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In my previous two posts (here and here), I suggested that the diversity of interpretations that literary works provoke from critics does not, for the most part, reflect differences of subjective response. Without question, different critics react differently to what they read, and some of this difference certainly does stem from idiosyncrasy. The emotional resonance of a word will differ for readers depending on personal experience. So will the resonance of characters, situations, and images. But these differences play a minor role in producing interpretive variety compared to those that stem from what I referred to previously as "publicly shareable knowledge."

What I mean by that somewhat awkward phrase is the whole domain of ideas and information with explanatory power — historical facts and theories of history; theories of character (including but not limited to those articulated by psychologists); the categories and definitions of philosophy; explanatory models from linguistics, anthropology, biology, politics, economics, and gender studies; moral and ethical codes, religious or not; and so on.

This way of understanding literary works — through the lens of publicly articulated, publicly available ideas and information — isn't practiced only by academic and other professional critics. What sets the professional critic apart from the ordinary reader is merely the professional's penchant for relying on academic theories and the accompanying (perfectly reasonable, from an academic perspective) obsession with citation. For everyone else, folk psychology and rough ideas about truth, good, and evil are generally enough.

To borrow a phrase from Alva Noë (remember him?), bringing different explanatory ideas and information to bear on a literary work — whatever their source, and with whatever degree of rigor — will cause the work to "show up" for you in different ways. If you were to walk into an art gallery without some background ideas and information of this sort, Noë maintains, the paintings hanging there would be nothing more than meaningless flat panels on a wall. The paintings only begin to have a "presence" for you by virtue of the knowledge, ideas, and — he adds — skills that you bring to them.

When different critics bring conflicting explanatory models to bear on a poem or a novel, or when they disagree about the right way to relate a character or event to the same model, they end up with conflicting interpretations. Some interpretive diversity takes this form.

But much interpretive diversity is non-conflicting or minimally conflicting. It takes the form of what Graff and Birkenstein would call "agreeing with a difference." It springs from the simple fact that the work will "show up" differently against the background of different ideas and information.

Conveniently, our wiki contains a very concrete example of what I mean. The four of us who taught Engl 170 in Fall 2010 tried an experiment with Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916." Have a look (and a listen) here. Four readers. Four readings. Agreement with a difference: not because Yeats' words mean four drastically different things to four differently constituted private minds, but because the different explanatory tools and information we bring to the poem make it show up in four distinctly different ways.