In Theory, there is no beauty

Anyone who has ever tried to read Derrida or other cultural theory, and come away baffled, or even a bit disgusted, should read Brian Boyd’s article “Getting it All Wrong.” It’s a fabulous and bitter attack on modern literature departments’ love affair with deconstruction and cultural critique, to the absolute exclusion of alternative means of reading and analysis. Like, say, the appreciation of beauty, or considering the validity of ideas. Or recognizing that evolution and biological similarities might have something to do with the way our brains work, and with the way our ideas circulate.

A key, and valuable point: Modern “Theory” deconstructs the idea that universal knowledge is possible. “Knowledge” is an artifact of its cultural orgin, this school argues. Boyd notes that this is a misunderstanding of how humans learn. Yes, this may be a useful critique of universalistic Eurocentric philosophy. It’s a devastating rejoinder to medieval scholastic theology. But it parochially ignores the lessons of hundreds of years of actual human thought and activity.

In fact, the progress made in sciences shows a pattern of human learning that is not based on scholastic deductive logic or universal “truths,” but on long series of inductive, error-prone set of evolving theories (small “t”) that progressively add to our tentative store of knowledge about the world. We have medicine that is not culturally constructed (yes, tests have been culturally and gender-biased, but that’s a critique of the test, not of the medicine’s viability). We know increasingly more about the basic fabric of the universe, having come from the harmony of the spheres to an expanding universe and fundamental particles. And so on.

To ignore the universal experience of a *sense* of beauty, no matter if the content of that beauty changes from place to place, is just insane. Theory is blind, but there will always be readers who can see.