Affective Fallacy

From New World Encyclopedia

Affective fallacy is a term from literary criticism used to refer to the supposed error of judging or evaluating a text on the basis of its emotional effects on a reader. The term was coined by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley as a principle of New Criticism. The New Criticism represented a new, largely academic, approach to literary studies that 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.

The New Critics attempted to make literary criticism into a more rigorous field, modeled on the dominant paradigm of knowledge in modern society–science. In the process they forced critics to address the work of art itself and examine the nature of human creativity and artistic creation.


Wimsatt was a literary critic who joined the English Department at Yale University in 1939, where he taught until he died in 1975. Beardley was a philosopher of art and aesthetics. As a staunch formalist critic, Wimsatt believed in the authority of the poem and that any analysis of a poem must center on the text itself. [1] In literary criticism, Formalism refers to a style of inquiry that focuses, almost exclusively, on features of the literary text itself, to the exclusion of biographical, historical, or intellectual contexts. The name "Formalism" derives from one of the central tenets of Formalist thought: That the form of a work of literature is inherently a part of its content, and that the attempt to separate the two is a fallacious undertaking. By focusing on literary form and excluding superfluous contexts, Formalists believed that it would be possible to trace the evolution and development of literary forms, and thus, literature itself.

Formalism arose in part as a reaction to the prevailing form of criticism prior to the twentieth century had focused largely on the author's life or social class. Such an approach failed to take into account the rules and structure that governs the production of the art itself. Much of Wimsatt's theory stems from an ambivalence towards "impressionism, subjectivism, and relativism” in criticism.[1] In Hateful Contraries Wimsatt refers to a “New Amateurism,” an “anti-criticism” emerging in works such as Leslie Fiedler’s “Credo,” which appeared in the Kenyon Review. “The only reservation the theorist need have about such critical impressionism or expressionism,” says Wimsatt, “is that, after all, it does not carry on very far in our cogitation about the nature and value of literature…it is not a very mature form of cognitive discourse.”[2]

Part of the animus toward "impressionism" and "subjectivism" can also be attributed to the goal of Wimsatt and his fellow Formalists; they were concerned with ensuring a level of legitimacy in English studies by creating a more scientific approach to criticism, one that would gain for literary criticism a greater status and credibility. They decried the so-called "affective" approaches as “less a scientific view of literature than a prerogative ¬—that of a soul adventuring among masterpieces.”[3]

For Wimsatt and his fellow Formalists, such an approach fails to take account of that fact that art is produced according to certain sets of rules and with its own internal logic. New forms of art represent a break with past forms and an introduction of new rules and logic. According to Formalism, the goal of the critic should be to examine this feature of art. In the case of literature, the object of reflection is the text's "literariness," that which makes it a work of art and not a piece of journalism. This attention to the details of the literary text was an attempt on the part of literary scholars to turn its discipline into a science on a par with the other academic disciplines.

Wimsatt worked out this position in his two influential essays written with Monroe Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy” and “The Affective Fallacy”). They were designed to create an “objective criticism,” which required that the critic essentially disregard the intentions of the poet and the effect of the poem on the audience as the sole (or even the major) factors of analysis. [4]

That does not mean that such approaches to the work of art are not interesting or important, but they are not the domain of the literary critic. Nor does it mean that poems are mathematical operations with a single correct interpretation. As Wimsatt notes, “no two different words or different phrases ever mean fully the same.”[3] The text allows for a certain degree of variation in the analysis of poetry, and the application of different methods of analysis. Different methods will necessarily produce different meanings and different results.

The Concept

First defined in an article published in The Sewanee Review in 1946, the concept of an affective fallacy was most clearly articulated in The Verbal Icon, Wimsatt's collection of essays published in 1954. Wimsatt used the term to refer to all forms of criticism that understood a text's effect upon the reader to be the primary route to analyzing the importance and success of that text. This definition of the fallacy includes nearly all of the major modes of literary criticism prior to the 20th century, from Aristotle's catharsis and Longinus's concept of the sublime to late-nineteenth century belles-lettres and even his contemporaries, the Chicago Critics. All these approaches heavily emphasized the impact of literature on the reader or hearer. Aristotle, for example, made catharsis, the purging of emotions, the very raison d'être of Ancient Greek tragedy. For Longinus, the goal of art was the creation of the sublime state in the audience, leading to loss of rationality through a profound emotional effect. In the modern era, [[The Chicago school of literary criticism, reintroduced a kind of neo-Aristotelianism. Developed in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s at the University of Chicago, they countered the "new critics" emphasis on form, (what Aristotle calls diction), with a more holistic approach to literary analysis. They followed Aristotle's hierarchical list of the narrative elements, attempting to expand on Aristotle's notion of catharsis, employing it to talk generally about the effect that dramatic works produce, and the moral implications of these effects.

Of all these critical approaches, Wimsatt singles out the belletristic tradition, exemplified by critics such as Arthur Quiller-Couch and George Saintsbury, as an instance of a type of criticism that relies on subjective impressions and is thus unrepeatable and unreliable. These approaches amounted to a fallacy for Wimsatt because it led to a number of potential errors, most of them related to emotional relativism. In his view, a critical approach to literature based on its putative emotional effects will always be vulnerable to mystification and subjectivity.

For Wimsatt, as for all the New Critics, such impressionistic approaches pose both practical and theoretical problems. In practical terms, it makes reliable comparisons of different critics difficult, and largely irrelevant. In this light, the affective fallacy ran afoul of the New Critics' desire to place literary criticism on a more objective and principled basis. On the theoretical plane, the critical approach denoted as affective fallacy was fundamentally unsound because it denied the iconic nature of the literary text. New Critical theorists stressed the unique nature of poetic language, and they asserted that—in view of this uniqueness—the role of the critic is to study and elucidate the thematic and stylistic "language" of each text on its own terms, without primary reference to an outside context, whether of history, biography, or reader-response.

In practice, Wimsatt and the other New Critics were less stringent in their application of the theory than in their theoretical pronouncements. Wimsatt admitted the appropriateness of commenting on emotional effects as an entry into a text, as long as those effects were not made the focus of analysis.


As with many concepts of New Criticism, the concept of the affective fallacy was both controversial and, though widely influential, never accepted wholly by any great number of critics.

The first critiques of the concept came, naturally enough, from those academic schools against whom the New Critics were ranged in the 1940s and 1950s, principally the historical scholars and the remaining belletristic critics. Early commentary deplored the use of the word "fallacy" itself, which seemed to many critics unduly combative. More sympathetic critics, while still objecting to Wimsatt's tone, accepted as valuable and necessary his attempt to place criticism on a more objective basis.

However, the extremism of Wimsatt's approach was ultimately judged untenable by a number of critics. Just as New Historicism repudiated the New Critics' rejection of historical context, so reader-response criticism arose partly from dissatisfaction with the concept of the text as icon. Reader-response critics denied that a text could have a quantifiable significance apart from the experience of particular readers at particular moments. These critics rejected the idea of text as icon, focusing instead on the ramifications of the interaction between text and reader.

While the term remains current as a warning against unsophisticated use of emotional response in analyzing texts, the theory underlying the term has been largely eclipsed by more recent developments in criticism.

Wimsatt and Beardsley on Affective Fallacy

  • "The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological skepticism [… which …] begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism [with the result that] the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear."
  • "The report of some readers …that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account."
  • "The critic is not a contributor to statistical countable reports about the poem, but a teacher or explicator of meanings. His readers, if they are alert, will not be content to take what he says as testimony, but will scrutinize it as teaching."


  1. 1.0 1.1 Douglas Mao, The New Critics and the Text Object ELH 63 (1996): 1371-1372. Retrieved March 8, 2020.
  2. W. K. Wimsatt, Hateful Contraries: Studies in Literature and Criticism (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965), xvi.
  3. 3.0 3.1 W. K. Wimsatt, The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954, ISBN 978-0813101118), 29.
  4. Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd ed. (New York: Longman, 1989), 43.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Davis, Robert Con, and Ronald Schleifer. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies 2nd ed. New York: Longman, 1989. ISBN 9780801301544
  • Keast, William. "Review of The Verbal Icon." Modern Language Notes 8 (1956): 591-597.
  • Mao, Douglas. "The New Critics and the Text Object." ELH 63 (1996): 227-254.
  • Wimsatt, W.K. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954. ISBN 978-0813101118
  • Wimsatt, W.K. Hateful Contraries: Studies in Literature and Criticism. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1965. ISBN 978-0685050842
  • Wimsatt, William K., and Cleanth Brooks. Literary Criticism: A Short History. New York: Alfred A. Knopt, 1957.
  • Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Edited by Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.


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