Genre Criticism—Sensus Literalis -- By: Grant R. Osborne

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 04:2 (Fall 1983)
Article: Genre Criticism—Sensus Literalis
Author: Grant R. Osborne


Genre Criticism—Sensus Literalis1

Grant R. Osborne

Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The concept of genre, so central to hermeneutical theory in recent years, is an elusive one. Websters Third International Dictionary defines genre as “a category of artistic composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” However, this definition is an outgrowth of the traditional view of genre as a device for classifying types of literature. Literary critics have challenged this assumption, arguing that genre has epistemological and ontological overtones that abrogate its classificatory function.

The modern debate concerns the prescriptive and descriptive aspects of genre criticism. Does genre regulate or merely describe a literary work? This issue is the focus of our study. If the former, genre may provide a major hermeneutical tool for uncovering the original meaning of a work, because as Hirsch argues (see below) the “intrinsic genre” of a work will provide interpretive laws for determining its intended message. If the latter, however, the genre may differ from work to work and will aid the task of interpretation only peripherally.

Plato and Aristotle were the first to grapple seriously with genre theory. Plato developed the concept of representation or description, with two basic types—drama (dealing with action) and epic (dealing with people)-and a mixed genre combining the two. In reaction to Plato’s descriptive approach Aristotle defined genre as mimesis or imitation, arguing that there are distinct forms that demand interpretation. He found three types—comedy, tragedy, and epic. As such, Plato and Aristotle thus anticipated the first modern debate.2 The Roman poet Horace took a forensic attitude toward the various modes of literature, asserting that the task of the critic is to discover interpretive laws for each type. He also multiplied the number of genres to eight, adding to Aristotle’s list lyric, pastoral, satire, elegy and epigram.3

However, in ensuing centuries the platonic approach prevailed, and in the disappearance of theatre in the Middle Ages drama was removed from the triumvirate of lyric, epic, and drama. A change began in the sixteenth century, when the Italian Renaissance rediscovered drama and the French Renaissance made poetry the genus universurn, the sum of the essence of art.4 The neo-classical period of the 17th and 18th centuries rediscovered Aristotle, and genre as mimesis became the foun...

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