The New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991

To the Editors:

I would appreciate your printing the following letter in reply to John Searle's recent review of, among other texts, an issue of The South Atlantic Quarterly that I co-edited:

John Searle defends truth and high intellectual standards in the abstract but otherwise has some trouble staying in their vicinity. Among other errors, distortions and superficialities in his report of current educational controversies, his skewed citations of my own words and swift dispatch of two thousand years of philosophical debate were, for me, notable.

"Puzzled" by the opposition to the "innocuous proposal" put forward by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. in his book, Cultural Literacy, Searle handles his perplexity not by considering the numerous arguments detailed by Hirsch's numerous critics—to the effect that the book's diagnoses of the nation's social and economic ills are dubious and its proposed educational remedies both irrelevant and unworkable—but by ferreting out traces of those critics' (presumably rabid) politics. The result is tendentious misrepresentation along familiar lines. Thus, contrary to Searle's allegation, I do not, in the passage he quotes from my article,* "respond" in "hysterical tones" to Hirsch's "project." Rather, as I indicate explicitly, I satirize there the inflated claims and Fourth-of-July rhetoric through which Hirsch promotes his List of names and phrases to the American public. Moreover, contrary to Searle's eager interpretation, my observation that such rhetoric obscures Hirsch's deeply conservative (as well as historically and otherwise questionable) views of American culture and society "reveals" nothing whatsoever about my own "preoccupations."

As for matters of ontology and epistemology, readers of The New York Review of Books will be grateful to Searle for clearing up the issues so painlessly. No problem there at all: just remember that Reality is presupposed by all language, Reason by all argument, and that to deny either is thus impossible. Does anyone "deny" either? Is it not, rather, that the nature and meaning of such concepts have been recurrently questioned and subjected to diverse formulation? But never mind—forget Kuhn, forget Kant, forget Quine, forget Protagoras. With John Searle to set us straight, we do not need any Great Books.

          Barbara Herrnstein Smith

Braxton Craven Professor of Comparative
Literature and English
Graduate Program in Literature
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina


* "Cult-Lit: Hirsch, Literacy and the 'National Culture,' " The South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 89, No. 1 (Winter, 1990). The article presents extended analyses of the logic of Hirsch's arguments and discusses, among other things, his arguable conceptions of language and communication, ambiguous invocations of "culture" and "literacy," and idiosyncratic uses of empirical data. Though strongly critical, the article does not warrant Searle's description of it as a "savage attack." (back)