Henry James, Principled Realism

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Henry James, Principled Realism

I read a critical essay by Michael Kearns entitled, "Henry James, Principled Realism, and the Practice of Critical Reading." In it, Kearns invents the terms "principled reality" and "naïve reality" and how to apply these perspectives when reading Washington Square.

As Kearns explores these two types of realities, he states that the readers should take a stance of "principled realism" which he defines as follows: "principled realism, like pragmatism, is a method which holds that no objective truths or transcendentally privileged perspective can be found but that we can understand enough about a situation or event to be able to act responsibly towards all persons involved." We can achieve this, according to Kearns, by understanding that the characters are fully dimensional. We must look at their strong points, their positions on certain issues, and we might speculate what their downfall might be.

Although Kearns thinks that we who read Washington Square with a principled realistic perspective should remain ethically neutral, he does urge that we also become emotionally involved. He states: " Principled realism recognizes the importance of emotional as well as rational responses; to the extent that readers come to care about the novel's characters, they are in a position to perceive and share the fundamental ethical stance of James's fiction."

On the other hand, Kearns defines his term "naïve realism" as characteristic of "someone who mistakenly elevates socially constructed and verbalized knowledge over the individual and inarticulate rather than accepting both as valuable." Kearns believes that Dr. Sloper and the narrator both practice naïve realism and this, he contends, is dangerous thinking. He continues: " Sloper's naïve realism manifests itself in his belief that he can build a valid theory on facts…he has reduced to propositions."

Kearns implies that James creates fictional characters (such as Dr. Sloper) to help his readers form the correct ethical judgement about the novel. The doctor is so cold, so calculating, the readers naturally would want to take the opposing position. He is not the only one that Kearns believes uses naïve realism. The narrator does as well: "as the story develops and Catherine's experience expands, the narrator remains superior; in particular, he grants the young woman no depth of inner life.

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