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Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton is a writer, academic, essayist and Marxist literary critic. He is currently the Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has written extensively for a range of literary and popular magazines up to the present day and is the author of more than fifty books on topics like literary theory, Marxism, culture, and ideology. 

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Terry Eagleton is a writer, academic, essayist and Marxist literary critic. He is currently the Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University. He has written extensively for a range of literary and popular magazines up to the present day and is the author of more than fifty books on topics like literary theory, Marxism, culture, and ideology.

His most famous book, selling more than 750,000 copies, is called Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which explores the rise of literary theory and the way it has evolved through the twentieth century. It is an important book, a survey of theory and put the subject of theory on the syllabus of English Literature departments around the world. Terry Eagleton is known for his views on ideology and Marxism.

Marxism is an economic theory developed by Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Terry Eagleton biography

Terry Eagleton was born in Salford near Manchester in 1943. He was brought up Catholic, with Irish roots. He studied English at Cambridge under the famous scholar Raymond Williams. He turned to the political left during these years at university and became actively involved in several socialist organisations and a left-wing publication, which he edited.

Later in his career, he wrote about the so-called New Atheists. This was an informal movement of writers (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens) who wrote a few books against the idea of God. These included the famous book by Dawkins called The God Delusion (2006). In defence of the religious position, Eagleton wrote a review of this book, which was published in the London Review of Books in 2006. A single quote will be enough to give an impression of the review as a whole:

Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

He also gave some lectures on the subject a couple of years later.

Terry Eagleton postmodernism

Postmodernism can be difficult to pin down. Terry Eagleton defines it in the following way:

[It is] a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. (The Illusion of Postmodernity, preface, p.1).

It is no surprise, then, that Eagleton distances himself from postmodernism as an intellectual enterprise and a cultural phenomenon. He is avowedly in favour of a single explanation, a grand narrative, of teleological ideas of history and human progress and of ultimate emancipation. He believes squarely in justice and the importance of truth as an objective category. He's a Marxist, after all.

It seems that everything which postmodernism opposes, Eagleton proposes. His book, The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996), is an attack on these central convictions of postmodernism. How, Eagleton asks, can you oppose injustice or promote fairness in society if there is no truth and if there is no basis upon which to say that something is unjust or unfair?

He goes on to say that postmodernism:

is depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralist …' (p1)

Eagleton believes that postmodernism is guilty of a simple mistake. When postmodernists say they don't believe in absolute truth, they mean that there can be no revealed or immutable truth without context, a kind of universal fact. But all Eagleton means by absolute truth 'is that something cannot be and not be the case at the same time'. (After Theory by Terry Eagleton by Abdelkader Aoudjit, in Philosophy Now, 2006).

But some disagree with Eagleton's assessment of postmodernism, believing that he uses popular ideas about postmodernism rather than the nuanced and considered work of specific theorists (an admission Eagleton himself makes in the Preface to The Illusions of Postmodernism).

Terry Eagleton ideology

Eagleton's book on ideology, Ideology: An Introduction (1993), defines the term in a number of helpful ways, not least as the mechanism which enables us (sometimes positively and sometimes negatively) to see other people in particular ways. That is, to see people as friends or enemies, as similar or different, as people to be feared or people to be embraced. He writes,

What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin [terms from a poem he has just quoted] is ideology. (Ideology: An Introduction, p.xiii)

Ideology is the all-pervasive idea we have about the world, ourselves, and what to do about it. Eagleton goes on to explain the apparent absurdity of ideology:

One can understand well enough how human beings may struggle and murder for good material reasons – reasons connected, for instance, with their physical survival. It is much harder to grasp how they may come to do so in the name of something as apparently abstract as ideas. (P.xiii)

According to Eagleton, ideas and ideology are related to each other. They are not the same. What Eagleton is saying is that ideas (by which he means 'grand ideas', ideas which define who we are in the world) generate ideology.

Terry Eagleton books

Eagleton has written more than fifty books, alongside numerous articles and essays, published in left-wing journals and magazines, both in print and online. He is prolific and continues to write for political forums like Unherd, The Guardian, and the New Left Review. Apart from the books already mentioned above, some of his best-known books are Why Marx was Right (2011), Marxism and Literary Theory (1976), On Evil (2010), Culture (2016), and Critical Revolutionaries (2022).

Terry Eagleton Marxism

In his 2011 defence of Marxism, Why Marx was Right, Eagleton spells out his socialist view of the world. Eagleton's scheme for the book is an attempt to give a counterargument against ten common objections to Marxism.

As expected, Eagleton places class struggle at the centre of Marxism. He explains that the Marxist description of history is of a series of stages which emerge as a result of tension between the working classes and the middle classes. The working class lack power, and so they revolt against unfair and oppressive working conditions. These revolutions can (Marxists hope) lead to socialism, a situation where everybody has what they need, and nobody goes without. Some reviewers said that the book was successful when published because it chimed with a renewed interest in Marxist theory after the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

Eagleton writes:

socialist is just someone who is unable to get over his or her astonishment that most people who have lived and died have spent lives of wretched, fruitless, unremitting toil. (Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction)

Some of the criticism levelled at the book and of Eagleton's Marxism is that it is utopian, that it is irrelevant because the world has changed so much since Marx wrote his famous text, Capital (Das Kapital, published in 1867), and, perhaps most importantly and worryingly for anti-Marxists, that it leads to authoritarianism and even totalitarianism. This has certainly been the case wherever Marxism has been tried throughout the twentieth century, from Russia, and Venezuela, to Cambodia and China.

Terry Eagleton - Key takeaways

  • Terry Eagleton is a writer, academic, essayist and Marxist literary critic.
  • Ideology is the all-pervasive idea we have about the world, ourselves, and what to do about it.
  • Eagleton has written more than fifty books, alongside numerous articles and essays, published in left-wing journals and magazines, both in print and online.
  • He was brought up Catholic, with Irish roots. He studied English at Cambridge under the famous scholar Raymond Williams.
  • Later in his career, he wrote about the so-called New Atheists.

Frequently Asked Questions about Terry Eagleton

Ideology is the ideas which shape the way we see the world. 

He is best known for his contributions to Marxist literary theory. 

Yes. Eagleton became a Marxist at university. 

He believes that Marxism is still relevant today. 

Literature is a vehicle for revolution.  

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