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Liberal Humanism - Linguistics

Liberal Humanism

Before we get to understand liberal humanism, we need to know how English studies emerged as a subject.

Until the first quarter of the nineteenth century, higher education in England was a Church of England monopoly. The only universities that existed were Oxford and Cambridge Universities, where only men who were Anglican Christians could study. Initially there were no English studies; the only subjects offered were Classics, Divinity and Mathematics.

It was not until 1828 that English was first offered as a subject. Initially, English was taught only as a language. King’s college became the first university to teach English Literature officially in 1831. Before that, it was not considered to be a study because there was no way to truly examine literary works. Edward Freeman explained that the study of literature is meant to cultivate taste, help develop opinions and open the mind but these are not tangible or measurable things. Owing to this dilemma, the concept of Practical Criticism emerged in England which was known as New Criticism in the United States.

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This concept stresses that, whenever a text is read, the readers should focus on close-reading method that is they should read the words on the pages rather than concentrate on the origin(s) of the text. Hence in the 1920s, I.A. Richards, William Empson and F.R. Leavis brought about a change in the way of testing literary knowledge. They insisted on analyzing a text solely based on the meaning gathered based on the devices used in the text.

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They suggested that essentially every text is self-sufficient, so they have certain meanings which are fundamental to all human beings; for instance beauty, hate etc. They justified this using the concept or philosophy of Liberal Humanism.

Liberal Humanism assumes that as humans, we are all free agents and hold no bias towards a particular perspective or another and as a result, we should be able to grasp the essence of literature just by examining the text. When one uses no theory, s/he is a follower of this school. Although, neither Richards nor Leavis used the term Liberal humanism, they practiced this approach.

Russian Formalism

Russian formalism, as the name suggests focused on the form of a text. This theory tells us how linguistics is applied to the study of literature. It is the European counterpart of the Anglo-American New Criticism.

As said before, the Americans practiced New Criticism and the British, Practical Criticism and this theory’s European counterpart is Russian Formalism. The only difference here is that the Anglo-Americans focused on the meaning but the Russian Formalists focused on the form; but they both followed the close-reading method ignoring the context. New Critics thought close-reading is a result of being liberal in thinking but for Russian Formalists it was done more due to political reasons. To them, literature is just an organization of linguistics forms. It transforms and intensifies ordinary language and has a defamiliarizing effect because it is not the language we use in our normal conversation. For example, the language used in poetry is very concise; people do not usually converse in that language. Poetry uses poetic devices to make it more special.

When it comes to a prose, since the language is unlike the language in poetry, in 1925 Boris Tomashevski introduced two words fabula and syuzhet. Fabula is a straight-forward account (the story as it happens). Syuzhet is a presentation/manipulation to create effect (the story as it is told). This means that there can be one single fabula that is one single story which is rearranged to make more interesting. The syuzhet defamiliarizes the story.


Structuralism is a theory where literature and linguistics comes together. It was put forward by Ferdinand de Sassure. According to the Biblical version of human origin, Adam had the responsibility to name things. So according to Adamic responsibility, he named things randomly. Neither the cat nor the tree themselves told Adam or any other human being that their names are ‘cat’ and ‘tree’; they had no relationship with the name they are called by. Therefore, it can be said that language is a system of sign and that the relationship between the word (signified) and the thing (signifier) is completely arbitrarily.

Man- made social constructions are drilled into us to form certain beliefs. For example, according to the popular belief, rose denotes love. Any other flower can also represent love, why only rose? When the rose is red it denotes love but when it is black it denotes evil. Same goes for white and black. White denotes pure and wedding vibes whereas black denotes mourning; on the other side white may mean mourning of a deceased (Hindu culture) and black may mean purity (Arabian culture). Actually none of the colours mean anything and both the views are correct. For this, Sassure has come up with semiotics which means the science of signs, where every sign denotes a signifier and signified which can vary from culture to culture. The sound-image (signifier) gives the concept (signified) of the thing it is referred to.

Structural Anthropology was developed by Claude Levi Strauss. If language is put into larger systems such as social systems or cultural systems, it can be seen that everything has a basic unit and rule. For example in a Cinderella story, the units are the princess, prince, stepmother and the rules are that the princess will suffer hardships at the hands of the evil stepmother then out of good luck will get married to the charming prince and live happily ever after. These units and rules are what structuralism analyses.

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Liberal Humanism - Linguistics. (2019, Dec 10). Retrieved from

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