Philosophy:Literary theory

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Short description: Systematic study of the nature of literature

Literary theory is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for literary analysis.[1] Since the 19th century, literary scholarship includes literary theory and considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social philosophy, and interdisciplinary themes relevant to how people interpret meaning.[1] In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of literary scholarship is an offshoot of post-structuralism.[2] Consequently, the word theory became an umbrella term for scholarly approaches to reading texts, some of which are informed by strands of semiotics, cultural studies, philosophy of language, and continental philosophy.


The practice of literary theory became a profession in the 20th century, but it has historical roots that run as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle's Poetics is an often cited early example), ancient India (Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra), and ancient Rome (Longinus's On the Sublime). In medieval times, scholars in the Middle East (Al-Jahiz's al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and ibn al-Mu'tazz's Kitab al-Badi)[3] and Europe[4] continued to produce works based on literary studies. The aesthetic theories of philosophers from ancient philosophy through the 18th and 19th centuries are important influences on current literary study. The theory and criticism of literature are tied to the history of literature.

Some scholars, both theoretical and anti-theoretical, refer to the 1980s and 1990s debates on the academic merits of theory as "the theory wars".[5] Proponents and critics of the turn to theory take different (and often conflicting) positions about what counts as a theory or what it means to theorize within/about/alongside literature or other cultural creations. [6]


One of the fundamental questions of literary theory is "what is literature?" and "how should or do we read?" – although some contemporary theorists and literary scholars believe either that "literature" cannot be defined or that it can refer to any use of language. Specific theories are distinguished not only by their methods and conclusions, but even by how they create meaning in a "text". However, some theorists acknowledge that these texts do not have a singular, fixed meaning which is deemed "correct".[7]

Since theorists of literature often draw on very heterogeneous traditions of Continental philosophy and the philosophy of language, any classification of their approaches is only an approximation. There are many types of literary theory, which take different approaches to texts. Broad schools of theory that have historically been important include historical and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism or historical materialism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, narratology and psychoanalytic criticism.

Differences among schools

The different interpretive and epistemological perspectives of different schools of theory often arise from, and so give support to, different moral and political commitments. For instance, the work of the New Critics often contained an implicit moral dimension, and sometimes even a religious one: a New Critic might read a poem by T. S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins for its degree of honesty in expressing the torment and contradiction of a serious search for belief in the modern world. Meanwhile, a Marxist critic might find such judgments merely ideological rather than critical; the Marxist would say that the New Critical reading did not keep enough. Or a post-structuralist critic might simply avoid the issue by understanding the religious meaning of a poem as an allegory of meaning, treating the poem's references to "God" by discussing their referential nature rather than what they refer to.

Such a disagreement cannot be easily resolved, because it is inherent in the radically different terms and goals (that is, the theories) of the critics. Their theories of reading derive from vastly different intellectual traditions: the New Critic bases his work on an East-Coast American scholarly and religious tradition, while the Marxist derives his thought from a body of critical social and economic thought, the post-structuralist's work emerges from twentieth-century Continental philosophy of language.

In the late 1950s, the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye attempted to establish an approach for reconciling historical criticism and New Criticism while addressing concerns of early reader-response and numerous psychological and social approaches. His approach, laid out in his Anatomy of Criticism, was explicitly structuralist, relying on the assumption of an intertextual "order of words" and universality of certain structural types. His approach held sway in English literature programs for several decades but lost favor during the ascendance of post-structuralism.

For some theories of literature (especially certain kinds of formalism), the distinction between "literary" and other sorts of texts is of paramount importance. Other schools (particularly post-structuralism in its various forms: new historicism, deconstruction, some strains of Marxism and feminism) have sought to break down distinctions between the two and have applied the tools of textual interpretation to a wide range of "texts", including film, non-fiction, historical writing, and even cultural events.

Mikhail Bakhtin argued that the "utter inadequacy" of literary theory is evident when it is forced to deal with the novel; while other genres are fairly stabilized, the novel is still developing.[8]

Another crucial distinction among the various theories of literary interpretation is intentionality, the amount of weight given to the author's own opinions about and intentions for a work. For most pre-20th century approaches, the author's intentions are a guiding factor and an important determiner of the "correct" interpretation of texts. The New Criticism was the first school to disavow the role of the author in interpreting texts, preferring to focus on "the text itself" in a close reading. In fact, as much contention as there is between formalism and later schools, they share the tenet that the author's interpretation of a work is no more inherently meaningful than any other.


Listed below are some of the most commonly identified schools of literary theory, along with their major authors:

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Culler 1997, p.1
  2. Searle, John. (1990), "The Storm Over the University", The New York Review of Books, December 6, 1990.
  3. van Gelder, G. J. H. (1982), Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem, Brill Publishers, pp. 1–2, ISBN 90-04-06854-6 
  4. Johnson, Eleanor (2013). Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve. University of Chicago Press. p. 1-15. ISBN 9780226015989. 
  5. Mark Bevir, Jill Hargis, Sara Rushing, "Introduction", in: Mark Bevir, Jill Hargis, Sara Rushing (eds.), Histories of Postmodernism, Routledge, 2020.
  7. Sullivan, Patrick (2002-01-01). ""Reception Moments," Modern Literary Theory, and the Teaching of Literature". Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 45 (7): 568–577. 
  8. Bakhtin 1981, p.8


  • Peter Barry. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. ISBN:0-7190-6268-3.
  • Jonathan Culler. (1997) Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN:0-19-285383-X.
  • Terry Eagleton. Literary Theory: An Introduction. ISBN:0-8166-1251-X.
  • Terry Eagleton. After Theory. ISBN:0-465-01773-8.
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté. The Future of Theory. ISBN:0-631-23013-0.
  • The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. ISBN:0-8018-4560-2.
  • Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood. 2nd Ed. ISBN:0-582-31287-6
  • Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. Ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral. ISBN:0-231-13417-7.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.
  • René Wellek. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750–1950. Yale University Press, 1955–1992, 8 volumes.

Further reading

External links