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Monday, November 11, 2013

An Introduction to Liberal Humanism

Liberal humanism can be defined as a philosophical and literary movement in which man and his capabilities are the central concern. It can also be defined as a system of historically changing views that recognizes the value of the human being as an individual and his right to liberty and happiness.
Liberal humanism has its roots at the beginning of English studies in the early 1800's and became fully articulated between 1930 and 1950. It was attacked by theories such as Marxism and Feminism beginning in the 1960's. In 1840, F.D. Maurice argued that the study of English literature connects readers to what is "fixed and enduring" in their own national identity. Liberal humanism inspired a scientific, rational world view that placed the knowing individual at the center of history, and viewed that history as the progress of Western thought. It served as the catalyst for the modern world's reliance on individualism and belief in a common human nature, scientific rationality, and the search for truth as universal knowledge and certainty in the world. The study of Liberal Humanism finds meaning within the text itself, without elaborate processes of placing it in contexts. It  detaches itself from its context and age; in isolation without any prior knowledge, prejudice or ideological ideas about the text.
There are some aspects to liberal humanism that have been made into what is called the 'ten tenets'. They are invisible guidelines literary critics use when reading a text. It is said that " they can only be brought to the surface by a conscious effort of will." (Peter Barry).

The ten tenets of liberal humanism are:
  • Good literature is timeless, transcendent and speaks to what is constant in human nature
  • Literary text contains its own meaning (not in subordinate reference to a sociopolitical, literary-historical, or autobiographical context)
  • Text therefore studied in isolation without ideological assumptions or political conditions—goal of close verbal analysis to 'see the object as in itself it really is' (Matthew Arnold pace Kant)
  • Human nature unchanging—continuity valued over innovation
  • Individuality as essence securely possessed by each 'transcendent subject' distinct from forces of society, experience, and language
  • Purpose of literature to enhance life in a non-programmatic (non-propagandistic) way
  • Form and content fused organically in literature
  • 'Sincerity' resides within the language of literature, noted by avoidance of cliché or inflated style so that the distance/difference between words and things is abolished
  • 'Showing' valued over 'telling'—concrete enactment better than expository explanation
  • Criticism should interpret the text unencumbered by theorizing, by preconceived ideas—must trust instead to direct, empirical, sensory encounter text (Lockean legacy)
The  key critics in history of criticism: Aristotle, Sidney, Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. Shelley anticipates Russian formalists' emphasis on 'defamiliarization'; for Shelley, poetry "strips the veil of familiarity from the world" his criticism also anticipates Freudian notion of mind made up of conscious and unconscious elements. Works of George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Henry James also played major roles. Arnold feared with decline of common belief in religion that society needed literature to enable the middle classes debased by materialism and philistinism to recognize "the best that has been known and thought in the world" via canon of great works—goal to attain pure, disinterested knowledge, and employ past touchstones to evaluate present works. Eliot's idea of poetic 'impersonality' expressed in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"—anti-Romantic sense of tradition speaking through and transmitted by the poet.

Recurrent ideas in critical theory:
1. Many notions that we habitually regard as fixed and reliable essences (gender identity, individual self-hood, literature itself) are fluid, unstable, socially constructed, contingent, provisional categories upon which no overarching absolute truths can be established.

2. All thinking affected and largely determined by ideological commitments—no mode of inquiry is disinterested, not even one's own (Barry notes that this premise introduces risk of relativism that may undercut one's argument).

3. Language conditions and limits what we see and all reality is a linguistic/textual construct

4. All texts are webs of contradiction with no final court of appeals to render judgment

5. Distrust of grand, totalizing theories/notions, including notion of "great books" that are somehow identifiably great regardless of a particular sociopolitical context; likewise, concept of a "human nature" that transcends race, gender , class is untenable, and can be shown to have the effect of marginalizing other categories of identification/affiliation when some general "human nature" is invoked, appealed to.

Finally, one can conclude that:
  • Politics is pervasive,
  • Language is constitutive,
  • Truth is provisional,
  • Meaning is contingent,
  • Human nature is a myth.
A, Vijayganesh. Class Lecture. Twentieth Century Critical Traditions. Christ University. Bangalore, India. 08 Nov. 2013. 

(Notes of the lecture delivered on 8 November. Prepared by Angelo Savio Pereira)

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