What Is Critical Theory?

Critical theory is used to “frame” the reading of a text. That is the shortest definition of the term, but let’s dig into it a bit more.

Scholars in the field of literature often become specialists. They study and develop ideas along a particular theoretical line of thinking. 

This makes literary scholars similar to academics in other fields. If you are an academic physicist, you’ve probably selected an area of physics to focus on such as particle physics, quantum theory, or engineering physics. 

If you are a literary scholar working at a university you might select a specialized theoretical area to work in too. 

Criticism – in literary studies, criticism refers to the act of analyzing or commenting on works of literary art

Critical theory – this term refers to schools of thought, often academic in nature, which represent defined approaches to the interpretation (and sometimes uses) of literature and art; critical theory can be understood as the theory that defines the goals and shapes the outcomes of criticism

Critical Literary Theory 

While specialization is common for academics, we should note that the term “theory” functions differently in literary studies than it does in the sciences.

If you study “particle theory,” you are engaged in an inquiry into the rules that govern matter. If you study “postcolonial literary theory,” you are applying a specific set of questions and ideas to the analysis of a text. 

The writers at Libretext put it this way: 

“The term theory does not have the exact same applications in science and literature. However, literary scholars do understand their subject through literary theories, which are intellectual models that seek to answer a number of fundamental interpretive questions about literature. In How to Do Theory, literary critic Wolfgang Iser suggests that the natural sciences (and the social sciences to a large part) operate under hard-core theories, whereas the humanities use soft-core theories. Simply put, hard-core theories lead to problem-solving and are governed by general laws and rules; they predict and rely on objective facts. Soft-core theories, on the other hand, do not problem solve but predict—they map ideas and are not necessarily governed by laws but by metaphors and images.”

There is a diverse array of literary theories. Some of them are political, connecting literature to the society and the social conditions that produced it. Some of them are psychological, finding ways to apply ideas from psychology and the social sciences to literary works. Some literary theories strive instead to remove the literary work from its historical context and focus instead strictly on the content of the text. 

As you move on in your education and opt to study literature, you will almost certainly come across several of these theories:

  • New Historicism
  • Feminist Critical Theory
  • Psychoanalytical Literary Criticism
  • Myth Criticism
  • Postcolonial Critical Theory
  • Ecocriticism

What’s the point of applying critical concepts and critical theory?

In applying these critical theories we see that there are multiple ways to analyze complex texts. We also see that our own perspectives can be informed by these developed critical approaches. Our own perspectives and interpretations end up being nuanced, complex and flexible.

We develop some “critical distance” between ourselves and the text. 

Critical Distance: a situation where a space exists between the reader/viewer and a text.

The space is “filled” with numerous ideas as to how to approach a text, analyze a text, and construct meaning from a text.

When we apply a critical theory, we are intentionally narrowing our reading of a text.

  • We are applying a very specific point of view.
  • This focuses our interpretations and leads to certain conclusions about a text.
  • This also limits the possible arguments we will make about a text.

Put another way, the theory we choose to apply will determine the kinds of questions we pose when analyzing a text.

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