The ontological turn: Philosophical sources of american literary theory

Inquiry 45 (1):3 – 33 (2002)
Abstract
The most important sources of contemporary American literary theory are neither the linguistics-based movement of French structuralism, as the term 'poststructuralism' implies, nor a 'modernity' that has been superseded, as the term 'postmodernism' implies, but rather a modernist tradition of aesthetics shaped by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German romanticism and idealism, movements that culminated in the work of Heidegger during the Weimar period between the World Wars and afterward, exercising an increasingly dominant influence on French theorists after World War II, from Sartre through Derrida, and subsequently on the development of poststructuralism and postmodernism during the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. This essay strives to put well-accepted facts and issues within what Wittgenstein called a 'perspicuous' perspective. Although it is common to observe that deconstruction shares with Romanticism certain very general features, the same judgment is not often applied to deconstruction's semiotic account of language as a system of arbitrary signs without positive values. The essay's claim, by contrast, is that romanticist, especially German influences, operating in complementary relation with influences from the English and French Enlightenments, provided the cultural and conceptual milieu in which literary theory's distinctively modern, characteristically ontological, and anti-metaphysical view of language developed.
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