Don't let the title fool you. The judgment that Michael Clune defends in A Defense of Judgment is not the activity of distinguishing Great Works according to a universal standard of taste. In fact Clune claims just the opposite. He dismisses as too constrictive the familiar criteria from the history of literary aesthetics (beauty, organic form, complexity, autonomy), noting that all such standards impoverish literature by excluding “many actual and possible artistic values” (181). Even more, Clune rejects altogether the common picture of judgment as the application of general criteria to specific cases in favor of judgment as a practice of discernment. When encountering a literary work, the critic's job is not to decide good or bad? or art or kitsch? but to discern the unique ways of thinking and feeling the text affords, and then to show readers and students why those ways matter. It's less about wielding criteria for literary value than about discovering, through literature, criteria for values hitherto unacknowledged.

Clune sets this notion of judgment at the heart of a fascinating and timely account of aesthetic education, from its most common practices to its loftiest aims. In his first section, “The Theory of Judgment,” he describes judgment as a particular kind of expert skill and elaborates its role in progressive politics. Then, in “The Practice of Judgment,” he offers three instances of judgment in action, in the form of readings that discern the perceptual configurations (and resultant “literary ideas”) offered in texts by Emily Dickinson, Thomas Bernhard, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Throughout, Clune presents original and provocative answers to the big questions facing the humanities. Why study literature? What do humanities professors teach? In taking on these and other topics, A Defense of Judgment presents the clearest and most forceful account of literary studies that has yet to emerge from our moment of constant disciplinary self-reflection, justification, and reinvention. It's exhilarating to be in Clune's intellectual company. Even if you disagree (and many readers will disagree), you will find your thinking sharpened by engaging with his argument.

Clune begins by noticing a glitch in recent work on the politics of aesthetics. If, for decades, critics followed Pierre Bourdieu in regarding aesthetic judgment as a subtle instrument for shoring up social inequality, thinkers such as Jacques Rancière and Joseph North have lately reclaimed aesthetics for progressive ends by returning to its roots in aisthēsis: practices of sensory perception. They treat literature and the arts as tools for sensory training and argue that in disrupting the dominant “distribution of the sensible” (Rancière) or cultivating “deeper modes of life” (North), aesthetic education challenges existing social hierarchies. Here's where the glitch comes in. For Clune shows that this line of thinking allows a commitment to social equality to bleed into a rejection of all hierarchies, including the hierarchy of better and worse modes of experience upon which the progressive argument for aesthetic education depends. Some texts surely fit North's program of sensory training better than others—yet he can't seem to say so, and even disparages such distinctions as elitist. How come? According to Clune, this is an example of how the “dogmatic” adherence to equality as a master virtue of the discipline prevents critics from acknowledging the selections and evaluations that teachers of literature make all the time. As a result, the everyday work of judgment—of the sort needed to decide on the books most likely to achieve progressive ends—gets pushed into the shadows, disavowed.

In asking his readers to embrace judgment, Clune asks them to subordinate an unfettered commitment to equality to what he calls “our highest value”: “a better life for everyone” (64). We should tread carefully here, for though Clune relishes the polemical zest of arguing against equality, the equality he holds in contempt is not the notion that all humans are equally valuable but the idea that all cultural preferences are equally worthwhile. Clune sees this latter notion of equality—what he calls “market egalitarianism”—as going hand-in-hand with the capitalist project of making the market the sole arbiter of value. It treats artworks as consumer goods and aesthetic judgment as “consumer choice,” and it wants only to sell consumers more of what they already like (12). Education, on the other hand, aims to give students new desires, different values. Clune locates the political promise of aesthetic education in this alternative “structure of desire”: if market egalitarianism “neutralizes any value not derived from the subjective preferences of consumers,” education exercises a “mode of judgment” that gives students access to “forms of value” they don't already possess (47, 50).

Clune hangs his boldest assertions about the promise of aesthetic education on this difference between an equality that keeps people where they are and a practice of judgment that opens them to “richer” experiences (37). But who decides which experiences are “richer”? Clune addresses this question through his theory of expert judgment. Building on Hume's empirical account of taste as the shifting consensus of experts (rather than the consequence of a supposedly universal sensus communis), Clune describes judgment as “a skill to be cultivated” and then turns to the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi to explain how that cultivation occurs (18). Polanyi stressed the “tacit dimension” of knowing, the idea that, in any expert practice, “we know more than we can tell” (68). As a student absorbs the background knowledge of a discipline, she gradually comes to see her object of study differently. In fact the object of study changes. An Elizabethan sonnet is a different object to someone familiar with the history of the sonnet form, the culture of sixteenth-century England, and the wider principles of poetics than it is to someone unfamiliar with them. Such background knowledge enables the teacher to do more with the sonnet, to notice what makes it strange or insightful. This is Clune's sense of expert judgment, and he thinks all literature professors practice it. It involves the use of background skills and knowledge to discern the modes of thinking, feeling, and experiencing that texts make available. It depends less on facts than on a “capacity to transform and extend the self through objects” (71).

The chapters on expert judgment are the most riveting in the book; yet I wonder how well they support Clune's grand assertion that aesthetic education shows students “a better way to live” (64). Clune praises judgment for generating genuine novelty: the new desires and values disclosed through aesthetic education can, he insists, change your life and teach you something, whereas targeted ads encourage you to remain as you are (just with more stuff). But though he makes entertaining appeals to a gut-level hierarchy of cultural preferences—at one point he dares us to deny that reading Middlemarch is a better way of spending your time than watching reruns of The Apprentice—Clune never specifies what might constitute human flourishing or how anyone could design a syllabus to promote it. Indeed, Clune's account of judgment prevents him from offering such criteria, since doing so would slip him back into a version of judgment as criteria-using rather than value-discovering. Yet without a more detailed picture of why “aesthetic enrichment is a basic human need,” Clune's presentation of expert judgment threatens to collapse into a capitalist-friendly vision of mere change as a good in itself (3). Surely Clune wants growth or improvement, not just change. What would such growth look like?

Clune's close readings, tenacious as they are, won't show us. Not that they aren't pertinent: each of the three analyses makes good on Clune's promise to “show how a literary work sets up a new mode of perception” which then, through “reflection,” “furnishes us with new ideas” (5). But there's no talk of “flourishing” or of “better” perceptions in these chapters, and the “values” Clune discerns through his readings are clearly tethered to specific contexts and criteria. He effectively says: read Emily Dickinson's “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” if you want to think about the experience of death, or read Gwendolyn Brooks's “I love those little booths at Benvenuti's” if you want to understand how race and class are tethered in the United States. He doesn't say: read these works to have a better life. I'm not disparaging this approach. I admire the dogged way that Clune extracts what he calls a “literary idea” from these texts and then uses it to show what literature as literature might offer to interdisciplinary conversations. Even when I disagreed with his readings, I found his method, which privileges ideas over form, original and compelling. As Clune states in his most straightforward justification for literary study, “Literature is full of the most astonishing ideas on every imaginable topic” (104). Aesthetic education enables people to access them.

I have no doubt that Clune believes that learning to discern literary ideas promotes a good life. But he doesn't show how, and the gap between his invocation of human flourishing and his concrete examples of how critics contribute to specific areas of knowledge raises broader questions about his characterization of judgment and expertise. Judgment-as-discernment offers a powerful description of how literary critics learn to experience works of literature. But for such judgment to be used, either in the creation of a syllabus or the formulation of an argument, there has to be an act of judgment-as-selection, one that decides better or worse for such-and-such purpose. Clune raises the stakes of his polemic by running these meanings together, invoking selection (“richer” experiences) to raise hackles but then falling back on discernment (and literary ideas) to avoid characterizing those evaluations, with the result that the relation between selection and discernment remains mysterious. Similarly, Clune's dual emphasis on “new modes of perception” and the ideas they “furnish” both glosses over the differences between learning to perceive and learning to argue and skips what could be a fascinating account of the act of “furnishing” that connects them. The whole work of criticism may reside in that space of transition, when a way of feeling gets translated into a verbal demonstration.

The ambiguous relation between experience and knowledge also complicates Clune's notion of expertise. Leaning on Polanyi as well as Thomas Kuhn, Clune suggests that disciplinary expertise functions the same way in literary studies as in STEM fields. This may be true in a general way: in each case, training results in perceptual skills that underwrite expert judgments. But there are at least two differences that, on the terms of Clune's own argument, demand a further sharpening of what expertise signifies in the humanities. First, as Clune notes, aesthetic judgment “is something everyone does and everyone can learn to do better” (181). We're not starting from scratch. We're helping students to refine something they already do. Not so with other areas of expertise. Nobody arrives at medical school already doing a folk version of brain surgery. That's one reason why a student in an introductory anatomy class is unlikely to upend the professor's understanding of how to operate. But it's not at all uncommon for a first-year literature student to notice something unexpected in a poem. In fact, it's the mark of a great class.

The second difference is that not all areas of expertise exercise “a basic human need.” Here too the distinction between cultivating experience and generating knowledge is crucial. For while it may be the case that “submission to expert judgment,” controlled by the protocols of peer review, applies in some areas of teaching—say, the transmission of important facts—the demand to submit will almost certainly stymie an education in experience, which requires something more like trust (62). Plus, there's no peer review for the good life. Developing a qualified notion of humanities expertise along these lines would not only allow for the account of actual pedagogy that Clune omits but would also confront his book's most consequential yet unresolved challenge: making the case for literary studies without relying on the scientific model of knowledge production.

A Defense of Judgment is an agenda-setting work, from its brilliant reframing of aesthetics in terms of aesthetic education to its reintroduction of key terms like value, judgment, and experience: terms that, after reading Clune, feel both essential and up for grabs. Not everyone will “submit” to Clune's vision of the profession—nor should they. But readers should welcome the provocative and clarifying descriptions of the hows and whys of literary study, if only to discern something new in them.