Affective Fallacy

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An important concept in New Criticism, coined by Wimsatt and Beardsley in an essay in The Verbal Icon, Affective Fallacy refers to the supposed error of judging or evaluating a text on the basis of its emotional effects on a reader. New Criticism represented a largely academic and scientific approach to literary studies and focused on the literary text itself as the object of study and not as a social artefact that expressed the inner life of the artist or the society in which it was written. Affective Fallacy is an answer to impressionistic criticism, which argues that the reader’s response to a poem is the ultimate indication of its value. For Wimsatt and Beardsley, the text was an autonomous entity, independent of both author and reader, and its merit and meaning was considered to be inherent and not attributed. Thus the reader’s reaction to a text was discounted as a valid measure of the text, as what mattered was “what it is” and not “what it does”.

Affective fallacy touches on or wholly includes nearly all of the major modes of literary criticism, from Aristotle’s Catharsis and Longinus’s Sublime to late nineteenth century belles-letters and the Chicago critics.

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