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Humanities Research Strategies: Textual Criticism

What is it?

When we study a specific text, be that text a literary work, a philosophical treatise, or a theological tract, the reader has various means of interpreting that particular work. It can be viewed from a historical perspective, where the text is a response to previously written texts or beliefs, e.g., Descartes’s Meditations; a sociological perspective, wherein the text is examined within the time frame when it was written, addressing the social, economic, and political problems of that specific period.

Not only economic and political texts exemplify this, e.g., Karl Marx’s The Capital or Machiavelli’s The Prince, but also many novels from the 18th Century to the present address these issues. Look at the novels of Charles Dickens, Emil Zola, and a host of other great works of literature. Examining a text from the standpoint of the author may also reveal a psychological dimension whereby the author is revealing in the text both conscious and unconscious fears and hopes through the characters.

A good example of this psychological perspective can be seen in the novels of Herman Hesse or William Faulkner.

20th Century

In the 20th Century, literary criticism started to employ various ideological perspectives in interpreting past and present texts. Among these ideological perspectives is didacticism, which interprets the moral or ethical stance of the text; formalism, which investigates the structural purposes of a particular text without taking into account any outside influence; and deconstruction, which is a method for critically analyzing the specific philosophical and literary language in the text.

Such an analysis emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the variety of meaning, and the relational assumptions implicit (or even hidden) in the forms of expression found in the text under scrutiny.

The Question Remains....

The question remains in textual criticism regardless of any ideological perspective is; exactly what is the author’s intention and why is this author addressing this question or set of questions.

If we look at Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the novelist is clearly giving an account of three brothers and their relationships within the context of a patricide. Without any kind of analysis, one can readily see that the four brothers are very different in character with regard to life’s outlook. Only after a first reading of the novel, is the question of the author’s intention addressable by the reader.

Is Dostoevsky echoing a Russian Orthodox response to the ideas and notions of the Enlightenment, or is his intention something else?

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