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How to Comment a Critical Text

Some guidelines on how to comment a critical text:

• Read the text carefully. Make sure you understand the meaning of all the words and the contextual sense of the sentences. Use the dictionary.

• If you are given the name of the author, use your knowledge of the author's work as background information for your commentary. Point out the relationship between the text and the author's main ideas, but do not drift away from the text at hand. You are required to write a commentary of a specific text, not an essay on the author in question.

• Is the text an original text or a translation? Does the language of the text give you any clue as to its possible origin or date?

• If you do not know the author of the text, do not write as if you did. Be more tentative, find ideas, concepts, etc. which can be related to theories or to the work of authors you do know.

• Try to point out the main idea of the text.

• How is this idea developed through the text? Is there an exposition? a conclusion? Examples? Try to analyse the rhetorical structure of the text. Does this structure tell you anything about the author's style, method or approach?

• Be especially attentive to the author's assumptions about a shared context, and the presuppositions used in the text. Do they enable us to determine the expected ideology, ideas, attitudes, etc. of an implied reader or addressee? Can we share those presuppositions, or should they be questioned in any way? Does the text's argumentative concerns enable us to reconstruct a critical conversation or an ongoing debate, a critical or literary problematics beyond the limits of this specific text?

• Which are the main critical concepts, whether explicit or implicit, which are used in the passage in question? Locate these concepts in the history of ideas. You can also comment on the relationship between these concepts and the intellectual and cultural milieu of the period you think they belong to: to the work or contemporary or near-contemporary authors.

• Do not read the text as a statement which is simply and literally true (or false). Try to see these ideas as the product of a given mind, a given culture and intellectual milieu. Point out the aspects of the text which support your decisions.

• Does the text include a discussion of previous works, previous theories or ideas? Try to read the passage as an implicit dialogue with other critical conceptions, in order to determine its aims and the historical significance of its ideas in a given period. Find, if possible, the “implicit texts” behind the text you are reading. (Intertextual dimensions).

• Compare these ideas with other critical theories or statements which may clarify or modify them. Are there any similar or contrary positions in other authors, other periods or schools?

• Which are the main strengths / the main weaknesses of the author's analysis? The most striking or memorable passage? (–and why?) Which are the reasons for those strengths /weaknesses? (the author's preconceptions, ideology, aims, etc.). Do your views on this issue differ from the author’s? Which is the reason for these differences?

• Evaluate the conceptions in the passage. Which is the present-day significance of these ideas? Are they still relevant in any way? Do they comment significantly on critical practices or ways of thinking which are still in use? Try to point out, if possible, parallels or equivalents in the critical or literary scene of our own period, whether in popular or in academic reception.

(This is a tutorial I published today in Wikilearning)


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José Ángel García Landa

(Biescas y Zaragoza)
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