A thought struck me as I reread the discursive anomaly on Matthew Arnold. (Two, counting the thought of upping the production rates of new ones.) It's that I missed something, and that this something is important enough to turn into a new post. This something is a phrase, and I shall now quote it verbatim:
"the best that is known and thought in the world"
It is seemingly a forgettable phrase, short and stuck in between other more quotable phrases. Yet it conveys what criticism ought to be about. It approaches the object of study armed with the best that is thought and known, and proceeds to educate the readers about these things.
This differs from the notion of writing from the best of one's ability. Anyone can do that, with varying results. Writing from the standpoint of the best known & thought, on the other hand, puts an obligation on the writer to haul arse and go find these best things, and to confront them head on with alacrity. Someone else has already done it better, and it is the duty of a critic to go find where and how this feat has been accomplished.
Arnold writes provocatively that England, not being quite the whole world, is most likely not the place where the best that is known and thought in the world is to be found. Which in the 1800s must have been quite a provocative statement. I can only add that this statement is valid, mutatis mutandis, even today.
The most fruitful application of the notion of what is best known & thought is as an inverse. That is to say, as something to be aware of when some text or communication actively isn't utilizing these things, and instead settles for something else. Something that is, by necessity and in comparison, worse than what it ought to be, and has to be read as such.
You can already see the critical impulse at work here. Sensing that something could be better is the first step towards critiquing it. It is a subtle yet useful thing.
It's even more useful when it comes to discussing people who like to style themselves rational. They of all people would agree that discussions should be held using the best tools at hand, and that to not do so would be - indeed - irrational. Yet when they return for the umpteenth time to present the same rehashed talking point about, say, feminism, this notion strikes with a vengeance. Not knowing something right here and now, in the heat of discussion, is forgivable; still not knowing it a year later after engaging in discussion after discussion on the same topic - is clearly a failure to employ the sources detailing what is best known & thought.
Which, to be sure, is the opposite of rational.
Subtle but useful indeed.