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Born in London, John Ellis attended London University, where he obtained a B.A. with first-class honors in German and philosophy (1959), and a Ph.D. in German literature (1965).
He then went on to teach at the Universities of Wales, Leicester, and Alberta (Canada) before joining the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1966, as a professor of German literature. From 1977 to 1986, Ellis served as dean of the graduate division of UC, Santa Cruz, but took early retirement in 1994 and currently lives in Soquel, California.
Ellis is secretary/treasurer of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, an organization that was founded in 1994 to reverse the direction literary studies have taken on college campuses in recent decades. Ellis is also editor of Heterodoxy, a publication devoted to fighting political correctness.
Ellis's published works include nine books and over a hundred articles and reviews on German literature and the theory of language and literature, as well as on multiculturalism and the present state of academic learning. Among his most widely known books are The Theory of Literary Criticism: A Logical Analysis (Berkeley, 1974); Against Deconstruction (Princeton University Press, 1989); Language, Thought, and Logic (Northwest University Press, 1994); and Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities (Yale University Press, 1997).
Navigator: You have written that students are abandoning the humanities. What are the statistics, and what are the reasons? Are they being pulled away because other fields yield higher salaries after graduation—or are they being pushed out by political correctness?
Ellis: In 1968, English majors were 7.59 percent of those graduating with bachelor's degrees, but by 1995 that figure was down to 4.47 percent. The decline in foreign languages was even greater in percentage terms, from 2.77 to 1.06. History suffered a percentage decline comparable to that of foreign languages. The factor you mention—higher salaries in other fields—was operative both in 1968 and 1995; it cannot explain the change.
There is some evidence that enrollments correlate with the economic cycle; in good times, enrollments in the humanities and softer social science rise, while in bad times enrollments swing back toward the harder social sciences and business-related subjects.
Thus literature and psychology boomed in the sixties, but declined in the seventies, bottomed with the stock market in the early eighties (English baccalaureates at 3.37 percent), and began to rise again. By the early nineties, English baccalaureates had recovered to 4.83 percent, and, had they continued to track the economic cycle, they would by now have been approaching their late sixties figure. What is significant and highly unusual is that at that point they suddenly turn down, and now go in the opposite direction from the accelerating economy—just at the point where public dismay over political correctness becomes overt. There can be no doubt that the ruling orthodoxy in the humanities is the cause of the current slump in humanities enrollments.
Incidentally, enrollments in philosophy—the humanities field least affected by political correctness—have remained relatively stable.
Navigator: In chapter 1 of Literature Lost, you argue that "political correctness" comprises two mutually supportive strands of hostility toward Western high culture. Could you elaborate on the nature and dangers of those hostilities?
Ellis: In Literature Lost, I call the two groups "the alienated insiders" and "the resentful outsiders." The former are typically majority-group intellectuals who feel alienated from their own culture; the latter are the people who feel (or are encouraged to feel) left out of the dominant culture. We have always had both groups on college campuses, and no great harm resulted. The outsiders worked hard and successfully to become insiders, while the insider Marxist intellectuals were a fringe group too small to disrupt the institutions that paid their salaries. What is new and much more dangerous about the present situation is the greatly increased leverage of the alienated intellectuals because the campus presence of the second group has changed: there are suddenly many more of them, and they are (as a result) less well prepared to be there. Because they are less able to take the path taken by their predecessors, they are more vulnerable to the malevolent influence of the first group. The alienated intellectuals prey on them, exploit their disorientation, and are as a result suddenly leaders of greatly increased numbers of troops. This dramatic increase in the power of what had been an alienated fringe group is by far the most pernicious effect of affirmative action on campus.
Navigator: Among today's "alienated insiders" are academics who criticize Western literature and history by analyzing it from racial, sexual, and class perspectives. Who are some of the most prominent members of that group?
Ellis: There are two groups to consider: those who write the influential analyses, and the "theorists" who function in effect as cheerleaders for them. Prominent in the first group are Steven Greenblatt and Edward Said, who tell us that Shakespeare and the English novelists are the ideologists of an evil empire; in the second group are people like Stanley Fish and Gerald Graff.
Navigator: You frequently write that the fundamental errors of political correctness can be seen in Rousseau and Herder. What are those errors exactly?
Ellis: Rousseau thought that civilization was the source of evil in human life, rather than our bulwark against it; Herder was also a primitivist, but his distinctive contribution was the theory of cultural relativism, according to which different cultures cannot be said to be better or worse, but merely different. The view that everything is "socially constructed" essentially follows Rousseau, since it suggests that all evil in human life must derive from social arrangements, not human nature. Herder's cultural relativism did not stop him from making contemptuous attacks on Western high culture, and that stark logical consistency is also part of today's orthodoxy.
Navigator: In your chapter on feminist criticism, you suggest that the women's movement has degenerated because of "a severely distorted view of the past." Could you sketch out that process of degeneration and some of those distortions?
Ellis: In my book, I spell out many ways in which the differentiated roles of men and women in earlier times were the inevitable result of the conditions of life in those times—not the result of a patriarchal plot against women. Because feminists refuse to come to terms with these facts of human history, their work has lost contact with reality. Just one example: At times when you have high infant mortality, no social security, much shorter life-spans, and no birth control, career opportunities for women could not possible have been the same as those for men. My third chapter argues from these and a host of other factors that feminists misread the past so badly that it cripples their thought.
Navigator: In your chapter concerning those who attack the West for being racist, you indicate that their chief error lies in not setting certain facts within an objective context or interpretation. How does context illuminate our understanding of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism?
Ellis: The European Enlightenment is the chief contextual factor. It was, in effect, the beginning of a still-unfolding worldwide cultural revolution which led inexorably to the ending of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism. This revolution in attitudes began in the West and is still spreading. Slavery persists only where Western influence is weak. Anti-racism is a Western idea. Politically correct critics of the West have things backwards—and they themselves are ideologically not anti-Western, but, on the contrary, confused Western extremists.
Navigator: Much of your chapter on those who use economic class as a basis for understanding focuses on Frederic Jameson, whom you call "the most quoted of all American [literary] critics." Can you explain briefly what his views are and how he would fit your general analysis of political correctness?
Ellis: In my book I say that Jameson's world is "that peculiar mix of protest movements, blind third-world adulation, Utopian dreams, and hippie back-to-nature primitivism that was the 1960s." He is a die-hard Marxist who concedes absolutely nothing to our experience of the consequences of his cherished ideas. He still admires Mao, and thinks the Cultural Revolution stopped too soon. Jameson deals with the millions dead at the hands of Stalin and Pol Pot by insisting that all violence stems from counterrevolution.
He thinks that the real Marxist revolution will finally come when there is a globalized proletariat. In most contexts, a man with these views would be written off as a simpleton. But on American college campuses Jameson is lionized—a sad indication of just how badly things have gone wrong.
Navigator: Among the most frightening aspects of Literature Lost is your depiction of the way academics are breaking up into self-protective gangs. I wonder if you could describe that process?
Ellis: Academics used to think that their first allegiance was to the truth. But now, large numbers of them disparage that notion and instead put their favorite causes first. Once this was done, it was inevitable that they would break up into self-promoting and self-protecting interest groups. Any woman who utters doubts about an aspect of the feminist program, for example, is likely to be denounced for her disloyalty. Her motives and commitments are questions—not the soundness of what she has to say. But this refusal to take criticism seriously is self-damaging, everyone needs to rethink and refine to stay alive intellectually. Academic feminism was bound to deteriorate once this habit of refusing to listen to intellectual opponents was firmly established.
Navigator: Literature Lost isolates a thought process you have termed "PC Logic." What is that process?
Ellis: PC logic consists in two steps: first, it is argued that distinctions which we commonly make break down—in effect, there are no pure blacks and whites, but only different shades of grey. So far, so good. But the second step ignores the shades, so that everything is just grey. This is how the conclusion is reached that everything is political—the implication being that everything is equally political. Similar reasoning leads to the conclusion that nothing is objective; and so on. The easy way to explode this fallacy is to say: If you insist on talking, not about black and white but about different greys, you are committed to a heightened awareness of different shades, for otherwise significant differences that exist in the real world will be lost. The reconceptualizing that is undertaken in the first step does not lessen the differences between greater and lesser degrees of objectivity, or between cases where the centrality of politics to a particular action is great or small. PC logic assumes that its first step abolishes those differences, but that is a simple logical mistake.
Navigator: In your final chapter, "How Did It All Happen—And What Comes Next," you offer three reasons for pessimism, which might be termed: oppression studies; affirmative action; and academic anti-intellectualism. Could you elaborate on those, and say whether you have seen any (positive or negative) change since you were writing Literature Lost?
Ellis: I can't do better than quote my text on those three points: "The outlook seems to me a gloomy one, then, for three major reasons: first, this latest intellectual fashion, unlike all its predecessors, has managed to create new departments and new bodies of faculty in existing departments, all of which are dedicated to the movement and will not let it fade away; second, the mechanism that has fed this development—affirmative action—is still in place and is still, day by day, generating more obstacles to its fading; and third, respect for the essential underpinnings of academic life—knowledge, argument, evidence, logic—is at an astonishingly low level." There is one positive development since I wrote Literature Lost, affirmative action in college admissions is at last being curtailed. But the way back will be long and hard. It remains to be seen whether colleges and universities can recover the sense that their unique contribution to the betterment of society is made by imparting a respect for knowledge, reason, and truth—not in a shallow moralizing, which inevitably compromises their unique mission.
Navigator: Perhaps we can now turn to some less depressing subjects. In Literature Lost, you wrote that—if we take the terms broadly—it may be said literature's value lies in the fact that it "delights" and "instructs." Would you explain that point?
Ellis: This is a very old idea indeed, and my point is that it continues to be valid if we understand it broadly enough. Again, let me quote my text: "The recognition of this close connection between the functional importance of literature and its aesthetic impact has a long history in criticism. In classical and neoclassical poetics it was said that poetry delighted and instructed. This has been a durable view, and if its two key terms are formulated somewhat more broadly, it is still viable; we can extend the word delight to include other nuances of a strong and immediate response: to involve, to intrigue, to move, to fascinate. Similarly, we can broaden the scope of instruct to include such ideas as 'give cause to reflect,' or 'develop understanding.'"
Navigator: Just to clarify: You hold that the "instruction" of literature—or at least of great literature—is not like the instruction to be gleaned from a newspaper's feature story. Is that correct?
Ellis: I don't think the word "instruction" is helpful here, because it suggests definite lessons and maxims. Literature's contributions to the moral life and sense is through its broadening and deepening of experience. The material of ordinary life is, as I say in my book, "abstracted, focused, sharpened, heightened" by the imagination of great writers. You learn a lot from literature, but that is because it contains a great deal of productive thought about things that are important to us, not because it tells you what to do.
Navigator: Now what is the role of the literary critic?
Ellis: Critics of literature, like most people, have a number of related functions; there is no need to make one of them exclusive. They can deepen the understanding and appreciation of readers; they can interpret the meaning of complicated texts; they can produce knowledge about literature and its traditions; and so on. Contemporary academic critics seem to think that their major role is to judge whether the great writers fall short of moral purity as measured by their own highly unrealistic and in any case modern standards. This is a self-obsessed kind of criticism. It is hard to see why people would read Shakespeare if all they had in mind was to see how much of a sexist or homophobe he was.
Navigator: Given that the function of literature requires an author and is facilitated by a critic, what is the role played by a theorist of literary criticism?
Ellis: Theorists in the field of literature should be essentially the same as theorists in any other field: they are people who reanalyze other people's work, looking at general ideas or large patterns of significance, at basic methodological questions, or at unexamined assumptions. The skill they need above all others is analysis. The problem with theory in the filed of literature right now is that those who call themselves "theorists" are actually dogmatic proponents of exceptionally rigid views. In other words, they are anti-theorists. They are not good at analysis, and if they were, they would not hold the rather simplistic views they actually hold. They are more like gurus than analysts. This is a very serious confusion. Theory in the truer sense is what we need to break down the dogmas that these anti-theorists have promoted.
Navigator: In Against Deconstruction, and also in Literature Lost, you present a brief history of the theory of literary criticism over the last two centuries. I wonder if you could present a synopsis of that history, explaining why the end result was not a healthy situation.
Ellis: These passages are not actually histories of criticism as such, but only accounts of particular strands or issues in the history of criticism, mainly concerning the question whether criticism can be objective and scientific, or whether it is instead impressionistic and pluralistic. I showed how the field had swung back and forth between these extremes for some time, and I did so to correct the mistaken notions put about by deconstructionists and other contemporary relativists that literary critics had always thought themselves to be scientific and objective. This is a completely false account of that particular issue in the history of criticism. This allegedly new view [that criticism cannot be objective] is probably the one that has been most popular over time.
Navigator: Just as personal assistance to Navigator's readers, could you mention some of those literary critics (living or dead) whom you rate most highly?
Ellis: I'll just mention Frank Kermode—because he is, as I say in the book, a man who is able to respond appropriately to what very different kinds of writers have to say to us, letting the characteristic concerns of each writer determine the agenda.
Navigator: Let us turn now to your theories of conceptual epistemology, which I know Navigator's readers will find exciting. In Language, Thought, and Logic, you write that there are three initial missteps in the theory of language and the first is the assumption that the purpose of language is communication. What, in your opinion, is the essential function of language in human life?
Ellis: In LTL, I argued that the really important thing about language was what must have happened before communication could take place—that is, a process of categorization. Communication suggests a transfer of information from one person to another, but before communication can occur, language must first determine what kind of information there will be to transfer. And so communication presupposes a prior stage in which the limitless variety of experiences has been reduced to a finite set of categories that determine the content of communication. In effect, this prior stage constitutes a particular analysis and understanding of our experience of the world. This analysis is the most basic function of language, and it alone makes communication possible.
Navigator: The second of these initial missteps, you write, is the assumption that descriptive words are more basic to the functioning of language than evaluative words. And this, you say, "has the hierarchy of descriptive and evaluative words the wrong way round." Could you elucidate that?
Ellis: Most theories of language focus on descriptive words and try to generalize from them. Quasi-scientific terms are a favorite starting point. It seems easier to describe the way in which the word "square" works than the word "good." But then evaluative words become a complete puzzle, because one's criteria of meaning have been developed without them. Now as soon as you think about the lineage of these different kinds of words, an odd fact emerges: the words being taken as the basic type are generally newer than the ones that are avoided. The vocabulary of science is much more recent than words like "good." I try to show that the logic of how words work is in fact easier to understand if you start from the other end. Narrowly descriptive terms are then to be understood as highly specialized versions of evaluative words, and the logic of all of them, including these latecomers, becomes much clearer if you take evaluative words as the basis of language.
Navigator: The third of the three initial missteps will be of particular interest to Objectivists. You write, "Categorization . . . will remain a mystery as long as we see it as the grouping together of like things; we grasp the essence of the process of categorization only when we see it as the grouping together of things that are not the same in order that they will count as the same." Objectivists would agree with that statement, but still pose the nominalists' question: Could a person form a useful concept from any set of "different" things?
Ellis: Categorization is a rational process. The problem of "arbitrariness" in categorization arises not because it is unmotivated, but because things differ from other things in all kinds of different ways. A language is a finite system of categorizations—it must choose particular kinds of similarities, and particular extents of similarity rather than others. But once a categorization is made, it represents the decision to see as "the same" things which are not the same, because one parameter is held constant and elevated above all the others.
Navigator: In Against Deconstruction, following Saussure, you write that "the concept itself is an arbitrary creation of language. . . . We might, for example, imagine a language in which there are the concepts canine (including foxes and wolves) but below that only hounds, retrievers, and so on." An Objectivist would say that the concept is not an arbitrary creation but that there is a degree of optionality to it. Would that capture all that capture all that you mean by "arbitrary"? To illustrate using your examples: Speakers of a language might either possess the concept "dog" or get by with the phrase "domesticated canine," that is optional; but they could not form a concept that was totally arbitrary.
Ellis: Saussure's word "arbitrary" has caused a great deal of misunderstanding. The deconstructionists have understood it as indicating randomness or a lack of rational motivation. In context, Saussure's word cannot be understood in this way. All that is meant is that a decision is made by a language to simplify in one way rather than another that was also possible. To use the example of animals again: the words "duck," "hawk," "rabbit," and "owl" are all quite clear in their meanings, but the extent of their reach is quite different in each case when measured against the categories of biological science. Some go well beyond the genus, some don't, and they vary in how far beyond the genus they go.
Navigator: At a number of points in Against Deconstruction, and also Language, Thought, and Logic, you take up (as an example of what is inherent and what is not) the question of whether water has an inherent temperature. I wonder if you could clarify your view on the relationship between facts and their conceptualizations.
Ellis: This is a good illustration of what "arbitrary" means and what it does not mean. You can answer a question about the temperature of water by using the Celsius scale, or the Fahrenheit scale. So 100° C can be used where 212° F is also used. The use of one rather than the other is arbitrary. So is the temperature of boiling water really 212° or 100°? Well, it is definitely 100° if you use the Celsius scale, and 212° if you use Fahrenheit, and that's all you can say unless you invent yet another system, and that one will have the same conditional feature built in. But now suppose someone asks: Then what is it inherently, in itself, without regard to Mr. Fahrenheit or anyone else? To this the answer is that whatever it is, it cannot be spoken about without a system of measurement, and a place within that system. There is no way of saying what an inherent temperature is merely in itself, and that is because any statement of the temperature of one thing must be relative to the temperature of something else. None of this should bother Objectivists one bit. Given a particular system of measurement, everything follows: truth and falsity, and so on.
Navigator: I said above that Objectivists would accept your statement that "we grasp the essence of the process of categorization only when we see it as the grouping together of things that are not the same in order that they will count as the same." How would you compare that view to the following suggestion, elaborated in David Kelley's "A Theory of Abstraction":
Seen by themselves two tables would be perceived as different. . . . Rand's theory is that the more radical difference between either one of the tables and a chair allows the subject [to grasp that] the two tables are not as different from each other as either one of them is from the chair. The awareness of the relation between the tables as a less-than-complete difference is the enabling condition for the awareness of them as similar. The primary notion in her theory is therefore not comparative similarity, but comparative difference.
Ellis: I can agree with the general drift here, but I think that what is said is not quite right. Given the category "table," tables are alike. But if you focus on the category "blue," then some tables belong with some chairs, but not with other tables. Given the category "antiques," some tables belong with all kinds of other things more than with other tables. Trying to set up a hierarchy of differentness as if it were a single scale—some things being more different from a given thing than others—seems to me a mistake, one which does not grasp the way language creates the terms of categories. I agree, however, that differentiation is certainly a more important concept than similarity for understanding how language works.
Navigator: Let us, if we may, turn to your career. How exactly did a literary critic come to be grappling with the theory of universals? Did you see a connection between questions regarding concepts and the deplorable state of your field, or the deplorable state of the academy generally?
Ellis: There are really three parts to this answer. First, I was originally trained in two fields: German literature, and philosophy. My first published article was in Mind, the major journal of the British philosophers. Second, as a Germanist, I was inevitably always involved in questions of linguistic theory. And third, during my career things went very badly wrong both in linguistics and in philosophy of language, and so after many years of observing and analyzing what was happening it seemed natural to write Language, Thought, and Logic. If there is a connection between the very poor state of these different fields in the humanities, including literary criticism, it probably lies in broad factors affecting them all. For example, the humanities used to attract the best and brightest, but for many decades now the natural sciences have been winning the competition for the best minds. The average professor of literature is simply not as bright as he used to be.