem of Crane’s failure to understand Burke, his own failure to understand Burke, Burke’s failure to understand Booth, and Abrams’ failure to understand Crane or Burke—a problem in light of Booth’s reliance on understanding as a necessary factor for a pluralistic approach to criticism. How can Booth claim that they’re all pluralists despite these misunderstandings? Booth addresses this problem in a couple of ways:

        1. He points out that “every expression for misunderstanding logically entails the possibility of success” (261). That is, it would be impossible to misunderstand each other, if it weren’t possible to understand each other in the first place.
        2. He devotes a lengthy section of the text to illustrate each of the pluralist’s attempts at understanding, their discussions back and forth as attempts to understand each other, to show that the process of attempting understanding is as important as the end result. He writes that through writing this text “he discovered that [his] practical reasons, [his] pragmatic commitments, run so deep that they are in fact untouched by any one theoretical failure, whether of coherence . .. or correspondence . . . or of comprehensiveness” (216). Instead, Booth discovers that the act of trying to understand is the most valuable part of a pluralistic approach:

        even if there is no such thing as a pluralist or a workable pluralism even if no one can ever embrace more than one mode (however complex), even if no critical position is finally invulnerable, there are still strong reasons for acting as if one might offer a full embrace, not just to one but to many, because to do so will reduce the amount of meaningless critical conflict in the world and help to preserve the exemplars. (217)

        In effect, by treating other critics “as if sense might be found behind the surface nonsense,” as Booth treats Crane, Burke and Abrams, and as they in turn treat Booth, we can work to reconstruct “what people really tried to say” (217). This process of trying to understand what other critics have aimed to argue succeeds in that it improves the quality of criticism as a whole, even if it “fails” in the sense that such an understanding cannot be found.

        Pluralists Fail to Be Pluralistic (Failure of Adequacy)

        In his discussion of Crane, Burke, and Abrams, Booth finds points in each that might be considered monist, skeptic, eclectic, or semantic resolutionist. Yet, overall, their practice of criticism is what makes them pluralist: their treatment of other points of view to prove their argument. Their critical practices, which Booth demonstrates when he includes in his text the critical exchanges that take place between himself and each of his three exemplar pluralists, demonstrate, according to Booth, a praxis of genuine interest in understanding what others write in before they attempt to criticize. So, for Booth, whether facets of their argument appear to be monist, skeptic, eclectic, etc. (to be pluralistic, after all, is to fairly consider these kinds of views) is an unimportant point in relation Booth’s identification of pluralism.

        Pluralists Fail to Be Theoretically Reconciled (Failure of Coherence)

        Because of their different approaches to pluralism, “it is not easy to decide whether [Crane, Burke, and Abrams] can be accommodated into a single view labeled pluralism” (198). He describes Crane as a “splitter,” Burke as a “lumper”, and Abrams as a historical pluralist. But, Booth tells us in response to his own identification of the problem, that if he “had found that Crane, Burke and Abrams were all reconcilable into a single statable harmony,” he would have “rejected pluralism for [his] own grand monism” (211); in other words, he would have shown pluralism to be un-pluralistic.

          What Booth shows us is that these “problems” are in fact what make pluralism pluralist. Critics don’t have to fit together all the view points they encounter, but, to be pluralistic, they do have to have to approach other view points with a genuine effort to understand what other writers have attempted to say in their works: they must commit to the practice of always trying to understand other viewpoints before questioning their validity. He summarizes how the problems of pluralism reinforce his arguments in favour of pluralism:

          The very act of taking pluralism seriously as a possibility was thus already a commitment to it, ridden with values . . . It entitles me . . . to say heads-I-win-tales-you-lose: show me that critics understand each other or that they do not; or show me that understanding is easy or rare and difficult or show me that there are no full pluralists, only more or less subtle monists; or that there are some, but they do not agree; show me that the structure of each mind determines a different perspective or that at bottom all minds are similar; show me whatever you choose, and I will always be able to take as grist for my pluralist mill, for I shall say: Let us look now at how you have shown all things. (218)

          Our means to look at “how” ideas have been shown is through the practical act of pluralistic inquiry--understanding another’s work and then responding.

          Vitality, Justice, Understanding


          Booth’s careful defense of the seemingly problematic facets of pluralism does not alone fully address why and how critics should judge the value of individual works and how far they should take that process so as “to keep the critical dialogue going in the best possible forms” (219), to preserve an “attitude toward plurality that will help insure a further plurality” (220).

          Booth identifies three inseparable guiding principals for good pluralist criticism, which “correct each other’s excesses and provide a set of tests that both depend on pluralism and reinforce it with every application” (232).


          While Booth contends that sometimes it is justified for a critical act to “kill” a work (see the section on Understanding/Overstanding), he argues against critical acts that threaten to “kill” the vitality of criticism as a whole.

          Booth encourages critics to ask the following questions about any critical inquiry: “does this critical statement in fact in crease the likelihood of further critical life? Or does it leave its author complacent, while his adversaries, sensing danger, are tempted to retaliate blindly, lashing out in wounded fury?” (221). He identifies three tests for all critics to follow:

          1. Booth directs critics to ask if their critical inquiry will “proscribe more kinds of valuable talk about literature than you invite” (221) arguing that an affirmative answer to that question often indicates a critical method that is more monist than pluralist: a method that leaves little room for further critical life.
          2. Booth would like critics to ask whether “you offer to vitalize only yourself or me as well” and whether “you are offering life to a community of readers” (222). Here, Booth highlights the importance of literary criticism as a community: each party, both the critic and the criticized as well as other readers should benefit from an inquiry.
          3. In keeping with the notion of a critical community, Booth recommends that critics ask if they “acknowledge community with the other authors [they] treat” (222), encouraging critics to “give incentive” (222) for others’ responses rather than promoting their own position by demoting another’s position.

          Booth summarizes his own responsibility within the critical community that he promotes: “My life, indistinguishable from the life of my critical tribe, requires that my thought be an exchange among “selves” rather than a mere search for ways to impose what I already know” (223).

          Booth’s principle of vitality seems to foreshadows similar arguments which he covers more fully in The Company We Keep, including the idea that readers should ask whether authors offer benefits for readers as well as themselves, and the idea that discussion precedes the proliferation of a critical community.


          To do justice to the text, Booth advises the critic to pay close to the ethos of the text, rather than that of the author. He cites two means of treating texts justly:

          1. “Suspect any text that sets itself up as king, demanding one law for itself and apply other, more stringent, laws to the commoners” (224) as this type of attitude doesn’t encourage a critical response because it doesn’t grant justice to others; rather it leaves us having to choose to “repudiate that method or abandon hope for our common enterprise” (225), which is a double bind according to Booth.
          2. Depend on the text and its arguments to tell us “whether further attention is ‘due’” and “how we should judge what we find” (225).

          Above all, in keeping with his focus on the text when applying justice, and in keeping with his valuation of the critical community Booth cautions critics to “damn the sin but not the sinner” (227).


          Understanding in combination is the crux upon which Booth’s overarching argument depends (see the section on Understanding/Overstanding for more details).

          Booth argues that human understanding depends on an assumption that is often seen as a threat to individual freedom: “the assumption that one code will dominate over another in such a way as to establish the superiority, in a given setting, of some readings over some other readings”(232). Booth, however, doesn’t see this assumption as a problem; he counters that “we do not lose our freedom by molding our minds in shapes by others. We find it there” (232).

          Booth acknowledges that particular readings and questions (as opposed to limitless readings and questions) are inherent in all texts, that “all texts try to present boundary conditions” (242). He stresses that understanding involves a reconstruction of the author(s) intentions for writing: what the author(s) wanted readers to discern from the text. Booth writes that “the text produce does not intend something ‘out there’; rather, it intends its own understanding, and that ,of course presupposes an understanding of the meaning I was trying to produce in the first place” (265).

          In effect, understanding, involves actively reading—immersing oneself in the text, into someone else’s critical project—with values of vitality and justice in mind, to reconstruct the author’s process of writing, to listen to what the text tries to say. The effort of understanding is most important; whether understanding is successful or not, critics who approach texts with an effort to understand commit to the larger critical community

          Understanding and Overstanding

          The kind of critic that Booth endorses will examine texts with every effort of critical understanding, at which point they may begin to overstand, to answer other critics and writers with a pluralistic “Yes, but” (197): the “yes grants . . .right to critical life” and the but both asserts overstanding and “requests a similar grant in return” (197).

          Overstanding differs from misunderstanding in that critics have to understand before they can begin to overstand. Booth describes the relationship between understanding and overstanding:

          I've sometimes called this the conflict or interrelationship between ‘overstanding’ and ‘understanding’-understanding being fully succumbing to the work, or giving in to temporary suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge called it. After understanding, students should not fail to "overstand" and apply their own sense of right and wrong, and look back on what's happened to them as they read. (Emory Report)

          Understanding involves discerning the “proper questions” to ask, the questions that the text intends. While overstanding involves asking “improper questions,” questions, “seeing through, judging, repudiating, transforming, and re-creating texts—in short of appropriating them in ‘inappropriate ways” (256), ways that the text does not intend, but that it allows, a difference that Booth treats in more detail in The Company We Keep.

          That the text itself allows for improper questions is a crucial point; a text allows for some questions, but a text also implies limits that preclude the possibility for any questions. Such endless questioning would mean that a critic has failed to understand the text because, to understand a text involves also understanding its intentions. Even when texts don’t achieve their intentions, the text still bears markers that point to them. As Booth argues, the inseparable nature of intentions, texts, and readers guarantees that any reader who makes the effort to enter into and understand the text can only ask certain questions, given the direction the text offers.

          Understanding and overstanding are central to the process that perpetuates the critical community. Booth explains that each text “makes a reality that can then be interpreted and so to some degree understood . . . It also offers itself. . .to the less tender acts of overstanding that the interpreter may go on to commit; these in turn offer themselves as invitations to understanding” (265).

          Concluding Thoughts


          Booth’s Hippocratic Oath of Criticism brings to light the inseparable relationship between the writer and the reader that he expounds in The Rhetoric of Fiction and in The Company We Keep. Booth’s oath emphasizes that critical understanding does not begin with the reader, but is in fact a continuous circle between the writer and the reader, who necessarily always swap roles in the process of literary criticism. Before critics write about texts, as readers they must understand, and overstand where appropriate. In turn, their readers must understand and overstand where appropriate in response.

          In a review of Critical Understanding, John Preston addresses the circularity of Booth’s concepts. Preston writes that understanding “is both what generates a sense of plurality and also what arises from any genuine pluralism” (631): “the goal, process, and result,” as Booth explains it (262). Just as Booth manages to defend the pluralistic approach by illustrating its “problems” as an integral part of that approach, he manages to illustrate the cyclical nature of understanding, how all good critical inquiry begins and ends and begins again with understanding in an ever-evolving process.

          The concept of understanding is so pivotal that it affects the lives of even “those of us who do not think that all meaningful life depends on what professional critics do” to the degree that “wherever understanding is maimed, our life is threatened; wherever it is achieved, our life is enhanced” (349).

          Thus, while Critical Understanding deals overtly with literary criticism, it also drives home core principles of humanity. As Booth enlightens us, “everything we say or write, and almost everything we do, depends out assumption that understanding is possible” (261). Booth’s kind of understanding “is finally what defines us as human beings” (261), what allows for community (see also Modern Dogma), not only in the field of literary criticism but also in all communities.

          Works Cited

          Gray, Hanna. “The Idea of a University as Seen By a Rhetorician: Introduction.” The Idea of the University Colloquium. University of Chicago. 2000-2001.

          Preston, John. "Critical understanding (Book Review)". The Modern Language Review 78 (July 1983) 631-2.

          “Wayne Booth hits his targets”. The Emory Report. Compiled by Steve Kraftchick and Michael Terrazas. Sept 18, 2000. 53/34.

          Cover of Booth's Critical Understanding