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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Literary criticism may be defined as “discourse about
literature,” and in this wide sense, usual in English,
it includes description, analysis, interpretation as well
as the evaluation of specific works of literature and
discussion of the principles, the theory, and the aes-
thetics of literature, or whatever we may call the
discipline formerly discussed as poetics and rhetoric.
Frequently, however, literary criticism is contrasted
with a descriptive, interpretative, and historical ac-
count of literature and restricted to evaluative, “judi-
cial” criticism. In other languages the more narrow
conception is preferred, particularly in German where
Kritik usually means only “the reviewing of literary
novelties and the judging of literary and musical per-
formances in the daily press” (Reallexikon der deut-
schen Literaturgeschichte,
Bern [1959], 2, 63), though
recently, probably under English and American influ-
ence, the wider use has again become common.

Criticism in English emerged early in the seven-
teenth century, apparently based on the analogy of
such sixteenth-century terms as Platonism, Stoicism,
skepticism, etc., devised to avoid the homonym which
arose from the impossibility of distinguishing in English
between “critic,” the person, and “critique,” the activ-
ity. Dryden, in the Preface to the State of Innocence
(1677), said that by “criticism, as it was first instituted
by Aristotle, was meant a standard of judging well,”
and in the same year in a letter (Letters, ed. C. E. Ward
[1942]) he spoke of Thomas Rymer's Tragedies of the
Last Age
as “the best piece of criticism in the English
language.” Two years later, his play, Troilus and Cres-
was introduced by a preface on “The Grounds
of Criticism in Tragedy.” Pope's Essay on Criticism
(1711) established the term for good, though for a time
the term “critic,” “critick,” or “critique” was used in
the eighteenth century where we would say “criticism.”

Long forms, analogous to the English “criticism” are
rare in other languages. Criticismo occurs in Spanish,
in Baltasar Gracián's El Heroe (1637), and sporadically
in eighteenth-century Italian, but disappeared as there
was no problem of homonymy. In Germany, however,
Kritizismus was used by Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel,
Jacobi, and Hegel for the philosophy of Kant. This
nonliterary use penetrated then into French, Italian,
and Spanish. In these languages criticisme or criticismo
means today only Kantianism.

The term ultimately derives from the Greek krínō,
“to judge,” and krités, “a judge” or “juryman.” Kritikós,
as “judge of literature” was used as early as the fourth
century B.C. Philitas, who came to Alexandria in 305
B.C. from the island Kos as the tutor of the future king
Ptolemy II, was called “a poet and also a critic.” Crates
was at the head of a school of “critics” at Pergamon
which seemed to have argued for a distinction from
the school of “grammarians” headed by Aristarchos in
Alexandria. The word “critic” is used in contra-
distinction from “grammarian” in the pseudo-Platonic
Axiochos (366E). Galen, in the second century A.D.
wrote a lost treatise on the question of whether one
could be a kritikós and a grammatikós at the same time.
But the distinction seems to have become blurred in
antiquity. The term is rare in classical Latin: Hieron
in the Epistolae speaks of Longinus as criticus. Criticus
was a higher term than grammaticus but criticus was
also concerned with the interpretation of texts and
words. What today would be called literary criticism
was, in antiquity, discussed by philosophers like Aris-
totle and by rhetoricians like Quintilian.

In the Middle Ages the word seems to occur only
as a term in medicine: in the sense of “critical” illness.
In the Renaissance the word was revived in its ancient
meaning. Angelo Poliziano, in 1492 exalted the critic
and grammarian against the schoolman. Grammarian,
critic, philologist became almost interchangeable terms
for the men engaged in the great revival of classical
learning. With Erasmus “the art of criticism,” (ars
) was expanded to include the Bible. On the
whole, however, among the humanists, the term
“critic” and “criticism” was limited to the editing and
correcting of ancient texts. For example, Karl Schoppe
(1576-1649) defined the “only aim and task of critics”
as “taking pains to improve the works of writers in
either Greek or Latin.” Joseph Justus, the younger
Scaliger (1540-1605), made criticism even a subdivision
of grammar, confined to distinguishing the spurious
lines of ancient poets from the genuine, to correcting
corrupt readings, in short to what today is called
“textual criticism.”

The elder Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558) was the
most influential propounder of a wider conception. In
his posthumous Poetics (1561) the entire sixth book,
entitled >criticus, is devoted to a survey and comparison
of the Greek and Roman Poets with the emphasis on
weighing and ranking. The penetration of the term into
the vernacular was, however, very slow. Modern books


entitled “Literary Criticism in the Renaissance” ob-
scure the fact that these questions were discussed in
the sixteenth century only as rhetoric or poetics. In
Italy the term critica seems to have occurred first as
late as 1595 in the Proginnasmi Poetici of Benedetto
Floretti (published under the pseudonym Udeno
Nisiely), while it was in France that the term caught
on and spread rapidly early in the seventeenth century
probably under the influence of Scaliger and his Dutch
disciples, Heinsius and Vossius. Chapelain called Scali-
ger le grand critique in 1623. In 1687 La Bruyère could
complain that the “critics and censurers” appear now
in swarms and form factions which retard the progress
of the arts (Les Caractères).

In France, in the seventeenth century, criticism
emancipated itself from its subordination to grammar
and rhetoric and absorbed or replaced “poetics,” at
least in part. This movement is connected with the
growth and spread of the critical spirit in general, in
the sense of increased skepticism, distrust of authority
and rules, and later with the appeal to taste, sentiment,
feeling, je ne sais quoi. The few writers who expressly
reflected on the concept of criticism or the role of the
critic, Father Bouhours in France and Alexander Pope
in England, defended their ideal against pedants, cen-
surers, and mere verbal quibblers, and described and
exalted the true critic as a man of taste, a wit, a bel
Pope, in particular, deplored the false divorce
between wit and judgment and advocated a respect
for antiquity and even of the rules while admitting “a
grace beyond the reach of art” and praising the inven-
tion and imagination of Homer and Shakespeare.

During the eighteenth century, a term which had
become confined to the verbal criticism of classical
writers was slowly widened to include the whole prob-
lem of understanding and judging and even the theory
of knowledge and knowing. Lord Kames, a Scottish
judge, attempted in his Elements of Criticism (1762)
to give criticism an elaborate groundwork in associa-
tion psychology, and proudly claimed that he was
founding a new science: “To reduce the science of
criticism to any regular form, has never once been
attempted.” In practice, he defends neo-classical taste
based on universal human nature which, he recognizes,
is, however, upheld only by a small group of people
who enjoy leisure, live in an enlightened age, and
escape corruption. Dr. Johnson's ideal is also to “estab-
lish principles of judgment,” but he does not rely on
any psychology theoretically formulated and always
finds “an appeal open from criticism to nature”
(Preface to Shakespeare, 1765). He is both a classicist,
who believes in “fundamental laws of criticism dictated
by reason and antiquity” (Rambler No. 156), and an
empiricist, who admits that many rules are temporal
and local, defensible only as custom or fashion. He is
already touched by the new revolutionary force in the
history of criticism: the historical spirit.

It was in Germany that the most radical conse-
quences of the historical approach affected criticism.
Johann Gottfried Herder was the first critic who com-
pletely broke with the ideal of the (fundamentally)
Aristotelian tradition aiming at a rational theory of
literature and permanent standards of judgment. He
conceived of criticism as a process of empathy, of
identification, of something intuitive and even subra-
tional. He constantly rejected theories, systems, fault-
finding. We find Herder quoting Leibniz with approval
to the effect that “he likes most things he reads”
(Sämtliche Werke, ed. B. Suphan, XVII, 338). The cor-
rect method “in order to understand and interpret a
piece of literature is to put oneself in the spirit of the
piece itself” (ibid., VI, 34). It is “the natural method,
which leaves each flower in its place, and contemplates
it there just as it is, according to time and kind, from
the root to the crown. The most humble genius hates
ranking and comparison. Lichen, moss, fern, and the
richest scented flower: each blooms in its place in God's
order” (ibid., XVIII, 138). Each work of art is seen
as part and parcel of its milieu, fulfilling its function
and thus needs no criticism. Literary study became a
kind of botany.

Goethe, Herder's pupil, has the same gospel of tol-
lerance. Criticism should be only criticism of beauties.
He distinguishes between destructive and productive
criticism. The first is easy as it is simply the application
of a yardstick. Productive criticism is much harder. “It
asks: What did the author set out to do? Was his plan
reasonable and sensible, and how far did he succeed
in carrying it out?” (Review of Manzoni's Conte di
, Werke, Jubiläums-Ausgabe, 37, 180).
Goethe hopes that such criticism may be of assistance
to an author and admits that his own criticism describes
largely the influence which books have had on himself.
“At bottom this is the way all readers criticize” (ibid.,
37, 280). Herder and Goethe with all their historical
relativism and subjectivism have not yet broken their
ties to the classical tradition: but by the nineteenth
century their theories had led to complete critical
relativism or to the subjective criticism, memorably
phrased by Anatole France's definition of criticism as
“the adventures of a soul among masterpieces.”

Actually, about the same time, Immanuel Kant, in
his Critique of Judgment (1790) had offered a solution
to the central problem of criticism which recognized
the subjectivity of aesthetic judgment but still allowed
for its universality. Kant rejects any view of criticism
by a priori principles, by laws or rules. Taste is subjec-
tive, yet aesthetic judgments differ from a taste, say,


for olives or oysters by claiming universality. Aesthetic
judgment, while subjective, appeals to a general judg-
ment, to a common sense of mankind, to an ideal
totality of judges. It is thus neither relative nor abso-
lute, neither completely individual, which would mean
anarchy and the end of criticism, nor absolute in the
sense of an application of eternal norms. While Kant
stresses the role of personal feeling he recognizes
something like an aesthetic duty. We should respond
to great art if we are to be fully human. It is a contem-
plative, problematical imperative—not a categorical
imperative as in ethics. Kant's view of criticism rejects
principles and doctrines. Criticism is always by exam-
ples, from the concrete. Criticism is historical, in the
sense of being individual and thus different from gen-
eralizing science; it is comparative, in the sense of a
confrontation with other men, and hence is introspec-
tion, self-criticism, an examination of one's feelings.

Kant had, however, little interest in concrete works
of art. Still, the speculative movement inaugurated by
him gave rise to a flowering of aesthetics in the philo-
sophies of Schelling and Hegel and to the elaborate
literary theories of Schiller, Wilhelm von Humboldt,
and many others. The two brothers Schlegel (closely
connected with Fichte and Schelling) formulated the
most complex and coherent theory of criticism at that
time. The younger, Friedrich (1772-1829), was the
more original mind but August Wilhelm, the elder,
(1767-1845) found the most influential formulas for the
romantic-classical contrast, for the organic-mechanical
dichotomy which through Coleridge became part of
the history of English criticism. Friedrich Schlegel
decisively rejected Herder's universal tolerance which
would lead to an abdication of criticism. He knew that
the critical view could not be superseded by the
historical as books are not “original creatures.” Criti-
cism must “ascertain the value and non-value of poetic
works of art” (Prosaische Jugendschriften, ed. Minor,
2, 11). It can be done by close attention to the text
which must begin with an intuition of the whole. This
whole is not only the individual work of art but the
whole of art history. Every artist illuminates every
other artist: together they form an order. The critic
must “reconstruct, perceive, and characterize the sub-
tle peculiarities of a whole” (Lessings Giest, 1, 40-41).
This “characterization” is the business of criticism. But
Schlegel also recognizes another function of criticism;
polemics, incitory, anticipatory criticism, a criticism
which would be not merely explanatory and con-
servative but productive, by guidance and instigation
stimulating an emergent literature.

August Wilhelm, while in general agreement with
his brother, emphasizes in his Berlin Lectures the role
of history; “Even though a work of art ought to be
enclosed within itself, we must consider it as belonging
to a series” (Berlin Lectures, 3, 9). Criticism, in relation
to theory and history, is the mediating middle link.
The critic is subjective but can strive for objectivity
by a knowledge of history, by reference to theory as
“critical reflection is a constant experimentation to
discover theoretical statements” (ibid., 1, 27). Disa-
greement does not necessarily result in general skepti-
cism. “Different people may very well have their eyes
on the same center, but since each of them starts from
a different point of the circumference, they inscribe
also different radii” (ibid., 1, 28). A “perspectivism”
mediating between historicism and absolutism is thus

This mediating function of criticism was exalted by
Adam Müller (1779-1829) who arrived at a completely
historistic point of view. In his Lectures of 1806
(Vorlesungen über Wissenschaft und Literatur) he con-
ceives of the totality of literature as developing like
an organism. Friedrich Schlegel is criticized for not
seeing the complete continuity of literary tradition and
for exalting one kind of art: romantic art. This recon-
ciling, mediating criticism does not, however, imply
a complete abdication of judgment; every work of art
is to be judged by its place and weight in the whole
of literature. Each work contributes to the whole and
in so doing modifies the whole. Its goal is to achieve
the reconciliation of judgment and history.

Compared to the attention given to the theory of
criticism in Germany, England and France contributed
little at that time. S. T. Coleridge, who was the one
Englishman thoroughly familiar with German critical
thought, said surprisingly little about his concept of
criticism. Coleridge did formulate an ambitious pro-
gram of aiming “at fixed canons of criticism, previously
established and deduced from the nature of man,” and,
in retrospect, said of himself, referring to the 1790's,
that “according to the faculty or source, from which
the pleasure given by any poem or passage was derived,
I estimated the merit of such a poem or passage”
(Biographia Literaria, ed. Shawcross, I, 14, 44). The
theory of criticism implied is a psychological one: a
ranking of the faculties with the imagination higher
than fancy, reason higher than the senses. But Cole-
ridge never developed this as a theory of criticism.

Among the English critics of the time, William
Hazlitt made a conscious attempt to formulate what
would later be called “impressionistic criticism.” “I say
what I think: I think what I feel. I cannot help receiv-
ing certain impressions from things; and I have suffi-
cient courage to declare (somewhat abruptly) what
they are” (Complete Works, ed. Howe, V, 175). The task
of criticism is the communication of feelings. He uses
the new methods; elaborate evocative metaphors, per-


sonal reminiscences, a feeling of intimacy like an en-
thusiastic guide in a gallery or a host in a library.
Hazlitt faces a new middle-class audience; he wants
to win it over, to cajole it to the enjoyment of litera-
ture. The critic becomes neither a judge nor a theorist,
but a middleman between author and public.

Thomas Carlyle, in his early essays, adopted the idea
of sympathetic criticism drawing apparently on Herder
and the Schlegels. The critic's aim, he says, is “trans-
position into the author's point of vision”; he must
work his way into the poet's “manner of thought, till
he sees the world with his eyes, feels as he felt and
judges as he judged” (Essays, Centenary ed., I, 39). In
the act of enjoying a work of art “we partially and
for the time become the very Painter and the very
Singer” (ibid., III, 46). The older view survives, how-
ever, in Macaulay when he called the critic “a king
at arms versed in the laws of literary precedence, who
must marshall his author to the exact seat to which
he is entitled” (Critical and Historical Essays, Boston
[1900], VI, 50). Judging and ranking of authors was
Macaulay's passion.

Criticism in the United States echoes these views.
Edgar Allan Poe exalted the function of criticism and
hesitated whether to consider criticism a science or
an art. Criticism requires art in the sense that each
essay should be a work of art, but it is also a science
based on principles. R. W. Emerson like Carlyle knows
only a criticism of empathy and identification. He calls
the old saw that “every scripture is to be interpreted
by the same spirit which gave it forth,” “the funda-
mental law of criticism” and he boldly asserts that “the
reader of Shakespeare is also a Shakespeare” (Complete
Centenary ed., I, 35). Surprisingly, among
Americans Margaret Fuller reflected most concretely
on the nature and office of criticism. She distinguishes
three kinds of critics: “subjective” critics who indulge
in personal caprice, “apprehensive” critics who can
enter fully into a foreign existence, and finally “com-
prehensive” critics who also must enter into the nature
of another being but must, besides, judge the work by
its own law. The critic “must examine, compare, sift
and winnow.” Saying that “I cannot pass on till I know
what I feel and why” (Art, Literature and the Drama,
Boston [1841], pp. 23-24) is not a bad expression of
a critic's conscience.

In France, prescriptive criticism survived longer
than elsewhere. In Julien-Louis Geoffroy (1743-1814)
it found a theorist who thought of it as serving the
government, “good taste, sound morals and the eternal
foundations of the social order” (Journal des débats.
Feb. 16, 1805). He would call in the police to punish
bad authors. Désiré Nisard attempted to establish criti-
cism as an “exact science,” by which he meant a setting
up of ideal norms—of the universal human spirit, of
the genius of France, and of the perfection of the
French language—which would allow him to judge
every work of French literature correctly. He expressly
condemned criticism of “each according to his taste”
and criticism which would reduce literature to a mirror
of history and social change (Histoire de la littérature
IV, 540). François-René de Chateaubriand, in
a famous essay on Dussault (1819) advised us “to aban-
don the petty and easy criticism of faults in favor of
the great and difficult criticism of beauties.” With
Victor Hugo, particularly in his late book on Shake-
(1864), the repudiation of judicial criticism is
complete. The complete negation of criticism as judg-
ment is proclaimed complacently. “Genius is an entity
like nature and must, like her, be accepted purely and
simply. We must take or leave a mountain.” Hugo
admires everything comme une bête.

Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, however, was the
French critic of the nineteenth century who most
consistently reflected on the concept of criticism. His
attitude shifted in the course of a long career from
an early, more subjective concept as personal expres-
sion to greater objectivity, detachment, and tolerance,
and at the same time from a rather uncritical, sympa-
thetic acceptance of the role of “secretary of the pub-
lic” (Causeries du lundi, I, 373) to an increasing em-
phasis on the role of judgment, to a definition of taste
and tradition. These two trends are often at cross-
purposes in Sainte-Beuve. His early romantic histori-
cism goes with tolerance and relativism, but it is often
contradicted by his partisanship in the literary battles
of the time. He became, for a time, the “herald” of
Victor Hugo. The objectivity and the detachment of
Sainte-Beuve's later stage appeals rather to natural
science as the model. The late Sainte-Beuve aimed at
a theory of psychological types of men (see the essay
on Chateaubriand, 1862). Still, his return to classical
taste brought about a reassertion of the judicial func-
tion of criticism, a tone of authority and even of dog-
matic certainty. “The true critic precedes the public,
directs and guides it” (Chateaubriand et son groupe
[1949], II, 95). The critic “maintains tradition
and preserves taste” (Causeries, XV, 356).

In the later nineteenth century, the divergence be-
tween concepts of criticism aiming at scientific objec-
tivity and views that considered criticism an act of
personal appreciation became more accentuated. The
concept of criticism as judicial, as an upholder of the
tradition, receded into the background though in
England it found an influential spokesman in Matthew
Arnold. Arnold was an important apologist for criti-
cism, for “disinterestedness,” for a free circulation in
England of ideas from Europe. At times he believes


in a purely descriptive criticism, informative, liberat-
ing, preparatory to creation. But later Arnold stressed
the judicial function of criticism, and defended the
“real estimate” against the “historical” and “personal”
estimate, both of which seemed to him fallacious. By
personal estimate he meant an estimate in terms of
“our personal affinities, likings and circumstances,”
which made it inevitably subjective while the historical
estimate distorted values, overestimated works useful
in a certain stage of the development of literature. The
“real estimate” is the only critical one—it appeals to
permanent standards, to “the best that has been
thought and said in the world.” (See “The Study of
Poetry” in Essays in Criticism, 2nd Series [1888], pp.
6-7, 11.) Arnold's own criticism, appealing to impres-
sionistic “touchstones” or to a historical concept of the
“adequacy” of a literature to its time, may be riddled
by contradictions but consistently upholds judgment
as an ideal of criticism.

In Italy, the greatest critic and historian of the nine-
teenth century, Francesco De Sanctis, came to similar
conclusions independently. He distinguishes three
stages in the critical act: first an act of submission, a
surrender to first impressions, then recreation and fin-
ally judgment. “Criticism cannot take the place of
taste, and taste is the genius of the critic. Just as one
says that poets are born, so also are critics born” (Saggi
ed. Russo, I, 307). The critic should “remake
what the poet has done in his own manner and by other
means” (ibid., II, 90), by translating into consciousness
what is created in a work of art. Still, the proper
critical act is deciding the intrinsic value of work and
“not what it has in common with the times, or with
its predecessors but what it has that is peculiar and
untransferable” (Saggio critico sul Petrarca [1869], ed.
Bonora, Bari [1954], p. 10). In Germany, Wilhelm
Dilthey, who wrote a psychological poetics (Die Ein-
bildungskraft des Dichters, Bausteine für eine Poetik,

1887) which aimed at scientific rigor, came late in his
life to recognize the need for criticism. “Criticism,”
he argued, “is inevitably linked with the hermeneutic
process. There is no understanding without a feeling
of value, but only by comparison can the value be
ascertained to be objective and universal” (Gesammelte
V, 536).

Hippolyte Taine, with his theory of la race, le milieu,
le moment
(“race, environment, moment”) was the
outstanding figure who tried to model criticism on the
pattern of deterministic science. Taine upholds the
view that criticism is “analogous to botany, which
studies the orange, the laurel, the pine, and the birch,
with equal interest” (Philosophie de l'art [1865], p. 22).
The historicism of this conception seems (as in Herder)
to lead to universal tolerance and hence to complete
relativism. But actually Taine does not consider all
works of art to be of equal value. He tries to overcome
relativism by the criterion of representativeness. He
asks whether a work represents a transient fashion, or
a historical moment, or the spirit of a nation, or hu-
manity in general, and ranks works according to such
a scale. The work of art is always considered a sign
or symbol of humanity, nation, or age. It is a mistake
to consider Taine as a sociologist who thinks of works
of art as social documents. They are rather in his
scheme the essence or summary of history, in terms
which are ultimately Hegelian.

Among Taine's followers Émile Hennequin tried in
La Critique scientifique (1888) to give a different sci-
entific basis to criticism than Taine. He criticized
Taine's triad of milieu-moment-race and preferred a
psychology of the author and the audience. The em-
phasis on the audience as a mental analogue of the
work was particularly new though it remained only
a suggestive proposal. Still, Hennequin offered a way
out from the purely causal thinking into a “synthetic”
literary criticism which would include an aesthetic, a
psychology, and a sociology in a discipline he called

Ferdinand Brunetière, who followed Taine in his
adherence to a scientific ideal (in his case, biological
evolution), reflected more systematically on the theory
of criticism. He believed that criticism must focus on
the work of literature itself and must distinguish the
study of literature from biography, psychology, sociol-
ogy, and other disciplines. He defended the final aim
of criticism as that of judging and even ranking, and
distinguished this act of judgment from any purely
personal preference, impression, or enjoyment. Brune-
tière saw clearly that the work of literature itself and
not the soul of the author or the social background
is the object of criticism. “If criticism,” he argued,
“forgets that a poem is a poem, when it claims to
refrain from judgment, it is no longer criticism but
history and psychology” (Études critiques, IX, 50).
Taine's and Hennequin's attempt to make criticism
scientific in the sense of abstaining from praise or blame
is inevitably a failure. Brunetière also argued passion-
ately against the impressionist creed which at that time
was wittily stated by Anatole France when he declared
the ideal of objective criticism an illusion. “The truth
is that one never gets outside oneself. What would we
not give to see for a minute, the sky and the earth
with the faceted eye of a fly or to understand nature
with the crude, simple brain of an orangutan?... The
critic should say if he is candid: gentlemen, I am going
to speak about myself in connection with Shakespeare,


Racine, Pascal, or Goethe” (La Vie littéraire, I, 5-6).
Brunetière answers that we are neither flies nor oran-
gutans but men, and that the whole of life consists in
a going out of oneself. “Otherwise there would be no
society, no language, no literature, no art” (Essais sur
la littérature contemporaine
[1892], pp. 7-9). He proves
that even the most extreme impressionists make judg-
ments all the time and that they themselves cannot
obscure the fact that “there are differences in rank
between Racine and Campistron, or that one cannot
put Victor Hugo below Madame Debordes-Valmore,
or Balzac below Charles Bernard” (ibid.). Brunetière
sees in criticism “a common effort” (Études critiques,
IV, 28) and finds a wide agreement about the classics.
Mere enjoyment is not a criterion of value. We laugh
more at a farce than at Molière's Misanthrope. Still
“we can raise ourselves above our tastes” (L'Évolution
de la poésie lyrique
[1894], I, 25). Sympathy and judg-
ment, sensibility and reason in this case are danger-
ously divorced.

An English writer equally preoccupied with the
scientific ideal, John Addington Symonds, also saw, like
Brunetière, that the evolutionary scheme with its
fatalistic assumption of a necessary rise and decline
raises the problem of criticism in its most acute form.
The analogy with the life of a plant or animal must
lead to universal tolerance, to an abdication of criti-
cism. It is impossible to criticize youth for being young,
or old age for being close to death. But he sees the
need for overcoming such relativism. The critic cannot
be confined by history. “He must divert his mind from
what is transient and ephemeral, must fasten upon
abiding relations, 'bleibende Verhältnisse'” (Renais-
sance in Italy: the Catholic Reaction
[1886], II, 396).
There are three types of critics: the judge, the show-
man, and the natural historian of art and literature.
The judge is the classical critic who judges by princi-
ples and the decisions of his predecessors. The show-
man is the romantic critic who exhibits his own sensi-
bilities. The scientific analyst is the morphological
historian who sees literature in terms of evolution. But
even this scientific analyst does not satisfy Symonds,
who demands that the true critic must combine all
three types. “He cannot abnegate the right to judge”
but “... it is his supreme duty to train his faculty of
judgment and to temper his subjectivity by the study
of things in their historical connections” (Essays, Spec-
ulative and Suggestive
[1890], I, 98-99). Ultimately
Symonds admits that criticism is not a science but can
be exercised in a scientific spirit.

In many variations the importance of sympathy,
even of identification, is stressed by many writers.
Charles Baudelaire formulates this ideal well: “You
must enter into the skin of the created being, become
deeply imbued with the feelings which he expressed,
and feel them so thoroughly, that it seems to you as
if it were your own work” (L'Art romantique, ed.
Conard, p. 198). But often Baudelaire thought of criti-
cism as self-expression and self-criticism. It should “be
partial, passionate, and political, that is to say, written
from an exclusive point of view, but a point of view
that opens up the widest horizon” (Curiosités esthé-
ed. Conard, p. 87).

For Jules Lemaître criticism is nothing but “the art
of enjoying books and of enriching and refining one's
impression of them.” The divorce between admiration
and liking accepted by Brunetière is not only deplor-
able but false. “One calls good what one loves.” The
critic is not a judge but only a reader. He needs “sym-
pathetic imagination” (Les Contemporains, III, 342; II,
85; I, 164). The same was said, in the United States,
by Henry James who greatly admired Sainte-Beuve.
As early as 1868 he wrote that “the critic is simply
a reader like all the others—a reader who prints his
impressions” (in The Nation, I, 330-31), and repeated
that “Nothing will ever take the place of the good old
fashion of 'liking' a work of art or not liking it” (Partial
[1888], pp. 395-96). Criticism is “the only
gate of appreciation” (Future of the Novel, p. 97). The
true method of criticism is always that of sympathy,
of identification with the work of art.

The English aesthetic movement presents arguments
along the same lines. But Walter Pater is wrongly
called a mere impressionist. He stresses the duty of
the critic to grasp the individuality, the uniqueness of
a work of art. He considers the question, does this book
give one pleasure, as no more than a first step in
criticism. The critic must go beyond it: penetrate
“through the given literary or artistic product, into the
mental and inner constitution of the producer, shaping
his work” (Guardian [1901], p. 29). He must, moreover,
know how to communicate this insight by finding what
Pater calls the “formula,” the “active principle” or the
“motive” of a work. Oscar Wilde, among English
writers, is the one who went furthest in advocating
subjectivity. In the “Critic as Artist” (1893) he argues
for criticism as a creative art. Criticism is a form of
autobiography. The work of art is only a starting point
for a new creation, which need not bear any obvious
relation to the thing it criticizes. Objectivity is an
absurd ideal, “Only an auctioneer can equally and
impartially admire all schools of Art.” Wilde sees the
dialectics of subjectivity and objectivity; “It is only by
intensifying his own personality that the critic can
interpret the personality and work of others.” Wilde's
position thus fluctuates between an advocacy of criti-


cism as empathy and historical imagination, as an
exercise in cosmopolitanism, and a paradoxical plea for
sheer wilfulness and caprice. His concept of criticism
represents the other extreme at which nine-
teenth-century thinking had arrived.

The twentieth century brought a new sharpening of
the conflicts between the main concepts of criticism:
judicial, scientific, historical, impressionist, and “crea-
tive,” and added some new motives and refinements.
In England, an empiricist and antitheoretical point of
view prevailed even in such a critic as T. S. Eliot. Eliot
is suspicious of aesthetics and thinks of criticism for
the most part as that of a poet “always trying to defend
the kind of poetry he is writing” (The Music of Poetry,
1942). In distinguishing three types of criticism: the
so-called “creative criticism,” really “etiolated crea-
tion” for which Pater serves as a horrifying example,
“historical” and moralistic criticism represented by
Sainte-Beuve, and “criticism proper” or the criticism
of the poet, Eliot forgets or ignores theory completely.
The only exception Eliot allows is Aristotle, whose
influence as a critic seems quite inexplicable in Eliot's
scheme (Chapbook, No. 2, 1920). Criticism is left with
little to do. Occasionally Eliot described the function
of criticism as “the eludication of works of art and
the correction of taste” or even as “the common pursuit
of true judgment” (Selected Essays, pp. 24-25). But
he rejects both interpretative and judicial criti-
cism in any case. “Interpretation” seems to him only
a necessary evil productive of fictions, and judgment
is expressly forbidden to the critic. “The critic must
not coerce, and he must not make judgments of worse
and better.” The critic “must simply elucidate” (an
activity which differs obscurely from interpretation);
“the reader will form the correct judgment for him-
self” (ibid., p. 10). In practice, Eliot judges, however,
on almost every page and conceives his own role as
that of an upholder of the tradition or even as “the
creator of values” (Criterion, 4 [1926], 751). Eliot's
concept of criticism seems thus quite inadequate in the
light of his practice.

Eliot's rival I. A. Richards belongs to the upholders
of a scientific ideal. Criticism should become a new
science, or at least “a cooperative technique of enquiry
that may become entitled to be named a science”
(Coleridge on Imagination [1934], p. xii). Richards
hopes for an ultimate total victory of science: “We
have,” he said in 1952, “to seek a way by which Value
must unrestrictedly come into the care of Science”
(Speculative Instruments, p. 145). The science on which
he leans is psychology and in his early books neurology.
But in his Practical Criticism (1928) no scientific exper-
imentation is used, no analysis in quantitative terms
nor any controlled method of formulating the ques
tionnaire. Richard's work is rather an attempt to ana-
lyze the sources of misreadings made by students when
confronted with anonymous poetic texts. A theory of
emotive language obscures Richards' successful manner
of looking at texts and judging them sensitively.

Both Eliot and Richards deeply influenced F. R.
Leavis. His concept of criticism is equally tentative
and empirical but he is more deliberately moralistic
and pedagogical. Criticism trains “intelligence and
sensibility together, cultivating a sensitiveness and
precision of response and a delicate integrity of intelli-
gence.” “Everything must start from and be associated
with the training of sensibility” (Education and the
pp. 34, 120). Criticism begins with the
texture of texts in front of us. Hence literary history
and scholarship are useless, though on occasion Leavis
recognizes the necessity of a “critique of criticism.”
The central ethos of criticism is the preserving of the
tradition, but tradition, in Leavis, is very different from
Eliot's view of tradition. Leavis' view is nonreligious,
Arnoldian, and appeals to the basic values of the old
English organic society, though in recent decades this
Arnoldian concept has been modified or subverted by
Leavis' unbounded admiration for D. H. Lawrence and
his worship of “Life.” Life, with Leavis, is a vague
and shifting term. Ultimately he has to appeal to intui-
tive certitude. “A judgment,” he tells us, “is a real
judgment, or it is nothing. It must, that is, be a sincere
personal judgment; but it aspires to be more than
personal” (Scrutiny, 18 [1951], 22).

English criticism has not extricated itself from these
antinomies, though very diverse formulas can be found
for alternatives. Herbert Read, in a piece on “The
Nature of Criticism,” advocates simply Jungian psy-
chology as the solution. William Righter, in Logic and
(1963), argues for the “irrelevance of precise
intellectual machinery to the general criteria of critical
success,” while John Casey, in The Language of Criti-
(1966), which is indebted to Wittgenstein's cri-
tique of language, comes rather to rejecting the whole
English tradition of a theory of emotion and to stress
the need of history. Historical criticism was also de-
fended by Helen Gardner in her The Business of Criti-
(1959) while George Watson in The Literary
(1962) distinguishes “legislative” (i.e., judicial)
and “theoretical” criticism, and judges that “descrip-
tive” criticism is “the only one which today possesses
any life and vigour of its own.” The history of criticism
appears to Watson as “a record of chaos marked by
a sudden revolution.” “The great critics do not con-
tribute: they interrupt.” Against these excesses of em-
piricism in England one can quote, at least, one book,
such as Harold Osborne's Aesthetics and Criticism
(1955), which makes a reasoned defense of the depend-


ence of criticism on aesthetics and expounds a theory
of “organic configuration” which appeals to the main
tradition of aesthetics. Criticism is, for Osborne, ap-
plied aesthetics. Also Graham Hough, in An Essay on
(1966), sees criticism as rational discussion
and as leading to judgments of value. The principles
of literary criticism are not “just matters of taste.” In
principle, literary judgments are objective: some things
are really better than others. The most recent theoret-
ical discussion of the concept, F. E. Sparshott's Concept
of Criticism
(1967), while scholastically elaborate in
its distinctions, comes to the conclusion that there is
“no general theory of evaluative discourse,” though
criticism is, in his definition, a “discourse apt to ground
evaluations” (p. 39).

In the United States, early in the twentieth century,
criticism became largely social, and generalized to
embrace a criticism of American society. H. L.
Mencken showed, however, a surprising sympathy for
the view of Joel E. Spingarn, the propounder of a
somewhat diluted version of Croceanism. What ap-
pealed to Mencken in aestheticism was the rejection
of the old didactic view of criticism: the critic as
constable or “birchman.” Mencken saw only another
version of the old kind in the criticism of the New
Humanists: of Paul Elmer More and Irving Babbitt who
defended judicial criticism, a criticism with standards
which were basically classical and ultimately moral.
Norman Foerster argued most clearly for the view that
an aesthetic judgment is equally an ethical judgment
in The Intent of the Critic (1941).

With the advent of the New Criticism closer defini-
tions of the nature of criticism were attempted. They
all reflect the deep divisions even in the movement
misleadingly called the “New Criticism,” a name de-
rived from a book (1941) by John Crowe Ransom which
was actually extremely critical of T. S. Eliot, I. A.
Richards, and Yvor Winters. Ransom has most consis-
tently advocated the necessity of grounding criticism
in theory and aesthetics. He has focussed on the central
object of criticism: the work itself, the “criticism of
the structural properties of poetry.” His philosophic
alignment with Croce and Bergson is obvious.

Ransom's followers and disciples differ from him
widely; Allen Tate asked skeptically whether literary
criticism is possible and came to the conclusion that
criticism is “perpetually obsolescent and replaceable,”
a parasitic growth on creation. He hands over philo-
sophical and stylistic criticism to other disciplines and
asks for a criticism which would “expound the knowl-
edge of life contained in a work”—surely something
that has been done for centuries—and finally queries
whether criticism is possible without a criterion of
absolute truth. Criticism is paradoxically both “per
petually necessary” and “perpetually impossible” (The
Forlorn Demon,

No such anti-intellectualism pervades the critical
writings of either Cleanth Brooks or William K.
Wimsatt. Brooks has argued against critical relativism
and for standards, and Wimsatt has defined the “do-
main of literary criticism” as “the verbal object and
its analysis.” Wimsatt sees the critical act largely as
an act of explication out of which a judgment of value
grows almost spontaneously. “The main critical prob-
lem is always how to push both understanding and
value as far as possible in union, or how to make our
understanding evaluative” (The Verbal Icon, p. 251).
Brooks and Wimsatt's Literary Criticism: A Short His-
(1957) and Wimsatt's classifications of critics allow
a combination of methods, a pluralism which belies
the reputed charge of dogmatism or formalism often
made against the New Critics.

Dogmatism can be ascribed rather to Yvor Winters,
who has most strongly urged the need for ranking and
has practiced it. “Unless criticism succeeds in providing
a usable system of evaluation it is worth very little,”
he says, and he proceeds to supply such a system which,
in practice, amounts to the application of a criterion
of rational coherence and moral soundness.

Two twentieth-century critics, R. P. Blackmur and
Kenneth Burke, have expanded the field of criticism
far beyond the boundaries of literature. Burke has
become a philosopher aiming at a system which com-
bines psychoanalysis, Marxism, semantics, and “what-
not” with literary criticism. He tries to absorb literary
criticism into a philosophy of motives which he calls
“dramatism.” The critic, for Burke, is a prophet who
is to remake society and life. Blackmur, who diagnosed
the pathologies of our culture, speculated more
modestly also on the concept of criticism. Oddly
enough he defines it at first as “the formal discourse
of an amateur” but then argues that “any rational
approach is valid to literature and may be properly
called critical which fastens at any point upon the work
itself” (“A Critic's Job of Work,” 1935, in Language
as Gesture,
1952). He recognizes that aesthetics is at
least implicit in any criticism. Still it is no science
because “science cannot explain the feeling or existence
of a poem.” In these pronouncements Blackmur is near
the New Critics, but later he felt that they provide
methods only for the early stages of criticism, viz.,
analysis and elucidation, but fail to compare and judge.
He advocates a rational judgment but neither his prac-
tice nor his later theory lives up to this ideal. The
critical act becomes with him the creative act, the
product of the tension of the writer's lifetime, a self-
definition which, in many later essays, seems hardly
related to any literary text.


Other American New Critics upheld concepts of
criticism which can be described as broadly social. F. C.
Matthiessen pleaded in 1949 for the social “respon-
sibilities of the critic,” in The Responsibilities of the
(1952). Lionel Trilling is mainly concerned with
the moral and political issues in modern literature.
Harry Levin also conceives of literary criticism in
broadly cultural terms, viewing literature “as an insti-
tution,” but is relativistic and historistic in his orienta-
tion. The relativity of all critical judgments has been
argued in many contexts; e.g., in George Boas' Primer
for Critics
(1937, new edition Wingless Pegasus, 1950),
in Bernard Heyl's New Bearings in Esthetics and Art
(1943), and in Wayne Shumaker's Elements
of Critical Theory
(1952). A pluralistic and instru-
mentalist view of criticism is also defended by Ronald
S. Crane, the main spokesman of the so-called “Chi-
cago Aristotelianism.” Criticism is defined as “reasoned
discourse, an organization of terms, propositions and
arguments,” which is subject to the critic's choice and
hence necessarily relative. Still, in practice, the group
has been committed to a rigid application of a doctrine
of genres and ranking within the elements of a work
of art, appealing to Aristotle as its ultimate source. In
contrast to the New Critics, language and symbol are
slighted in favor of plot and character. The Chicago
Aristotelians consider criticism “a department of phi-
losophy” and claim for their doctrines an immense

These pretensions have been questioned insistently
in the twentieth century by poets such as Karl Shapiro,
who shies away from anything that has to do with
philosophy. He recommends “creative criticism, as a
work of art about another work of art” (In Defense
of Ignorance,
1960), while Randall Jarrell has pleaded
for the strict subordination of criticism “to help us with
works of art.” “Principles and standards of excellence
are either specifically harmful or generally useless; the
critic has nothing to go by except his experience...
and is the personification of empiricism” (Poetry and
the Age,
1955). No theory, no history.

There is only room for theory in Northrop Frye's
Anatomy of Criticism (1956). In a “Polemical Intro-
duction” Frye excludes all value judgment from criti-
cism, as criticism “should show a steady advance to-
ward undiscriminating catholicity.” The book tries to
construe an all-inclusive scheme where literature is
conceived as “existing in its own universe, no longer
a commentary on life and reality, but containing life
and reality in a system of verbal relationships.” Criti-
cism in Frye's sense clarifies this order and should
succeed in “reforging the links between creation and
knowledge, art and science, myth and concept.” Criti-
cism in Frye becomes not only a theory of literature
but a form of theology, an all-inclusive system, a world
hypothesis. R. W. Lewis formulated this well when he
said that “criticism, ceasing to be one of the several
intellectual arts, is becoming the entire intellectual act
itself,” and the critic has become a “prophet announc-
ing to the ungodly the communication of men with
ultimate reality.” This is meant as serious praise; it
shows that this concept has broken completely loose
from the traditional concern with literature. It has
ceased to be literary criticism, and has become a ver-
sion of philosophy.

In France, despite the great differences in the ideol-
ogies and concrete taste of the critics, the same variety
of concepts of criticism was stated and restated. There
is the rationalist tradition of the new classicists who
upheld an ideal of judicial criticism, eloquently put,
e.g., by Charles Maurras. Ramon Fernandez, who had
his affinities with T. S. Eliot, formulated an ideal of
a rather philosophic criticism, whose aim would be an
“imaginative ontology,” a definition of the problem of
being. Fernandez believes that there is a “philosophic
substructure” of a work, a body of ideas which the
critic has to relate to the problems of general philoso-
phy. But Fernandez knows well that critical conscious-
ness is not the task of the author: it is reserved for
the critic (Messages, 1926).

Generally, however, in the France of the early
twentieth century irrationalistic tendencies were vic-
torious: Bergson became the philosopher inspiring, e.g.,
the theory of criticism in Albert Thibaudet
(1874-1936), who among the French reflected most
fruitfully on the concept of criticism. Still, Thibaudet
understands while pursuing an intuitive and metaphor-
ical method of criticism that the critic translates what
is conceived in poetic terms into intellectual terms,
changes the concrete into the abstract, though he is
also aware of the perils. He is afraid “to substitute for
the profound clarity of an image the semi-obscurity
or the shadow of an idea” of such a translation (Valéry
[1924], p. 160). Besides translation, Thibaudet recog-
nizes two other kinds of criticism: “pure” criticism
which is theory of literature, thinking about genres and
principles, and historical criticism. He sees also that
“there is no criticism without a criticism of criticism”
and has written sketches of the history of French criti-
cism (Physiologie de la critique, 1930) in which he
attacks the certitudiens, the dogmatists of the Right.
He wanted mobility, flexibility, or what he called
“literary pantheism.” What in Thibaudet is phrased
as a defense of tolerance, became in some contem-
poraries an emphasis on complete submission, on a lack
of critical personality, on identification which, at times,
sounds like mystical union. Jacques Rivière laments his
“frightening plasticity” while Charles Du Bos made


much of his “liquidity,” of the central virtue of the
critic as a “pure receptacle” of the life of another. Also
Marcel Proust, in many scattered pronouncements, sees
the critic as entering the mind of others and complains
of Sainte-Beuve's detachment and irony as well as of
his confusion of life and art. Imitation, the pastiche,
is the proper form of criticism for Proust.

The second World War brought a reaction against
all theories of pure art and pure criticism. Jean-Paul
Sartre's watchword “La littérature engagée,” pro-
pounded in Qu'est-ce que la littérature (1947), implies
a concept of committed criticism, criticism committed
to a social and political cause. Sartre chides academic
critics for “having chosen to have relations only with
the defunct.” Pure art and empty art are the same
thing. But Sartre reserves a nook for pure poetry and
in his actual criticism uses largely psychoanalytical
methods to criticize Baudelaire as a man or to exalt
Genet for the identity of man and work.

Surprisingly enough, the finest, most intellectual
critic of the first half of the century, the poet Paul
Valéry, held a theory of criticism which opens the way
to a total divorce between the work of art and the
reader or critic. Valéry believed that a work of art is
so ambiguous that it has no proper meaning and that
it is open to what he calls “creative misunderstanding.”
“There is no true sense of a text. The author has no
authority.” The critic is completely free to read into
a work his own mind. The solution seems to be “crea-
tive criticism” which sounds like Oscar Wilde's defense
of caprice or Anatole France's “adventures among
masterpieces,” but is in Valéry rather motivated by a
deep conviction of the unbridgeable gulfs between
author and work and work and reader.

This liberty of interpretation is then preached and
practiced by the so-called “new critics” in France. The
concerns may be very different: psychoanalytical,
mythographical, structuralist, or what is called la cri-
tique de conscience;
in all cases, the new French critics
argue that the work of art is not something out there
which has a proper meaning for the critic to discover
and to formulate, but that the work itself is a mental
construct realized only in collaboration with the sub-
ject. The conflict of concepts of criticism came out
most clearly in the recent debate between Raymond
Picard and Roland Barthes. Picard attacked Barthes'
interpretation of Racine from a historicistic and phi-
lological point of view. Barthes, in replying (Critique
et vérité,
1966), criticized cogently the limitations of
conventional historical criticism, its ignoring of the
changing “life” of a work through history, its obtuse-
ness toward ambiguity and symbolism, but he goes far
beyond this in asserting the right of criticism to “du-
plicate” a work of art. The term écriture is used to
assimilate the critic to the poet, the critic transforming
the work of art into his image.

The other new critics seem to take the opposite
position: Georges Poulet, for example, advocates par-
ticipation or better “identification” with an author, the
“integral transposition of a mental universe into the
interior of another mind.” This is an old idea known
to the Schlegels or Croce, proclaimed as great novelty.
The declaration, “The basis and substance of all criti-
cism is the grasping of a consciousness by the conscious-
ness of another” (Les chemins actuels de la critique,
1968), gives it a new twist: the “identification” is not
with a text but with the “consciousness” of a writer
which is not identical with his biographical psyche but
is a construct accessible through the totality of his
writings. His attitudes toward time or space (Poulet),
or toward the life of the senses (J.-P. Richard) are to
be reconstructed without regard to the individual
works or their form. It follows even for a critic such
as Jean Rousset who does pay attention to the form
of individual works that the aim of criticism is “to
participate in the existence of another spiritual being”
by “an act of adhesion so total that it excludes, at least
provisionally, all judgment” (Forme et signification
[1962], p. xiv). The older concepts of criticism, judicial
and aesthetic in the sense of an analysis and inter-
pretation of a single work as an entity, are dismissed
or minimized.

In Italy, Benedetto Croce had come to deceptively
similar conclusions long before. One of Croce's earliest
publications was a book La Critica letteraria (1894)
which simply denied that the various operations and
approaches which are called “literary criticism” make
a unified and meaningful subject. But later Croce de-
fended a view of criticism as identification. He went
so far as to say that “if I penetrate the innermost sense
of a canto of Dante, I become Dante” (Problemi di
[1909], p. 155). But at an even later stage of
his thinking he considered imaginative re-creation only
a presupposition of criticism and concluded that criti-
cism is a translation from the realm of feeling into the
realm of reason and thought. He found that critics
should be reminded of the prohibition posted in some
German concert halls in his youth: Das Mitsingen ist
In practice Croce asked of criticism nothing
else than that it “know the true sentiment of the poet
in the representative form in which he has translated
it” (Letter to R. W., June 5, 1952). But besides this
task of characterization the critic must also judge.
There is, however, no other criterion than the distinc-
tion between art and non-art, poetry and non-poetry,
as in Croce there can be no intermediary between the
individual and the universal. No classification of the
arts, no genres, no styles or technical services matter,


because “what is external is no longer a work of art.”

After the death of Croce, different concepts of criti-
cism have become more vocal: Marxism and stylistics.
An adherent of Croce, Mario Fabini, advocates a
broadening of criticism to include the study of style
and genres (Critica e poesia, 1956), and a whole group
of Italian scholars has returned to a concept of criti-
cism as a study of the aesthetic surface, of language
and style. In recent years French existentialism and
structuralism have made their impact in Italy.

The peculiarity of the German situation is the sharp
divorce between criticism as carried on in the daily
press and the Literaturwissenschaft of the Academy
which was traditionally philological but early in the
twentieth century became largely speculative, philo-
sophical (under the influence of Geistesgeschichte).
Concepts of criticism were not widely examined,
though the trends prevailing in the West are also re-
flected in German discussions. Alfred Kerr, for example,
argued (in Vorwort zum neueren Drama, 1904) for the
superiority of criticism over creation, for criticism as
a kind of poetry, thus going even beyond Oscar Wilde.
The scholars went the other way, arguing for criticism
as a science, though Ernst Robert Curtius, for instance,
see criticism “as the form of literature whose subject
is literature” (Kritische Essays über europäische Liter-
1958). The creed of most German scholars was
relativism and historicism: it is formulated by Erich
Auerbach, for example, in a review of Wellek's History
of Modern Criticism
in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur
romanischen Philologie
(Bern, 1956).

Still, there were many critics interested in judging
and ranking. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who usually
defends empathy and understanding, recognizes also
the need for ranking, as does, in practice, the whole
circle around Stefan George, who thinks of its master
as prophet and judge laying down the law. Among
more recent German critics Hans Egon Holthusen
shows a concern for ethical judgments, commitments
also in political matters, arguing that there is no such
thing as “pure” literary criticism. He is one of the few
Germans who have written on critical understanding
(Kritisches Verstehen, 1961) and have thought about the
concept of criticism while there is, of course, a prolif-
eration of theories of poetry and much that could be
called close reading or interpretation. Emil Staiger's
preface to Die Zeit als Einbildungskraft des Dichters
(1939) formulated the rejection of Geistesgeschichte,
the new focus on the text.

Russian criticism has great interest because in Russia
radically opposed conceptions were formulated most
sharply. As late as 1825 Alexander Pushkin could com-
plain that “we have no criticism... we have not a
single commentary, not a single book of criticism.” But
this changed soon with the advent of Vissarion Belinsky
(1811-48) who dominated Russian criticism for the rest
of the century. Belinsky's concept of criticism is ex-
pounded in a “Speech on Criticism” (1842) in which
he rejects arbitrary pronouncements of taste or judg-
ment by rules and defines “criticizing as seeking and
discovering the general laws of reason in particulars.”
Criticism is philosophical knowledge while art is im-
mediate knowledge. In practice, criticism in nine-
teenth-century Russia was ideological and social.
Apollon Grigoriev seems to be an exception. He advo-
cated an “organic criticism” which is intuitive, imme-
diate. The aim of the critic is to grasp the individuality
and tone of an author or of an age, its particular
atmosphere or “drift.” Grigoriev rejected historical
relativism but in practice was, like his radical rivals,
mainly concerned with social types. Impressionistic and
aesthetic concepts emerge only late in the nineteenth
century. A symbolist poet like Alexander Blok, in an
article on criticism (1907), complains rather of a lack
of philosophy, of a “soil under one's feet.” The Russian
Formalists on the whole dismissed criticism in favor
of a technical science of literature, while Soviet criti-
cism constitutes a return to nineteenth-century de-
mands for ideological clarity, for the “social mandate”
of both writer and critic.

Today in Russia and generally behind the Curtain,
the Marxist concept of criticism prevails. In its official
version it is simply didacticism: criticism serves the
inculcation of Communism and writers are judged
according to whether they do so or not. This didacti-
cism is combined with sociologism: a study of the
society which assumes that the writer is completely
determined by his class origins and reflects and should
reflect the society he describes. In subtler versions of
Marxism, mainly in the writings of the Hungarian
György Lukács and his follower Lucien Goldmann
in France, this simple version is rejected; rather, the
critic's task is to analyze the structure of his society
and that of former ages and to interpret and judge
authors in their historical place, dividing them into
reactionary and progressive without regard, however,
to their overt intentions and allegiances. Goldmann
draws a distinction between comprehension and expli-
cation. Explication is the insertion of a work into the
context of a social structure. In the dialectical thinking
of Lukács no contradiction is felt between asserting
that the relative truth of Marxism is absolutely valid
(Beiträge zur Geschichte der Ästhetik, Berlin [1954], p.
102) and that the party spirit demanded of the critic
is not in contradiction to the other duties of an author:
the objective reproduction of reality. In practice, the
exact rules for criticism are laid down by solemn delib-
erations of the party congresses. Marxist criticism has


returned to prescriptive criticism, to the imposition of
specific themes, views, and even styles imposed by the
immense power of the state, the party, and the literary
organizations, which enforce the edicts in ways un-
dreamt of even in the days of Richelieu.

Such a survey of the diverse concepts of criticism
in history leads to the inevitable conclusion that “criti-
cism” is an “essentially contested concept,” that in the
last two hundred years the possible positions were
formulated and reformulated in different contexts, for
different purposes, in different countries, but that the
issues are reducible to a strictly limited number. The
conflict between objective and subjective standards is
basic and overlaps somewhat the debate between ab-
solutism and relativism which may be historical. Sub-
jectivism may be absolute in its claims. The methods
of criticism also divide easily into intuitive and objec-
tive, while objective may mean an appeal to absolute
standards of beauty or may appeal to the model of
science with an implied indifference to criteria of
quality. Intuitive (misnamed impressionistic) criticism
can be judicial. Judicial criticism is usually absolutist,
at least by implication. Scientific criticism can abdicate
all judgment but may try to arrive at it by new criteria.
All kinds of crossbreedings and compromises between
these positions are possible and were actually formu-
lated. While the dominance of judicial criticism, until
the latter part of the eighteenth century, is incontest-
able, the development since about 1760 cannot be
described in terms of a simple succession of concepts
which can be clearly related to social, political, or even
literary contexts. There appears to be a tug of war
between the main trends—judicial, personal, scientific,
historical—a tension which was still continuing una-
bated in the 1960's.


There is no extensive history of the concept of criticism.
See, however, “The Term and Concept of Literary Criti-
cism” in René Wellek, Concepts of Criticism (New Haven,
1963); and most histories of criticism, e.g., George Saints-
bury, A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe,
3 vols. (Edinburgh and New York, 1900-04); J. W. Atkins,
Literary Criticism in Antiquity, 2 vols. (London, 1934; re-
print New York), and three sequels on English Criticism
up to the end of the eighteenth century; René Wellek, A
History of Modern Criticism, 1750-1950,
4 vols. (New Haven,
1955-65); up to 1900. Cleanth Brooks and William K.
Wimsatt, Literary Criticism; A Short History (New York,
1957). There is no large history of French criticism. In
German: G. Gudemann, “Kritikos,” in Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll,
Real-Encyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft
(Stuttgart, 1921), II, 1912-15; Bruno Markwardt, Geschichte
der deutschen Poetik,
5 vols. (Berlin, 1937-67). In Russian:
B. P. Gorodetsky, A. Lavretsky, and B. S. Meilash, eds.
Istoriya russkoi kritiki, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1958). In Italian:
Luigi Russo, La Critica letteraria contemporanea, 3 vols.
(Bari, 1946-47). G. Marzot, “La Critica letteraria dal De
Sanctis ad oggi,” in Letteratura italiana: Le Correnti, 2
(1956). On English criticism: George Watson, The Literary
(Harmondsworth, 1962). On American criticism:
Norman Foerster, American Criticism (Boston, 1928);
Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism (New York,
1939); Stanley Edgar Hyman The Armed Vision (New York,
1948); William Van O'Connor, An Age of Criticism: 1900-
(Chicago, 1952); Floyd Stovall, ed., The Development
of American Literary Criticism
(Chapel Hill, 1955); Walter
Sutton, Modern American Criticism (Englewood Cliffs,
N.J., 1963).


[See also Beauty; Empathy; Historicism; Literature; Style.]