I vaguely remember learning that "literary theory," according to some, is theory through which society and other artificial constructs are analyzed as though works of literature or art.

I recall finding more useful for my own understanding an original interpretation that "literary theory" is theory (of culture, of society, of language, of whatever one likes) that is written as literature, with the same creative and imaginative affordances, the same sensitivities, and a flexible style.

I feel that defining the field of theory this way (ironically?) gives it some legitimacy--for example against the Sokal attacks, which arguably misunderstood its goals--and distinguishes it neatly from philosophy.

Is this interpretation of literary theory mine alone, or have any scholars expressed similar views?

Otherwise, whence did the label "literary theory" arise, and how is one correctly to understand its vocabular meaning?

1 Answer 1


I too have asked myself similar questions...

Literary Theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes which are of relevance to the way humans interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of scholarship is an outgrowth of critical theory and is often called[by whom?] simply "theory". As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Many of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy and of sociology.

I started with one work within a series of 'a very short introduction to' books that I like, which usually tends to help simplify philosophy, but these books have also started to go into other areas, such as Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler.

What is literary theory? Is there a relationship between literature and culture? These are some of questions addressed by Jonathan Culler in this new edition of his highly popular Very Short Introduction. Culler, an extremely lucid commentator and much admired in the field of literary theory, uses easy-to-grasp examples as he outlines the ideas behind schools of criticism that can otherwise be quite daunting, such as deconstruction, semiotics, and postcolonial theory. He explains "theory" not by describing warring "schools" but by sketching key "moves" that theory has encouraged, and by speaking directly about the implications of theory for thinking about literature, human identity, and the power of language.

In this Second Edition, Culler includes much new material, including a discussion of the "death of theory," a look at topics such as trauma theory, ecocriticism, and the link between the theory of narrative and cognitive science, plus a new chapter on "Ethics and Aesthetics." The book also includes updated bibliographies. Shedding light on everything from literature and social identity, to poetry, poetics, and rhetoric, Literary Theory is a welcome guide for all lovers of literature.

But from there I also began to read Roland Barthes, who was quite the literary theorist and philosopher...

Barthes' earliest ideas reacted to the trend of existentialist philosophy that was prominent in France during the 1940s, specifically to the figurehead of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre's What Is Literature? (1947) expresses a disenchantment both with established forms of writing and more experimental, avant-garde forms, which he feels alienate readers. Barthes’ response was to try to discover that which may be considered unique and original in writing. In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Barthes argues that conventions inform both language and style, rendering neither purely creative. Instead, form, or what Barthes calls "writing" (the specific way an individual chooses to manipulate conventions of style for a desired effect), is the unique and creative act. A writer's form is vulnerable to becoming a convention, however, once it has been made available to the public. This means that creativity is an ongoing process of continual change and reaction.

History (also from Wikipedia Literary Theory Link)

The practice of literary theory became a profession in the 20th century, but it has historical roots that run as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle's Poetics is an often cited early example), ancient India (Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra), ancient Rome (Longinus's On the Sublime) and medieval Iraq (Al-Jahiz's al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and ibn al-Mu'tazz's Kitab al-Badi). The aesthetic theories of philosophers from ancient philosophy through the 18th and 19th centuries are important influences on current literary study. The theory and criticism of literature are, of course, also closely tied to the history of literature.

My understanding of Literary Theory is to apply cultural and social philosophy to literature by examining the times at which it was written, which inherently means one has to apply it to other works from that time and otherwise, in order to try and make distinctions about "what kind of work" it is and to whom or what was it serving.

So I'm not sure if there is a wrong method to examine Literature to make "theory", as much as there continues to be a lot of ways to systematically look at literary works from ethics, aesthetic, style, execution, and contemporary science (cognitive ability & relationships) to what it's trying to say and how that lines up with the times it is written in.

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    What is the source for your quoted text here? Please could you add links or attribution?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 25, 2018 at 9:42
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    @DarthLocke You present a very nice holistic view, in my mind -- if it is somewhat less compact than the one I'm suggesting :)
    – SAH
    Jan 1, 2019 at 4:44
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    @SAH I hope someone with better knowledge than me will give you a more precise answer. I'm curious about it in terms to your inquisition about applying it to Sokal and if any theory or school of thought exists there - just because, I would like to learn more myself! :) Jan 1, 2019 at 14:21
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    @DarthLocke I'm curious, too. I feel that the nebulous definition of "theory" provides a flimsy guard against attacks. There is something valuable about theory--it has been around, as you cite, as long as literature itself, and should merit a continued presence. But someone ought to define it in a way even non-theorists can understand, or else its value risks being obscured to all but a snobby few.
    – SAH
    Jan 1, 2019 at 14:32
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    @DarthLocke Although there are no signs of this improvement anymore, my writing and reading got much better after I studied theory--and this I didn't do seriously until I was in my twenties. I have always wondered why this happened. Neither studying philosophy nor literature and criticism nor philology and languages had the same effect.
    – SAH
    Jan 1, 2019 at 14:34

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