Logical Atoms: The Implications for Critical Theory
by E.W. Wilder
Not since the early forays into Structuralism has literary criticism
delved seriously into a quantifiable, scientific account of the critical
apparatus. Arguably, psychological forms of criticism would fit this particular
bill, but their reliance on psychoanalysis renders them scientifically
suspect. Perhaps this problem is due to a non-quantificatory streak infesting
literary critics: we consider ourselves "word" people and not
"number" people, and any attempt at coming to terms with criticism
scientifically seems soulless and inhumane to us. The long shadow of the
film The Dead Poet's Society, in which a fictional critic's attempt
to quantify and graph poetic quality is openly ridiculed, doesn't seem
to help. Most likely is that we have chosen more rhetorically and less
specifically scientific theories of literature of late: Deconstruction,
Feminist Theory, even the New Historicism seem all to rely on embracing
specific trends or following the lead of specific personalities and less
on provable systems of theory.
In order to try to fill this gap (to the best of my limited abilities)
I make the following proposal. A loose application of a quasi-Russellian
logical atomism to literary study would provide an inter-theoretical basis
for criticism that would be both flexible and easy-to-use. This would
considerably simplify the formulation and expression of critical observations.
Such a meta-theoretical language would allow for quick comparison and
standardization of critical notations and terminology, thus eliminating
the mis-communications that seem to take place between each theoretical
A brief explanation of Bertrand Russell's logical atomism is necessary.
As outlined and made practical by Brian Skyrms, logical atomism consists
of quantified variables which can be substituted by names, and which combined
into logical complexes (compound variables such as propositions), can
be fitted into a scheme of sentential logic (221). The idea here is that
real or conceptual "simples"--points of existence in a world,
for instance--could be translated into a basic building-block of a larger
logical model of the workings of that world. These logical atoms could
then be said to provide a basic substrate for any sort of proposition,
idea, or concept you like in much the same way that regular atoms are
said to comprise molecules: the example of two hydrogen atoms combining
with one oxygen atom to produce water is most familiar.
The advantage of this is the ease with which it allows facts, ideas,
propositions to be compounded, combined, dealt with in an easy way:
One of the attractive features of logical atomism is that it makes the
combinatorial semantics--the combinatorial theory of possibility--so straight-forward.
Possibility just consists of therearrangement of atomic individuals, properties
and relations that have been abstracted from atomic facts. (Skyrms 227-8)
Further, logical atomism allows for a certain standardization of facts
for any given world one wishes to contemplate by mapping these facts from
said world as functions of their relative positions (Skyrms 230). And
since these facts are themselves atomistic, "[f]or all intents and
purposes, the world is the totality of facts" (Skyrms 231).
Thus we are able to communicate across fields of critical study by creating
a standard world into which we place our sets of theoretical facts. We
simply then map them relationally, and any given fact in any given field
of study can be easily seen to correspond with a counterpart in any other
field. Provided these relationships are combinatorial, the mathematics
of figuring and expressing critical concepts becomes very simple indeed:
they are expressible as simple additions and subtractions.
Let us take an instance from a familiar concept, the influence of Puritan
thought on American culture. I choose this also because the idea has wide-ranging
relevance for cultural studies, film criticism, literary criticism, art,
and music, as it will be eventually applied.
In the introduction to their The Puritans in America: a Narrative Anthology,
Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco give an account of biblical typology,
a concept in which certain figures of the Old Testament are seen to typify
Christian notions, foreshadowing the nature of Christ (10-11). This idea
was advanced by the Puritans into their contemporary experience such that
"some concluded that their American refuge might actually be the
New Jerusalem promised in Revelation" (Heimert and Delbanco 11).
This fact can be thought of as one logical simple, or atom, to which to
add another combinatorial concept, that of the Puritans' tendency for
hard work. We'll call the concept of biblical typology (P).
Heimert and Delbanco describe Puritan work patterns this way:
Since the enormously influential books of Max Weber and R.H. Tawney,
a consensus has emerged that Puritanism found especially congenial conscripts
among those who were beginning to live within the structures and rhythms
of early capitalism--as merchants, entrepreneurs, craftsmen in other's
They go on to quote Christopher Hill as characterizing Puritans as "the
industrious sort" (14). Thus we get a picture of the Puritans as
hard working, a fact we will express as (WE).
If, then, we combine these two simple facts, that Puritans
were obsessed with biblical typology and were hard working, we can simply
say(P) + (WE) = (PWE)
meaning that the simple (P), combined with the simple (WE) produces the
compound (PWE). The work ethic and the typology can then be said to produce
one complex aspect of the Puritan world-view.
From here we can expand the idea into a still more complex concept with
relative ease. Provided that we accept the idea that Puritan concepts
are still a part of American life--we'll call this assumption (A)--, we
can apply contemporary concepts to the above compound fact:(A)(PWE)
We can then add any variable we wish--or any set of variables if need
be. As an example of how this might work, we can examine the rise of the
Beatles as a cultural phenomenon.
The popularity of the Beatles can in some part be seen as indicative
of the musical trends of the times. In the early 1960s they resembled
the popular form of Rock n' Roll, and by their break-up in 1970 they had
moved toward a more psychedelic style more in line with the counterculture.
They were not the only psychedelic band, of course, and their switch in
style, while the most celebrated and popular, was not the first, nor the
most innovative. Prior to their shift to psychedelia, the Beatles were
known to frequent clubs in which Pink Floyd were playing some of their
early gigs. Indeed, Pink Floyd's first two albums were recorded at Abbey
Road studios at roughly the same time as the seemingly revolutionary Sgt.
Pepper's. This, and the fact that Bob Dylan had turned the Beatles on
to psychotropic chemicals a year or so earlier are common knowledge, but
both point to a potentially derivative flavor in the music of the Beatles.
Sparing the reader he details of their construction, this set of facts
can be expressed by the complex (BTL).
We can further express the previous compound,(A)(PWE), as the desire
for mediocrity in American culture since, given (A), Americans are still
obsessed with both biblical typology and hard work. Biblical typology
would determine that Americans wish to stand out as anyone other than
those who exemplify biblical precepts, thus spurning truly innovative
likes and dislikes. The desire to exemplify a holy type results, therefore,
in a wish for normalcy. Americans wish to be seen as the "salt of
the Earth," hardworking, plain, destined for heaven.
Since the Beatles made their switch to psychedelia only after the counterculture
had become established, and because they were themselves an established
band, their switch became accepted, and that which they represented followed
suit. So the American mediocrity principle can be expressed as(MD).
(A)PWE) = (MD)(BTL)(A)
The fact of contemporary America cancels out, so
(PWE) = (MD)(BTL).
This expresses in a simple, quantifiable manner the complex idea that
the Puritan ideals of biblical typology and hard work have their contemporary
equivalency in the popularity of the Beatles.
The advantages of this system are now absolutely clear: it does away
with sticky issues of conceptual ambiguity and field-specific terminology
and is expressible in a compact, easy-to-understand manner, doing away
with much of the noisome exegesis so characteristic of, and detrimental
to the practice of, contemporary criticism.
Heimert, Alan and Andrew Delbanco, eds. Introduction. The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
Skyrms, Brian. "Logical Atoms and Combinatorial Possibility."
The Journal of Philosophy 90 (1993): 219-32.