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The Function of Criticism

A history and critique of the last 200 years of cultural criticism, from Addison and Steele to Barthes and Derrida.

This wide-ranging book argues that criticism emerged in early bourgeois society as a central feature of a “public sphere” in which political, ethical, and literary judgements could mingle under the benign rule of reason. The disintegration of this fragile culture brought on a crisis in criticism, whose history since the 18th century has been fraught with ambivalence and anxiety.

Eagleton’s account embraces Addison and Steele, Johnson and the 19-century reviewers, such critics as Arnold and Stephen, the heyday of Scrutiny and New Criticism, and finally the proliferation of avant-garde literary theories such as deconstructionism.

The Function of Criticism is nothing less than a history and critique of the “critical institution” itself. Eagleton’s judgements on individual critics are sharp and illuminating, which his general argument raises crucial questions about the relations between language, literature and politics.


  • “Eagleton is second to none among cultural critics writing in the English language today.”
  • “Eagleton is a combative, fiercely articulate and witty Marxist literary critic.”


  • Terry Eagleton at Occupy Coleraine

    Video streaming by Ustream

     Terry Eagleton has recently spoken on the idea of the ‘New University’ at Occupy Coleraine in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Ulster. Eagleton argues for a new concept of the university, which will reinstate the importance of critical thinking and a humanistic education.

     Traditionally, he argues, universities have been taken to cultivate and guard certain values, as ‘places of enquiry, free exploration, dispute, dialectic, investigation and above all critique’. However, that ‘long and honourable tradition’ of the university ‘is now almost dead at its feet’. He argues that we must set about the work of re-creating a space for the exploration of these values, as the space made for enquiry and critique is constantly being diminished in our society.

     Eagleton criticizes what the university has become in contemporary society, arguing that ‘the production of knowledge’ has been fully incorporated into ‘the institutions of corporate capitalism’. These institutions have become incapable of valorizing ‘self-realisation’ or ‘self-development’ and education no longer serves a function of ‘critical dialogue’ but consists merely of the ‘production of mind factories which sell commodified bits of knowledge’ in the current ‘education system which is almost a complete technocracy’.

     His idea for a “New University” is based on what he sees in occupations such as Occupy Coleraine. What the occupiers represent, he argues, is ‘the real university … the true idea of the university’. At the end of his talk, he extends his solidarity and tells the occupiers,

    You are here to defend this space as symbolic of the very idea of education ... you are here to teach the philistines who run these institutions a vital lesson.

Other books by Terry Eagleton