In the twentieth century, several new approaches to the study of literature have challenged some of the most enduring philosophical assumptions behind literary criticism that had persisted since Plato and Aristotle.
Some of the major new approaches are: Structuralism, Formalism, Semiotics/Linguistics, New Criticism, Feminism, Marxism, Phenomenology, Existentialism, Hermeneutics, Reader-Response/Reception, Psychoanalytic, Archetypal/Myth, Deconstruction, Post-Structuralism, Post-Modernism, Avant- Garde/Surrealism/Dadaism, New Historicism, Post-Colonialism/Race/Ethnicity, Gay/Lesbian/Queer, Cognitive Poetics, Ecocriticism/Green Studies, Ecofeminism, Genre Criticism, Autobiographical, Stylistics, Narratology, Travel Theory, and Cultural Studies.
Julian Wolfreys in Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide, notes that “now different voices could be heard, different identities come forth other than those implicitly understood (Christian, humanist, western, male, European) in the conventional institutional approaches to literary study.” Diverse approaches to literary studies, claims Wolfreys, have developed themselves not without some often bitter struggles which still persist, as a means of comprehending, acknowledging and respecting heterogeneity and difference, rather than seeking to reduce the difference to one identity which is either a version of ourselves, or otherwise as an other which cannot be incorporated into a single identity; in the face of modern literary theory, adds Wolfreys, it is impossible to maintain a calm, undisturbed vision of a ‘single community.’
Wolfreys also cites Michael Payne who points out that theoretically informed approaches to literature have led to both the broadening of the literary canon, the texts we study, and to the raising of questions, concerning race, class, creed, color, gender, sexuality, national identity, which previously had not been asked—which could not be asked because of the implicit ideological and philosophical assumptions behind the study of the “great literature.” Payne points out that forty years ago it would hardly have been appropriate to raise the issue of either Shakespeare’s or Dickens’s depiction of Jews or women.
All questions of what has been termed ‘literary theory’ come down therefore, as Martin McQuillan suggests in the above mentioned anthology--to “questions of reading.”
Claims McQuillan: “Reading suggests a manner of interpreting our world and the texts which comprise that world. No one single manner of reading will do, so heterogeneous is the world, so diverse are its peoples and cultures, so different are the texts, whether literary, cultural or symbolic by which we tell ourselves and others about ourselves, and by which others speak to us about their differences from us, whether from the present, from some other culture, or from the past, from whatever we may think of as our own culture.”
Similarly, the most current edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism suggests that “this transaction which we provisionally call ‘reading’ or ‘interpretation,’ typically involves such activities as personal response, appreciation, evaluation, historical reception, explication, exegesis, and critique. Not surprisingly, the master words interpretation and reading are themselves debatable.”
The Norton Anthology also offers selections which differ markedly in how they characterize interpretation and reading: “Friedrich Schleiermacher draws a detailed account of interpretation both as historically informed grammatical explication and as psychological identification with the author. His view contrasts with the perspective of Fredric Jameson, who advocates an elaborate three-phase process of interpretation focused specifically on ideology critique of social contradictions, class antagonisms, and historical stages of social development manifested in texts. And Paul de Man instead pictures reading as a mode of exegesis wherein the reader's rewriting or restaging of the text replaces the original with an interpretive allegory: reading for him unavoidably becomes ‘misreading.’ That highly competent theorists can propose completely different models of reading fuels continued theoretical debate about interpretation.”
The complexity of literary phenomena is not easy to tame but what Plato suggested about an unexamined life, not only provides an enduring article of faith for all philosophers but also for all true lovers of literature.