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Aristotle's work on aesthetics consists of the Poetics and Rhetoric. The Poetics is
specifically concerned with drama. At some point, Aristotle's original work was divided
in two, each "book" written on a separate roll of papyrus.[5] Only the first part–that which
focuses on tragedy–survives. The lost second part addressed comedy.[5] Scholars
speculate that the Tractatus coislinianus summarises the contents of the lost second book.

Aristotle distinguishes between the genres of "poetry" in three ways:

• their means

language, rhythm, and harmony, used separately or in combination

• their objects

• agents ("good" or "bad" ...) - human characters who have emotions

(and bring moral to actions they do - "good" person kills child = remorse?
X "bad" person kills child = just shows his power?) or things of daily life
(skull in Hamlet, cake in slapstick comedies...) who have no emotions
(humans put emotions on things - girl's father is killed by sword, girl hates
swords) ...
• actions ("virtuous" or "vicious" ...) - agents cause and are
influenced by actions

• their modes of representation

Having examined briefly the field of "poetry" in general, Aristotle proceeds to his
definition of tragedy:

Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in

embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of
the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means
of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.

By "embellished speech", I mean that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song; by "with
its elements separately", I mean that some [parts of it] are accomplished only by means of
spoken verses, and others again by means of song (1449b25-30).[7]

Tragedy consists of six parts, he explains:

• plot (mythos)

Key elements of the plot are reversals, recognitions and suffering. The best plot
should be "complex". It should imitate actions arousing horror, fear and pity.
When a character is unfortunate by reversal(s) of fortune (peripeteia), at first he
suffers (pathos) and then he can realize (anagnorisis) the cause of his misery or a
way to be released from the misery.
Plot should be more convoluted ("complex"), so audience can learn about what is
possible in a world (Aristotle stated, that "best" tragedy is based on real events
which people know are possible; note, that people also "nitpick" little "mistakes"
in such story more); when plot is not "very" convoluted (audience may be young
and they might not keep track of events ...), it should have at least interesting
characters or thoughts (so audience is not "bored")

• character (ethos)

It is much better if a tragical accident happens to a hero because of a mistake he

makes (hamartia) instead of things which might happen anyway. That is because
the audience is more likely to be "moved" by it. A hero may have made it
knowingly (in Medea) or unknowingly (Oedipus). A hero may leave a deed
undone (due to timely discovery, knowledge present at the point of doing
deed ...).
Main character should be

• good - Aristotle explains that audiences do not like, for example,

villains "making fortune from misery" in the end; it might happen though,
and might make play interesting, nevertheless the moral is at stake here
and morals are important to make people happy (people can, for example,
see tragedy because they want to release their anger)
• appropriate–if a character is supposed to be wise, it is unlikely he
is young (supposing wisdom is gained with age)
• consistent–if a person is a soldier, he is unlikely to be scared of
blood (if this soldier is scared of blood it must be explained and play some
role in the story to avoid confusing the audience); it is also "good" if a
character doesn't change opinion "that much" if the play is not "driven" by
who characters are, but by what they do (audience is confused in case of
unexpected shifts in behaviour [and its reasons, morals ...] of characters)
• "consistently inconsistent"–if a character always behaves foolishly
it is strange if he suddenly becomes smart; in this case it would be good to
explain such change, otherwise the audience may be confused ; also if
character changes opinion a lot it should be clear he is a character who has
this trait, not real life person, who does - this is also to avoid confusion

• thought (dianoia)–spoken (usually) reasoning of human characters can explain the

characters or story background ...
• diction (lexis)
• melody (melos)

The Chorus too should be regarded as one of the actors; it should be an integral
part of the whole, and share in the action
• spectacle (opsis)

For example: if play has "beautiful" costumes and "bad" acting and "bad" story,
there is "something wrong" with it. Even though that "beauty" may save the play
it is "not a nice thing".

He offers the earliest-surviving explanation for the origins of tragedy and comedy:

Anyway, arising from an improvisatory beginning (both tragedy and comedy—tragedy

from the leaders of the dithyramb, and comedy from the leaders of the phallic processions
which even now continue as a custom in many of our cities) [...] (1449a10-13)[8]

[edit] Influence
Poetics was not influential in its time and was generally understood to coincide with the
more famous Rhetoric. This is because in Aristotle's time, rhetoric and poetry were not as
separated as they later became and were in a sense different versions of the same thing. It
was not until much later that The Poetics became hugely influential.

The Arabic version of Aristotle’s Poetics that influenced the Middle Ages was translated
from a Greek manuscript dating from before the year 700. This manuscript was translated
from Greek to Syriac and is independent of the currently-accepted 11th-century source
designated Paris 1741. The Syriac language source used for the Arabic translations
departed widely in vocabulary from the original Poetics and it initiated a
misinterpretation of Aristotelian thought that continued through the Middle Ages.[9]

There are two different Arabic interpretations of Aristotle’s Poetics in commentaries by

Abu Nasr al-Farabi and Averroes (i.e., Abu al-Walid Ibn Rushd).

Al-Farabi’s treatise endeavors to establish poetry as a logical faculty of expression,

giving it validity in the Islamic world. Averroes’ commentary attempts to harmonize his
assessment of the Poetics with al-Farabi’s, but he is ultimately unable to reconcile his
ascription of moral purpose to poetry with al-Farabi’s logical interpretation.

Averroes' interpretation of the Poetics was accepted by the West because of its relevance
to their humanistic viewpoints; occasionally the philosophers of the Middle Ages even
preferred Averroes’ commentary to Aristotle's stated sense. This resulted in the survival
of Aristotle’s Poetics through the Arabic literary tradition.

[edit] English translations

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Poetics

• Thomas Twining, 1789

• Samuel Henry Butcher, 1902: full text
• Ingram Bywater, 1909: full text
• William Hamilton Fyfe, 1926: full text
• L. J. Potts, 1953
• G. M. A. Grube, 1958
• Richard Janko, 1987
• Stephen Halliwell, 1987
• Stephen Halliwell, 1995 (Loeb Classical Library)
• Malcolm Heath, 1996 (Penguin Classics)

[edit] Popular culture

The Poetics—both the extant first book and the lost second book—figure prominently in
Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.


In the case of drama, Aristotle’s words in The Poetics have set the standard, to the extent
that there has in the western world not been any theory of the drama, or discussion of its
structure and inner workings, without reference to Aristotle – in all periods where his
book was known. His short book is somewhat the stage on which all such thoughts have
been acted out. It is adequate to regard all western theory of drama, as comments on
Aristotle - little more, but sometimes less, in the sense that his thoughts are repeated
without much comment at all.
In the Roman empire, on the stage of the Renaissance, through to the framework
according to which every Hollywood movie is constructed, the dramatic rules expressed
by Aristotle have been obeyed.
His theories have never really been questioned, at least not dismissed, but some of the
later interpretations of them have. When Aristotle and his Poetics can be doubted, this is
usually because of a questionable later rephrasing of them, often in such a way that his
words have been misinterpreted to be more categorical, more decisive, than they really
are. Therefore, Aristotle has been questioned mainly when his rules of the drama have
been regarded as more firm than he himself would have them, the most significant
example of which is in the doctrine of the unity of time and place - the idea that a drama
should only encompass the time span it would take to enact it, and occupy only the space
that would fit onto a stage.
In its essence as well as in its details, though, the Aristotelean structure of the drama
remains intact.
Still, the book has got its gaps – one being the fact that it was unknown to the
Christian Era of European thought, with minor exceptions, until the very end of the 15th
century, when in 1498 the Giorgio Valla Latin translation of The Poetics was printed in
Venice, swiftly to be followed by a number of translations and commentaries. Other gaps
are in the actual text, remaining with us in an incomplete form. Several parts of it are
missing, but what we have is enough for a reliable understanding of Aristotle’s
perspectives on the drama and its principles.
The Poetics

It is clear that The Poetics is written by someone who takes great delight in drama, but a
writer of it Aristotle is not. He knows, though, what it takes to write convincingly – the
poet must have as much of it as possible “before his own eyes,” in his own vivid
imagination. To persuade the spectators of the play, it needs to be both written and
enacted “under the influence of passion,” since one needs to be agitated oneself, to agitate
others, and so forth. Thereby Aristotle concludes that “poetry is the province either of one
who is naturally clever, or of one who is insane.”
The very basis of Aristotle’s definitions of the drama and “how fables must be
composed,” is what he regards as its root: imitation. Any kind of poetry, actually any art,
is a form of imitation – what sets the art forms apart is merely with what means the
imitations are made. Mankind imitates from childhood and on, he states, and takes delight
in it – contrary to the animals. This is done primarily as a way of learning, of acquiring
the knowledge and skills necessary. And we learn according to our individual stature:
“men of a more venerable character imitated beautiful actions, and the actions of such
men; but the more ignoble imitated the actions of depraved characters.” This driving
force of imitation is mighty, since learning “is not only most delightful to philosophers,
but in like manner to other persons, though they partake of it but in a small degree.” Even
things upsetting or painful, “such as the forms of the most contemptible animals, and
dead bodies,” men enjoy imitating – in pictures or other ways – thereby learning about
He does not spell out the conclusion very clearly, but the latter, disturbing form of
imitation, gives good reason for why no poetry suffices, if only dealing with delightful
Narrowing it down to the imitation made in poetry, in the construction of fables,
Aristotle sees the major forms being the epic, the tragedy, the comedy, the choric hymn
(dithyrambic poetry), and that accompanied by the flute and lyre, all being imitations but
differing in three aspects: the means by which they imitate, the objects they imitate and
the manner in which they do it. The epic is alone in imitating merely by words, whereas
what fits on the stage imitates mainly by action.
For the drama, what is being done is absolutely essential, for which Aristotle takes an
etymological support, comparing the word drama with the Dorian word dran, to make.
(Also the word poetry relates to this, meaning the same, and poet meaning maker.) The
word fable, he defines as “the composition of incidents.”
Now, after simply stating that “imitators imitate those who do something,” Aristotle
finds a choice to be made as to whom to imitate, and this is a question of vice and virtue,
where there are but three possible choices: “those who are better than we are, or those
who are worse, or such as are like ourselves.” Here is where Aristotle sees the major
difference between tragedy and comedy – the former imitating the better, and the latter
imitating the worse.
Comedy, which he regards as the lesser of the two, portrays the ridiculous, and not
vices which terrify or disgust, since it is necessary with “a portion of turpitude”, but not
to the extent that serious damage is done or pain induced. That would be better fit for the
tragedy. He does not explore the reason for the necessity of this limitation of comedy, but
certainly a play not conforming to it would find the audience hesitant to laugh.

As for tragedy, it is “an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action, possessing
magnitude, in pleasing language.” It must be acted, not narrated, “through pity and fear
effecting a purification from such like possessions.” He stresses that the imitation taking
place in tragedy is actually not of the noble men portrayed, but of what deeds they do.
The men have certain characters, which are according to their manners, but what lightens
or darkens their emotions is none other than their actions, what happens to them. The
play must reach an end, “the greatest of all things,” and in doing so it “embraces manners
on account of actions.” A tragedy can do without manners, although it is questionable
how well received it will be, but without action not. Manners he defines as those
elements which make up what we recognize as a person’s character, and it is essential
that the person acts and speaks according to his character all through the play, while
sentiment is how the one speaking explains his meaning. By these two a person is
described, but it is from his actions that his quality is derived.
So, what causes the actions? Aristotle sees two causes: sentiments and moral habit,
“and through these actions all men obtain or fail of the object of their wishes.”
Aristotle concludes that a tragedy has got six parts, or rather ingredients, and none
other, which make up its quality: fable, manners, diction, sentiment, spectacle and music.
Of these the fable is the principal part, “the soul of tragedy,” followed by the manners,
then the sentiments, to explain “what is inherent in the subject,” then diction putting it all
into words. Music is “the greatest of the embellishments”, but the spectacle of scenic
decorations and effects is the least important to the drama and its power.

Unity of action

The fable, the combination of incidents which are the action of the play, should be one –
one story told, which is not to say it has to be about only one person, since characters are
not in the center of the tragedy, but action itself is. So, one action means what we would
call one complete story, so arranged in its transactions, “that any one of them being
transposed, or taken away, the whole would become different.” That which does not
make a difference to the story, whether it be included or excluded, “is not a part of the
fable.” A tragedy lacking in this respect, consisting of many fables instead of just one,
Aristotle calls an epic system.
This unity of action evidently contains a beginning, a middle and an end, where the
beginning is what is “not posterior to another thing,” while the middle needs to have had
something happen before, and something to happen after it, but after the end “there is
nothing else.”
The chain of events has to be of such nature as “might have happened,” either being
possible in the sense of probability or necessary because of what forewent. Anything
absurd can only exist outside of the drama, what is included in it must be believable,
which is something achieved not by probability alone, “for it is probable that many things
may take place contrary to probability.” Aristotle even recommends things impossible but
probable, before those possible but improbable. What takes place should have nothing
irrational about it, but if this is unavoidable, such events should have taken place outside
of the drama enacted.
Here, actual history is no guarantee, but rather a limitation risking to diminish the
beauty and value of the tragedy, for “poetry speaks more of universals, but history of
particulars.” Still, tragedy tends to make use of actual events and persons, to make the
fable more credible, since what has happened must be possible, but what has not would
seem unlikely to ever do happen. There is yet reason not to adhere to closely to historic
events, since it is by no means certain that all of the audience is familiar with the facts.
The poet had better make use of his trade, imitation, and put the story together so that it
seems possible, be it with or without actual events.
The writer should avoid making his plot episodic, where it is “neither probable nor
necessary that the episodes follow each other.” This is merely a sign of bad poets,
“through their own want of ability.” The good poet, on the contrary, knows to make
things happen in such a way as not to seem like pure chance, but on account of each
other. Then, the events will “possess more of the marvelous,” which is also the case if
events out of fortune are such that they still give the impression of design, of things
happening as they should.
The kind of action in a play, “by which fable allures the soul,” is revolutions and
discoveries. The revolution is a “mutation”, by which actions turn into a contrary
condition, which still has to happen in a probable or even necessary way. The discovery
is simply a change from ignorance to knowledge of something central to the plot, but
Aristotle regards the beauty of discovery as heightened if it is combined with revolution.
An action which includes neither discovery nor revolution, he calls simple, otherwise
complex – in which case it is essential that these “should be effected from the
composition itself of the fable.”
The most beautiful tragedy need be complex, and “imitative of fearful and piteous
actions.” Therefore, it is no good to have the play make worthy men go from prosperity
to adversity since this is simply impious, nor to have depraved characters go from
adversity to prosperity, which evokes neither fear nor pity, and much the same goes for a
depraved man going from prosperity to adversity, though morally pleasing. Pity, says
Aristotle, “is excited for one who does not deserve to be unfortunate; but fear, for one
who resembles oneself.” What remains is a person neither excelling in virtue nor being
particularly vicious, who goes through a change of circumstances due to some error. This
change should be from prosperity to adversity, not the opposite, to evoke pity. For the
same reason, tragic events should not take place between two enemies, but rather
between friends or relatives, like when a brother kills a brother, or a son his mother, or
intends to do it – “such subjects are to be sought for.”
The turn of events that Aristotle favors the most, is when a terrible action is
interrupted before completion, such as when someone discovers the mistake about to be
made, and avoids it. Then the drama is accomplished, with no damage. Next to best is
when a deed is done in ignorance, only after it discovered, because it is without
wickedness, “and the discovery excites horror.” The worst, then, is where someone
intends to knowingly make a vicious deed, but does not commit it – which is wicked, yet
not tragical, “because it is void of pathos.”

Unity of time

As for the length of the play, Aristotle refers to the magnitude called for, a grandness
indeed, but one which can be easily seen in its entirety – in the aspect of length, then, one
that can easily be remembered. The ideal time which the fable of a tragedy encompasses
is “one period of the sun, or admits but a small variation from this period,” but more
essential and accurate a limitation is “when the time of its duration is such as to render it
probable that there can be a transition from prosperous to adverse, or from adverse to
prosperous fortune.”
The time of the enactment of the play itself, certainly significantly shorter, even, than
the limited time he allows for its fable, Aristotle divides into the following parts:
prologue, episode, exode, and chorus, the last one divided into parados (entry of the
chorus) and stasimon (chorus fixed on stage). Th first three, pretty much the beginning,
middle and end discussed above, are intervened by chorus. Another division of the
tragedy he makes, is that of complication and development, the first of which is from the
beginning until the moment where there is a “transition to good fortune,” and the second
is from this point to the end.

Unity of place

In drama the unities are actually three – that of action and time, as in Aristotle’s book,
and then of place, meaning that a drama should not occupy more space than what can
realistically be arranged on a stage. This third unity, though, is not present in The Poetics,
but invented in the 16th century by Lodovico Castelvetro, the Italian translator of The
Poetics, and by the French dramatist Jean de la Taille.

The epic

Where it is essential for the tragedy to be enacted, the epic poem is a narration, following
different laws from that of the drama. It is not necessary with the unity of action
presented above, but there should be a unity of time, in such a way as “of such things as
have happened in that time.” What happens, though, is not tending toward any single
ending. The epic story requires revolutions and discoveries, as much as tragedy does, and
sentiments and a good diction as well. The main difference between the two is that
tragedy cannot imitate several actions taking place at the same time, which the epic,
being a narration, has no problem with.
At the same time as the epic can contain several possible tragedies, the tragedy does in
no way serve as material for an epic, but on the other hand Aristotle states that “tragedy
has every thing which the epic possesses,” but the reverse is not the case. Raising the
question of which imitation is the more excellent, the epic or tragic, Aristotle concludes
that the tragedy, “being crowded into a narrower compass,” becomes more pleasing, also
it shows more unity, and can therefore attain its end “in a greater degree”. The end being
the greatest of all things, tragedy with its superior ending must be the superior form of

Aristotle on Greek Tragedy

by Dr. Larry A. Brown
Professor of Theater
Nashville, Tennessee

The word tragedy literally means "goat song," probably referring to the
practice of giving a goat as a sacrifice or a prize at the religious festivals in
honor of the god Dionysos. Whatever its origins, tragedy came to signify a
dramatic presentation of high seriousness and noble character which
examines the major questions of human existence: Why are we here? How
can we know the will of the gods? What meaning does life have in the face
of death? In tragedy people are tested by great suffering and must face
decisions of ultimate consequence. Some meet the challenge with deeds of
despicable cruelty, while others demonstrate their ability to confront and
surpass adversity, winning our admiration and proving the greatness of
human potential.

Aristotle's Definition of Tragedy

Aristotle first defined tragedy in his Poetics around 330 BC, and all
subsequent discussions of tragic form have been influenced by his
concepts. According to Aristotle, "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble
and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language
that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not
narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and
fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents" (ch. 6; Golden 11).

Several of these terms require clarification. "Imitation" (mimesis) does not

refer exclusively to acting out something on stage. Aristotle recognizes
many forms of imitation including epic poetry (Homer), painting, song, and
dance. "Noble" does not mean that the characters are necessarily of high
moral standing or that they must always be kings, heroes, or gods: the title
character of Euripides' Medea is a wicked sorceress who kills her own
children. According to Hardison, the term could be translated as larger
than life, majestic, or serious (Golden 84).

"Magnitude" refers not to the greatness of the subject matter, as some

have suggested, but to the appropriate length of a production. Earlier in the
Poetics (ch. 5), Aristotle contrasts the shorter action of a play with that of
an epic poem such as the Iliad. A story with the proper magnitude for
drama can be presented within two or three hours’ performance time.
"Enhanced language" refers to the fact that all plays at that time were
written in poetic verse rather than the language of everyday speech. As
Steiner explains, "There is nothing democratic in the vision of tragedy. The
royal and heroic characters whom the gods honor with their vengeance are
set higher than we are in the chain of being, and their style of utterance
must reflect this elevation" (241).

Endless debates have centered on the term "catharsis" which Aristotle

unfortunately does not define. Some critics interpret catharsis as the
purging or cleansing of pity and fear from the spectators as they observe
the action on stage; in this way tragedy relieves them of harmful emotions,
leaving them better people for their experience. According to this
interpretation, Aristotle may have been offering an alternative to Plato's
charge that the dramatic poets were dangerous to society because they
incited the passions.

However, it is uncharacteristic of Aristotle to define tragedy in terms of

audience psychology; throughout the Poetics he focuses on dramatic form,
not its effects on viewers. Therefore, commentators such as Else and
Hardison prefer to think of catharsis not as the effect of tragedy on the
spectator but as the resolution of dramatic tension within the plot. The
dramatist depicts incidents which arouse pity and fear for the protagonist,
then during the course of the action, he resolves the major conflicts,
bringing the plot to a logical and foreseeable conclusion.

This explanation of catharsis helps to explain how an audience

experiences satisfaction even from an unhappy ending. Human nature may
cause us to hope that things work out for Antigone, but, because of the
insurmountable obstacles in the situation and the ironies of fate, we come
to expect the worst and would feel cheated if Haemon arrived at the last
minute to rescue her, providing a happy but contrived conclusion. In
tragedy things may not turn out as we wish, but we recognize the probable
or necessary relation between the hero's actions and the results of those
actions, and appreciate the playwright's honest depiction of life's harsher

Notice that Aristotle's definition does not include an unfortunate or fatal

conclusion as a necessary component of tragedy. Usually we think of
tragedy resulting in the death of the protagonist along with several others.
While this is true of most tragedies (especially Shakespeare), Aristotle
acknowledges that several Greek tragedies end happily. In Aeschylus'
trilogy the Oresteia, Orestes must avenge the death of his father by killing
his murderer, who happens to be Orestes' mother. The conflict is
successfully resolved when Athena appoints a court of law to uphold
justice in such cases, and Orestes is acquitted of any guilt. In Oedipus the
King the hero inflicts his own punishment by blinding himself, but he goes
into exile instead of dying. Sophocles wrote a sequel to this play called
Oedipus at Colonus in which the hero finds a peaceful death after years of
suffering to atone for his misdeeds, but his demise is seen as a happy
ending to an unhappy life. In tragedy people must make difficult choices
and face serious consequences, but they do not always meet with death.

The Tragic Hero

Aristotle distinguishes between tragedy which depicts people of high or

noble character, and comedy which imitates those of low or base character
(ch. 2). Renaissance scholars understood this passage to mean that tragic
characters must always be kings or princes, while comedy is peopled with
the working or servant classes, but Aristotle was not talking about social or
political distinctions. For him character is determined not by birth but by
moral choice. A noble person is one who chooses to act nobly. Tragic
characters are those who take life seriously and seek worthwhile goals,
while comic characters are "good-for-nothings" who waste their lives in
trivial pursuits (Else 77). While it may be true that, as Arthur Miller argued,
the common man is a potential subject for tragedy (in the sense that one
need not be a king or a demigod to act nobly), the one thing a tragic
protagonist cannot be is common. Ordinary humanity belongs on the
sidelines in tragedy, represented by the Greek chorus. The tragic
protagonist is always larger than life, a person of action whose decisions
determine the fate of others and seem to shake the world itself.

The hero of tragedy is not perfect, however. To witness a completely

virtuous person fall from fortune to disaster would provoke moral outrage
at such an injustice. Likewise, the downfall of a villainous person is seen
as appropriate punishment and does not arouse pity or fear. The best type
of tragic hero, according to Aristotle, exists "between these extremes . . . a
person who is neither perfect in virtue and justice, nor one who falls into
misfortune through vice and depravity, but rather, one who succumbs
through some miscalculation" (ch. 13). The term hamartia, which Golden
translates as "miscalculation," literally means "missing the mark," taken
from the practice of archery.

Much confusion exists over this crucial term. Critics of previous centuries
once understood hamartia to mean that the hero must have a "tragic flaw,"
a moral weakness in character which inevitably leads to disaster. This
interpretation comes from a long tradition of dramatic criticism which
seeks to place blame for disaster on someone or something: "Bad things
don't just happen to good people, so it must be someone's fault." This was
the "comforting" response Job's friends in the Old Testament story gave
him to explain his suffering: "God is punishing you for your wrongdoing."
For centuries tragedies were held up as moral illustrations of the
consequences of sin.

Given the nature of most tragedies, however, we should not define

hamartia as tragic flaw. While the concept of a moral character flaw may
apply to certain tragic figures, it seems inappropriate for many others.
There is a definite causal connection between Creon's pride which
precipitates his destruction, but can Antigone's desire to see her brother
decently buried be called a flaw in her character which leads to her death?
Her stubborn insistence on following a moral law higher than that of the
state is the very quality for which we admire her.

Searching for the tragic flaw in a character often oversimplifies the

complex issues of tragedy. For example, the critic predisposed to looking
for the flaw in Oedipus' character usually points to his stubborn pride, and
concludes that this trait leads directly to his downfall. However, several
crucial events in the plot are not motivated by pride at all: (1) Oedipus
leaves Corinth to protect the two people he believes to be his parents; (2)
his choice of Thebes as a destination is merely coincidental and/or fated,
but certainly not his fault; (3) his defeat of the Sphinx demonstrates
wisdom rather than blind stubbornness. True, he kills Laius on the road,
refusing to give way on a narrow pass, but the fact that this happens to be
his father cannot be attributed to a flaw in his character. (A modern reader
might criticize him for killing anyone, but the play never indicts Oedipus
simply for murder.) Furthermore, these actions occur prior to the action of
the play itself. The central plot concerns Oedipus' desire as a responsible
ruler to rid his city of the gods' curse and his unyielding search for the
truth, actions which deserve our admiration rather than contempt as a
moral flaw. Oedipus falls because of a complex set of factors, not from any
single character trait.

This misunderstanding can be corrected if we realize that Aristotle

discusses hamartia in the Poetics not as an aspect of character (ch. 15) but
rather as an incident in the plot (ch. 13). What Aristotle means by hamartia
might better be translated as "tragic error" (Golden's miscalculation).
Caught in a crisis situation, the protagonist makes an error in judgment or
action, "missing the mark," and disaster results.
Most of Aristotle's examples show that he thought of hamartia primarily as
a failure to recognize someone, often a blood relative. In his commentary
Gerald Else sees a close connection between the concepts of hamartia,
recognition, and catharsis. For Aristotle the most tragic situation possible
was the unwitting murder of one family member by another. Mistaken
identity allows Oedipus to kill his father Laius on the road to Thebes and
subsequently to marry Jocasta, his mother; only later does he recognize
his tragic error. However, because he commits the crime in ignorance and
pays for it with remorse, self-mutilation, and exile, the plot reaches
resolution or catharsis, and we pity him as a victim of ironic fate instead of
accusing him of blood guilt.

While Aristotle's concept of tragic error fits the model example of Oedipus
quite well, there are several tragedies in which the protagonists suffer due
to circumstances totally beyond their control. In the Oresteia trilogy,
Orestes must avenge his father's death by killing his mother. Aeschylus
does not present Orestes as a man whose nature destines him to commit
matricide, but as an unfortunate, innocent son thrown into a terrible
dilemma not of his making. In The Trojan Women by Euripides, the title
characters are helpless victims of the conquering Greeks; ironically, Helen,
the only one who deserves blame for the war, escapes punishment by
seducing her former husband Menelaus. Heracles, in Euripides' version of
the story, goes insane and slaughters his wife and children, not for
anything he has done but because Hera, queen of the gods, wishes to
punish him for being the illegitimate son of Zeus and a mortal woman.
Hamartia plays no part in these tragedies.

Given these examples, we should remember that Aristotle's theory of

tragedy, while an important place to begin, should not be used to prescribe
one definitive form which applies to all tragedies past and present.

First, we must point out that Aristotle was as much a scientist as a philosopher. He was
endlessly fascinated with nature, and went a long way towards classifying the plants and
animals of Greece. He was equally interested in studying the anatomies of animals and
their behavior in the wild.

Aristotle also pretty much invented modern logic. Except for its symbolic form, it is
essentially the same today.

Let’s begin with metaphysics: While Plato separates the ever-changing phenomenal
world from the true and eternal ideal reality, Aristotle suggests that the ideal is found
“inside” the phenomena, the universals “inside” the particulars.
What Plato called idea or ideal, Aristotle called essence, and its opposite, he referred to as
matter. Matter is without shape or form or purpose. It is just “stuff.” pure potential, no
actuality. Essence is what provides the shape or form or purpose to matter. Essence is
“perfect,” “complete,” but it has no substance, no solidity. Essence and matter need each

Essence realizes (“makes real”) matter. This process, the movement from formless stuff
to complete being, is called entelechy, which some translate as actualization.

There are four causes that contribute to the movement of entelechy. They are answers to
the question “why?” or “what is the explanation of this?”

1. The material cause: what something is made of.

2. The efficient cause: the motion or energy that changes matter.
3. The formal cause: the thing’s shape, form, or essence; its definition.
4. The final cause: its reason, its purpose, the intention behind it.

1. The material cause: The thing’s matter or substance. Why a bronze statue? The
metal it is made of. Today, we find an emphasis on material causation in reductionism,
explaining, for example, thoughts in terms of neural activity, feelings in terms of
hormones, etc. We often go down a “level” because we can’t explain something at the
level it’s at.

2. The efficient cause: The motion or energy that changes matter. Why the statue? The
forces necessary to work the bronze, the hammer, the heat, the energy.... This is what
modern science focuses on, to the point where this is what cause now tends to mean,
exclusively. Note that modern psychology usually relies on reductionism in order to find
efficient causes. But it isn’t always so: Freud, for example, talked about psychosexual
energy and Skinner talked about stimulus and response.

3. The formal cause: The thing’s shape, form, definition, or essence. Why the statue?
Because of the plan the sculptor had for the bronze, it’s shape or form, the non-random
ordering of it’s matter. In psychology, we see some theorists focus on structure -- Piaget
and his schema, for example. Others talk about the structure inherent in the genetic code,
or about cognitive scripts.

4. The final cause: The end, the purpose, the teleology of the thing. Why the statue?
The purpose of it, the intention behind making it. This was popular with medieval
scholars: They searched for the ultimate final cause, the ultimate purpose of all
existence, which they of course labeled God! Note that, outside of the hard sciences, this
is often the kind of cause we are most interested in: Why did he do it, what was his
purpose or intention? E.g. in law, the bullet may have been the “efficient” cause of death,
but the intent of the person pulling the trigger is what we are concerned with. When we
talk about intentions, goals, values, and so on, we are talking about final causes.
Aristotle wrote the first book on psychology (as a separate topic from the rest of
philosophy). It was called, appropriately, Para Psyche, Greek for “about the mind or
soul.” It is better known in the Latin form, De Anima. In this book, we find the first
mentions of many ideas that are basic to psychology today, such as the laws of

In it, he says the mind or soul is the “first entelechy” of the body, the “cause and
principle” of the body, the realization of the body. We might put it like this: The mind is
the purposeful functioning of the nervous system.

Like Plato, he postulates three kinds of souls, although slightly differently defined. There
is a plant soul, the essence of which is nutrition. Then there is an animal soul, which
contains the basic sensations, desire, pain and pleasure, and the ability to cause motion.
Last, but not least, is the human soul. The essence of the human soul is, of course,
reason. He suggests that, perhaps, this last soul is capable of existence apart from the

He foreshadowed many of the concepts that would become popular only two thousand
years later. Libido, for example: “In all animals... it is the most natural function to beget
another being similar to itself... in order that they attain as far as possible, the immortal
and divine.... This is the final cause of every creatures natural life.”

And the struggle of the id and ego: “There are two powers in the soul which appear to be
moving forces -- desire and reason. But desire prompts actions in violation of reason...
desire... may be wrong.”

And the pleasure principle and reality principle: “Although desires arise which are
opposed to each other, as is the case when reason and appetite are opposed, it happens
only in creatures endowed with a sense of time. For reason, on account of the future, bids
us resist, while desire regards the present; the momentarily pleasant appears to it as the
absolutely pleasant and the absolutely good, because it does not see the future.”

And finally, self-actualization: We begin as unformed matter in the womb, and through
years of development and learning, we become mature adults, always reaching for
perfection. "So the good has been well explained as that at which all things aim."

Plato (437-347) was Socrates’ prized student

The Academy was more like Pythagorus’ community -- a sort of quasi-religious

fraternity, where rich young men studied mathematics, astronomy, law, and, of course,
philosophy. It was free, depending entirely on donations. True to his ideals, Plato also
permitted women to attend! The Academy would become the center of Greek learning
for almost a millennium.
Plato can be understood as idealistic and rationalistic, much like Pythagorus but much
less mystical. He divides reality into two: On the one hand we have ontos, idea or ideal.
This is ultimate reality, permanent, eternal, spiritual. On the other hand, there’s
phenomena, which is a manifestation of the ideal. Phenomena are appearances -- things
as they seem to us -- and are associated with matter, time, and space.

Phenomena are illusions which decay and die. Ideals are unchanging, perfect.
Phenomena are definitely inferior to Ideals! The idea of a triangle -- the defining
mathematics of it, the form or essence of it -- is eternal. Any individual triangle, the
triangles of the day-to-day experiential world, are never quite perfect: They may be a
little crooked, or the lines a little thick, or the angles not quite right.... They only
approximate that perfect triangle, the ideal triangle.

If it seems strange to talk about ideas or ideals as somehow more real than the world of
our experiences, consider science. The law of gravity, 1+1=2, “magnets attract iron,”
E=mc2, and so on -- these are universals, not true for one day in one small location, but
true forever and everywhere! If you believe that there is order in the universe, that nature
has laws, you believe in ideas!

Ideas are available to us through thought, while phenomena are available to us through
our senses. So, naturally, thought is a vastly superior means to get to the truth. This is
what makes Plato a rationalist, as opposed to an empiricist, in epistemology.

Senses can only give you information about the ever-changing and imperfect world of
phenomena, and so can only provide you with implications about ultimate reality, not
reality itself. Reason goes straight to the idea. You “remember,” or intuitively recognize
the truth, as Socrates suggested in the dialog Meno.

According to Plato, the phenomenal world strives to become ideal, perfect, complete.
Ideals are, in that sense, a motivating force. In fact, he identifies the ideal with God and
perfect goodness. God creates the world out of materia (raw material, matter) and shapes
it according to his “plan” or “blueprint” -- ideas or the ideal. If the world is not perfect, it
is not because of God or the ideals, but because the raw materials were not perfect. I
think you can see why the early Christian church made Plato an honorary Christian, even
though he died three and a half centuries before Christ!

Plato applies the same dichotomy to human beings: There’s the body, which is material,
mortal, and “moved” (a victim of causation). Then there’s the soul, which is ideal,
immortal, and “unmoved” (enjoying free will).

The soul includes reason, of course, as well as self-awareness and moral sense. Plato
says the soul will always choose to do good, if it recognizes what is good. This is a
similar conception of good and bad as the Buddhists have: Rather than bad being sin, it
is considered a matter of ignorance. So, someone who does something bad requires
education, not punishment.
The soul is drawn to the good, the ideal, and so is drawn to God. We gradually move
closer and closer to God through reincarnation as well as in our individual lives. Our
ethical goal in life is resemblance to God, to come closer to the pure world of ideas and
ideal, to liberate ourselves from matter, time, and space, and to become more real in this
deeper sense. Our goal is, in other words, self-realization.

Plato talks about three levels of pleasure. First is sensual or physical pleasure, of which
sex is a great example. A second level is sensuous or esthetic pleasure, such as admiring
someone’s beauty, or enjoying one’s relationship in marriage. But the highest level is
ideal pleasure, the pleasures of the mind. Here the example would be Platonic love,
intellectual love for another person unsullied by physical involvement.

Paralleling these three levels of pleasure are three souls. We have one soul called
appetite, which is mortal and comes from the gut. The second soul is called spirit or
courage. It is also mortal, and lives in the heart. The third soul is reason. It is immortal
and resides in the brain. The three are strung together by the cerebrospinal canal.

Plato is fond of analogies. Appetite, he says, is like a wild horse, very powerful, but likes
to go its own way. Spirit is like a thoroughbred, refined, well trained, directed power.
And reason is the charioteer, goal-directed, steering both horses according to his will.

Other analogies abound, especially in Plato’s greatest work, The Republic. In The
Republic, he designs (through Socrates) a society in order to discover the meaning of
justice. Along the way, he compares elements of his society (a utopia, Greek for “no
place”) to the three souls: The peasants are the foundation of the society. They till the
soil and produce goods, i.e. take care of society’s basic appetites. The warriors represent
the spirit and courage of the society. And the philosopher kings guide the society, as
reason guides our lives.

Before you assume that we are just looking at a Greek version of the Indian caste system,
please note: Everyone’s children are raised together and membership in one of the three
levels of society is based on talents, not on one’s birth parents! And Plato includes
women as men’s equals in this system.

I leave you with a few quotes:

"Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder."

"...(I)f you ask what is the good of education in general, the answer is easy; that
education makes good men, and that good men act nobly."

"(I) do to others as I would they should do to me."

"Our object in the construction of the State is the greatest happiness of the whole,
and not that of any one class."
Recurrent themes

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.
Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical
observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand.
Plato holds his Timaeus and gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms

Plato often discusses the father-son relationship and the "question" of whether a father's
interest in his sons has much to do with how well his sons turn out. A boy in ancient
Athens was socially located by his family identity, and Plato often refers to his characters
in terms of their paternal and fraternal relationships. Socrates was not a family man, and
saw himself as the son of his mother, who was apparently a midwife. A divine fatalist,
Socrates mocks men who spent exorbitant fees on tutors and trainers for their sons, and
repeatedly ventures the idea that good character is a gift from the gods. Crito reminds
Socrates that orphans are at the mercy of chance, but Socrates is unconcerned. In the
Theaetetus, he is found recruiting as a disciple a young man whose inheritance has been
squandered. Socrates twice compares the relationship of the older man and his boy lover
to the father-son relationship (Lysis 213a, Republic 3.403b), and in the Phaedo, Socrates'
disciples, towards whom he displays more concern than his biological sons, say they will
feel "fatherless" when he is gone.

In several dialogues, Socrates floats the idea that Knowledge is a matter of recollection,
and not of learning, observation, or study.[29] He maintains this view somewhat at his own
expense, because in many dialogues, Socrates complains of his forgetfulness. Socrates is
often found arguing that knowledge is not empirical, and that it comes from divine
insight. In many middle period dialogues, such as the Phaedo, Republic and Phaedrus
Plato advocates a belief in the immortality of the soul, and several dialogues end with
long speeches imagining the afterlife. More than one dialogue contrasts knowledge and
opinion, perception and reality, nature and custom, and body and soul.
Several dialogues tackle questions about art: Socrates says that poetry is inspired by the
muses, and is not rational. He speaks approvingly of this, and other forms of divine
madness (drunkenness, eroticism, and dreaming) in the Phaedrus (265a–c), and yet in the
Republic wants to outlaw Homer's great poetry, and laughter as well. In Ion, Socrates
gives no hint of the disapproval of Homer that he expresses in the Republic. The dialogue
Ion suggests that Homer's Iliad functioned in the ancient Greek world as the Bible does
today in the modern Christian world: as divinely inspired literature that can provide
moral guidance, if only it can be properly interpreted.

On politics and art, religion and science, justice and medicine, virtue and vice, crime and
punishment, pleasure and pain, rhetoric and rhapsody, human nature and sexuality, love
and wisdom, Socrates and his company of disputants had something to say.

Main article: Platonic realism

"Platonism" is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of

denying, as Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues,
most notably the Republic, Socrates inverts the common man's intuition about what is
knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if
anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be
graspable in the hands to be real. In the Theaetetus, he says such people are "eu a-
mousoi", an expression that means literally, "happily without the muses" (Theaetetus
156a). In other words, such people live without the divine inspiration that gives him, and
people like him, access to higher insights about reality.

Socrates's idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at
odds with the common man, and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with
his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, and
more explicitly in his description of the divided line. The allegory of the cave (begins
Republic 7.514a) is a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible
world is the most intelligible ("noeton") and that the visible world ("(h)oraton") is the
least knowable, and the most obscure.

Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be
good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few
climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible
struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other
people up, they find themselves objects of scorn and ridicule.

According to Socrates, physical objects and physical events are "shadows" of their ideal
or perfect forms, and exist only to the extent that they instantiate the perfect versions of
themselves. Just as shadows are temporary, inconsequential epiphenomena produced by
physical objects, physical objects are themselves fleeting phenomena caused by more
substantial causes, the ideals of which they are mere instances. For example, Socrates
thinks that perfect justice exists (although it is not clear where) and his own trial would
be a cheap copy of it.

The allegory of the cave (often said by scholars to represent Plato's own epistemology
and metaphysics) is intimately connected to his political ideology (often said to also be
Plato's own), that only people who have climbed out of the cave and cast their eyes on a
vision of goodness are fit to rule. Socrates claims that the enlightened men of society
must be forced from their divine contemplations and be compelled to run the city
according to their lofty insights. Thus is born the idea of the "philosopher-king", the wise
person who accepts the power thrust upon him by the people who are wise enough to
choose a good master. This is the main thesis of Socrates in the Republic, that the most
wisdom the masses can muster is the wise choice of a ruler.

The word metaphysics derives from the fact that Aristotle's musings about divine reality
came after ("meta") his lecture notes on his treatise on nature ("physics"). The term is in
fact applied to Aristotle's own teacher, and Plato's "metaphysics" is understood as
Socrates' division of reality into the warring and irreconcilable domains of the material
and the spiritual. The theory has been of incalculable influence in the history of Western
philosophy and religion.

Theory of Forms
Main article: Theory of Forms

The Theory of Forms (Greek: ιδέες) typically refers to the belief expressed by Socrates in
some of Plato's dialogues, that the material world as it seems to us is not the real world,
but only an image or copy of the real world. Socrates spoke of forms in formulating a
solution to the problem of universals. The forms, according to Socrates, are roughly
speaking archetypes or abstract representations of the many types of things, and
properties we feel and see around us, that can only be perceived by reason (Greek:
λογική); (that is, they are universals). In other words, Socrates sometimes seems to
recognise two worlds: the apparent world which is constantly changing, and an
unchanging and unseen world of forms, which may perhaps be a cause of what is

Main article: Platonic epistemology

Many have interpreted Plato as stating that knowledge is justified true belief, an
influential view that informed future developments in modern analytic epistemology.
This interpretation is based on a reading of the Theaetetus wherein Plato argues that
belief is to be distinguished from knowledge on account of justification. Many years
later, Edmund Gettier famously demonstrated the problems of the justified true belief
account of knowledge. This interpretation, however, imports modern analytic and
empiricist categories onto Plato himself and is better read on its own terms than as Plato's
Really, in the Sophist, Statesman, Republic, and the Parmenides Plato himself associates
knowledge with the apprehension of unchanging Forms and their relationships to one
another (which he calls "expertise" in Dialectic). More explicitly, Plato himself argues in
the Timaeus that knowledge is always proportionate to the realm from which it is gained.
In other words, if one derives one's account of something experientially, because the
world of sense is in flux, the views therein attained will be mere opinions. And opinions
are characterized by a lack of necessity and stability. On the other hand, if one derives
one's account of something by way of the non-sensible forms, because these forms are
unchanging, so too is the account derived from them. It is only in this sense that Plato
uses the term "knowledge".

In the Meno, Socrates uses a geometrical example to expound Plato's view that
knowledge in this latter sense is acquired by recollection. Socrates elicits a fact
concerning a geometrical construction from a slave boy, who could not have otherwise
known the fact (due to the slave boy's lack of education). The knowledge must be
present, Socrates concludes, in an eternal, non-experiential form.

Papirus Oxyrhynchus, with fragment of Plato's Republic

Plato's philosophical views had many societal implications, especially on the idea of an
ideal state or government. There is some discrepancy between his early and later views.
Some of the most famous doctrines are contained in the Republic during his middle
period, as well as in the Laws and the Statesman. However, because Plato wrote
dialogues, it is assumed that Socrates is often speaking for Plato. This assumption may
not be true in all cases.

Plato, through the words of Socrates, asserts that societies have a tripartite class structure
corresponding to the appetite/spirit/reason structure of the individual soul. The
appetite/spirit/reason stand for different parts of the body. The body parts symbolize the
castes of society.[30]

Structuralism is an intellectual movement that developed in France in the 1950s and

1960s, in which human culture is analysed semiotically (i.e., as a system of signs).

Structuralism originated in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the Prague and
Moscow schools.[1] It appeared in academia in the second half of the 20th century and
grew to become one of the most popular approaches in academic fields concerned with
the analysis of language, culture, and society. The structuralist mode of reasoning has
been applied in a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology,
literary criticism, and architecture. The most famous thinkers associated with
structuralism include the linguist Roman Jakobson, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-
Strauss, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault,
the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and the literary critic Roland Barthes.[1] As an
intellectual movement, structuralism came to take existentialism's pedestal in 1960s

Structuralism argues that a specific domain of culture may be understood by means of a

structure—modelled on language—that is distinct both from the organisations of reality
and those of ideas or the imagination—the "third order."[3] In Lacan's psychoanalytic
theory, for example, the structural order of "the Symbolic" is distinguished both from
"the Real" and "the Imaginary"; similarly, in Althusser's Marxist theory, the structural
order of the capitalist mode of production is distinct both from the actual, real agents
involved in its relations and from the ideological forms in which those relations are
understood. According to Alison Assiter, four ideas are common to the various forms of
structuralism. First, that a structure determines the position of each element of a whole.
Second, that every system has a structure. Third, structural laws deal with co-existence
rather than change. Fourth, structures are the "real things" that lie beneath the surface or
the appearance of meaning.[4]

In the 1970s, structuralism was criticised for its rigidity and ahistoricism. Despite this,
many of structuralism's proponents, such as Jacques Lacan, continue to assert an
influence on continental philosophy and many of the fundamental assumptions of some
of structuralism's critics (who have been associated with "post-structuralism") are a
continuation of structuralism

The term "structuralism" itself appeared in the works of French anthropologist Claude
Lévi-Strauss, and gave rise, in France, to the "structuralist movement," which spurred the
work of such thinkers as Louis Althusser, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, as well as the
structural Marxism of Nicos Poulantzas. Most members of this movement did not
describe themselves as being a part of any such movement. Structuralism is closely
related to semiotics.

Structuralism rejected the concept of human freedom and choice and focused instead on
the way that human behavior is determined by various structures. The most important
initial work on this score was Claude Lévi-Strauss's 1949 volume The Elementary
Structures of Kinship. Lévi-Strauss had known Jakobson during their time together in
New York during WWII and was influenced by both Jakobson's structuralism as well as
the American anthropological tradition. In Elementary Structures he examined kinship
systems from a structural point of view and demonstrated how apparently different social
organizations were in fact different permutations of a few basic kinship structures. In the
late 1950s he published Structural Anthropology, a collection of essays outlining his
program for structuralism.

By the early 1960s structuralism as a movement was coming into its own and some
believed that it offered a single unified approach to human life that would embrace all
disciplines. Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida focused on how structuralism could be
applied to literature.

Blending Freud and De Saussure, the French (post)structuralist Jacques Lacan applied
structuralism to psychoanalysis and, in a different way, Jean Piaget applied structuralism
to the study of psychology. But Jean Piaget, who would better define himself as
constructivist, considers structuralism as "a method and not a doctrine" because for him
"there exists no structure without a construction, abstract or genetic"[5]

Michel Foucault's book The Order of Things examined the history of science to study
how structures of epistemology, or episteme, shaped the way in which people imagined
knowledge and knowing (though Foucault would later explicitly deny affiliation with the
structuralist movement).

In much the same way, American historian of science Thomas Kuhn addressed the
structural formations of science in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions - its title alone evincing a stringent structuralist approach. Though less
concerned with "episteme," Kuhn nonetheless remarked at how coteries of scientists
operated under and applied a standard praxis of 'normal science,' deviating from a
standard 'paradigm' only in instances of irreconcilable anomalies that question a
significant body of their work.

Blending Marx and structuralism another French theorist Louis Althusser introduced his
own brand of structural social analysis, giving rise to "structural Marxism". Other authors
in France and abroad have since extended structural analysis to practically every

The definition of 'structuralism' also shifted as a result of its popularity. As its popularity
as a movement waxed and waned, some authors considered themselves 'structuralists'
only to later eschew the label.

The term has slightly different meanings in French and English. In the US, for instance,
Derrida is considered the paradigm of post-structuralism while in France he is labeled a
structuralist.[citation needed] Finally, some authors wrote in several different styles. Barthes, for
instance, wrote some books which are clearly structuralist and others which clearly are

Post-structuralism attempted to distinguish itself from the simple use of the structural
method. Deconstruction was an attempt to break with structuralistic thought. Some
intellectuals, such as Julia Kristeva for example, took structuralism (and Russian
formalism) for a starting point to later become prominent post-structuralists.
Structuralism has had varying degrees of influence in the social sciences: a great deal in
the field of sociology.

[edit] Structuralism in linguistics

See also: Structural linguistics

In Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (written by Saussure's

colleagues after his death and based on student notes), the analysis focuses not on the use
of language (called "parole," or speech), but rather on the underlying system of language
(called "langue"). This approach examines how the elements of language relate to each
other in the present, synchronically rather than diachronically. Saussure argued that
linguistic signs were composed of two parts:

1. a "signifier" (the "sound pattern" of a word, either in mental projection—as when

one silently recites lines from a poem to one's self—or in actual, physical
realization as part of a speech act)
2. a "signified" (the concept or meaning of the word)

This was quite different from previous approaches that focused on the relationship
between words and the things in the world that they designate.[6] Other key notions in
structural linguistics include paradigm, syntagm, and value (though these notions were
not fully developed in Saussure's thought). A structural "idealism" is a class of linguistic
units (lexemes, morphemes or even constructions) that are possible in a certain position
in a given linguistic environment (such as a given sentence), which is called the
"syntagm". The different functional role of each of these members of the paradigm is
called "value" (valeur in French).

Saussure's Course influenced many linguists between World War I and World War II. In
the United States, for instance, Leonard Bloomfield developed his own version of
structural linguistics, as did Louis Hjelmslev in Denmark and Alf Sommerfelt in Norway.
In France Antoine Meillet and Émile Benveniste continued Saussure's project. Most
importantly[says who?], however, members of the Prague school of linguistics such as Roman
Jakobson and Nikolai Trubetzkoy conducted research that would be greatly influential.

The clearest and most important example of Prague school structuralism lies in
phonemics. Rather than simply compiling a list of which sounds occur in a language, the
Prague school sought to examine how they were related. They determined that the
inventory of sounds in a language could be analyzed in terms of a series of contrasts.
Thus in English the sounds /p/ and /b/ represent distinct phonetics because there are cases
(minimal pairs) where the contrast between the two is the only difference between two
distinct words (e.g. 'pat' and 'bat'). Analyzing sounds in terms of contrastive features also
opens up comparative scope—it makes clear, for instance, that the difficulty Japanese
speakers have differentiating /r/ and /l/ in English is because these sounds are not
contrastive in Japanese. While this approach is now standard in linguistics, it was
revolutionary at the time. Phonology would become the paradigmatic basis for
structuralism in a number of different fields.

[edit] Structuralism in anthropology and sociology

Main article: Structural anthropology
According to structural theory in anthropology and social anthropology, meaning is
produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and
activities that serve as systems of signification. A structuralist approach may study
activities as diverse as food preparation and serving rituals, religious rites, games, literary
and non-literary texts, and other forms of entertainment to discover the deep structures by
which meaning is produced and reproduced within the culture. For example, an early and
prominent practitioner of structural anthropology, anthropologist and ethnographer
Claude Lévi-Strauss, analyzed in the 1950s cultural phenomena including mythology,
kinship (the alliance theory and the incest taboo), and food preparation. In addition to
these studies, he produced more linguistically-focused writings in which he applied
Saussure's distinction between langue and parole in his search for the fundamental
structures of the human mind, arguing that the structures that form the "deep grammar" of
society originate in the mind and operate in us unconsciously. Lévi-Strauss was inspired
by information theory and mathematics[citation needed].

Another concept utilised in structual anthropology came from the Prague school of
linguistics, where Roman Jakobson and others analyzed sounds based on the presence or
absence of certain features (such as voiceless vs. voiced). Lévi-Strauss included this in
his conceptualization of the universal structures of the mind, which he held to operate
based on pairs of binary oppositions such as hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature,
cooked-raw, or marriageable vs. tabooed women.

A third influence came from Marcel Mauss, who had written on gift exchange systems.
Based on Mauss, for instance, Lévi-Strauss argued that kinship systems are based on the
exchange of women between groups (a position known as 'alliance theory') as opposed to
the 'descent' based theory described by Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes. While
replacing Marcel Mauss at his Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes chair, Lévi-Strauss'
writing became widely popular in the 1960s and 1970s and gave rise to the term
"structuralism" itself.

In Britain authors such as Rodney Needham and Edmund Leach were highly influenced
by structuralism. Authors such as Maurice Godelier and Emmanuel Terray combined
Marxism with structural anthropology in France. In the United States, authors such as
Marshall Sahlins and James Boon built on structuralism to provide their own analysis of
human society. Structural anthropology fell out of favour in the early 1980s for a number
of reasons. D'Andrade suggests that this was because it made unverifiable assumptions
about the universal structures of the human mind. Authors such as Eric Wolf argued that
political economy and colonialism should be at the forefront of anthropology. More
generally, criticisms of structuralism by Pierre Bourdieu led to a concern with how
cultural and social structures were changed by human agency and practice, a trend which
Sherry Ortner has referred to as 'practice theory'.

Some anthropological theorists, however, while finding considerable fault with Lévi-
Strauss's version of structuralism, did not turn away from a fundamental structural basis
for human culture. The Biogenetic Structuralism group for instance argued that some
kind of structural foundation for culture must exist because all humans inherit the same
system of brain structures. They proposed a kind of Neuroanthropology which would lay
the foundations for a more complete scientific account of cultural similarity and variation
by requiring an integration of cultural anthropology and neuroscience—a program that
theorists such as Victor Turner also embraced.

[edit] Structuralism in literary theory and criticism

Main article: Semiotic literary criticism

In literary theory, structuralist criticism relates literary texts to a larger structure, which
may be a particular genre, a range of intertextual connections, a model of a universal
narrative structure, or a system of recurrent patterns or motifs.[7] Structuralism argues that
there must be a structure in every text, which explains why it is easier for experienced
readers than for non-experienced readers to interpret a text. Hence, everything that is
written seems to be governed by specific rules, or a "grammar of literature", that one
learns in educational institutions and that are to be unmasked.[8] A potential problem of
structuralist interpretation is that it can be highly reductive, as scholar Catherine Belsey
puts it: "the structuralist danger of collapsing all difference."[9] An example of such a
reading might be if a student concludes the authors of West Side Story did not write
anything "really" new, because their work has the same structure as Shakespeare's Romeo
and Juliet. In both texts a girl and a boy fall in love (a "formula" with a symbolic
operator between them would be "Boy + Girl") despite the fact that they belong to two
groups that hate each other ("Boy's Group - Girl's Group" or "Opposing forces") and
conflict is resolved by their death. Structuralist readings focus on how the structures of
the single text resolve inherent narrative tensions. If a structuralist reading focuses on
multiple texts, there must be some way in which those texts unify themselves into a
coherent system. The versatility of structuralism is such that a literary critic could make
the same claim about a story of two friendly families ("Boy's Family + Girl's Family")
that arrange a marriage between their children despite the fact that the children hate each
other ("Boy - Girl") and then the children commit suicide to escape the arranged
marriage; the justification is that the second story's structure is an 'inversion' of the first
story's structure: the relationship between the values of love and the two pairs of parties
involved have been reversed.

Structuralistic literary criticism argues that the "novelty value of a literary text" can lie
only in new structure, rather than in the specifics of character development and voice in
which that structure is expressed. Literary structuralism often follows the lead of
Vladimir Propp, Algirdas Julien Greimas, and Claude Lévi-Strauss in seeking out basic
deep elements in stories, myths, and more recently, anecdotes, which are combined in
various ways to produce the many versions of the ur-story or ur-myth.

There is considerable similarity between structural literary theory and Northrop Frye's
archetypal criticism, which is also indebted to the anthropological study of myths. Some
critics have also tried to apply the theory to individual works, but the effort to find unique
structures in individual literary works runs counter to the structuralist program and has an
affinity with New Criticism.
[edit] Reactions to structuralism
Today structuralism is less popular than approaches such as post-structuralism and
deconstruction. There are many reasons for this. Structuralism has often been criticized
for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of
people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the
student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political
struggle moved to the center of people's attention. The ethnologist Robert Jaulin defined
another ethnological method which clearly pitted itself against structuralism.

In the 1980s, deconstruction and its emphasis on the fundamental ambiguity of language
—rather than its crystalline logical structure—became popular. By the end of the century
structuralism was seen as an historically-important school of thought, but the movements
that it spawned, rather than structuralism itself, commanded attention.

[edit] See also

• Structural functionalism
• Structuralist economics
• Structuralist film theory




Structuralists view society and its rules as expressions of deep structures, often binary
codes, that express our primary natures. A systematic study of such codes is semiotics,
which was later hijacked by Poststructuralists as evidence that language alone provides a
true reality.

Introduction: Pierce
Ferdinand de Saussure was not the first to propose a science of signs: the American
Charles Pierce (1839-1914) independently {1} developed semiology within the context of
pragmatism. Pierce side-stepped Descartes' scepticism, observing that we are persuaded
by the number and variety of arguments supporting a conclusion, rather than by the
meditations of one individual, even ourselves. "The opinion which is fated to be
ultimately agreed upon by all who investigate is what we mean by truth, and the object
represented in this opinion is real." Pierce examined these investigations (methods of
inquiry, standards of inference, ways of clarifying, identifying hypotheses, etc.),
classifying them by the number of relations they exhibit. Meaning and understanding
involve threefold relations, and as such constituted signs. Semiotics is a theory of how we
are guided and constrained in interpreting signs, and some of Pierce's terminology is still
widely used: iconic (sign resembles referent), indexical (sign is causally associated with
referent) and symbolic (sign has an arbitrary relation to referent). Indeed, most things
ultimately could be seen as signs: mathematical and logical symbolism, even science

Saussure's Semiotics

Saussure worked on a much smaller canvas and devised a semiology that properly
applied to linguistics. Certainly the signified (concept) and signifier (sound or letter
group) were connected only arbitrarily, as had been noted since Aristotle. But Saussure
made it a cardinal feature of his system: the principle of arbitrariness, he said, dominates
all linguistics. The English call their faithful friend dog and the Spanish perro.
Historically, there are reasons for the difference, but Saussure's approach removes them
from consideration: we look only at language as normal speakers use it now.

Binary opposition is a common feature of the western intellectual tradition (e.g.

individual versus society, true versus false) and Saussure writes this opposition into his
system. No particular unit (word, sound, concept) has any intrinsic value beyond what it
derives from the presence of other units in the system, similar or dissimilar. Any unit
(and that includes larger elements of syntax and meaning) can substitute for any other, or
be compared to another. Words acquire their values in two ways. One is by virtue of
being strung together in sentences: their syntagmatic relationships. The other is
paradigmatic, associative, from experience of the world outside, whether directly through
sense impressions or via mental operations. This paradigmatic way is not logical: we
build up chains of associations — school, playtime, games, competition, etc. — where
the end members have no obvious connection with each other. {2}

Two points need to be made. Firstly, language can be studied from many aspects (as
individual expression, social need, aesthetic shape, etc.) but Saussure's approach cuts
these off, treating language as a self-contained system of signs. The arbitrary nature of
signs is a product of that approach: it is not proved by his system but presupposed by it.
Secondly, the binary opposition is a structuring device: a conscious choice. Formal logic
has a stronger case for the opposition (true or false) but has in practice an imperfect grasp
on the world, commonly uses more than two values, and has branched into deontic,
modal etc. forms.


Structuralism originated in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss on pre-literate peoples. Lévi-

Strauss {3} was a contemporary of Sartre and French existentialism, but his thinking went
back to the collectivist notions of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, who saw society as the
determining force. Societies controlled the reasoning and morals of their citizens, and it is
therefore societies as a whole that should be studied, in a rational, secular and scientific
manner. In this spirit, Lévi-Strauss analyzed the kinship and myths of Brazilian peoples,
deriving sets of rules or structures that represented them in a quasi-mathematical
terminology. His doctoral thesis, published in 1949 as The Elementary Structures of
Kinship, described marriage in preliterate societies as an exchange between social groups,
an expression of a universal "reciprocity". Feminists were attracted to this explanation of
the subordinate role of women. Grander still was the claim that Structuralism disclosed
the foundations of society, and therefore the true meaning of human existence.

Literary critics didn't go that far, but they did seek to understand the rules by which we
interpret a piece of writing. Jonathan Culler remarked in 1970 that "the real object of
poetics is not the work itself but its intelligibility. One must attempt to explain how it is
that works can be understood; the implicit knowledge, the conventions that enable
readers to make sense of them must be formulated. . ." {5} Of course the readers has to be
competent, skilled even, but Culler did not elicited structures independent of social class
and period, as Structuralists would.


Lévi-Strauss was a theoretician par excellence. He drew widely on the work of others,
but had only six months of practical field experience to his credit. His writing was very
technical, and couched in a style unusual in science, with gnomic, metaphorical,
abstractions to illustrate the practical. "If birds are metaphorical human beings and dogs
are metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings
and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings" is a typical example.

Though his writing brought Structuralism to public notice, and was hailed as important
for that reason, many anthropologists now think the approach unnecessary. {4} All the
same, Lévi-Strauss's novel insights range over an astonishingly wide field, and his
analysis of unsuspected relationships in myths, totemism, and kinship, together with his
demonstrations of ways that natural and social behaviour lend themselves to cultural
elaboration, were important contributions in their own right.

Language theorists were more critical. {6} Lévi-Strauss's theories were vaguely expressed
or tautological: i.e. not scientific, couldn't be falsified. Individuals become symbolic
concepts, lacking existence outside these conceptual schemes, which is a useful notion
for theorists like Foucault and Althusser, but hardly credible to the workaday world.
What, moreover (to press the questions that plague Chomsky's deep grammar) was the
status of these structures? It is one thing to identify underlying structures in the
mythology and social behaviour of illiterate peoples, but something else to suppose that
such structures really exist, that they find expression in language and unconsciously
control action.

Anthropologists themselves are currently much divided, even as to whether Lévi-Strauss

properly collected the evidence {7} Being visible to none but the specialist, can these
structures really influence the laity? Abstracted in a simplistic, reductionist manner, these
structures may simply be taxonomic systems, useful for classifying, but hardly providing
man with his raison d'être. Certainly they employ a mathematical notation, but that does
not guarantee that mathematics adequately represents the situation. The controversy
surrounding Eynsenck's introversion-extroversion axes of personality theory, and more
particularly Cattell's trait theory, demonstrates how variously human behaviour can make
fun of mathematical treatment. {8}

Perhaps the proof is in the eating. Has Structuralism provided interpretations that more
exactly describe our aesthetic responses to literature? Are we clearer why we like some
works and find others wanting? Can we look deeper and with a more generous
discernment at novels, plays, poems? Not generally. As with myth analysis, results have
been very disappointing. Structuralism does not illuminate the work so much as
substantiate its own models. {9} Or illustrate them, might be fairer, since substantiation
calls on evidence that Structuralists and Poststructuralists have generally disdained to

The last is worth stressing. Historians commonly use a structuralism when they talk of
underlying trends and social movements: the growth of secular power in Tudor England,
the loss of spiritual confidence in thirteenth century Islam, etc. But the structures they
adduce are not simple and universal, but complex and empirically derived. Evidence is
collected, reasonably interpreted, and findings defended against alternative views. Much
the same applies to Chomsky's grammar, which also employs deep, largely hidden

Whatever the shortcomings, the movement soon branched into new areas: ideology and
Poststructuralism. Books continue to appear, which literature students must include in
their reading, but Paris grew bored with Structuralism after the middle seventies. {10} The
theorists undermined their own precarious assumptions. Foucault adopted the looser, anti-
rationalist approaches of Lacan. Derrida attacked the very notion of structure, or of
language saying anything definite at all.

Literary theory
literary criticism - literature - theory

Literary theory is an umbrella term for many different movements in the formal
study of texts.

Specific theories are distinguished not only by their methods and conclusions, but
even by how they define "text." For many, "texts" means "literary (i.e. 'high' art)
texts" (see literature). But different principles and methods of literary theory have
been applied to non-fiction, pop fiction, film, historical documents, law, advertising,
etc. In fact, some theories (e.g. structuralism) treat cultural events like fashion,
football, riots, etc. as "texts."

Literary theorists are generally professors of English. There are many popular
schools of literary theory, which take different approaches to understanding texts
(which can also mean non-fiction, film, and and practically anything else that can be
'read' or interpreted). Most actual theorists combine methods of more than one
approach. Schools that have been historically important include formalism
(sometimes called 'new critical formalism' or 'the new criticism'), structuralism, post-
structuralism, marxism, feminism, historicism, new historicism, deconstruction,
reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.
-- [2004]
Literary theory is the theory (or the philosophy) of the interpretation of literature
and literary criticism. Its history begins with classical Greek poetics and rhetoric and
includes, since the 18th century, aesthetics and hermeneutics. In the 20th century,
"theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to
reading texts, most of which are informed by various strands of Continental
philosophy. (In much academic discussion, the terms "literary theory" and
"Continental philosophy" are nearly synonymous, though some scholars would argue
that a clear distinction can be drawn between the two.)
-- [Oct 2004]

Schools of literary theory

Listed below are some of the most commonly identified schools of literary theory,
along with their major authors. (In many of these cases, such as those of the
historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-
Strauss, these authors were not literary critics and did not primarily write about
literature; but, since their work has been broadly influential in literary theory, they
are nonetheless listed here.)

 American pragmatism and other American approaches

Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty
 Cultural studies - emphasized the role of literature in everyday life
Paul Gilroy, John Guillory
 Deconstruction - which sought to emphasize the ambiguities in a text
Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller
 Feminism (see feminist literary criticism) - which emphasizes themes of gender
Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Elaine Showalter
 Formalism
 German hermeneutics and philology
Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Erich
 Marxism (see Marxist literary criticism) - which emphasized themes of class
Georg Lukács, Valentin Vološinov, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Fredric
Jameson, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin
 New Criticism - which looked at literary works on the basis of what is written, and
not at the goals of the author or biographical issues
W.K. Wimsatt, F.R. Leavis, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn
 New historicism - which examines a text by also examining other texts of the
time period
Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Jonathan Goldberg, H. Aram Vesser
 New Weird
China Mieville
 Postcolonialism - examines literature produced by countries that were once
occupied by a governing force
Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha
 Post-structuralism - criticism of structuralism
Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, the late Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze and
Félix Guattari, Maurice Blanchot
 Psychoanalysis (see psychoanalytic literary criticism) - looks at works with close
attention paid to the unconscious mind of the author
Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Viktor Tausk
 Queer theory - examines, questions, and criticizes the role of gender in literature
Judith Butler, Eve Sedgewick
 Reader Response - focusses upon the active response of the reader to a text
Wolfgang Iser, Hans-Robert Jauss, Stuart Hall
 Russian Formalism
Victor Shklovsky, Vladimir Propp
 Structuralism and semiotics (see semiotic literary criticism) -- examined the
underlying structures in the content of a text (plot, for example)
Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the early Roland Barthes, Mikhail
Bakhtin, Jurij Lotman
 Other theorists: Robert Graves, Alamgir Hashmi, John Sutherland, Leslie Fiedler
and Norhtrop Frye
-- [Aug

see also: literary criticism - theory - literature

New Criticism
New Criticism, literary theory popular in the first half of the 20th century looks at
literary works on the basis of what is written, and not at the goals of the author or
biographical issues.

See also: [Jan 2006]

Theory Of Literature (1949) - Rene

Wellek, Austin Warren
Theory Of Literature (1949) - Rene Wellek, Austin Warren [] [FR] [DE]

Literature is "a stratified structure of signs and meanings which is totally distinct
from the mental processes of the author at the time of composition." --René Wellek,

René Wellek (1903-1995) was a Czech-German comparative literary critic. Wellek,

along with Erich Auerbach, is remembered as an eminent product of the Central
European philological tradition.

Born in Prague, Wellek was raised in Vienna speaking Czech and German. He studied
literature at the Charles University in Prague. He was active among the Prague
School linguists there before moving to teach in London in 1935.

During World War II Wellek relocated to America, first to the University of Iowa and
then to Yale University. In the United States, he became a friend and advocate of the
New Critics. With the critic Austin Warren, Wellek wrote the landmark volume Theory
of Literature, one of the first works which systematized literary theory, rather than
approaching criticism in a more ad-hoc fashion. Beginning in the 1960s, Wellek
defended the New Critics against the condemnation of their work in the name of a
structuralist-influenced literary theory. For this reason, he is sometimes thought of
today as a conservative literary scholar. Wellek's final work was a lengthy, multiple-
volume history of literary criticism. --
%C3%A9_Wellek [Jan 2006]

Formalism (literature)
In literary studies, formalism sometimes refers to inquiry into the form (rather than
the content) of works of literature, but usually refers broadly to approaches to
interpreting or evaluating literary works that focus on features of the text itself
(especially properties of its language) rather than on the contexts of its creation
(biographical, historical or intellectual) or the contexts of its reception. The term
groups together a number of different approaches to literature, many of which
seriously diverge from one another. Formalism, in this broad sense, was the
dominant mode of academic literary study in the US at least from the end of the
Second World War through the 1970s, especially as embodied in René Wellek and
Austin Warren's Theory of Literature (1948, 1955, 1962). Beginning in the late
1970s, formalism was substantially displaced by various approaches (often with
political aims or assumptions) that were suspicious of the idea that a literary work
could be separated from its origins or uses. The term has often had a pejorative cast
and has been used by opponents to indicate either aridity or ideological deviance.
Some recent trends in academic literary criticism suggest that formalism may be
making a comeback. --
[Jan 2006]

Formalism (art)
Formalism is the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined by its
form--the way it is made, its purely visual aspects and its medium. Formalism
emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather
than context and content. Formalism dominated modern art from the late 1800s
through the 1960s. -- [Jan

See also: form - content - 1949 - literary theory - literature - theory

A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms

(1973) - Roger Fowler
A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms (1973) - Roger Fowler [] [FR]
[DE] [UK]

Book Description
Around 300 essay-style entries introduce the reader to the traditional terms of
literary criticism and the central preoccupations of contemporary critical thinking.

In What is a classic? (1944) T.S. Eliot asserts that classic status can be known 'only
by hindsight and in historical perspective.'


Though [modernism is] sometimes loosely used as a label for the dominant tendency
of the twentieth-century arts, as ‘neo-classicism’ is for eighteenth- and ‘romanticism’
for nineteenth-century arts, ‘modernism’ raises problems crucial to the character and
destiny of those arts. Not only is much modern writing not modernist – so Stephen
Spender distinguishes between 'modern' and 'contemporary' writers (The Struggle of
the Modern, 1963) – but it resists the thesis that modernist style and sensibility are
inevitable in our age.

For modernism tends to propose special opportunities and difficulties for the arts.
Modernist art is, in most critical usage, reckoned to be the art of what Harold
Rosenburg calls 'the tradition of the new'. It is experimental, formally complex,
elliptical, contains elements of decreation as well as creation, and tends to associate
notions of the artist's freedom from realism, materialism, traditional genre and form,
with notions of cultural apocalypse and disaster.

Its social content is characteristically avant-garde or bohemian; hence specialized.

Its notion of the artist is of a futurist, not the conserver of culture but its onward
creator; its notion of the audience is that it is foolish if potentially redeemable:
'Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to
trust their great artists' is Ezra Pound's definition. Beyond art's specialized enclave,
conditions of crisis are evident: language awry, cultural cohesion lost, perception

Further than this, there are several modernisms: an intensifying sequence of

movements from Symbolism on (Post-impressionism, Expressionism, Futurism,
Imagism, Vorticism, Dadaism, Surrealism) often radically at odds, and sharp
differences of cultural interpretation coming from writers apparently stylistically
analogous (e.g. T. S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams).

A like technique can be very differently used (e.g. the use Of STREAM OF
CONSCIOUSNESS in Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and William Faulkner) according to
different notions of underlying order in life or art. The post-symbolist stress on the
'hard' or impersonal image (see IMAGISM) can dissolve into the fluidity of Dada or
Surrealism or into romantic personalization: while the famous 'classical' element in
modernism, emanating particularly from Eliot, its stress on the luminous symbol
outside time, can be qualified by a wide variety of political attitudes and forms of

Formalism (art)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

In art theory, formalism is the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined
by its form--the way it is made, its purely visual aspects, and its medium. Formalism
emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than
realism, context, and content. In visual art, formalism is a concept that posits that
everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art.
The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background,
and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. Formalism is an
approach to understanding art.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

In art theory, formalism is the concept that a work's artistic value is entirely determined
by its form--the way it is made, its purely visual aspects, and its medium. Formalism
emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than
realism, context, and content. In visual art, formalism is a concept that posits that
everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art.
The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background,
and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance. Formalism is an
approach to understanding art.


• 1 History of formalism
• 2 Formalism today
• 3 See also
• 4 Notes and references

• 5 External links

[edit] History of formalism

The concept of formalism can be traced as far back as Plato, who argued that 'eidos' (or
shape) of a thing included our perceptions of the thing, as well as those sensory aspects of
a thing which the human mind can take in. Plato argued that eidos included elements of
representation and imitation, since the thing itself could not be replicated. Subsequently,
Plato believed that eidos inherently was deceptive.

In 1890, the Post-impressionist painter Maurice Denis wrote in his article 'Definition of
Neo-Traditionism' that a painting was 'essentially a flat surface covered in colours
arranged in a certain order.' Denis argued that the painting or sculpture or drawing itself,
not the subject of the artistic work, gave pleasure to the mind.

Denis' emphasis on the form of a work led the Bloomsbury writer Clive Bell to write in
his 1914 book, Art, that there was a distinction between a thing's actual form and its
'significant form.' For Bell, recognition of a work of art as representational of a thing was
less important than capturing the 'significant form', or true inner nature, of a thing. Bell
pushed for an art that used the techniques of an artistic medium to capture the essence of
a thing (its 'significant form') rather than its mere outward appearance.

Throughout the rest of the early part of the 20th Century, European structuralists
continued to argue that 'real' art was expressive only of a thing's ontological,
metaphysical or essential nature. But European art critics soon began using the word
'structure' to indicate a new concept of art. By the 1930s and 1940s, structuralists
reasoned that the mental processes and social preconceptions an individual brings to art
are more important than the essential, or 'ideal', nature of the thing. Knowledge is created
only through socialization and thought, they said, and a thing can only be known as it is
filtered through these mental processes. Soon, the word 'form' was used interchangeably
with the word 'structure'.
Piet Mondrian, Composition No. 10, 1939-42, oil on canvas, 80 x 73 cm, private

In 1940, the American art critic Clement Greenberg, in an influential piece in Partisan
Review, argued that the value of art was located in its form, which is inseparable from its
content. In a talk given by Clement Greenberg at Western Michigan University, January
18, 1983, he addressed the topic of 'formalism' directly.

Formalism was originally the name of a Russian art and literary movement before the
First World War. And then it became used by the Bolsheviks (Communists is a dirty
word) for any kind of art that was for its own sake. It became a dirty word like "art for
art's sake," which is a valid notion. Sometime in the '50's the word formalism came up
again in the mouths and at the pens of people I dare to call middlebrow. And then, it's
true, I was made responsible for it, though I wasn't the only one, and by one of these easy
inferences that plague human thought, it was held that I advocated a certain way of
painting. Now, I haven't written a word in favor of a certain kind of painting that hasn't
been made yet. You only write about art that's already been made. My prejudice, as
Professor Link says, is towards representational painting, and it's the only kind I can do,
but I had to accept the fact that the major painting of our time, and the major sculpture
too, after a while, was abstract, because you can't choose what to like and what not to
like. I say major because the difference between major and minor is very important. It
became very important for this country in the '40s when the Abstract Expressionists
finally decided they could compete with the French and stop being in tutelage. But my
rhetoric wasn't very careful, otherwise I couldn't have been misunderstood to the extent I
have been. I recognize that and I don't put the blame entirely on the people who
misunderstood me. Though I still say I haven't written a word that gives you reason to
think that I'm for abstract art, as such, as against other kinds of art. I wrote a piece called
"Modernist Painting" that got taken as a program when it was only a description, and I
was thought to believe in things that I was describing [as a program]. Again, it was the
fault of my rhetoric. I was in favor of "pure" art in spite of the fact that I put quotation
marks around "pure" or "purity" whenever I used them, because I don't believe there's
any such thing as pure art. It was an illusion. It was a necessary illusion, apparently, for
modernist artists and it helped produce some great art and some great poetry. A necessary
illusion for Mallarmé, say, and for Valery, and maybe even for Ezra Pound. It was a
necessary illusion for Picasso and for Cézanne. There is no such thing as pure art, or pure
poetry, or pure music. Anyhow I don't believe there is such a thing. But I made the
mistake of contenting myself with quotation marks and not saying "look, I don't believe
this as a program, I'm simply describing." And so people assumed that was my program.
I'd been describing what I thought had happened under modernism, and nothing more and
nothing less. It was also inferred that I had said there was some necessity working in this
although I said nothing to that effect. But I blame myself. I should have been more

[edit] Formalism today

The concept of formalism in art continued to evolve through the 20th century. Some art
critics argue for a return to the Platonic definition for Form as a collection of elements
which falsely represent the thing itself and which are mediated by art and mental
processes. A second view argues that representational elements must be somewhat
intelligible, but must still aim to capture the object's 'Form'. A third view argues for a
diale-discursive ontological knowledge. Instead, structuralists focused on how the
creation of art communicate the idea behind the art. Whereas formalists manipulated
elements within a medium, structuralists purposely mixed media and included context as
an element of the artistic work. Whereas formalism's focus was the aesthetic experience,
structuralists played down response in favor of communication.

Structuralism's focus on the 'grammar' of art reaches as far back as the work of Marcel
Duchamp. In many ways, structuralism draws on the tools of formalism without adopting
the theory behind them.

Plot (narrative)
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Plot is a literary term for the events a story comprises, particularly as they relate to one
another in a pattern, a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence. One is
generally interested in how well this pattern of events accomplishes some artistic or
emotional effect. An intricate, complicated plot is called an imbroglio, but even the
simplest statements of plot may include multiple inferences, as in traditional ballads.[citation
Basically a plot is the story line or the way a story is written.

Aristotle on Plot
Main article: Mythos (Aristotle)
In his Poetics, Aristotle considered plot ("mythos") the most important element of drama
-- more important than character, for example. A plot must have, Aristotle says, a
beginning, a middle, and an end, and the events of the plot must causally relate to one
another as being either necessary, or probable.

Of the utmost importance to Aristotle is the plot's ability to arouse emotion in the psyche
of the audience. In tragedy, the appropriate emotions are fear and pity, emotions which he
considers in his Rhetoric. (Aristotle's work on comedy has not survived.)

For Aristotle, a plot has two main parts: it tells of a change in fortune that happens to a
character. The only kinds of change, he says, are from good fortune to bad, or bad to
good. The types of character are the morally excellent person, the average person, and the
bad person. Aristotle only discusses four of the six possible combinations as being
relevant to tragedy, and he ranks these according to their ability to arouse fear and pity.
The most tragic is the plot of a morally average character who goes from good fortune to
bad because of a miscalculation or error (Hamartia; also translated as "tragic flaw").

Aristotle goes on to consider whether the tragic character suffers (pathos), and whether
the tragic character commit the error with knowledge of what he is doing. He illustrates
this with the question of a tragic character who is about to kill someone in his family.

The worst situation [artistically] is when the personage is with full knowledge on
the point of doing the deed, and leaves it undone. It is odious and also (through
the absence of suffering) untragic; hence it is that no one is made to act thus
except in some few instances, e.g. Haemon and Creon in Antigone. Next after this
comes the actual perpetration of the deed meditated. A better situation than that,
however, is for the deed to be done in ignorance, and the relationship discovered
afterwards, since there is nothing odious in it, and the discovery will serve to
astound us. But the best of all is the last; what we have in Cresphontes, for
example, where Merope, on the point of slaying her son, recognizes him in time;
in Iphigenia, where sister and brother are in a like position; and in Helle, where
the son recognizes his mother, when on the point of giving her up to her enemy.
([Poetics book 14])

Russian Formalism
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Russian formalism was an influential school of literary criticism in Russia from the
1910s to the 1930s. It includes the work of a number of highly influential Russian and
Soviet scholars (Viktor Shklovsky, Yuri Tynianov, Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson,
and Grigory Vinokur) who revolutionized literary criticism between 1914 and the 1930s
by establishing the priority and autonomy of poetic language in the study of literature.
Russian formalism exerted a major influence on thinkers such as Mikhail Bakhtin and
Yuri Lotman, and on structuralism as a whole. The movement's members are widely
considered the founders of modern literary criticism. Formalism fundamentally altered
the way literature was understood. Prior to formalism, literature was largely interpreted
based on its ideological components, historical interest or as a reflection of the author's
mentality. Formalism made the literary text, and the artistic strategies of the author, the
focus of its study. The result is an appreciation for the creative act itself.

Russian formalism was a diverse movement, producing no unified doctrine, and no

consensus amongst its proponents on a central aim to their endeavors. In fact, "Russian
formalism" describes two distinct movements: the OPOJAZ (Obscestvo izucenija
POeticeskogo JAZyka, Society for the Study of Poetic Language) in Saint Petersburg and
the Linguistic Circle in Moscow. Therefore, it is more precise to refer to the "Russian
formalists," rather than to use the more encompassing and abstract term of "formalism."

The term "formalism" was first used by the adversaries of the movement, and as such it
conveys a meaning explicitly rejected by the formalists themselves. In the words of one
of the foremost formalists, Boris Eichenbaum: "It is difficult to recall who coined this
name, but it was not a very felicitous coinage. It might have been convenient as a
simplified battle cry but it fails, as an objective term, to delimit the activities of the
"Society for the Study of Poetic Language...."[1] Under Josef Stalin, it became a pejorative
term for elitist art.

Leavis in his writing was one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century English
literary criticism. He introduced a "seriousness" into English studies, and the modern
university subject has been shaped very much by Leavis’s example. Leavis possessed a
very clear idea of literary criticism and he was well known for his decisive and often
provocative judgements. Leavis insisted that evaluation was the principal concern of
criticism, and that it must ensure that English literature should be a living reality
operating as an informing spirit in society, and that criticism should involve the shaping
of contemporary sensibility (Bilan 61).

Leavis's criticism is difficult to directly classify, but it can be grouped into four
chronological stages. The first is that of his early publications and essays including New
Bearings in English Poetry (1932) and Revaluation (1936). Here he was concerned
primarily with reexamining poetry from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, and this
was accomplished under the strong influence of T. S. Eliot. Also during this early period
Leavis sketched out his views about university education.

He then turned his attention to fiction and the novel, producing The Great Tradition
(1948) and D. H. Lawrence, Novelist (1955). Following this period Leavis pursued an
increasingly complex treatment of literary, educational and social issues. Though the hub
of his work remained literature, his perspective for commentary was noticeably
broadening, and this was most visible in Nor Shall my Sword (1972).
Two of his last publications embodied the critical sentiments of his final years; The
Living Principle: ‘English’ as a Discipline of Thought (1975), and Thought, Words and
Creativity: Art and Thought in Lawrence (1976). Although these later works have been
sometimes called "philosophy", there is no abstract or theoretical context to justify such a
description. In discussing the nature of language and value, Leavis implicitly treats the
sceptical questioning that philosophical reflection starts from as an irrelevance from his
standpoint as a literary critic - a position set out in his famous early exchange with Rene
Wellek (Stotesbury)[1].

[edit] On poetry

Though his achievements as a critic of poetry were impressive, Leavis is widely accepted
to have been a better critic of fiction and the novel than of poetry. Much of this is due to
the fact that a large portion of what he had to say about poetry was being said by others
around him at the time. Nonetheless, in New Bearings in English Poetry Leavis attacked
the Victorian poetical ideal, suggesting that nineteenth-century poetry sought the
consciously ‘poetical’ and showed a separation of thought and feeling and a divorce from
the real world. The influence of T. S. Eliot is easily identifiable in his criticism of
Victorian poetry, and Leavis acknowledged this, saying in The Common Pursuit that, ‘It
was Mr. Eliot who made us fully conscious of the weakness of that tradition’ (Leavis 31).
In his later publication Revaluation, the dependence on Eliot was still very much present,
but Leavis demonstrated an individual critical sense operating in such a way as to place
him among the distinguished modern critics.

The early reception of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound's poetry, and also the reading of Gerard
Manley Hopkins, were considerably enhanced by Leavis's proclamation of their
greatness. His dislike of John Milton, on the other hand, had no great impact on Milton's
popular esteem.

[edit] On the novel

As a critic of the novel, Leavis’s main tenet stated that great novelists show an intense
moral interest in life, and that this moral interest determines the nature of their form in
fiction (Bilan 115). Authors within this tradition were all characterised by a serious or
responsible attitude to the moral complexity of life and included Jane Austen, George
Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. In The Great Tradition Leavis
attempted to set out his conception of the proper relation between form/composition and
moral interest/art and life. This proved to be a contentious issue in the critical world, as
Leavis refused to separate art from life, or the aesthetic or formal from the moral. He
insisted that the great novelist’s preoccupation with form was a matter of responsibility
towards a rich moral interest, and that works of art with a limited formal concern would
always be of lesser quality.
Marxist Criticism
The following entry discusses Marxist criticism, which is based on the socialist theories
of Karl Marx and examines literature as a reflection of the social institutions from which
it arises.

Marx-Engels Monument in Berlin.

Based on the socialist and dialectical theories of Karl Marx, Marxist criticism views
literary works as reflections of the social institutions out of which they are born.
According to Marxists, even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific
ideological function, based on the background and ideology of the author. In essence,
Marxists believe that a work of literature is not a result of divine inspiration or pure
artistic endeavor, but that it arises out of the economic and ideological circumstances
surrounding its creation. For Marxist critics, works of literature often mirror the creator's
own place in society, and they interpret most texts in relation to their relevance regarding
issues of class struggle as depicted in a work of fiction. Although Marx did not write
extensively on literature and its place in society, he did detail the relationship between
economic determinism and the social superstructure in various texts, including Zur Kritik
der Politischen Ökonomie (1859), where he stated: “The mode of production of material
life determines altogether the social, political, and intellectual life process. It is not the
consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being,
that determines their consciousness.” Thus, although he did not expound in detail on the
connections between literature and society, it is agreed among most scholars that Marx
did view the relationship between literary activity and the economic center of society as
an interactive process.

Although Marx and Friedrich Engels detailed theories of Socialism early in the twentieth
century, it was not until the 1920s that Marxist literary theory was systematized. The
greatest impetus for this standardization came after the October Revolution of 1917 in
Russia. The resulting socialist form of government and society, although uncertain about
the length of time it would take for the new economic standards to create a new culture,
believed that such a change was imminent. In the meantime, Socialist Realism was
accepted as the highest form of literature, guiding both literary creation and official
literary criticism in Russia. In the years since then, Russian literary theory has modified
its extreme socialist stance to acknowledge that literary creation is a result of both
subjective inspiration and the objective influence of the writer's surroundings. Outside of
the Soviet Union, one of the most influential Marxist critics was Georg Lukács. Born in
Hungary, Lukács joined the Communist Party in 1918 and later migrated to Russia. He
has defined his Marxist theories of literature and criticism in such works as Die Eigenart
des Asthetischen (1963), and remains central to the study of Marxist criticism today.

In addition to being the guiding principle behind most literary works in communist and
socialist Russia, Marxism also greatly influenced Western writers. Many writers,
including Richard Wright, Claude McKay, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and
James Joyce, were deeply influenced with Marxist and socialist theories of the day, and
much of this reflection is evident in their writings of the time. In stories such as “Long
Black Song” and “Down by the Riverside,” Wright explores fundamental Marxist ideas.
In the case of Claude McKay, Marxist theory provided a framework for issues of racial
inequality and justice that were often addressed in his works. Following the failure of the
Communist revolution, Marxist critics and writers were faced with the realization that
Socialism had failed as a practical ideology. This sense of failure is reflected in such
works as Mavis Gallant's What Is to Be Done? (1983) and Earle Birney's Down the Long
Table (1955). Both texts explore the failure of Marxist philosophy in the modern world,
and in his essay discussing these writers, Christian Bök notes that while both stories are
about people yearning for a socially responsible society, the writing is permeated with a
sense of failure regarding the effectiveness of this vision.

In recent years, literary criticism has expanded in scope to address issues of social and
political significance. Marxist critics such as Raymond Williams and Fredric Jameson
have expanded their realm of study to include cultural and political studies in their
interpretations of literature. In this regard, Marxist critics, along with feminists, have
begun studying literary criticism as an aspect of cultural sciences, notes Michael Ryan in
his essay on the state of contemporary cultural and literary studies.