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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The term “literature” is derived from the Latin litter-
which, in turn comes from the root littera, letter.
According to Quintilian (Institutiones, lib. 2., cap. 1)
it is a translation of the Greek grammatikē. It meant
thus simply a knowledge of writing and reading. Other
passages refer to the alphabet or an inscription
(Wölfflin, 1885). Cicero speaks of Caesar as having
literatura in a list of qualities which includes “good
sense, memory, reflection, diligence.” It must here
mean something like “erudition, literary culture.” We
have to go to Tertullian (De spectaculis) and Cassian,
in the second century A.D., to find the term used for
a body of writing. They contrast secular literature with
scriptural, pagan with Christian, litteratura with scrip-

The term, in this form, seems to have disappeared
during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It
emerges late in the seventeenth century meaning
“knowledge of literature,” “literary culture.” Thus
J. de La Bruyère, in his Caractères (1688), speaks of
gens d'un bel esprit et d'une agréable littérature.

Examples of this usage can be found all through the
eighteenth century. Voltaire, in Le Siècle de Louis XIV
(1751, Ch. XXV), speaks of Chapelain as having une
littérature immense.
In the unfinished article on “Lit-
térature” for his Dictionnaire philosophique (1764-72)
Voltaire defines literature as “a knowledge of the works
of taste, a smattering of history, poetry, eloquence, and
criticism.” Voltaire's follower, Jean-François Marmon-
tel, who wrote the literary articles for the great Ency-
which were collected as Eléments de littéra-
(1787), defines “littérature” as a “knowledge of
belles letters” in contrast with erudition. “With wit,
talent, and taste,” he promises, “one can produce inge-
nious works, without any erudition, and with little

In England, the antiquary John Selden was, in 1691,
called a “person of infinite literature,” and Boswell,
late in the eighteenth century, refers to the writer
Giuseppe Baretti as an “Italian of considerable litera-
ture.” Dr. Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary defines


“Literature” simply as “learning; skill in letters.” The
Tatler (No. 197, July 13, 1710) implies that it meant
mainly a knowledge of Latin and Greek: “It is in
vain for folly to attempt to conceal itself by the
refuge of learned languages. Literature does but make
a man more eminently the thing that nature made
him.” This use of the term survived in the nine-
teenth century when James Ingram gave a lecture “On
the Utility of Anglo-Saxon Literature” (1807) mean-
ing the utility of knowing or studying Anglo-Saxon,
or when John Petherham wrote An Historical Sketch
of the Progress and Present State of Anglo-Saxon Litera-
ture in England
(1840) where literature means the
study of literature.

Apparently not later than the thirties of the eight-
eenth century the term began to be used as a designa-
tion for a body of writing. François Granet's series,
Réflexions sur les ouvrages de littérature (1736-40) is
an early example. Voltaire in Le Siècle de Louis XIV
(1751) speaks of littérature legère and les genres de
cultivated in Italy. L'Abbé Sabatier de
Castres seems to have been the first to put the term
on the title-page of a French book: Les Siècles de
littérature française
(1772), the year in which Tira-
boschi's multivolumed Storia della letteratura italiana
began to appear in Italy. In Germany this use seems
to be established slightly earlier in prominent texts.
Lessing's Briefe die neueste Litteratur betreffend
(1759ff.) applies clearly to a body of writing, and so
does Herder's Über die neuere deutsche Litteratur
(1767). Still, the term must have been felt as strange
and new as Nicolas Trublet's Essais sur divers sujets
de littérature et morale
(1735-54) were translated as
Versuche über verschiedene Gegenstände der Sittenlehre
und Gelehrsamkeit

In English the same process took place. Sometimes
it is difficult to distinguish between the old meaning
of literature as literary culture and the new reference
to a body of writing. The New English Dictionary
quotes its first example for “body of writing” from
1822. In 1761 George Colman, the elder, however,
thought that “Shakespeare and Milton seem to stand
alone, like first-rate authors, amid the general wreck
of old English literature.” In 1767 Adam Ferguson
included a chapter, “Of the History of Literature,” in
his Essay on the History of Civil Society. In 1774 Dr.
Johnson, in a letter, wished that “what is undeservedly
forgotten of our antiquated literature might be re-
vived” and John Berkenhout in 1777 subtitled his Biog-
raphia Literaria,
A Biographical History of Literature,
in which he proposed to give a “concise view of the
rise and progress of literature.” Examples from the late
eighteenth century could be multiplied. Still, the first
book in English called A History of English Language
and Literature
by Robert Chambers dates from as late
as 1836.

In all of these examples literature is used very in-
clusively. It obviously refers to all kinds of writings
including those of an erudite nature, history, philoso-
phy, theology, etc. Only very slowly was the term
narrowed down to what we today call “imaginative
literature,” and imaginative, fictive prose. An early
conscious declaration of this new use is in the Preface
to Carlo Denina's Discorso sopra le vicende della let-
(1760), a book which was soon translated into
English and French. Denina professes “not to speak
of the progress of the sciences and arts, which are not
properly a part of literature”; he will speak of works
of learning only when they belong to “good taste, to
eloquence, that is to say, to literature.” That literature
was used in this new aesthetic sense at that time may
be illustrated by A. de Giorgi-Bertòla's Idea della let-
teratura alemanna
(Lucca, 1784) which is an expanded
edition of the earlier Idea della poesia alemanna
(Naples, 1779) where the change of title was forced
by the inclusion of a report on German novels.

Two comments by important nineteenth-century
writers may show that the term “literature” was felt
to be new and even objectionable, at least in France.
Philarète Chasles comments in 1847: “I have little
esteem for the word literature; it seems to me mean-
ingless.” It is “something which is neither philosophy,
nor history, nor erudition, nor criticism—something I
know not what: vague, impalpable, and elusive.”
Ernest Renan in Questions contemporaines (1868) still
felt the novelty of the term: He speaks of L'ensemble
des productions qu'on appelait autrefois les “ouvrages
de l'esprit” et qu'on désigne maintenant du nom de
(“The group of works that used to be called
'works of the mind' and are now designated as 'litera-

Literature was a new or alternate term for what in
antiquity was usually called litterae. In Cicero we find
Graecae litterae, historia litteris nostris, and studium
A Christian writer, Cassiodorus, wrote In-
stitutiones divinarum litterarum
in the sixth century.
In the Middle Ages, with the establishment of the seven
liberal arts and the trivium, the term litterae was used
rarely. Poetry was assigned to grammar or rhetoric.
Litteratus occurs, but does not mean a writer but
anybody acquainted with the art of writing and read-
ing. With the Renaissance a consciousness of a new
secular literature opposed to scripture and theological
writing or to the writing of schoolmen and pedants
emerges and with it the terms litterae humanae, lettres
and bonnes lettres. They are used widely by
Rabelais, Du Bellay, Montaigne, and other French
writers of the sixteenth century often in contrast to


saintes lettres. The term litterae humaniores survives
in Oxford as one of the honors schools.

The term belles lettres emerges only in the seven-
teenth century. In 1666 Charles Perrault proposed to
Colbert, the minister of finance of Louis XIV an Acad-
emy with a section belles lettres which was to include
grammar, eloquence, and poetry (Lettres, ed. P. Cle-
ment, Paris [1868], V, 512f.). The term must have been
felt to be identical with lettres humains, as the Dic-
tionnaire de Trévoux
(1704) says: on appelle les lettres
humaines ou les belles lettres, la grammaire, l'élo-
quence, la poésie.
This common French term spread
then early in the eighteenth century to England and
Scotland. At Marischal College, in Aberdeen, “the
principles of criticism and belles lettres” were taught
in 1753 (A. Morgan, Scottish University Studies [1933],
p. 73); and Hugh Blair became Professor of Rhetoric
and belles Lettres at the University of Edinburgh in
1762. His Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783)
was a popular textbook even in the United States far
into the nineteenth century. Today belles lettres both
in French and English, is used rather rarely and the
noun “belletrist” and the adjective “belletristic” have
assumed a faintly derisive shade of frivolity and incon-
sequence. Thomas De Quincey in 1837 refers to
William Roscoe as “a mere belletrist” (Masson, XI,
127). Vernon Louis Parrington in Main Currents of
American Thought
(1927-30), assigns the problem of
Poe to the “belletrist.” A. L. Guérard is quoted as
saying “The belles lettres fragrance that clings to the
humanities repelled the social scientists.”

Literature in the eighteenth century began to be felt
as a particular national possession, as an expression of
the national mind, as a means toward the nation's
self-definition. The Germans were particularly con-
scious of their nationality and in German the term
“Nationalliteratur” began to be used widely. Leonhard
Meister's Beyträge zur Geschichte der teutschen
Sprache und Nationallitteratur
(1777) is an early exam-
ple. Most of the best known literary histories carry the
term in their title: those of Ernst Wachler, August
Koberstein, G. G. Gervinus in 1835, and later the
popular August Vilmar and Rudolf Gottschall.

The emphasis on nationality and locality elicited the
need for contrary qualifications. “Comparative litera-
ture,” “world literature,” and “general literature” are
rival terms emerging in the nineteenth century. “Com-
parative literature” in English is of very late occur-
rence. A letter by Matthew Arnold from 1848 is not
really relevant. He says “how plain it is now, though
an attention to the comparative literatures for the last
fifty years might have instructed anyone of it, that
England is in a certain sense far behind the Continent”
(Letters, ed. Russell, London [1895], I, 8). Here the term
“comparative” means merely “comparable.” The de-
cisive use was that of Hutchison Macaulay Posnett, an
Irish barrister who later became Professor of Classics
and English Literature at University College, Auck-
land, New Zealand, who put the term on the title of
a book in 1886. Posnett in a later article “The Science
of Comparative Literature” (Contemporary Review,
1901) claimed “to have first stated the method and
principles of the new science, and to have been the
first to do so not only in the British Empire but in
the world.” But of course this is entirely untrue. French
and German use of the term preceded the English. The
lateness of the English use of the term must be in part
explained by the fact that “comparative literature”
preserves the older meaning of the term as “study of
literature” which had fallen into oblivion. It raised
objections such as those of Lane Cooper who refused
to call the department at Cornell University, of which
he became Chairman in 1927, “Comparative Litera-
ture,” insisting on “The Comparative Study of Litera-
ture.” He considered “Comparative Literature” a
“bogus term” that “makes neither sense nor syntax....
You might as well permit yourself to say 'comparative
potatoes' or 'comparative husks'” (Experiments in Ed-
Ithaca [1942], p. 75). Today the ellipsis seems
generally understood, and the term is accepted also
in English.

The French were more fortunate; littérature com-
makes good syntax and sense. The term was
apparently suggested by G. Cuvier's Anatomie com-
(1800) or J. M. Degérando's Histoire comparée
des systèmes de philosophie
(1804). In 1816 two com-
pilers, F. J. M. Noël and Guisbain F. M. J. de Laplace,
published a series of anthologies from French, classical,
and English literature with the otherwise unused and
unexplained title page: Cours de littérature comparée.
Charles Pougens in Lettres philosophiques à Madame
XXX sur divers sujets de morale et littérature
complained that there is no work on the principles of
literature he can recommend: un cours de littérature
comme je l'entends, c'est-à-dire, un cours de littérature

The man, however, who gave the term currency in
France was undoubtedly Abel-François Villemain,
whose course on eighteenth-century literature was a
tremendous success at the Sorbonne in the late twen-
ties. It was published in 1828-1829 as Tableau de la
littérature française au XVIIIe siècle
in four volumes,
with even the flattering reactions of the audience in-
serted: Vifs applaudissements. On rit (“Lively ap-
plause. Laughter”). There he uses several times Tableau
comparé, études comparées, histoire comparée,
but also
littérature comparée in praising the Chancelier
d'Aguesseau for his vastes études de philosophie, d'his


toire, de littérature comparée. In the second lecture
series, Tableau de la littérature au moyen âge en
France, en Italie, en Espagne et en Angleterre
(2 vols.,
1830), he speaks again of amateurs de la littérature
and in the Preface to the new edition in
1840, Villemain, not incorrectly, boasts that here for
the first time in a French university an attempt at an
analyse comparée of several modern literatures was

After Villemain the term was used fairly frequently.
Philarète Chasles delivered an inaugural lecture at the
Athenée in 1835: in the printed version in the Revue
de Paris,
the course is called littérature étrangère com-
Adolphe-Louis de Puibusque wrote a two-
volume Histoire comparée de la littérature française et
(1843) where he quotes Villemain, the per-
petual Secretary of the French Academy, as settling
the question. The term “comparative,” however, seems
to have for a time competed with comparée. J.-J.
Ampère, in his Discours sur l'histoire de la poésie
(1830), speaks of l'histoire comparative des arts et de
la littérature
but later also uses the other term in the
title of his Histoire de la littérature française au moyen
âge comparée aux littératures étrangères
(1841). The
decisive text in favor of the term littérature comparée
is C. A. Sainte-Beuve's very late article, an obituary
of Ampère, in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1868.

In Germany the word “comparative” was translated
vergleichend in scientific contexts. Goethe in 1795
wrote “Erster Entwurf einer allgemeinen Einleitung
in die vergleichende Anatomie” (“First Draft of a
General Introduction to Comparative Anatomy”). Ver-
gleichende Grammatik
was used by August Wilhelm
Schlegel in a review in 1803, and Friedrich Schlegel's
pioneering book, Über Sprache und Weisheit der Inder
(1808), used vergleichende Grammatik prominently as
a program of a new science expressly recalling the
model of vergleichende Anatomie. The adjective
became common in Germany for ethnology, and later
psychology, historiography, and poetics. But for the
very same reason as in English, it had difficulty making
its way with the word “literature.” Moriz Carriere in
1854, in Das Wesen und die Formen der Poesie, proba-
bly used vergleichende Literaturgeschichte for the first
time. Vergleichende Literatur occurs surprisingly as the
title of a forgotten periodical edited by Hugo von
Meltzl, in the remote city of Klausenburg (now Cluj,
in Rumania): his Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literatur
ran from 1877 to 1888. In 1886 Max Koch, at the
University of Breslau, founded a Zeitschrift für ver-
gleichende Literaturgeschichte,
which survived till
1910. Von Meltzl emphasized that his conception of
comparative literature was not confined to history and,
in the last numbers of his periodical he changed the
title to Zeitschrift für vergleichende Literaturwissen-
A fairly new term in German, Literaturwissen-
was adopted early in the twentieth century for
what we usually call “literary criticism” or “theory
of literature.” The new German periodical Arcadia
(1966-) is called Zeitschrift für vergleichende Litera-

There is no need to enter into a history of the terms
elsewhere: In Italian, letteratura comparata is clearly
and easily formed on the French model. The great
critic Francesco De Sanctis occupied a chair called
Della letteratura comparata at Naples, from 1872 till
his death in 1883. Arturo Graf became the holder of
such a chair at Turin in 1876. In Spanish the term
literatura comparada seems even more recent.

In Russian, Alexander Veselovsky, the greatest Rus-
sian comparatiste did not use the term in his inaugural
lecture as Professor of General Literature at St. Peters-
burg in 1870, but he reviewed Koch's new periodical
in 1887 and there used the term sravitelnoe literatur-
which is closely modeled on vergleichende

The term “world literature,” Weltliteratur, was used
in 1827 by Goethe commenting on a translation of his
drama Tasso into French, and then several times,
sometimes in slightly different senses: he thought
mainly of a single unified world literature in which
differences between the individual literatures would
disappear, though he knew that this would be quite
remote. In a draft, Goethe equates “European” with
“world literature,” surely provisionally. There is a
well-known poem by Goethe, “Weltliteratur” (1827),
which rehearses rather the delights of folk poetry and
actually got its title erroneously from the editor of the
1840 posthumous edition. Today world literature may
mean simply all literature, as in the title of many books,
or it may mean a canon of excellent works from many
languages, as when we say that this or that book or
author belongs to world literature: Ibsen belongs to
world literature, while Jonas Lie does not. Swift be-
longs to world literature, while Thomas Hardy does

“General literature” exists in English; e.g., James
Montgomery gave Lectures on General Literature,
etc. (1833), where “general literature” means
what we would call “theory of literature” or “princi-
ples of criticism.” The Rev. Thomas Dale in 1831
became Professor of English Literature and History in
the Department of General Literature and Science at
King's College, London. In Germany J. G. Eichhorn
edited a whole series of books called Allgemeine
Geschichte der Literatur
(1788ff.). There were similar
compilations: Johann David Hartmann, Versuch einer
allgemeinen Geschichte der Poesie,
in two volumes


(1797 and 1798), and Ludwig Wachler, Versuch einer
allgemeinen Geschichte der Literatur,
in four volumes,
(1793-1801), and Johann Georg Grässe's Lehrbuch
einer allgemeinen Literärgeschichte
(1837-57), an
enormous bibliographical compilation.

In the 1960's Paul Van Tieghem tried to make a
distinction between “comparative literature” which
studies only the relations between literatures taken two
at a time and “general literature” which concerns “the
facts common to several literatures.” It seems an artifi-
cial distinction as it would, for instance, be impossible
to draw a line between the influence of Walter Scott
and the rise of the historical novel. In American prac-
tice comparative literature is used to include what Van
Tieghem calls general literature. The limitations of
comparative literature to “relations of facts” between
two literatures is a narrow conception which makes
comparative literature a mere auxiliary discipline of
literary history with a fragmentary, scattered subject
matter. Outside of the French academic establishment
comparative literature has flourished largely because
it has been interpreted as a study of all literature from
an international perspective independent of linguistic,
ethnic, and political boundaries. It is not confined to
a single method. Description, characterization, inter-
pretation, explanation, evaluation are used in its dis-
course as much as comparison.

The concept of “literature,” independently of its
formulation in specific terms still awaits its historian.
Speaking sweepingly one can say with some confidence
that in older times literature or letters was understood
to include all writing of any pretence and permanence.
Poetry, however, was set apart, mainly due to the clear
distinction made by verse and the special craft required
in its practice. Prose forms as far as they were recog-
nized were usually incorporated in rhetoric: the ser-
mon, the didactic or philosophical treatise, historiog-
raphy, and even fictional narratives. The view that
there is a peculiar art of literature, a verbal art which
includes poetry and prose as far as it is imaginative
and thus excludes the informative statement, scientific
information, and even rhetorical persuasion emerged
very slowly as did the whole modern system of the
arts. Such a view is manifestly impossible before the
central problem of aesthetics was posed, even before
the invention of the term by Baumgarten in 1735, in
the discussions of taste, Je ne sais quoi, virtù, imagina-
tion, genius and in the very term “belles lettres.” It
took almost a century to prepare for Kant's Critique
of Judgment
(1790), which clearly distinguished the
good, the true, and the useful from the beautiful.
Slowly the purely didactic and mimetic conception of
poetry receded: the ancient view—as expressed, for
example, in Bacon's Advancement of Learning (1603)
which recognized only drama and epic and ignored
or slighted the lyric—yielded to a new conception in
which the lyric or the song assumed the center of
poetry. The shift is accomplished in different countries
with diverse authors: with J. G. von Herder in Ger-
many, G. Leopardi in Italy, and J. S. Mill in England.
All these three critics disparage drama and epic in
favor of lyrical poetry, often in extravagant terms. The
slow rise in the prestige of the novel, long frowned
upon as frivolous, collaborated in establishing a con-
cept of literature as an art parallel to the plastic arts
and music, which in former centuries had been often
set apart as menial crafts.

Today three distinct meanings of “literature” prevail,
if we ignore such phrases as the “literature of the
subject” (i.e., the books and articles about a subject)
or “campaign literature” (pamphlets). First, literature
signifies the totality of literary production: everything
in print; secondly, literature refers to great books,
books of whatever subject, of historical impact; thirdly,
literature may be more or less rigidly limited to imagi-
native writing. These distinctions are of considerable
practical importance for writing on as well as teaching
of literature and literary history. The first or widest
conception allows us to study everything in print as
a source for cultural history. Edwin Greenlaw argued
in favor of a concept of literary history which states
that “nothing related to the history of civilization is
beyond our province and that we are not limited to
belles lettres or even to printed or manuscript records
in our effort to understand a period or civilization.”
Literary study becomes simply identical with the his-
tory of civilization or intellectual history, in which
printed sources play the main part (though not the only
one) as documentary evidence.

The second conception of literature defines it in
terms of great books which, whatever their subject,
are “notable for literary form or expression.” Here the
criterion is either aesthetic value alone or aesthetic
value in combination with general intellectual distinc-
tion and historical impact. This is the conception of
literature underlying much literary history, which may
include the discussion of eminent historians, philoso-
phers, and even scientists. This view, however, by
limiting the history of imaginative literature to great
books, obscures the continuity of literary tradition, the
development of literary genres often from anonymous
sources, and indeed the very nature of the literary
process. In history, philosophy, and similar subjects,
it introduces an excessively aesthetic point of view.
Scientists, historians, and philosophers are singled out
for their expository style or their skill in organization,
with the result that the literary historian will have to
prefer popularizers to the great original minds.


In its practical consequences the concept of litera-
ture advocated by the so-called New French critics is
not so very different. They emphasize that anything
is literature which challenges close interpretation, sub-
tle reading, and rereading. Criticism and philosophy
are included in the term écriture (Roland Barthes), a
purposely inclusive term which allows the distinction
between creative and critical work to disappear.

Increasingly a coherently aesthetic point of view has
prevailed: the concept of literature as imaginative
literature, which includes poetry and the prose forms
such as the novel, and which share with poetry the
basic element of fictionality and aesthetic effect. Liter-
ature in this sense corresponds to the German term
Dichtung which is often used so broadly. Dostoevsky,
who never wrote verse, is referred to as Dichter. In
recent decades in Germany terms such as Wortkunst
emphasize the art of literature. In Russian the term
slovesnost (from slovo, “word”) has this meaning of
literature including what in English has been recently
referred to as “oral literature.” This is a contradictio
in adjecto,
in view of the derivation of literature from
littera, but is a needed term since the oral tradition is
a necessary component of any meaningful history of
the verbal forms of art.

If we recognize fictionality, invention, or imagina-
tion as the distinguishing trait of literature, we think
thus of literature in terms of Homer, Dante, Shake-
speare, Balzac, Keats rather than of Cicero or Mon-
taigne, Bossuet, or Emerson. Admittedly, there will be
“boundary” cases, works like Plato's Republic to which
it would be difficult to deny, at least in the great myths,
passages of “invention” and “fictionality,” while they
are at the same time primarily works of philosophy.
This conception of literature is descriptive, not evalua-
tive. No wrong is done to a great and influential work
by relegating it to rhetoric, to philosophy, to political
pamphleteering, though doing so may pose problems
of aesthetic analysis, of stylistics and composition, sim-
ilar or identical to those presented by literature, except
for the absence of the central quality of fictionality.
This descriptive conception of literature will thus in-
clude in it all kinds of fiction, even the worst novel,
the worst poem, the worst drama. To classify a work
as belonging to literature should be distinguished from

The distinction between literature and other forms
of writing has increasingly been made in terms of the
particular use made of language in literature. The main
distinctions to be drawn are between the literary, the
everyday, and the scientific uses of language. A discus-
sion of this point by Thomas Clark Pollock, The Nature
of Literature
(1942), though true as far as it goes, seems
not entirely satisfactory, especially in defining the dis
tinction between literary and everyday language. The
problem is crucial and by no means simple in practice,
since literature, in distinction from the other arts has
no medium of its own and since many mixed forms
and subtle transitions undoubtedly exist. It is fairly easy
to distinguish between the language of science and the
language of literature. The mere contrast between
“thought” and “emotion” or “feeling” is, however, not
sufficient. Literature does contain thought, while emo-
tional language is by no means confined to literature:
witness a lovers' conversation or an ordinary quarrel.
Still, most scientific language is primarily “denotative”
insofar as it aims at a one-to-one correspondence be-
tween sign and referent. The sign is completely arbi-
trary, hence can be replaced by equivalent signs. The
accurately defined scientific sign is also transparent;
that is, without drawing attention to itself, it directs
us unequivoally to its referent.

Thus scientific language tends toward an increasing
use of a system of signs provided by mathematics or
symbolic logic. The rationalistic philosophers' ideal is
such a universal language as the characteristica uni-
which Leibniz had begun to plan as early as
the late seventeenth century. Compared to scientific
language, literary language will appear to many
rationalists to be in some ways deficient. It abounds
in ambiguities; it is, like every other historical lan-
guage, full of homonyms, arbitrary or irrational cate-
gories such as grammatical gender; it is permeated with
historical accidents, memories, and associations. In a
word, it is highly “connotative.” Moreover, literary
language is far from merely referential. It has its ex-
pressive side; it conveys the tone and attitude of the
speaker or writer. And it does not merely state and
express what it says; it also wants to influence the
attitude of the reader, persuade him, and ultimately
change him. There is a further important distinction
between literary and scientific language: in the former,
the sign itself, the sound symbolism of the word, is
stressed. All kinds of techniques have been invented
to draw attention to it, such as meter, alliteration, and
patterns of sound.

These differentia of literary from scientific language
may be made in different degrees by various works
of literary art: for example, the sound pattern will be
less important in a novel than in certain lyrical poems,
impossible of adequate translation. The expressive ele-
ment will be far less in an “objective novel,” which
may disguise and almost conceal the attitude of the
writer, than in a “personal” lyric. The pragmatic ele-
ment, slight in “pure” poetry, may be large in a novel
with a purpose or in a satirical or didactic poem.
Furthermore, the degree to which the language is
intellectualized may vary considerably: there are phil-


osophical and didactic poems and problem novels
which approximate, at least occasionally, the scientific
use of language. Still, whatever the mixed modes ap-
parent upon an examination of concrete literary works
of art, the distinctions between the literary use and
the scientific use seem clear: literary language is far
more deeply involved in the historical structure of the
language; it stresses the awareness of the sign itself;
it has its expressive and pragmatic side which scientific
language will always want so far as possible to min-

More difficult to establish is the distinction between
everyday and literary language. Everyday language is
not a uniform concept: it includes such wide variants
as colloquial language, the language of commerce,
official language, the language of religion, the slang
of students, and others. But obviously much that has
been said about literary language holds also for the
other uses of language excepting the scientific. Every-
day language also has its expressive function, though
this varies from a colorless official announcement to
the passionate plea aroused by a moment of emotional
crisis. Everyday language is full of the irrationalities
and contextual changes of historical language, though
there are moments when it aims at almost the precision
of scientific description. Only occasionally is there
awareness of the signs themselves in everyday speech.
Yet such awareness does appear—in the sound symbol-
ism of names and actions. No doubt, everyday language
wants most frequently to achieve results to influence
actions and attitudes. But it would be false to limit
it merely to communication. A child's talking for hours
without a listener and an adult's almost meaningless
social chatter show that there are many uses of lan-
guage which are not strictly, or at least primarily,

It is thus quantitatively that literary language is first
of all to be differentiated from the varied uses of
everyday discourse. The resources of language are
exploited much more deliberately and systematically
in literary language. In the work of a subjective poet,
we have manifest a “personality” far more coherent
and all-pervasive than persons as we see them in
everyday situations. Certain types of poetry will use
paradox, ambiguity, the contextual change of meaning,
even the irrational association of grammatical categor-
ies such as gender or tense, quite deliberately. Poetic
language organizes, tightens, the resources of everyday
language, and sometimes does even violence to them,
in an effort to force us into awareness and attention.
Many of these resources a writer will find formed, and
preformed, by the silent and anonymous workings of
many generations. In certain highly developed litera-
tures, and especially in certain epochs, the poet merely
uses an established convention: the language, so to
speak, poeticizes for him. Still, every work of art im-
poses an order, an organization, a unity on its materials.
This unity sometimes seems very loose, as in many
sketches or adventure stories; but it increases to the
complex, close-knit organization of certain poems, in
which it may be almost impossible to change a word
or the position of a word without impairing its total

The pragmatic distinction between literary language
and everyday language is much clearer. We exclude
from poetry, or label as mere rhetoric, everything
which persuades us to a definite outward action. Gen-
uine poetry affects us more subtly. Art imposes some
kind of framework which takes the statement of the
work out of the world of everyday reality. Into our
semantic analysis we thus can reintroduce some of the
common conceptions of aesthetics: “disinterested con-
templation,” “aesthetic distance,” “framing.” Again,
however, we must realize that the distinction between
art and nonart, between literature and the nonliterary
linguistic utterance, is fluid. The aesthetic function may
extend to linguistic pronouncements of the most vari-
ous sort. It would be a narrow conception of literature
to exclude all propaganda art or didactic and satirical
poetry. We have to recognize transitional or interme-
diate forms like the essay, biography, and much rhe-
torical literature. In different periods of history the
realm of the aesthetic function seems to expand or to
contract: the personal letter, at times, was an art form,
as was the sermon, while today, in agreement with the
contemporary tendency against the confusion of
genres, there appears a narrowing of the aesthetic
function, a marked stress on purity of art, a reaction
against pan-aestheticism and its claims as voiced by
the aesthetics of the late nineteenth century. It seems,
however, best to consider as literature only works in
which the aesthetic function is dominant, while we can
recognize that there are aesthetic elements, such as
style and composition, in works which have a com-
pletely different, nonaesthetic purpose, such as scien-
tific treatises, philosophical dissertations, political
pamphlets, sermons.

But the nature of literature emerges most clearly
under the referential aspect. The center of literary art
is obviously to be found in the traditional genres of
the lyric, the epic, the drama. In all of them, the
reference is to a world of fiction, of imagination. The
statements in a novel, in a poem, or in a drama are
not literally true; they are not logical propositions.
There is a central and important difference between
a statement, even in a historical novel or a novel by
Balzac which seems to convey “information” about
actual happenings, and the same information appearing


in a book of history or sociology. Even in the subjective
lyric, the “I” of the poet is a fictional, dramatic “I.”

Other concepts of literature rather emphasize the
difference from poetry. In Croce's La Poesia (1936)
such a contrast is elaborated with letteratura signifying
writing in its civilizing function, immersed in history,
rhetorical, didactic, or instructive, while poetry which
is not only in verse but rather corresponds to what
was described above as the third meaning of literature.
Imaginative literature of high quality is said to be
exempt from history, timeless, without overt purpose,
open only to aesthetic contemplation. Croce's concep-
tion isolates the great poets and denies literary history
except as cultural history or mere annals.

Sartre's Qu'est-ce que la littérature? (1946) does not
answer the question of the title but pleads impassion-
ately for the didactic and rhetorical function of litera-
ture, for littérature engagée but allows, with some
condescension, for the existence of poetry remote from
social concern. The dividing line between literature
and poetry is drawn in very similar terms to Croce's,
even though the pathos and emphasis is directly oppo-
site to Croce's.

In recent discussions, mainly by linguists, attempts
have been made to arrive at a definition of literature
which would avoid traditional aesthetic criteria such
as “fictionality,” “invention,” “imagination.” Perma-
nence, repetition, a certain length of utterance, struc-
tural regularities not required by grammar and even
“nonbanality,” or what in Chomsky's terms is called
“ungrammaticalness,” have been suggested as the dis-
tinguishing characteristics of “literature.” But not one
of these criteria can withstand closer examination.
Permanence can be ascribed to myths or legal docu-
ments, and the other criteria would fit many oral utter-
ances. The problem is shifted to that of style which
cannot be the single criterion distinguishing literature
from nonliterary forms of discourse. The old aesthetic
criteria seem still satisfactory.

Still, one should realize that the very notion of
literature (and art) has been increasingly questioned
in recent decades. This has to do with the breakup
of aesthetics begun in the late nineteenth century,
when the German aesthetics of empathy (Einfühlung)
reduced aesthetic experience to physiological processes
of inner mimicry, of feeling into the object. It is im-
plicit in Croce's theory of intuition, in which aesthetic
experience becomes identified with every act of per-
ception of individual quality. John Dewey's Art as
(1934) denies all qualitative distinction be-
tween the aesthetic and the intellectual, in favor of
a unity of experience which is simply heightened vital-
ity. In the writings of I. A. Richards the distinction
between aesthetic and other emotions is abolished and
art and poetry are reduced to means of “patterning
our impulses,” to tools in mental therapy. Similarly,
Kenneth Burke and Richard P. Blackmur dissolve the
concept of literature into action and gesture.

More recently has come an onslaught on aesthetics
by some analytical philosophers who dismiss as “non-
sense” the traditional problems of aesthetics (W. Elton,
Aesthetics and Language, Oxford, 1954). In practice,
in the arts, particularly in Pop-art, but also in concrete
music, a deliberate attempt is being made to abolish
the differences between art and nonart. Objects such
as grocery boxes or water pitchers are accumulated
or noises of machines, or of the streets, are produced.
One hears, for example, Ihab Hassan speak of the
“self-destructive element of literature, its need of self-
annulment.” “Perhaps the function of literature, is not
to clarify the world but to help create a world in which
literature becomes superfluous” (Comparative Litera-
ture Studies,
1 [1964], 266). Hassan quotes D. H.
Lawrence against the “evil-smelling logos” and invokes
his saying “Come in silence and say nothing.” In
France a similar questioning has become common. But
there, in Maurice Blanchot's Le Livre à venir (1959),
the appeal is rather to Hegel's saying that “art is for
us something past” and to the negative aesthetics of
Mallarmé, than to the ferocious antirationalism of
D. H. Lawrence. Literature is supposed to have
reached its “zero point,” some final impasse depicted
in Beckett's Endgame. “The death of the last writer”
is envisaged with some horror and sadness, while it
seems welcomed in the paradoxical celebrations of
silence indulged in by the loquacious George Steiner,
Susan Sontag, and Ihab Hassan. The prophecies of
Marshall McLuhan sounding the knell of the Guten-
berg era, parallels these moods prevalent at this mo-
ment (1970). Still, a humanist with a sense of history
will doubt that literature can ever disappear as long
as man wants to speak, and hence to commemorate
his speech in writing and print.


No treatment of the history of the concept of literature
is known. For the term, besides dictionaries, see: Robert
Escarpit, “La Définition du terme 'Littérature,'” Actes du
IIIe Congrès de l'Association Internationale de Littérature
(The Hague, 1962), 77-89. A. Archibald Hill, “A
Program for the Definition of Literature,” The University
of Texas Studies in English,
37 (1958), 46-52. F. W. House-
holder, et al., comments in Style in Language, ed. Thomas
A. Sebeok (New York, 1960), pp. 339-40, etc. Roman In-
garden, Das literarische Kunstwerk (Halle, 1931). Paul Oskar
Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” Journal of the
History of Ideas,
12 (1951), 496-527, and 13 (1952), 17-46;
also in Ideas in Cultural Perspective, eds. Philip P. Wiener
and A. Noland (New Brunswick, N.J., 1962), 145-206, and


in Renaissance Thought II (New York, 1965), pp. 163-227.
Thomas C. Pollock, The Nature of Literature (Princeton,
1942). René Wellek, “The Name and Nature of Comparative
Literature,” Comparatists at Work, eds. Stephen G. Nichols,
Jr. and Richard B. Vowles (Waltham, Mass., 1968), pp. 3-27;
idem with Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York,
1949), with bibliographies. Eduard Wölfflin, “Literatura,”
Zeitschrift für lateinische Lexikographie und Grammatik, 5
(1885), 49ff.


[See also Ambiguity; Classification of the Arts; Criticism;
Myth; Periodization; Style; Ut pictura poesis.]