ABRAMS, "Orientation of Critical Theories"

Purpose of Thinking

The main purpose in Abrams' introduction to his book on the Romantics is to give a historical overview of the predominant modes of criticism prior to its "radical shift" to concerns about the artists relationship to the art, the mode he considers to be the major orientation of modern critical theory. He characterizes and traces the development of the four major varieties of critical theory going from oldest to newest--mimetic theory, which suggests that art is an imitation of the exterior world and the actions of people; pragmatic theory, the theory which most focuses on audience in relation to art and its purposes; expressive theory, which centers on the feelings of the artist and the art resulting from the outpouring of those feelings; and last, the objective theory that calls for a work of art to be viewed as a closed system to be considered apart from the "externals" of object imitated, audience reaction, or artist intention. Further, Abrams provides a basic framework for his discussion by noting what he sees as the things that criticism can and can't be expected to accomplish and by providing a set of basic terms and definitions--audience, artist, universe, and work--with which all theory concerns itself to a greater or lesser degree. One of the interesting things his chronology implies is that the theories, though divergent, feed into each other and provide avenues for the development of the next phase. (Even in Longinus and Bacon he locates some of the seeds of the expressive theories.) Though this introduction is designed to establish a critical perspective for the information in the book which it precedes, the historic overview and discussion of critical perspective raise issues pertinent to any discussion of literature and criticism.

Question at Issue (problem)

While Abrams mentions the broad questions at the center of aesthetics"What is art?" and "What is poetry?"--the main question in this essay is "What is good critical theory?" Corollaries stated or implied include: What should the criteria be? What ends can we hope to achieve? What can we reasonably expect theory to accomplish? Is one theory better than another and if so why? Where can the distinction between aesthetic/critical theory and philosophy be drawn? What is the interplay between literary production and/or change and that of critical theory? Can variety of theories co-exist?


Abrams draws on a broad continuum of past critical theory to illustrate the four major (western) positions in his discussion of the history of criticism. He focuses on the major critical statements that correspond to, and best define, each. Beginning at the beginning, he locates the most restrictive aspect of mimetic theory in Plato's theory of forms. A philosophy rather than a critical perspective, Plato's theory distinguishes between Ideal things (God's productions), which don't exist in the material world, and flawed copies (man's productions) of the Ideal which do. Therefore art, since it only imitates these flawed copies of the Ideal, is the lowest form of production.

The mimetic model continues in Aristotle but Abrams posits that the difference in the way imitation functions in the two "distinguishes radically their consideration of art." Aristotle doesn't privilege the world of "Ideals" and separates the category of "art" from other human endeavors. Further, he recognizes not only the human capacity for imitation but the desire as well. Offering the first real aesthetic considerations, the issue of imitation versus something better transforms into one of type and quality of imitation. Audience becomes another important consideration for Aristotle, who makes "the necessary emotional effects on an audience" one of the criteria for judging art, but the artist (other than as a causal agent) is not considered.

Abrams points out that references to art as imitation continue into neo-classicism. But, he suggests, though "imitation" continued as an important part of critical vocabulary, the artist not only had to imitate, he had to find new things to imitate in new ways. Additionally, the focus on audience, and the directive that art should teach and delight, strengthened, moving critical theory into the pragmatic, marked, according to Abrams, by Sir Philip Sidney's The Apologie for Poetry. The pragmatic approach, then, "looks at the work of art chiefly as a means to an end...and tends to judge its value according to its success in achieving that aim." In the context of pragmatism, Abrams discusses Richard Hurd's "essential properties" of poetry: figurative language, fiction and versification, and Johnson's Preface to Shakespeare in which Johnson states that "The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing," something at which, for the most part, Johnson sees Shakespeare as a "naturally" talented genius. "Measured either by its duration or the number of its adherents," states Abrams, the morality based, audience focused pragmatic approach to criticism "has been the principal aesthetic attitude of the Western world"

But in the eighteenth century, the focus shifted to the mind, imagination, and feelings of the artist. Abrams suggests Wordsworth's Preface to Lyrical Ballads as a turning point in this critical shift in aesthetic considerations to the expressive theories. But even Wordsworth wanted his work to have a "worthy purpose" to other people. Abrams offers John Stuart Mills as one who removes audience as a consideration. In his work, Mills sets out several aspects in his theory of poetry that reverse traditional thinking, Now the lyrical is the elevated form; the spontaneous out-pouring of feeling is a criteria for artistic production; poetry doesn't imitate the external world but only takes from it what it needs as a vehicle for expression; and poetry as an end in itself is more important than as a means to an end, that end being the enlightenment of an audience. Abrams mentions Keats as writing only for himself, never an audience, and Carlyle, who felt that the poet should judge the audience, not the other way around.

The last theory that Abrams discusses is that of Objective theory, art for art's sake. In this paradigm, the art is considered on it's own merits, not as a reflection of the world, not as a teaching tool for the audience, and not as a reflection of the artist. Rather, each work is to be judged by its own criteria for internal consistency , its "intrinsic" rather than "extrinsic" qualities.


Abrams seeks to solve the problem of critical theory at this point by suggesting what good critical theory should do. Rather than selecting one critical form over another, he suggests that models should be chosen for their "scope, precision, and coherence of the insights that it yields into the properties of single works of art and the adequacy with which it accounts for diverse kinds of art." He doesn't see the existence of multiple perspectives as an unfathomable jumble of conflicting ideas, but as an assortment of possible instruments to choose from depending on the task. The "debt owed" to the various perspectives of the past serves as the proof of his theorem. Additionally, Abrams recognizes that the development of new forms of art necessarily alters critical perspective which in turn may foster production of new forms of art.


"...a good deal of our impatience with the diversity and seeming chaos in philosophies of art is rooted in demand from criticism for something it cannot do, at the cost of overlooking many of its genuine powers." "Its aim, however, is not to establish correlation's between facts which will enable us to predict the future by reference to the past, but to establish principles enabling us to justify, order, and clarify our interpretation and appraisal of the aesthetic facts themselves."

Four coordinates of art criticism:

Crucial Assumptions

Abrams most crucial assertion is that criticism, which has focused on art as imitative and/or audience focused for over two thousand years (if we start at Plato) previous to the romantic period, makes a radical shift with the emphasis moving to the poet. The artist becomes the sole agent and reason for production as well as the source of criteria for its judgment, the latter being an extremely important development. The "universe," as Abrams call subject matter, becomes the poets mind, rather than the external elements which may operate as a frame on which the artist can display those ideas.

A related assumption Abrams talks about in this introduction is not fully developed here but is probably essential to the development of the book that follows. That is that "from our vantage point there turns out to be one distinctively romantic criticism, although this remains a unit amid variety."

In terms of critical theory in general, Abrams says that no one theory can explain all works and that some theories are more appropriate than others for given types of art. However, he wants to make sure that any workable "good" theory (useful to understanding the art) is separated from any particular philosophy. [I'm not sure how this is entirely possible.] Good theory should also rely on the use of terms and ideas most widely available to a variety of theoretical positions.

Implications and consequences

The major implication is that new developments in artistic production can result in changing, or new, critical theories. The "good" consequence would be a "toolbox" approach to aesthetics in which the critic can choose from a variety of perspectives the one (or more) which allows "the [broadest] scope, [most] precision, and coherence of the insights into the properties of single works of art...and...accounts for diverse kinds of art." The "bad" consequence would be that some critics (and artists) might continue to view the coexistence of a variety of evaluative perspectives as "chaos," or that a relativism persists which prevents any agreement on what constitutes scope, precision, and coherence.

Points of View/Influences

Abrams clearly identifies himself as a critical theorist, not a philosopher, not a psychologist, not a scientist. From his perspective, the purpose and function of critical theory is not to discover some "verifiable truth" but to "establish principles enabling us to justify, order, and clarify our interpretation and appraisal of the aesthetic facts themselves."

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