The roots of cultural criticism
It is possible to trace the roots of cultural criticism to the works of such Enlightenment figures as German philosophers Friedrich Schiller and Johann Gottfried von Herder, as well as such English Romantics as William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These writers sought to define “culture” and to explain how it operated as a kind of elevating force for poetry. Built on the works of these thinkers, the practice of modern cultural criticism rose to prominence during the Victorian era. The three writers most often cited as cultural criticism’s first theorists among English-speaking writers are Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold. Carlyle, however, tended to focus on historical, political, and moral issues and had little to say directly about literature. Ruskin initially concentrated on art and architecture before expanding his studies to include critiques of social practices. By contrast, Arnold’s writings on culture almost always center on the importance of literature as a means by which culture is observed, valued, and transmitted. As a consequence, his work is frequently cited as the starting point for examining the intersection of literary criticism and cultural criticism.
Concerned by what he perceives as the increasing vulgarization of society, Arnold seeks to promote a program of self-improvement and social reform that would save civilization from the dehumanizing forces of industrialization. The key to avoiding a downward...
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