'Late twentieth-century theory can be considered first and foremost as a reaction against the tenets of liberal humanism'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

15 Pages, Grade: B3 (15/20)


Liberal humanism. The ‘theory’ that has been in place and in use to read texts since pretty much the beginning of literary history. Indeed, with its goal to convey timeless truths, liberal humanism in literature has even been seen as a means to educate the masses, and carry through the ‘ideological task which religion left off.’[1] Liberal humanism has been largely uncontested until, in the late twentieth century, other theories take over on what has been a year-long tradition. These interesting facts do indeed pose some questions on why, first of all, liberal humanism was uncontested for such a long time, but also, why then, so suddenly it seems, it was overthrown by modern day literary theory and put off as ‘an ideological smokescreen for the oppressive mystifications of modern society and culture, the marginalisation and oppression of the multitudes of human beings in whose name it pretends to speak.’[2]

Indeed, many of the theories, literary, cultural or other, maintain a strong antihumanist attitude. Hopefully in the course of analysis, there will be explanations or reasons for this outlook. To be able to discuss the contention that late twentieth-century criticism is a reaction to liberal humanism, it is necessary to first lay out what the tenets of this ‘theory’ before theory are. We can then go on and mount, on these tenets, what would or could be a critique of them. Of course, with background knowledge of modern day theory, the tenets of liberal humanism almost dissolve in themselves, without having to rely or run back to a certain school or specific theory as a means of counter argument, as a lot of the theories that have emerged in the late twentieth century have some common points.[3] Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see whether the critique of these tenets by structuralist and feminist critics’ standards can really be seen as a direct reaction to liberal humanism, or whether they are simply a new way of thought and conception.

One of the best critics to fall back on when talking about this ‘theory’ is Matthew Arnold. He is one of the critics to voice what the goals are, what literature, from a liberal humanist point of view, should be. Having been considered as ‘virtually the founding father of modern day criticism in the English-speaking world’ it is him who first opened up the notion of criticism as a means to mediate between the reader and the text. For this reason, much of the quotations that follow to underpin the tenets of liberal humanism are taken from the works of Matthew Arnold. So then, let us have a closer look at the tenets of this ‘theory’ before theory. Firstly, literature, for liberal humanists, is timeless. Since the goal is to ‘learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world,’[4] only literature which conveys values that will transcend time can be considered valuable literature. In other words, diachronically valid literature, or also, literature that can be read in all ages, and still be pertinent and applicable to the time it is being read in, and to the reader who reads it, is good literature. Of course, this implies that human nature is unchanging. Although individuals themselves can develop, human nature is essentially the same in every single one of us and can never fundamentally transform. Another point, already hinted at above, is that literature contains its own meaning. It does not need to be set into any context - historical, biographical, or socio-political - in order to generate meaning. The approach is that of reading ‘the words on the page’, a method shared with the New Critics, which contends that the meaning of a text is already contained in it, and that it is just waiting to be extracted. Doing this has to be executed with ‘a disinterested endeavour.’[5] ‘What is needed is the close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions, or political pre-conditions, or indeed, specific expectations of any kind.’[6] The goal of the close reading endeavoured by liberal humanists is to ‘see the object as in itself it really is.’[7] What goes with this method of reading is also the belief that content and form coexist organically. The two of them are inextricably linked, and form collaborates just as much as a perpetrator of meaning as content does. Lastly, with the focus of liberal humanist criticism intensely being on essential human values, its main goal is to ‘learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world’. In other words, the main purpose of literature for the liberal humanist is the enhancement of life, to proliferate what is best in this world.

Having now set up a basis to work with, I will now try and compare Structuralism, one of the earlier ‘late twentieth century theories’, to see what has changed in terms of ideas of the purpose of literature, as well as having a look at the methods used to read and criticise a text. To do so, I will take up the tenets of liberal humanism, enunciated and described above, and then draw a comparison between the two. The first tenet enunciated was that literature is timeless. This is the same in structuralist theory. The reasons, however, are different. Whereas liberal humanism defines literature as timeless because it aims to circle out and define truths and values that are timeless and diachronically valid, structuralism is looking to discover ‘permanent structures behind or beneath things.’[8] As opposed to critics like Arnold, who are interested in seeing ‘the object as in itself it really is’, structuralism is interested not in the ‘things’ themselves, but in the relationship between the things, the relationships that are to make up the permanent structures. As seen above, one of the ways in which the liberal humanist tenet of literature as timeless can be held up is by asserting the existence of an essential human nature and of the individuality of a human being within this essential human nature. Structuralism however strongly subverts the notion of the ‘subject’. What is nowadays called the ‘transcendental subject’, the notion that an individual with his ‘essence’ (that which makes him individual) transcends influences of experience, language, society, is strongly rejected by structuralists. They discard the possibility of ‘close verbal analysis of the text without prior ideological assumptions’[9]. Firstly, this is because ‘literature works primarily be emotion and experience.’[10] ‘None of us … is capable of standing back from the scales and weighing things up dispassionately.’[11] Secondly, structuralism largely agrees with the idea of seventeenth century rationalists like Descartes or Spinoza, who contend that man is not born with a tabula rasa mind, but with innate ideas or structures which allow the mediation of knowledge. However, another important factor which leads structuralists to move away from the notion of the ‘subject’ as important in the larger picture is due to their perception of language. Analysing language from a structuralist point of view means having a closer look at the theories of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. For Saussure, the words we use are merely there to name concepts, and not objects as in themselves they really are. He explains this by drawing up the following: a sign for which we have a word, is made up out of the signified, the concept we wish to name, and a signifier, the sound image we have attached to the concept. However, since the signifier, or the sound image that goes with the concept, is not organically attached to the signified, the sign that is produced is arbitrary. What this means is that language simply works through conventions. We know what one thing is by being able to say what it is not. Because language, therefore, is arbitrary and slippery, we can never extricate from a text, a fixed, transcendental meaning. The liberal humanist contention, then, that literature contains its own meaning, has been dismantled. Because language is unreliable as a medium, a text is ‘likely to explode into meanings we hadn’t suspected of being there at all.’[12]


[1] Terry Eagleton., Literary Theory: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), p. 22

[2] Tony Davies, Humanism, (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 5

[3] This is wonderfully laid out by Peter Barry in Beginning Theory, (Manchester: MUP, 2002), p. 34-36

[4] Matthew Arnold, ‘The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time’, in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Gen. ed. Vincent B. Leitch, (New York and London: Norton & Company, 2001), p. 824

[5] Id.

[6] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, p. 18

[7] Matthew Arnold, ‘The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time’, p. 819

[8] Donald D. Palmer, Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners, (London: Writers and Readers Ltd, 1997), p. 3

[9] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, p. 18

[10] Terry Eagleton., Literary Theory: An Introduction, p. 22

[11] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory, p. 35

[12] Ibid. p. 30

Excerpt out of 15 pages


'Late twentieth-century theory can be considered first and foremost as a reaction against the tenets of liberal humanism'
University of Glasgow  (Department of Scottish Literature)
Theory and Scottish Literature
B3 (15/20)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Late, Theory, Scottish, Literature
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Jenny Roch (Author), 2006, 'Late twentieth-century theory can be considered first and foremost as a reaction against the tenets of liberal humanism', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/50450


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