Chicago school (neo-Aristotelianism)

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

Chicago school (neo-Aristotelianism)

Chicago school (neo-Aristotelianism): A type of literary criticism that combines an emphasis on theory and method with an historical interest in critical approaches and literary genres and a practical focus on the form, structure, and relations of elements within individual works. Chicago critics are noted for their commitment to pluralism in critical methods and the application of Aristotelian principles to literary analysis (hence the term neo-Aristotelianism). The school, which originally included six scholars associated with the University of Chicago, arose in the mid-1930s, particularly with the publication of R. S. Crane’s essay “History versus Criticism in the Study of Literature” (1935), in which Crane privileged criticism, rather than history or impressionism, in the study of literature. Subsequently, the group published Critics and Criticism: Ancient and Modern (1952), a landmark book addressing both the criticism of the day and the history of literary criticism generally. Later generations of critics applying Chicago school methods and theories have also been referred to as Chicago critics, without regard to any association with the University of Chicago.

The original Chicago critics sought to make literary criticism a discipline. To this end, they engaged in two major efforts: a general critique of criticism that embraced pluralism; and the development of one historical system, the poetic method of Aristotle. In the introduction to Critics and Criticism, Crane emphasized that criticism is “reasoned discourse” and called for “a general critique of literary criticism … such as might yield objective criteria for interpreting the diversities and oppositions among critics and for judging the comparative merits of rival schools.” Subsequently, in The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (1953), he advocated using “various critical languages … as tools of our trade — as so many distinct conceptual and logical means, each with its peculiar capacities and limitations, for solving truly the many distinct kinds of problems which poetry … presents to our view.”

With regard to Aristotle, Chicago critics based their own methodology on his analytical, differentiating approach. In the Poetics (c. 330 B.C.), Aristotle, who viewed art as an imitation of nature, treated poetic works as artistic wholes composed of various elements such as plot and structure and explored how poets created such unified works. As Crane explained in Critics and Criticism, Aristotle outlined “hypotheses and analytical devices for defining, literally and inductively, and with a maximum degree of differentiation, the multiple causes operative in the construction of poetic wholes of various kinds and the criteria of excellence appropriate to each.” Building on Aristotle’s method, Chicago critics focused on “the internal causes which account for the peculiar construction and effect of any poem qua artistic whole” (Critics and Criticism), which they viewed as separable from external factors such as authorial intention and audience tastes.

In analyzing individual works, Chicago critics have focused particularly on form, which they view as the shaping principle of a text, and the way in which form is articulated in a work’s structure. For Chicago critics, form both enables the author to synthesize the elements of a work into a whole and shapes the reader’s response; in The Idea of the Humanities and Other Essays (1967), Crane described form as the “principle of construction, from which [the artist] infers, however instantaneously, what he must do in constituting and ordering the parts.” Chicago critics also speak of the dynamis, the “final cause” or “power” of the form, as inhering in and determining the unique form of a work. Moreover, given their interest in works as artistic wholes, many Chicago critics have analyzed the relationship between individual works and categories of works. Notable form and genre studies include Elder Olson’s Tragedy and the Theory of Drama (1961), Mary Doyle Springer’s Forms of the Modern Novella (1975), and Austin Wright’s The Formal Principle of the Novel (1982).

While Chicago critics may be called formalists insofar as they focus on textual analysis, their interest in authorial intention and historical matters is decidedly not formalist. Indeed, Chicago critics believed that the approach of the formalist New Critics, who focused strictly on textual analysis, was unduly narrow and reductive, and they scorned some concepts, such as the intentional fallacy, which rejected consideration of authorial intention. As Crane explained in Critics and Criticism, “We cannot infer the ’poetic’ nature or value of any artistic whole from its antecedents in the poet’s life or in contemporary or earlier culture; but, having determined critically what the poem is in itself, we can then replace it in its setting of events and other writings and eventually develop a history of poetry in terms of the interaction of artistic and extra-artistic causes of change.”

Original members of the Chicago school aside from Crane included Olson, W. R. Keast, Richard McKeon, Norman Maclean, and Bernard Weinberg. Members of the second generation — including Springer, Wright, Wayne C. Booth, Ralph Rader, and Sheldon Sacks — further developed theoretical concepts, particularly in form and genre studies, and placed greater emphasis on ideology, rhetoric, and the functions of the author and reader. Booth was particularly influential, developing concepts such as the implied author in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and spurring a more general shift from Aristotelian poetics to the communicative and persuasive aspects of fiction. Members of the third generation, such as James Phelan, Peter Rabinowitz, Adena Rosmarin, and David Richter, have continued to apply Chicago methods but have often focused on narratological issues while also incorporating a variety of contemporary approaches and concerns.