Criticism in the History of the Modern Humanities: The Case of Literary Studies in the Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Netherlands

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Critical thinking and delivering criticism of cultural products, practices, and events are traditionally considered a distinctive asset of humanities research and education. Today, the notion of critical thinking is still highly prevalent in humanities’ self-description. At the same time, the question of whether criticism should have an intrinsic role within humanities practice remains highly disputed, especially within disciplines such as literary studies and art history. This article traces the development of the debate surrounding criticism and scholarship in order to historically contextualize the contemporary discussion on the presumed critical task of the humanities scholar. It focuses on the history of literary studies in the Netherlands in order to investigate the specific ways literary scholars in the past have articulated and shaped criticism through their academic practice. Two case studies are analyzed in depth: the practice of W. J. A. Jonckbloet (1817–85) in the formation period at the end of the nineteenth century, and the practice of N. A. Donkersloot (1902–65) in the first half of the twentieth century. The analysis shows the profound fluidity of the term criticism and sheds light on the constant negotiation of the boundaries of scientific objectivity (when critical judgment is understood in terms of textual editing or as part of the quest for aesthetic laws) and artistic subjectivity (when critical judgment is understood in terms of artistic interpretation and evaluation of the object of study).
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)303-325
Number of pages22
JournalHistory of Humanities
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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