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Critical Theory

13 Dec 2017Essay Samples

Critical Theory: Six Questions Answered Regarding Critical Theory

1. How do Augustine, Boethius, Aquinas and Dante represent the relation between word and world?

Dante was the most effective in being able to translate his sense of world through words. He did this by making us visualize the images of which he wrote. He brings certain truths to the awareness of mankind. These truths are to shed light on the meaning of man's life and to serve as guides for the conduct of private and public life in this world. Thus, by writing words about other worlds, he shows us how to live in this one. More than anything else, Dante was interested in form as a sort of prime matter that could be shaped to create the physical world as we know it. For Dante, the world of spirit entailed intellectual order and discipline.

Augustine, meanwhile, was very interested in God in the context of an image of word production. The mind is an image of God precisely in its capacity to beget a "word" that is wholly equal to itself. Augustine appears to be speaking of an "inner word" which precedes all individual words, or even thoughts in any language. It is a word which appears to precede all signs and sign systems, and therefore all the arts and disciplines, and all cultural reality. Thus, the idea of God, as well as of the world that he created, is an eternally valid pre-cultural reality that is focused on a capacity for self-awareness and self-expression. 2 This is productive of culture, but not reducible to any particular cultural expression. Thus, the "word" which the mind begets is temporally distinct from the knowledge it expresses. In a very paradoxical sense, therefore, the mind has an inner word that creates a self-awareness of the image of God. The mind's prelinguistic self-expression is actualized in the world of symbolism and sign.

Aquinas, meanwhile, saw the relation between word and world as very much connected to divine foreknowledge and free will. God, in Aquinas' vision, understands not temporarily but eternally; he understands all things at once by understanding their intelligible counterparts. God knows all individuals as well as all universals. For Aquinas, furthermore, in God there is active power, and He is essentially infinite. His knowledge and understanding are infinite. He understands all things at once and together. Proportional truth is also present in the divine understanding of things. More specifically, Aquinas stressed that God knows individual events, contingent upon man's action, as they will happen. In other words, God knows what will happen, but it is contingent in the world of humanity. It is not contingent for God because he sees eternally. Thus, God's word is, in and of itself, connected to the world that he had created.

Boethius, meanwhile, sees the relationship between word and world through a certain joyous stoicism. He sees the unreality of earthly fortunes and demonstrates that the highest good is in God. God governs the universe for the highest good; the person who turns his thoughts away from the light above is in danger of losing whatever he has won for himself here below. Humans will lose their sense of direction if they ignore God. Thus, humans must follow the word in order to live in God's world, as well as to understand it. The direction of the world, meanwhile, lies in providence.

2. How do Sidney, Pope and Hume go about defining a standard of taste?

For Hume, matters of taste were clearly of a great variety. Because of this, he came up with the phrase that would become very famous. For him, beauty was not a quality in and of itself. It existed merely in the mind which contemplated it. Thus, we received the idea of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder. This implied that beauty was relative, and that it depended on what a person saw in it.

Thus, for Hume, beauty was about subjectivity. At the same time, however, this did not mean that every judgment of taste had equal validity and, second, that there was a singular consensus on what was good and what was not. In other words, according to Hume, taste was not that different from individual to individual, even if it was not underwritten by objective reality. Thus, while beauty was in the eyes of the beholder, at the same time it had to be accepted that there was better art than other art. Some account had to be given, after all, of why judgments of taste so often concurred if everything was merely subjective. And surely the reason was that subjects were not all that different from one another. This, in turn, implied that there were some universal truths in terms of what was better than something else. Overall, for Hume, taste belonged to the same mental architecture as causality, space and time. Judgments of taste could no more be demonstrated than beauty could be pointed to in things.

Pope brought a different view to the standard of taste. Standards of taste, in his perspective, were to be derived from the order found in nature. In other words, there was a causal structure to taste, and therefore there was also a certain universality associated to it. This view rejected the idea of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder, just as it denied the subjectivity of beauty. Taste was discovered, not devised, because it was rooted in nature.

Sidney, on the other hand, disagreed with Plato's argument that poets' fictions were merely lies. In other words, he argued that poets did not pretend to tell the same sort of truths that historians told. This is because historians were interested in facts. Poets also did not tell the truths that philosophers spoke 5 of, since these were connected to abstract and general truths. In Sidney's opinion, the poet could invent new worlds that were better and more ideal than the real world. Thus, poetry did not necessary have to be of this world. In terms of the matter of taste, therefore, poetry had to be looked at in different terms than did history and philosophy. Sidney loved poetry and he saw in it a certain magic that was not necessarily connected to this world. That is why he was so critical of the English poetry of his time, for he found it insipid, and he felt that it lacked energy. To a large extent, Sidney appeared to imply that poetry was connected to the divine, and therefore had to be seen in a different context when matters of taste were being discussed and, more importantly, judged.

3. Johnson says that "Shakespeare always makes nature predominant over accident." What does he mean by this statement?

What Johnson was basically saying was that there was looseness to Shakespeare's plots. There was very little structure and form that Shakespeare tried to stick to. Instead, he allowed the spontaneity of nature to take over. Thus, the apparent looseness of Shakespeare's plots was no accident, according to Johnson. Shakespeare was simply writing according to his own extraordinarily broad understanding of human nature and society. Thus, he believed that nature was supreme, and that it ultimately was a much stronger force than pure accident. This is precisely why Shakespeare refused to commit himself to any doctrinaire principles. This was directly connected to Shakespeare's belief in nature.

Thus, Johnson noted that Shakespeare's plays were compositions of a very distinct kind. He profoundly pointed out that they exhibited the real state of sublunary nature, which included good and evil, joy and sorrow, and all of the other opposites, dualities and contradictions in the human condition. In other words, Johnson pointed out that there was an endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination in Shakespeare's view of life. Because of this, nature ruled supreme in his play, and accident was put to the periphery.

For Shakespeare, ultimately, the world could be best expressed through nature. Opposites and contradiction was very much a part of this story. This is exactly why, in so many of his plays, we see that the loss of one is the gain of another. Many mischiefs and many benefits, as Johnson points out, are done and hindered without design whatsoever.

Thus, Johnson noticed the looseness in Shakespeare's plots in the most profound sense. He noticed that there was very little structure and form that Shakespeare appeared to conform to, and this was precisely because he was a believer in the dualities, ambiguities and complexities of the human condition. Accident did not play a larger role in his plays than did nature, since the force of nature was ultimately the most powerful. Shakespeare had an extraordinary understanding of the tragedies within the human condition. This is why, as Johnson demonstrates, there were so little doctrinaire principles within the format of Shakespeare's writing. In the endless variety of proportion and a diversity in Shakespeare's outlook, nature proved supreme.

4. Discuss Wordsworth's account of the process of poetic creation.

Wordsworth believed that poetic diction was arbitrary and that it was subject to infinite caprices upon which no calculation could really be made. The poetic meter, meanwhile, was regular and uniform. Wordsworth thought of poetic diction as putting the reader at the mercy of the poet, and he considered that both poet and reader should submit to meter.

In many respects, according to Wordsworth, poetic diction was not democratic, whereas poetic meter sometimes was. Another reason for writing in meter, in Wordsworth's perspective, was that meter could be regularized and act as a coordinating agent in poems. This could occur in poems that might otherwise tend toward being a liquid, formless mass of emotion.

Wordsworth is concerned with meter and believes strongly in it being used. He considers this principle to be at the very basis of our processes of thought and feeling. Because of this, he considers that meter is actually at work in human behaviour, both with regard to one's intellectual concepts, and courses of action that come from following these intellectual concepts. In other words, poetry is intricately interwoven with poetry. That is why meter, in many respects, is the symbol of the overall harmony of life.

For Wordsworth, the poem was a poetic composition that had an organic unity. There was a certain music that had a harmonious metrical language all of its own. Meter serves to create a certain distance that keeps art distinct from reality.

Wordsworth was, overall, concerned with the meter as an essential element in poetic composition. Thus, there is a certain contemplated emotion when it comes to the mood within which poetry is written. Wordsworth, therefore, had his own technique in his method of poetic creation.

For him, composition was not just a spontaneous matter; it was an act of emotion recollected in tranquillity. Thus, Wordsworth was a strong believer in poetic creation in the context of there being a meter that had a certain regular and uniform structure. The meter set the life of the poem. This is because there was a certain thought and feeling of people that was reflected in the meter of a poem. Human behaviour, in other words, was directly connected to how the meter represented human emotion. There was a certain organic unity that comes to the poem through nature itself, since there is organic unity in life as well. This had to be reflected in the poem. The metrical language was a reflection of this reality. In other words, the mood in which the poem is written is a manifestation of a certain harmony that goes into the poem from the human condition. This sets up a certain meter and composition.

Thus, Wordsworth had his own technique in his method of poetic creation. For him, composition was not just a spontaneous matter; it was an act of emotion recollected in tranquillity.

5. What does Arnold mean by "criticism"?

Arnold had some very profound ideas about what exactly "criticism" meant. He believed that criticism itself was directly connected to some of the most essential roles that ideas played in the history of civilization in general. More than anything else, Arnold strongly believed that the creative faculty of humans was the strongest component in an individual. This power to create was the most profound and energetic force within a person and it had very few limits. In other words, the creative potential had incredible depth and breadth and it had few boundaries in terms of how much humans could create with their skill and imagination.

By focusing on this creative faculty in humans, Arnold noted the capacity of humans to create great literature and art. This explained why there were so many incredible creations in these fields. Moreover, since this creative power was the strongest critical faculty, it was much stronger and more powerful than the faculty of reason and logic, which primarily dealt with ideas. Yet creativity is not necessarily about ideas; it is about the passion that creates certain kinds of art.

Arnold was very interested in what kind of atmosphere and mood has to be in existence in order for creativity to occur. In his perspective, creativity was only possible when and where a ferment of ideas provided it with a nurturing environment. Meanwhile, Arnold also discussed the role of the critic in this process. He believed that the critic's responsibility was to initiate and sustain a certain generation and spontaneous play with ideas. The critic had to take what he/she examined and take from it its context of ideas and then mould around it a certain intellectual criticism. Arnold believed that the lack of a play of ideas was the weakness in many artists' work. He saw a weakness in his contemporaries in the sense that they did not have a spontaneous instinct to play with ideas in a manner that allowed a full parameter of discussion.

Overall, Arnold believed that critics had to apply the ideas of the intellectual milieu to the art that they examined and 11 studied. That is why it was so important for a critic to be mature enough to nurture certain ideas and to be well read. In this way, the critic would have the background and the societal and cultural depth to make certain plays with the ideas that the art that his criticism was focusing on generated.

For Arnold, it was important that the critic dealt with ideas for their own sake. In other words, ideas were important in and of themselves. They were not to be studied for the sake of exploiting them for some kind of political war or ideological fight. The critic, in other words, should not manipulate art for his/her own interests. In other words, the critic must be disinterested, to a certain degree, with immediate, practical considerations. Thus, there would be a certain detached and intellectual spontaneous play with ideas. There has to be a love for ideas for what they are in and of themselves. It is in this way that critic plays a significant cultural role, for he/she stimulates thinking and discussion for its own sake.

6. Discuss the role Nietzche sees for art in civilization.

Nietzche saw the development of art as the result of a constant interplay between two contending elements in the creative life of man: the creative spontaneous force and the rigid conformist one. Because they were in constant opposition, each force stimulated the other to further effort, and the result was the growth of art in civilization.

It is interesting that the two tendencies in human nature that Nietzsche referred to had a certain dependency upon one another, and in the Greek tragedy, a balance of the two tendencies was achieved. The Apollonian tendency, for instance, was connected to the activity of dreaming. Dreaming, according to Nietzsche, was a manner in which life was interpreted through images. An essential part of the experience of dreams is a never-present realization that the images are not real, but illusory.

For Nietzsche, this process was part of the illusion of the dream sphere. Apollo, therefore, represented the arts in which images that were deliberately produced as an interpretation of existence. In Nietzsche's perspective, the Apollonian tendencies represent the disposition to impose form and order upon the world. Thus, this form of art separates elements of a fluctuating world into individual units and places them in ordered coherent relation to each other. This imposes a certain structure and value-system upon the world.

Dionysos, meanwhile, represented the destruction of individuality. The Dionysiac state is one in which the boundaries between individuals are destroyed. Dionysos represents, in a very paradoxical sense, the overpowering urges of a primitive response to the coming of uninhibited and free communion with the mysteries of nature. There can be no formal understanding in this context.

Every artist, in Nietzsche's perspective, seeks to represent these moods in an artistic medium. The poets who were the authors of Greek tragedy unified both elements. Thus, because the two forces were successfully tied in with one another, there was a successful forming for art in this context. Overall, Nietzsche believed that as long as the destructive Dionysian force could express itself in Apollonian image, a sense of deep reality could be achieved. This was the main role that Nietzsche saw for art. What mattered most, for Nietzsche, most the presence of form and control over the irrational and uncontrolled nature of the universe. Thus, Nietzsche saw a certain connection between art and pain. For Nietzsche, art stimulated a renewal of self. This why art demands a victory of personal will over what a person wants. There must be a certain rejection of desire in order for there to be creativity. In other words, art played a central role in civilization, for it nurtured the culture of the society. At the same time, there had to be a certain balance between structure and free creative expression. Find more papers at


  • Aquinas, The Nature and Domain of Sacred Doctrine
  • Arnold, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time
  • Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
  • Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
  • Dante, Letter to Can Grande
  • Hume, Of the Standard of Taste
  • Johnson, Samuel. Preface to Shakespeare
  • Nietzsche, The Function of Criticism at the Present Time
  • Pope, Essay on Criticism
  • Sidney, Apology for Poetry
  • Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads

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