Liberal Humanism

This is one of the literary and cultural theories discussed by Barry. For the complete list, click here.


Learning Log entries about Liberal Humanism


Theory before theory

Liberal humanism is the post-hoc term for the stance of English studies before criticism. The emphasis is on studying the "text on the page" without considering "socio-political", "literary-historical", "or "autobiographical" contexts in which the work was created. It attempts an empirical study of literature. Liberal humanists distrust theory and ideas.

Liberal humanism has its roots at the beginning of English studies in the early 1800s and became fully articulated between 1930 and 1950. It was attacked by theories such as Marxism and feminism beginning in the 1960s.


Ten Tenets of Liberal Humanism (pp. 17-21)

  1. Good literature is timeless
  2. The context in which literature is created should not be considered.
  3. Literature should be studied closely, without expectations or pre-conditions.
  4. Humans are motivated and influenced by the same things throughout history. Human nature is unchanging.
  5. People can change, but they can't be transformed. There is no absolute change of heart.
  6. The purpose of literature is to enhance life and propagate values (in a non-programmatic way). Keats said, "we distrust literature which has a palpable design upon us".
  7. Form should follow content. Superfluous form should be stripped away.
  8. Work must be sincere. Emotion in a work should follow from showing actions. It shouldn't be pointed out. Emotion should not be overinflated with language.
  9. "What is valued in literature is the 'silent' showing and demonstrating of something, rather than the explaining, or saying, of it." Ideas are worthless until they are vested in action.
  10. The job of criticism is to interpret the text, to guard against the intrusion of preconceived notions or theories. Criticism should guide the reader toward what is present in the text and no more.