Critical Theory

Background to Critical Theory

A Background to Critical Theory places current approaches in the wider context of aesthetics, science and political economy. Written as 45 evaluative, jargon-free and largely self-contained chapters, this 170,000 word study surveys the theories of art and writing, linguistics, the theories of meaning, the concept of truth  in science, literature, mathematics and logic, the rational and irrational philosophies of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, etc., suggestions from brain functioning and many other matters that have a tangential but important bearing on how we judge literature: both how we did in the past and how we do so today.

What Is Critical Theory?

Critical theory, the approaches and parent philosophies with which we evaluate literature, has definite limits. English departments and writing schools generally provide their students with a theoretical background to their future labours. But once exams are over, most students happily dispense with theory and take to the practical application of what has been taught them, i.e. the craft that will earn them standing in their community and a modest (usually very modest) income. Good writers are intuitive creatures, and they come to know instinctively when something has to be recast, shortened or bolstered with argument. Theory is there to help them should they need it, but its wider reaches and philosophical implications are not generally of interest.

Theory does not deal with absolutes but with interpretations, speculations, elusive chains of thought. Those who write 'now Derrida has shown that. . .' or 'with our better understanding of post-colonial issues. . .' are laying claim to what does not exist. These are philosophical positions, with insights and modes of argument. It is perfectly possible to believe that the senses consistently deceive us, for example, and to argue that this world is a delusion. And that position, respectable and with a long history behind it, brings certain consequences that philosophy explores. But the issues remain speculative, and expounding Berkeley's theories to the magistrate's bench will not get us off a speeding fine. Much in life is conducted by shared values, tacit assumptions, unsupported codes of behaviour, and these are only dug up and examined when the unexpected happens.

But today much is being questioned, particularly in avant-garde poetry, painting and music. The more progressive arts wish to be challenging and experimental, free to represent the world in their own way. Sometimes their explorations are guided by theory, or by deductions from current theory, but more usually the theory acts in a consulting or supporting role. To explain themselves, obtain employment and get their work sold, their protagonists extract what they can from notions and fashionable opinions that float round the art world. The result may be a patchwork of inconsistent ideas imperfectly understood, but critics, gallery owners and writers of concert notes ask for these viewpoints, and artists find it comforting to have them.

Many twentieth-century poetry movements boil down to very dubious notions, as they have over the centuries. Poets issue statements which are vague, wildly inconsistent and hardly followed through. Manifestos urge crusades to claim aesthetic new ground, which exists only through their own misunderstandings. Critics announce new associations of poets, who themselves deny such a movement exists. More vexing still is radical theory. Even if largely a tangled mass of assertions and misunderstandings of technicalities, it is still necessary reading. For all its deficiencies, theory can focus attention on what writers should be trying to do, act as a prophylactic against the false and stultifying, and open up disciplines that support writing and are fascinating in their own right. As simple introductions, I hope these pages will help readers navigate contested waters and select the areas most useful or congenial to them.

Two Volumes

The work is closely referenced and divided into two ebooks.

  Volume One provides the text and references. Volume Two provides the Internet references.


The material making this extensive review of critical theory first appeared a decade ago on, but I have taken the opportunity to shape the text a little more here, correct errors and typos, update sections on brain functioning (23) and the social theories of literature, (26) and add a little political economy (26, 45) and social history (44).

The fervour that animated critical theory in the 1980s and 90s has largely disappeared. Critical theory has an accepted place in most university departments, probably not by winning the arguments but because its opponents have left the field — retired, taken up other causes and/or realized that critical theory is not based on argument but deep-seated changes working their way through western societies. The arguments have not disappeared, however, and a proper evaluation is arguably (45) more needed than ever.

I have largely kept the varied citation employed on the website, and students may wish to use the standard methods when quoting references. Similarly with the supplementary Internet references, which, in the interests of a manageable size for this publication, I have hived off as a separate ebook. Dead links have been removed, but I have not have updated the references, as this becomes a never-ending task. Most the Internet material should still be useful, however, and readers can make additional searches once alerted to relevant topics. A collection of multiple but interrelated perspectives is not easily organised. Shaping about a central theme is scarcely possible, and would anyway reduce what the reader is entitled know. I have therefore grouped the material into 45 fairly self-contained chapters. Each chapter is subdivided into sections numbered sequentially for easy reading. The chapters are constructed from the source material listed in the References section and shown in braces in the text, e.g. {12}.

Quite different are the curved brackets e.g. (12.2) — in place of hyperlinks, which may not work on some 7" tablets) — are cross references to the same material explained more fully elsewhere, or from different perspectives. Thus the difficult and rather technical section on Davidson's theory of truth — chapter 30 — is introduced by a summary in section 29.6, for example, where the reference (30) appears. Proper names, topics and perspectives can also be looked up in the Index.

I have tried to provide a clear and balanced account of matters that form the bedrock of critical theory, without evading proper assessment or obscuring the fundamental disagreements between authorities. Rather than blend viewpoints into a general perspective, I have generally thought it better to let the disagreements stand, though sometimes adding an explanation. The section on literature as money (26.6), for example, includes a critique of Marx from a mainstream, slightly-right-of-centre political perspective, while the 19th century social history of Britain (45.15) is based on A.L. Morton's Marxist account. With the similar aim, a summary of Matt Ridley's optimistic neo-liberal outlook on the world (26.6) is preceded by nine references to authors who have much darker view of mankind's future. Chapter 2 is my own view of what is worth saving of present theory, and chapter 3 summarizes the whole field — again my own assessment, but one the reader can readily confirm or dissent from by reading further in the text and references.

A few topics are treated in some detail to help the non-technical reader in specialist areas — logic, brain functioning, Islamic studies and political economy — but even these are only notes and summaries, i.e. pointers to extensive fields of study that will only come alive and seem persuasive if readers take the time to follow up the references and read further in books and web pages.