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Critical Thinking in Literary Analysis

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:56 AM

Some people believe that critical thinking is relevant to philosophy and politics but not relevant to literature. Art, they assume, is fundamentally aesthetic and aesthetics don’t lend themselves to critical thinking. However, critical thinking can be applied to art, and literature (including nature writing) always has political dimensions (whether or not the author and the texts focus explicitly on political and social issues). Below are some different ways that we can use critical thinking in interpreting literature. Keep these in mind when you read and re-read the texts, and when you writer your papers.

Two passages that seem to conflict in their ideas and values. Or a passage that seems to conflict with ideas and values we know the author has.

  • Is the apparent conflict real? If we read the passage(s) in a particular way, and they reconcilable?
  • If the conflict is real, is it case of shift in attitude (especially likely if the passages are from different books)
  • Is the conflict a creative tension arising from complexity, or mistaken thought?

A passage that can be interpreted in more than one way.

  • What are the different ways the passage can be interpreted?
  • What interpretation do other passages (from the same text or different ones) support?
  • What else that we know about the author supports one or another interpretation?
  • What are the relative validities of the various interpretations? (There may end up being only one valid interpretation, but start by assuming there are more than one interpretation, and more than one have some validity.)

The basis for a passage, idea, value, and rhetoric.

  • Fundamental ideas and assumptions about (social and ecological) reality. These ideas may be based on yet deeper ideas.
  • Fundamental values. These values may be based on yet more fundamental values.
  • Particular definitions used.
  • Categories and dichotomies used.
  • Particular emphases.

The likely effects that the ideas, values, and rhetoric have.

  • How do the views and values, and also the rhetoric (literary style, etc.), compare to a “common sense” view? In other words, how different are they from the conventional?
  • What is the basis for these differences? Where do they come from?
  • What effects do you think the author wants her or his writings to have? What leads you to that conclusion?
  • What are the possible effects on individual readers? Think in terms of different types of readers, different historical situations, and then think about the possible effects. What leads you to those conclusions?
  • What are the possible effects on society? Think in terms of different social groups, the specific historical situation, and then think about the possible effects. What leads you to those conclusions?
  • How do these effects compare with the effect the author hopes for?
  • What are the limitations and problems in deciding on the above issues?

Evaluation

  • In what ways and to what degrees are the author’s views and values compelling and problematic?
  • In what ways and to what degrees is the basis of these views and values compelling and problematic?
  • In what ways and to what degrees are the effects on individual readers positive and problematic?
  • In what ways and to what degrees are the effects on society and the social implications positive and problematic?
  • In answering each of these questions, what are the criteria you are applying? How do you make the judgment you do?
  • How might the author respond to your different, specific evaluations? How would you respond to those responses? How might the author respond to your response? (Dialectical thinking)
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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:56 AM