positioning an academic argument

In free moments, I’m revising what I call my “Dante book,” which is actually an argument about the moral value of literature. The peer reviewer said that I should explain how my project fits in with recent academic debates about philosophy and literature. My readers will be familiar with at least some of these debates and will want to understand where I stand in relation to other authors.

I have usually resisted doing too much of that sort of “positioning.” I don’t like to assume that readers already know a given academic literature; I prefer to assume a broader or more public audience. I don’t like to read mainly or only works that are currently influential. (My Dante book is heavily annotated, with 460 footnotes, but many of my sources are obscure and old.) Sometimes positioning strikes me as an alternative to argument. A writer may say, “My stance is more communitarian than Rawls but more liberal than Sandel.” That makes him or her look reasonable, but it doesn’t add anything to our knowledge or understanding.

Yet, in this case, I have found the reviewer’s advice useful. There is value to engaging with a current discussion, and doing so explicitly. Also, I have had to do more systematic reading on the ethical uses of fiction. Inevitably, I have learned from this reading. Above all, I have realized that there is much more current interest in ethical interpretation than I knew. (See, for instance, Amanda Anderson.) That means that some of my claims in the earlier draft of the manuscript were false. I wrote it as a manifesto for a new kind of criticism, but exactly that kind of criticism is being widely practiced now. In other words, I was already engaging with a current debate, but I had mischaracterized it. If you are going to comment on the state of argument, you should at least do a thorough literature review first.