Crítica, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía, Volume 10, number 30, December 1978
Poética: descripción y evaluación
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Milton H. Snoeyenbos
Georgia State University

Abstract: A theory of poetry, a poetics, comprises at least three sets of themes: those about identification, description, and evaluation. In this paper it is assumed we are able to identify and describe poems. In order to narrow down on the remaining theme, that of evaluation, we are invited to consider the following dialogue between an esthete (T) and a skeptic (S).

(T1): Poem P1 is better than poem P2.
(S2): Why? (T3): P1 has E1...En; P2 lacks those qualities. (Such as clearness of image, unity, originality, and so on.)
(S4): But how can you say P1 has, and P2 lacks, E1...En? Isn´t that just a matter of taste?

A stronger version of (S4) goes as follows:

(S5): Given P1 has, and P2 lacks, E1...En, why should E1...En make P1 better than P2? Isn´t that just a matter of taste?

The purpose here is to draw a general strategy for refuting both (S4) and (S5).
Since we are able to identify poems, and also to obtain any number of true descriptions of any poem, a basis for evaluation is given by the appropiate descriptions, together with an explanation of the community´s interests and needs.
When evaluating a poem, critics advance reasons, and a reason is a declaration about some quality descriptive of the poem in question. Appropriate descriptions for evaluation are, for instance, clear images, originality, the cohesive unity among the diversity of structural aspects, the freshness and propriety of the linguistic modes, such as metaphor, etc. A critical reason is, then, a quality which contributes to the poem being good or bad; it adds to, or detracts from, the poem´s merit.
If, as in (S5), the aplicability of a critical reason is put in doubt, it can be justified on the basis of interests and needs that people in fact have. For instance, if people have an interest on communicating descriptions, and a need for variety in sensorial perception, clear images and originality in a poem work for the fulfillment of those interests and needs. In such a way, the answer to (S5) would be:

(T6): P1 is better than P2 because people have I1...In, and P1, having E1...En, fulfills those interests, while P2, lacking E1...En, does not.

(T6) presuposes (S4) has been refuted. For the skeptic, it is a matter of taste whether a poem has consistence, unity, originality, and so on. The contemporary version of skepticism, as represented by Frank Sibley, asserts that esthetical terms, such as ‘unity’ and ‘consistence’, lack such qualities as would sufficiently determine their right use. Assuming, however, that people have certain needs and interests which poetry fulfills, those same needs provide an empirical basis for evaluation.
For Milton H. Snoyenbos, then, the evaluation of poetry is a functional kind of evaluation. If we concede there are empirically determinable interests and needs which poetry fulfills, we shall be in a position to investigate, in an empirical way, which qualities give a poem a high level of ability to fulfill those interests and needs. In short, the functional approach, plus a careful explanation of interests and needs, may well provide a basis to understand the admittedly rich complexity of poetic evaluation.
[Sebastián Lamoyi]
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