The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Theory: A term variously used to refer to: (1) a set of principles used to explain or make predictions about a particular phenomenon; (2) the generally accepted principles and methods in a given field of study; and (3) abstract reasoning or hypothesizing. In scientific circles, however, theory is distinguished from hypothesis, the latter being a supposition (e.g., that flatworms can survive in acidic environments) subject to verification through observation and experimentation, the former being a generally accepted model or framework that has so far withstood the test of time and experimentation. Nevertheless, as British philosopher A. J. Ayer noted in Philosophy in the Twentieth Century (1982), “There never comes a point where a theory can be said to be true. The most that one can claim for any theory is that it has shared the successes of all its rivals and that it has passed at least one test which they have failed.”

In literary criticism, theory has traditionally referred to a set of general principles applicable to the classification, analysis, and evaluation of literary works. Whether or not critics openly draw on particular theories of literary interpretation, their readings are usually informed by some theory about literature that provides a basis for their questions and conclusions. Critics who operate without a theoretical framework are vulnerable to the charge of making arbitrary, idiosyncratic, or impressionistic judgments.

Numerous types of literary criticism, generally grounded in theories of literary criticism, have arisen over the centuries, ranging from the mimetic criticism of the fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato to contemporary postcolonial theory. Within each of these approaches are narrower critical principles, which have also been called theories. Hence écriture féminine — the idea, advocated by a group of feminist critics, that there is such a thing as women’s writing — may itself be called a theory.

Moreover, poststructuralists, who have sought to formulate new theories of interpretation and meaning, have both elevated and revised the concept of theory. In their view, theory must account for more than literature, since everything from the unconscious mind to social and cultural practices is seen as functioning like a language; it must explain what controls interpretation and meaning in all possible systems of signification. Not surprisingly, this far-ranging concept has facilitated the development of theories that challenge the very underpinnings of traditional Western thought, especially the logocentric assumption that meaning is ultimately determinable and determinate.