Processes of study in the arts and humanities
Processes of study in the arts and humanities

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Processes of study in the arts and humanities

7 Beliefs and theories

‘Authorities’ – critics, historians, philosophers and so forth – of course argue from their interpretations of what a work of art, an event or an idea means. And their judgements are based on certain beliefs – about the nature of the objects they study and about what they themselves do as readers and interpreters of them. From our discussion of ‘Meeting at Night’ you have seen what my beliefs are: that people can reach some understanding of a text through the processes of analysing its formal elements and acquiring some knowledge of the conditions in which it was created and received. Because I was talking about these very processes I said all that explicitly. But, very often, what writers believe about these things is ‘assumed by’ rather than ‘stated in’ their argument. For example, look again at these judgements about ‘Meeting at Night':

The romantic setting of this little ‘story’ and the sensuous beauty of the verse are seductive. What we have here is a slight poem that celebrates what may well be a betrayal of some kind. It is a sort of ‘adolescent fantasy’ – of macho derring-do? or just nonsense? As such, it bears no relationship to reality and tells us nothing of value.

Activity 6

Stop for a few minutes and think about what beliefs lie ‘underneath’ these judgements.


It seems to me that beneath the judgements lies the belief that there is quite a strong relationship between a poem and the ‘real world’ and that if a poem has no relationship to ‘reality’ then it does not tell us anything worthwhile. And the moral judgement here – that it is improper to celebrate what might be a betrayal – also implies that a poem should say something of moral value to us.

Now that we have unearthed these beliefs we can take a good look at them. We can see more clearly what is involved in agreeing with the argument (again asking, what does it ‘deny’?). Then we can decide whether we do agree or, if not, what exactly we disagree with. So, do you agree with these beliefs or not? For instance, do you think that there is quite a strong relationship between a poem and ‘real life’?

Of course I don't know what you think about that. But you have seen that I think there is. The poem's form is conventional (agreed, as it were, by people). It was created and received within certain conditions, and it is received now within different sorts of condition. I believe it does communicate something to us about both those ‘worlds’. However, as we saw in Section 4.1, I do not think this relationship between ‘art’ and ‘reality’ is either a simple or a direct one. What I was trying to say there is that none of the texts you study simply reflects the world of human experience ‘as it really is’. As created objects, they are artificial. (‘Artificial’ means ‘made by art, not natural’. That is, people made them, with different purposes in mind.) They are not simply ‘true to life’ and they do not ‘tell’ us things in the direct way this speaker suggests. Remember the painting of the ‘real’ landscape, with its imaginary additions and conventional form? But think too about an historical document, such as an Act of Parliament. We have to interpret the meanings of all these texts.

In my understanding of ‘reality’, human invention and imagining is as much a part of our ‘world’ as anything else. So I would not agree that fantasy is necessarily worthless (adolescent or otherwise). And I think that works of art can communicate all kinds of thing, not just about our moral values. In saying all this I am disagreeing with what the speaker appears to understand by both ‘art’ and ‘reality’ – which in both cases seems far too narrow – and about the relationship between the two, which seems too direct.

However, not everyone would agree with my beliefs (perhaps you don't). For instance, some people believe that texts of all kinds have no relationship to the ‘real world’ because there is no such thing; what ‘really’ exists are the ideas and beliefs that we human beings have – what we construct in our minds and represent in our texts. So a text can only be related to the constructions – or, other ‘texts’ – that have come before it.

These are just a few of the ideas people have about what a work of art is and what relationship it has to the ‘worlds’ of its makers and receivers. When such ideas are connected together in a thorough-going way we say we have a theory about these things.


A theory is a ‘system of ideas’ through which we explain something. In the arts and humanities we try to explain such things as the role of the artist, the nature of the text, the way the text is received and interpreted, and the relationships between these things. However, people have not developed a single, ‘universal’ theory that attempts to explain all these things, at all times and in all places. Rather, a number of theories guide us towards looking closely at different aspects of this ‘complex’ of issues and relationships. Some theories draw attention to the artist's role; some focus on the text and its ‘context’; and others explain readers' ‘reception’ of the text, in their contexts.

In the course of your studies you will no doubt come across many different theories (indeed, it may seem there is a bewildering array of them). You will be asked to apply them to the texts you study. That is because theories suggest different ways in which you can view the text. As you approach a text from this or that ‘point of view’, you come to understand and value it differently. And, in the process, you become clearer about your own ideas and beliefs.

Using theories prompts you to ask different kinds of question about the text, from a range of points of view. For instance, can you see what kinds of question this speaker was asking when making judgements about the poem?

The values [the poem] represents are, traditionally, masculine values – ‘risk’ and aggressive ‘action’ taken towards the satisfaction of sexual desire. As the poem idealizes these values, at the same time it spurns the more passive or ‘nurturing’ values thought to be natural in the female. These differences were no doubt widely believed to be true of men and women at the time the poem was written and first read…

I think the questions have to do with gender. The speaker has approached the poem from the ‘point of view’ of the way the words in it relate to ideas about the sexes, male and female. (I'll call the speaker ‘he’; did you assume it was a woman?) His approach draws on feminist theory, broadly speaking. As a result of adopting this stance, he ‘comes at’ the poem from a different angle from the other speakers, ‘sees’ different things in it and makes very different kinds of judgement from them.

But, although adopting this (or any other) theory means taking a particular point of view, it does not act as a ‘straightjacket’ on your thinking – forcing you towards a particular conclusion. We have already seen that this feminist line of thinking could lead in quite opposite directions:

(a) …even so, the effect of the poem is to glorify the ‘male’ at the expense of the ‘female’. This hardly seems ‘life enhancing’ in our modern-day understanding. Perhaps the poem's greatest value to us is as a measure of how differently we view things now.

(b) …so that the superior value of the ‘masculine’ is simply assumed. Knowing that, we can look beyond this assumption to the poem's central, essentially life-enhancing, message – the joy both lovers feel as their hearts beat ‘each to each’.

If you had not thought about the poem in such feminist terms yourself, you may have found these interpretations and judgements surprising and interesting. And does this prompt you to wonder why you hadn't?

Whether you are aware of it or not, your interpretations and judgements of the texts you study are based on certain beliefs: about the world, about the nature of those objects, and about your role as ‘critic’ of them. If you are not aware of it, then these ‘beliefs’ lie beneath what you say, as assumptions. We can't be aware of all the assumptions we make, all the time. But, as you study, you should be thinking about at least some of these things. Our beliefs change, and our thinking becomes richer, as we assess other people's ideas and try applying their theories.

Key points

Examining other people's beliefs, and applying their theories to the texts you study helps you:

  • recognise the assumptions that academics and critics make in their writing

  • look at texts from different points of view, asking different kinds of question about them

  • and so, become clearer about your own assumptions and beliefs.

Finally, leaving the poem behind, we turn to one of the main ways in which you can become a participant in the subject(s) you study. It is when you do some research of your own that you understand more deeply how all the processes we have been looking at actually work in practice.


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