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English 479: The History of Literary Theory

On our chronological path through the history of aesthetics, we will try to make sense of the tastes, fears, and desires of generations of western cultures. Aesthetics, or writing about what art should do, gives us some insight into the more psychological dimensions of social groups long past. It also helps us to see the very tenuous boundaries between things that are “art” and things that are “not art” as they are being drawn. A study of this type of philosophical writing promises to tell us something about our expectations of literary texts and other artifacts. The tensions that writers in many different periods have identified, tensions between chaos and order, passion and discipline, body and mind, and nature and artifice (to name a few) still resonate for us. Hopefully, our investigations will bring these ideas about aesthetic experience and their implications into clearer focus. At the end of this course, I hope you will have a stronger sense of the aesthetic debates of the western literary tradition that will help you place the texts you read in other classes in terms of their historical assumptions.

Requirements for the Course

  • Class participation–10%. This is the area of your grade over which you have the most control. By coming to class and participating in the discussion, you can give yourself a wonderful class participation grade and a better grasp of the material, which will be reflected in your tests and papers. If you miss more than three classes, we will need to have a conference to assess your progress in the course.
  • Leading a Class–10%. Think of this as the ìother halfî of your class participation grade. Pick a text (or a day) that sounds good to you for a class discussion. You will need to meet with me a full week before your discussion day, so we can go over the text on which you will focus in your facilitator role. Some good approaches include discussion questions for the class, a structured debate for the whole class, or possibly a contemporary point of connection with the older text. Try to find something that illustrates the issues of the text at hand; show instead of tell.Ý Let your creativity roam free. Your main job is to interest your classmates in the dayís reading. PLEASE do not give a short biography or lecture about the writer unless he or she had a particularly colorful past. We might fall asleep.
  • Exams–20% each. We will go over the format of both the midterm and the final before each test. The final will be cumulative.
  • Papers–20% each. I have provided paper topics below for the first paper. You are welcome to write on a topic of your choosing for the second paper as long as you clear it with me no later than a week before the paper is due.

Graduate students who are taking the course for graduate credit should see me during the first two weeks of September to discuss graduate requirements and to assess your particular plans for study.


  • Hazard Adams, ed. Critical Theory Since Plato (CT)
  • Folger Collective, ed. Women Critics 1660-1820 (WC)
  • William Shakespeare, King Lear
  • Reserve Packet, Hodges Library Reserve Room (R)
  • Class Handouts (H)

Useful Hot Link

The following links will give you additional support as you prepare to lead class discussion. They may also come in handy around paper time and for general clarification of terms and ideas. Please let me know if you find any particularly helpful sites during the semester and I will add them to the list.

  • Literary Theory–Resources
    Jack Lynch, perhaps the most wired man in literary studies today, maintains this directory page. It is very comprehensive.
  • A Guide to Philosophy on the Internet
    A fine place to begin to explore the resources for ancient philosophy and aesthetics.
  • My Virtual Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Religion
    Although this site has much that will not be of interest to us, its philosophy resources are good. A little patience required.
  • Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon
    This site is a winner. It will link you to primary texts as well as other resources.
  • Some Sound Advice
    This page was put together by a philosophy professor at Harvey Mudd College. It mightbe worth a glance, especially around paper time. Although it is geared toward thedisciplinary concerns of philosophy, it will make sense for us as well.
  • The Philosophy Directory at GeoCities
    This page is a recent and promising find.  It has direct links for most of the authors we will study this semester.  Content varies, but it is very user-friendly.