Adams, Hazard, and Leroy Searle. Preface & Introduction. Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. Wadsworth Publishing, 2004. Print.

Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle included more people’s work in this compilation than ever before, and have included passages that have been previously imagined to be irrelevant. They explain that they have arranged the works chronologically on purpose, as they don’t wish to attempt to classify or categorize any strands of thought or to privilege or put forward their own ideas about the trajectories of these works.

They explain that the title of the book is meant to refer to literary criticism and theory, and caution the reader not to confuse this with the term “critical theory” that designates the social thought of the Frankfurt School of the 1930s. They include theorists which call into question the nature of literature itself because they are concerned with studying how literature as an art has been and continues to be thought about, even when the immediate effect is to call it into question.

They enlarged the selections by Plato and Aristotle in order to reflect the variety of their views and influences. The selection of Classical texts was also expanded to show the relation of rhetorical theory with poetics. Reading these, the authors tell us, “enriches one’s sense of the movement of literary thought” and gives perspective on the phenomenon of issues recurring in “different dress.”

They briefly discuss 4 stages in the history of philosophy and literary thought:

Ontological: ~2000 years

  • Questions on the nature of Being

Epistemological: ~300 years

  • Questions on the nature of Knowing

Linguistic: 17th & 18th centuries (200 years at most)

  • To what extent does language inform us?
  • To what extent are we enclosed within it?

[Deconstruction closed out the linguistic phase]

Moralism: 1960s

  • Political and cultural critique

They point out how the time periods involved in each stage have gotten much shorter as time has progressed.

When considering the work of a critic, they say that it’s important to look at the words that carry the most weight in one’s argument. Burke wrote about how disciplines and critics steal symbols back and forth, each one claiming their meaning or usage to be supreme. A quarrel of this nature, over the word “imitation” (mimesis) begins the beginning of the history of Western criticism as we know it, and questions surrounding imitation dominated the Ontological stage as we know it.

The Epistemological stage is characterized by Descartes’ rationalism and Locke’s empiricism, which separated all experience into primary (objective) and secondary (subjective) experience. Primary experiences were privileged: anything that was ascertainable through measurement was considered REAL – everything else was secondary. Here, literature was relegated to subjectivity and thus deprivileged, as Knowledge became equated with the results of the scientific method.

The Linguistic stage brought questions about whether Knowledge could be separated from language or other systems of symbols. People began to understand that language, not merely perception, plays a constitutive role in the way reality appears to us. Language theory rain wild, then died down some as the realization grew that the origins of language are as mysterious as the origin of humanity itself.

When the more recent excursion into language known as semiotics, or the theory of signs, came about, it was more interested in the origins of language than it was in analyzing language as if it had a life of its own or was itself a system.

Structuralists like Sassure (whose work grounds structuralist linguistics) and Claude Levi-Strauss were concerned with the relations among things and investigated how “differences” between things or ideas became real. Deconstructionists, like Derrida, challenged structuralist theories by calling into question the idea that anything was real, pointing out that there is no true origin or grounding point for any cultural understanding or expression. If there is no origin, nothing ever comes to rest. Deconstruction closed out the Linguistic phase, ushering in the Moralism of the 1960s, which has many branches, feminist theory and race theory being two of the most notable.

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