Theory before theory-liberal humanism by Peter Barry| Summary & Analysis

The present essay Theory before theory- liberal humanism of Peter Barry, a renowned Professor of English, is a well-thought and structured piece of writing amply disclosing the basic facts about English Studies, liberal humanism and how it came into development. The essay is a fine document for students, teachers, theorists and those who have interest in English Studies and theory of literature. It is a well-knit and researched writing, easier to understand when divided into parts such as when and how English as a subject came into existence? How liberal humanism shaped? Tenets or principles of liberal humanism, survey of literary theory, liberal humanism in practice, transition to theory and last part recurrent ideas in theory. We will go through this each part or point and understand the essay in detail.
1. Beginning of English Teaching: until 19th century, English was not taught as a subject for degree or tertiary level in England. The whole education system was under the control of Anglican Church and the doors of education were open to only a few, not all. Till 1820s, only two universities were available in England—Oxford and Cambridge where Catholics, Jewish, Methodist or atheists could not allowed to get degree. In the 19th century, attempts were initiated to carry reforms in education and as its result a University College founded in London in 1826 to award degrees to all—men and women irrespective of their religion or status. There initiated new subjects other than Greek and Latin literature and mathematics. English as the subject began in 1828 and in the next year (1829), the subject got its first professor appointed. It was merely study of English language through literature. In 1831, English literature has been taught at King’s College, London (which later became famous London University) established in the same year.
Barry stressed out the foundation of the principles of liberal humanism in the inaugural lecture of English literature by F.D. Maurice who in 1840 was appointed Professor of English at King’s College, London. There was dissatisfaction among the common people and they felt alienated/ detached from the main stream upper class, rulers, religion and ultimately the state. Maurice was well aware of the situation. He suggested that the English Studies can bind these people filling the valley of dissatisfaction and alienation. At this point of time, the English courses were introduced. English literature has been considered as an option or substitute for religion. It was gaining momentum among the middle classes of England. But still English was not an authorized subject in the two prestigious universities, Oxford and Cambridge until 1894 and 1911 respectively. It was taught in university colleges in major industrial cities like Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, etc.
The right direction to the English Studies has been received in Cambridge English School in the 1920s with the early pioneers of English Studies I.A. Richards, William Empson and F.R. Leavis. They set the foundation and future course of English which still we follow. Richards’ Practical Criticism (1929), a method set new norms in teaching and learning English or any literature. Empson, student of Richards wrote an important book in the field of literary theory based on the components of meaning Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). F.R. Leavis also was a significant figure in literary theory. He and his wife Q.D. Roth founded a journal Scrutiny and run it for 21 years. There, they extended the form of close reading, a norm convenient and simpler in deriving meaning from literature.
This part is a holistic view of the background of the development of English as a subject and its spread outside.
2. Ten Tenets (Principles) of Liberal Humanism: according to Barry, what do we study when we study English literature? We do not study only books and authors but values and beliefs which are integral to literature:
“Of course, we learn things about specific books and authors, but I mean here the more general values and attitudes which we absorb from English, and which remain as a kind of distilled essence of the subject when all these specific details have been forgotten.” (Barry, 17).
Following are the ten tenets or principles of liberal humanism Barry stated in the essay:
1. Good literature is everlasting. It cannot be bound in the time. It goes beyond the age, still we study Shakespeare- he is timeless. Literature discusses constant human nature, values, beliefs, ideas, attitudes and so on.
2. Meaning is within the text. There is no need to elaborate meaning by placing it in any outside context. According to Barry, it is not customary to place a text into the context of:
a. Socio-political
b. Literary-historical
c. Autobiographical
Meaning is inherent in the words, text.
3. To better understand a text, it should be detached from the above contexts and a close reading and verbal analysis should be carried out. There is no place for any ideological pre-condition or expectation. What Matthew Arnold says “to see the objects as in itself it really is” need to be practiced.
4. Human nature repeats in history, hence Barry calls it unchanging. Consistency is more crucial than innovation in literature.
5. Individuality is the unique essence of an author and characters in literature. It can be changed but cannot be transformed. There are examples in literature that characters change in the course of life but his/ her individuality remains the same.
6. In this principle, he talks about the purpose of literature i.e. to emphasise and refine human values and human life. But it cannot happen in a programmed way. Literature has its own course, it does not have any burden of outer context or already existing systems.
7. There should be a solid combination of form and content. Fancy of the form or content should be avoided. Decoration will not help to sustain a good literature. A natural fusion of form and content is necessary to form the expected effect on readers.
8. Sincerity is far more significant quality of literature: “sincerity (comprising truth-to-experience, honesty towards the self, and the capacity for human empathy and compassion) is a quality which resides within the language of literature.” (19).
9. A good literature silently shows and demonstrate the things rather than to explain or say. Unless ideas are not given a concrete embodiment, they are worthless.
10. The task of literary criticism is to interpret the text. It works as a mediator between text and reader. Only providing theoretical account of the nature of text or literature is not the prime task of criticism.
Barry considers the practice of above ideas or principles as liberal humanism:
“The above list contains a series of propositions which I think many traditional critics would, on the whole, subscribe to, if they were in the habit of making their assumptions explicit. Together, ideas like these, and the literary practice which went with them, are now often referred to as ‘liberal humanism”. (21).
Not only many critics but in academia around the world are intently following the course of liberal humanism in their colleges, universities and institutions.
3. Brief Survey of Theorising—from Aristotle to Leavis: in this part, Barry, exclusively provides significant critics who contributed in the development of literary theory—right from Aristotle to Leavis. He did not talk about many critics but a few from the grand ocean of critics and theorists. He listed the following critics and theorists:
1. Aristotle: literary theory has its antecedents in the ancient works of Greek and Latin critics and poets. The most ancient work of theory is Aristotle’s Poetics written around 4th century BC. In this work, we find Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy, constituent parts of tragedy, the place of characters, setting, plot, etc. in the play. The views presented by Aristotle are ‘reader-centred’ which has, later, developed in a concrete theory of literature. His theory of ‘catharsis’ is based on the human emotions of pity and fear and this feeling of pity and fear is nothing but ‘sympathy for and empathy with the plight of the protagonist’.
2. Sir Philip Sidney: after Aristotle, Barry directly turns to the English critic Sidney who composed An Apology for Poetry in 1850. Sidney expanded the definition of poetry or literature on the basis of Latin poet Ovid and Horace that literature should ‘teach by delighting’ and it’s a ‘speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight’ respectively. Giving pleasure is more important in literature. Another aim of Sidney, here, was to distinguish literature from other forms of writing, say, philosophy:
“The notion of literature giving pleasure will now seem an unremarkable sentiment, but Sidney’s aim was the revolutionary one of distinguishing literature from other forms of writing, on the grounds that, uniquely, literature has as its primary aim the giving of pleasure to the reader, and any moral or didactic element is necessarily either subordinate to that, or at least, unlikely to succeed without it.” (22).
3. Samuel Johnson: Johnson’s two works are significant in the development of literary theory—Lives of the Poets and Preface to the Plays of Shakespeare. They provide a detailed overview on the individual writers. Before this, it was not in the tradition of literary criticism that the individual poets or writers are taken for direct analysis other than Bible or some religious texts. This can be a significant progress in the direction of literary theory and ‘secular humanism’.
4. William Wordsworth: the theory took turn in the works of Romantic Age poet-critics Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads theorises the language and diction of poetry. It also sheds light on the decorative and ordinary language. The wok is significant for it is written by a poet to train his readers in appreciation of poetry or literature.
5. S.T. Coleridge: Coleridge wrote Biographia Literaria to put his different views about the theory of his friend Wordsworth that the language of poetry should be ordinary. He was in favour of prosaic language well suited for any literature.
6. P.B. Shelley: his work A Defense of Poetry (1821) is a critical theory which touches upon the elements of ‘defamiliarisation’, ‘impersonation’ and also the human mind. What Eliot has stated later in his seminal essay Tradition and the Individual Talent is already pictured in A Defense of Poetry:
“The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or of its departure.” (Quoted, 24).
7. John Keats: we do not have a consolidated theory of Keats but he wrote about poetry in letters sent to his relatives. His concept of Negative Capability is worth to note as a development in psychoanalytic theory of literature. He talks about conscious and unconscious working of mind and its reflection in literature. This leads to the development of the modern theories of literature.
8. Theory in Victorian Age: Barry classified the development of theory into two tracks—practical criticism track and ideas-led track. In this period, we have theorists like George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, and Henry James. He provides how these tracks were formulated:
“One track leads through Samuel Johnson and Matthew Arnold to T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis. This might be called the ‘practical criticism’ track. It tends to centre upon the close analysis of the work of particular writers, and gives us our familiar tradition of ‘close reading’. The other track lies through Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Eliot, and Henry James. This track is very much ‘ideas-led’ rather than ‘text led”. (25).
9. Matthew Arnold: Arnold is famous for and upheld in the literary world for his excellent principle of ‘the best that has been known and thought in the world’. His contribution to the field of theory is significant as it paved the way for the formulation of ideas in the critics like F.R. Leavis. His main ideas of literary criticism are included in his two essays—The Function of Criticism at Present Time and The Study of Poetry, from this essay sprang his most discussed and elaborate method the Touchstone. The works of the earlier masters are to be used to evaluate the works of today. In this method, Arnold describes the criteria and standards of a good literary work. This method is useful to provide the real estimate and not the personal or biased one.
10. T.S. Eliot: according to Barry, ‘Eliot’s contribution to the canon of received critical ideas was the greatest’ one. His notions of ‘dissociation of sensibility’, ‘impersonality’ and ‘objective correlative’ became controversial in criticism. These ideas are found in his works The Metaphysical Poets, Tradition and the Individual Talent and Hamlet (essays). Though the ideas of Eliot were more distinct and restful at that time, they were inherently contradictory, on this Barry remarks: “All Eliot’s major critical ideas are thus flawed and unsatisfactory, and perhaps their long standing currency is indicative of the theoretical vacuum into which they were launched.” (28).
Next Barry reminds the work of three Cambridge scholars for pioneering the literary theory and its base—I.A. Richards, William Empson and F.R. Leavis. Richards become the first critic who experimented and discovered a new method in literary theory ‘practical criticism’ which later considerably elaborated by Empson and Leavis.
“I.A. Richards, finally, is the pioneer of the decontextualized approach to literature which become the norm in Britain from the 1930s to the 1970s as ‘practical criticism’ and in America during roughly the same period the ‘New Criticism”. (30).
Based on or similar to this Ricardian approach, a movement called New Criticism was emerged in America whose focus, mostly was on the text. Thus, the survey, though not so extensive or detailed, is enough to have an insight into the development of theory.
4. Liberal Humanism in Practice: in this section of the essay, Barry provides an example of how liberal humanistic approach can be applied to the works of literature. Here he cites the story ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allen Poe. To this approach, he also calls the Leavisite approach; as in the story, the central point is clash between ‘art’ and ‘life’. He tried to provide some interpretations of the story:
1. True values are found in ‘lived life’ i.e. real experiences in the life of an individual.
2. When artists cross the descent boundaries of ‘taste’, ‘taboo’, and ‘conduct’, they commit a ‘hubristic act’.
3. The story presents a debased and degenerate form but is purely aesthetic in its value.
“Hence, the artist in this tale in his isolated turret, feeding vampire-like on the vital energies of his sitter, is an emblem of a debased and degenerate form of art whose values are of the purely aesthetic ‘art for art’s sake’ kind and have no reference to any wiser notion of personal and psychic health”. (32).
Further, he states that this approach have two distinct qualities:
1. It’s not based on a systematic approach but on the moral conviction.
2. It does not give more significance to form, structure, genre, design, symbol, etc. It focuses on the content.
Though the approach may have some controversial or irrelevant elements which give birth to a few questions like why structure or form is not important. Does content is everything? Does morality is primary? Etc. Yet Barry does not dismiss the approach: “I am not, of course, dismissing such an approach as worthless: my intention is simply to characterize it and distinguish it from other approaches.” (32).
5. Transition to Theory: in this section, Barry provides a brief overview of the development of theory. A series of theoretical waves spread in the 1930s to 1950s, all opposing the ‘consensus’ of liberal humanism. Many approaches were developed after 1950s trying to eliminate the marks of older criticism but has taken its rise from the same. Marxist Criticism, being born in the 1930s and psychoanalytic criticism, somewhat initiated at the same time, rejuvenated in 1960s. And in the same decade, new approaches like linguistic criticism and early forms of feminist criticism started to fade the effect of liberal humanist principles.
In 1970s, two new critical approaches came into being structuralism and post-structuralism in France and soon spread to Britain and United States. Initially, these approaches caused a controversy among critics and theorists; they considered language and philosophy at the centre of analysis of a text ‘rather than context or history’. The effect of this has been aptly stated by Barry:
“The effect of these two was so powerful as to produce, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, a situation which was frequently referred to as a ‘crisis’ or ‘civil war’ in the discipline of English. The questions these two approaches centred upon concerned matters of language and philosophy, rather than history or context.” (33).
In the 1980, again, two holistic approaches emerged to study literature politically or historically new historicism in United States and cultural materialism in Britain. It includes some traits of structuralism and post-structuralism. Later, in the 1990s, the theory and criticism shifted its interest from the previous approaches and its principles to ‘specialized’ or ‘special-interest’ approach like postcolonialism. In the same period, we can stress how feminism was giving birth to new kind of broader branch called gender studies. There we also have black feminist or ‘womanist’ criticism or theory.
At the end of this point, Barry talks about the limitation of his book (Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory) and essay (Theory before theory-liberal humanism) that ‘it does not venture beyond postcolonialism and post-modernism’.
6. Some Recurrent Ideas in Critical Theory: though every theory or approach has its own tradition, history and principles, there are some common threads or recurrent ideas in these approaches:
1. There is nothing fix or static in the theory, but it’s ‘fluid’ and ‘unstable’ or changing thing. It is forced by social and political alterations, modified by ‘shifting ways of seeing and thinking’. Whatever there in the theory is provisional, truth cannot be fixed:
“In philosophical terms, all these are contingent categories (denoting a status which is temporary, provisional, ‘circumstance-dependent’, etc.). Hence, no overarching fixed ‘truths’ can ever be established. The results of all forms of intellectual enquiry are provisional only. There is no such thing as a fixed and reliable truth (except for the statement that this so, presumably)”. (34).
2. Approaches are determined by prior ideological references. There cannot be ‘disinterested endeavour’. No theory or views can stand alone.
3. Language is the only medium to disclose the elements in reality. It is the construct of reality. We know things through language. Meaning is dependent on writer and reader, both are responsible for generation of meaning.
4. Meanings within a text are not reliable or fixed. It is shifting, have multiplicity and ambiguous. Language has that ability of creating an infinite web of meanings. Texts are independent entity and there is no author or writer ‘author is dead or absent’.
5. Theorists reject ‘totalising’ notions of great tests. Texts are created in a specific socio-political environment, later they are promoted to ‘greatness’.
He summed up these points as:
“Politics is pervasive,
Language is constitutive,
Truth is provisional,
Meaning is contingent,
Human nature is a myth.” (36).
At the end of this essay, he says that the essay will help readers to study and analyse the different approaches and theories at present.

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