The Importance of Cultural Context and The Cultural Significance of Texts

This is the first mid-term essay I wrote for Introduction to Literary and Cultural Studies at Amsterdam University College. I have pasted the introduction and conclusion here. 


Introduction

Friedrich Schleiermacher, the pioneer of modern Hermeneutics, believes that the interpretation of a literary text consists of two tasks (Leitch 521). The first task is grammatical: one needs to understand the language and cultural context of the work. The second is psychological: one needs to reconstruct the purpose of the author. According to Schleiermacher, the true meaning of a text is unattainable. This is because the interaction between the reader, the text and the author firstly complicates the interpretation, and secondly, readers struggle to resolve the mutual dependence between parts and whole, falling into an endless Hermeneutic cycle. Although his conclusion seems pessimistic, Schleiermacher provides a thought-provoking framework to interpret any text rather than just sacred scripts: readers need to consider the complex relationship between the author, the text and themselves, in addition to historical backgrounds. In this essay, I consider how New Criticism and Russian Formalism challenge Schleiermacher’s pioneering insight on the importance of context. I argue that neither of the two schools is persuasive enough for me to overlook Schleiermacher’s emphasis on the cultural context of literature.

Conclusion

Just like parts and whole, text and its cultural context perhaps form another Hermeneutic cycle: one has to understand the context to make sense of the text, but one also needs to understand the text to study the context. These hermeneutic cycles are not necessarily undesirable: maybe the true meaning of a text is indeed unattainable as a result, but the enduring charm of literature lies precisely in such unattainability. Literary text illuminates reality, and readers possibly gain new understanding every time they learn more about different cultural contexts including their own. No literary text exists without a context, and it also shapes the cultural context it is situated in. New Criticism and Russian Formalism, despite their contributions to literary criticism, put insufficient emphasis on the cultural context of a literal text. Schleiermacher’s idea of endless Hermeneutic cycles is still inspirational to contemporary literal scholarship; to me, he still offers the most persuasive account of a text.

Works Cited 

Bertens, H. Literary Theory: The Basics. Taylor & Francis, 2007. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2010. Print.

Parker, R.D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. Oxford University Press, 2014. Print.

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