It is fairly obvious that "King Lear" is a better play than "Timon of Athens"by Oliver Conolly / September 15, 2016 / Leave a comment
TS Eliot said that the function of literary criticism is “the common pursuit of true judgment.” In other words, literary criticism is all about telling you whether a work is good or bad, and why. This classic statement of the traditional conception of literary criticism has fallen out of fashion, certainly in academia. There are a number of reasons for this, the main one being that aesthetic judgments are subjective, and that the notion of a “true judgment” is, accordingly, illusory.
But aren’t literary value judgments subjective? At this point we need to distinguish between different types of assertion. If I say that I like a particular poem, I am merely making a statement as to my personal preferences. I am not purporting to be evaluating the poem. But literary criticism seeks to go further than such self-referential statements of preference.
Immanuel Kant pointed out in his Critique of Judgment that aesthetic judgments (of which literary judgments are one type) transcend pure subjectivity and carry an implicit claim to universality. Kant then tried to explain what the basis for implicit claim is. We needn’t get lost in the tangle of Kantian aesthetics to recognise that Kant was clearly right to say that aesthetic value judgments go beyond—well beyond—merely statements as to what one likes or does not like. If I assert that Shakespeare’s sonnets are amongst the supreme achievements in the genre, I am surely purporting to make an assertion as to an objective state of affairs.
Bound up with this is the fact that we argue about literary critical judgments, and give reasons for and against them. I may seek to persuade you of the merits of a particular poem or novel by giving you reasons for my positive evaluation of it. I may say that a work is interesting, profound, beautiful, well-written, well-structured, enjoyable, and so on, and these terms support a positive verdict. Conversely, I might call it shallow, sentimental, boring, badly structured, and so on. I may also go into the details of the works to substantiate overall judgments or to point to particular felicities or infelicities.