by Vern S. Poythress

[Published in the Westminster Theological Journal 41/1 (fall 1978): 210-211. Used with permission.]

Robert Detweiler: Story, Sign, and Self; Phenomenology and Structuralism as Literary- Critical Methods. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, Missoula, Mt.: Scholars Press, 1978. 224. $5.95. Paperback.


In this wide-ranging book Robert Detweiler introduces readers having some familiarity with conventional literary criticism to the literary-critical methods arising from phenomenology and structuralism. Accord-


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ingly, the book is divided into four chapters, the first on the basic conceptual and philosophical apparatus of phenomenology and structuralism, the second on phenomenology, the third on structuralism, and the fourth presenting Detweiler’s own attempt to mediate between these two approaches and appropriate the best in both. The second and third chapters are in turn subdivided into two sections each, on the theory and on the practice of literary criticism.

Detweiler develops his description of phenomenological and structuralist criticism almost wholly by summarizing a large number of examples of each. In the process he juxtaposes secular and religious varieties of criticism, in order to promote the interaction of the two varieties. The result is a tantalizing encyclopedia of the great names of phenomenological and structuralist criticism.

The strengths of this book lie in its sensitivity to the philosophical roots and presuppositions, plus its wide-ranging examples. Its limitations lie in the lack of sufficiently deep questioning of the presuppositions,1 and in the inevitable sketchiness of each individual example. I recommend this book to provide a taste of phenomenological-structuralist dialogue, and a taste of the new types of critical attitude that are likely to penetrate into biblical studies. The reader looking for a thorough step-by-step introduction to phenomenology or to structuralism separately should go elsewhere, as Detweiler himself advises.2

Vern S. Poythress
Westminster Theological Seminary,

1 Cf. my companion article “Philosophical Roots of Phenomenological and Structuralist Literary Criticism,” in this issue of the Westminster Theological Journal.

2 Cf. Pierre Thévenaz, What is Phenomenology? ed. James M. Edie (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1962) ; Vernon W. Gras, ed., European Literary Theory and Practice: From Existential Phenomenology to Structuralism(New York: Dell, 1973) (an anthology) ; Michael Lane, ed., Introduction to Structuralism (New York: Basic Books, 1970) (an anthology) ; Robert Scholes, Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).