Critical Approaches to Literature

Main Page

I. Literary Studies And The Theory Of Science

I.1. Preliminary problems: definitions, scientific expectations

I.2. Ontological problems: the way literature exists

1. Semiotics

2. Literary communication

I.3. Methodological problems: the way we understand texts

1. Meaning and context

2. Interpretation

II. An Overview Of Major Trends In Literary Theory

II.1. Preliminaries

1. Textual Scholarship (philology)

2. Traditional Approaches

II.2. Formal Critical Trends - From Authorial Intention to Text

1. New Criticism

2. Russian formalism

3. Structuralism

4. Phenomenology

III. Contextual Approaches - From Text to Context

III.1. Reader-response Criticism

III.2. Post-structuralism

1. The Semiotics of the Sign and the Subject

2. Psychoanalysis

3. Deconstruction

4. New Historicism

5. Feminist criticism

IV. Post Semiotics - From Sign to Subject

IV.1. Culture as Signification

IV.2. Cultures and Signification

IV.3. The Cartesian Heritage of Modernism

IV.4. The Constitution of the Speaking Subject

1. The microdynamics of the subject

2. The macrodynamics of the subject

IV.5. The Critique of Structuralism

I. Literary Studies And The Theory Of Science

Key words: literature, literariness, literary studies, scientific discipline, paradigm, ontology, epistemology, communication model, literary work of art (LWA), text, semiotics, signifier, signified, code, arbitrariness, signifying system, code sharing, intentional object, horizon of expectations, interpretation, canon, connotation.

I.1. Preliminary problems: definitions, scientific expectations

If you are an English major, and you start studying literature in a college or university program, you might have a very legitimate expectation that you are going to deal with a science just like those in the mathematics, geography or biology programs. You will be expecting solid definitions, a very well defined and tangible field of studies, and reliable, widely accepted scientific methods to approach and understand the phenomena under scrutiny. You might also carry some expectations on the basis of your studies in high school: you will be prepared to search for the message the author wanted to communicate with the literary work of art, or, for the way the text instructs us to observe the most important, fundamental values of human existence.

Text, author, literary, work of art, value, meaning, communication, method: the great problem in the study of literature is that even the most professional and well known scholars of literature have failed to agree on the exact meaning or definition of these crucial terms. Various trends, different scholars and different schools have argued in sometimes radically different ways about the same central issues of literary studies.

To start with, the very notion of literature is without one commonly accepted definition. How could the study of literature be a separate scientific discipline if the professionals of the field cannot even agree on the understanding of the thing they are supposed to be studying?

In order for a study field to become an autonomous scientific discipline, it needs to meet certain requirements, and then it can function as a paradigm. The study field has to have the following components:

PARADIGM: (Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions)

P = S (problem-solving strategies) + F (field of intended applications)

SC (community of scientists) + LC (legitimatizing community)

SC = coherent world-model (epistemology) + coherent science model (metatheory)

The fundamental problem in literary studies is that the above components are diverse in various schools, without one commonly accepted consensus. Various scholars have various different ideas about what strategies to use when we read literature (S), what actually to study when we do literary studies (F), and different communities of readers and authorities (LC) have supported and sponsored different groups of literature scholars in various historical periods. Scholarly communities in literary studies tend to have various concepts about how to get to know reality and literature (epistemology), and they tend to rely on different philosophies of science itself (metatheory).

So, what are we to do when we study literature and culture in a university program? What and how are we supposed to study?

Is there a science of literature, after all?

On the basis of the above differences and absence of consensus, from the perspective of the theory of science we can argue that the study of literature is in a pre-paradigmatic state. This is because the differences result in various anomalies (Ferenc Odorics):

  • meaning-anomaly: Is there only one adequate meaning for a LWA? This question is unsettled in literary studies, because of the problem of polyvalency: the same text can mean different things to different communities of readers.

  • evaluation anomaly: Is there an objective standard to decide what is literary, and how to study it? Scholars cannot agree on a set of objective and commonly accepted criteria on the basis of which we could separate the literary from the non-literary.

  • subject anomaly: Following the above mentioned anomalies, it is no surprise that the very notion of literature has no common and standard definition.

When we finally try to provide a definition of literature, we encounter an ontological problem: it is difficult to say where and how the literary work of art (LWA) exists. We can conclude that the LWA has no ontological foundation. Literature is not an ontological but a functional category.