Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.
Critical hermeneutics can be understood at the philosophy of understanding and interpretation. Truth and Method [by Hans-Georg Gadamer] examines language as a vehicle for interpretation, and includes critiques of both Kantian aesthetics, Romantic hermeneutics, and the historicism of Dilthey. Gadamer argues that the truths of history, society and culture are only revealed through a kind of dialogue: through listening to history as it is revealed in traditions and institutions and culture as it is revealed in poetry.
The notion of the individual work as giving itself its own criterion—a notion that appears later in the hermeneutic tradition and in Benjamin's famous essay on the concept of criticism—is one of a number of distinctive new facets of romantic poetics and aesthetics. Stylistically, Schlegel and the Romantics also made much of the notions of the literary fragment, the concept of irony, and of wit and allegory, as well as a revised notion of the literary genres.
The aesthetic standard that [Friedrich] Schlegel develops—perhaps best expressed in his claim that “criticism is not to judge works by a general ideal, but is to search out the individual ideal of every work”—owes debts both to Herder's notions of the historical and cultural uniqueness of individuals and to Kant's stress in the Critique of Judgment on the impossibility of judging beauty according to some external rule. Schlegel worked out his new criterion of the “individual ideal of every work” in three important early (1796) critical essays reviewing the work of Jacobi, Georg Forster and Lessing that give a reader a sense of his distinctive approach as stylist and literary theorist. Likewise, Schlegel applies his approach to critical judgment in a famous review of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, where he insists that the novel “not only judges itself but describes itself.”
In his prolific work as literary critic, Sartre consistently rejected formalism and “art for art's sake,” even in the case of illustrious French writers such as Mallarmé or Flaubert. However, it can also be argued that, from the perspective of the relation between politics and arts in the 20th century, the existentialist demand that art retain a strong connection to everyday reality (so as to fulfil its moral and political roles) is also completely of its time.
Frankfurt School theorists, following the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs attempted to link economic with cultural and ideological analysis in explaining why the revolution expected by Marx did not occur. Like Lukacs (who used the term reification to refer to deepened alienation in an emerging "late" capitalism), the Frankfurt theorists believed that Marx underestimated the extent to which workers' (and others') false consciousness could be exploited to keep the social and economic system running smoothly.
The Hungarian theorist Georg Lukacs contributed to an understanding of the relationship between historical materialism and literary form, in particular with realism and the historical novel. Walter Benjamin broke new ground in his work in his study of aesthetics and the reproduction of the work of art. The Frankfurt School of philosophers, including most notably Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse—after their emigration to the United States—played a key role in introducing Marxist assessments of culture into the mainstream of American academic life. These thinkers became associated with what is known as “Critical theory,” one of the constituent components of which was a critique of the instrumental use of reason in advanced capitalist culture.
“Hermeneutics,” “critical theory,” and “deconstruction” are the names of three intellectual orientations that have dominated continental philosophical debates during the latter part of the twentieth century. Although each of these orientations has its own complex lineage and affinities, they have nevertheless come to be associated with three outstanding thinkers: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jöurgen Habermas, and Jacques Derrida.
[Deconstructionism,] a school of philosophy that originated in France in the late 1960s, has had an enormous impact on Anglo-American criticism. Largely the creation of its chief proponent Jacques Derrida, deconstruction upends the Western metaphysical tradition. It represents a complex response to a variety of theoretical and philosophical movements of the 20th century, most notably Husserlian phenomenology, Saussurean and French structuralism, and Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Critical theory has always occupied tenuous positions within traditional (academic) disciplines, and has always moved restlessly across disciplinary borders; after all, when we think of what critical theory has influenced, we must include such diverse disciplines as sociology, political science, philosophy, economics, history, anthropology, psychology, and even biology and physics, as well as studies in English and other national, regional, and ethnic languages and literatures. Critical theory, in sum, is by no means merely a province of English Studies, and neither need it be, should it be, nor can it be confined to English Studies alone, or to language and literature studies more generally. Yet the questions that we ask of the texts we read and write and of the discourses we produce and disseminate, in English Studies, are always already sedimented with the weight of extensive historical exchange -- and interchange -- with critical theory, and the answers we seek to these questions eventually require us to engage with and draw upon critical theories far more directly than simply to acknowledge this sedimentation.
"Critical theory” held to a distinction between the high cultural heritage of Europe and the mass culture produced by capitalist societies as an instrument of domination. “Critical theory” sees in the structure of mass cultural forms—jazz, Hollywood film, advertising—a replication of the structure of the factory and the workplace. Creativity and cultural production in advanced capitalist societies were always already co-opted by the entertainment needs of an economic system that requires sensory stimulation and recognizable cliché and suppressed the tendency for sustained deliberation.