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  • Of Literary Universals:Ninety-Five Theses
  • Patrick Colm Hogan
  1. 1. There is no such thing as human culture or human cultural difference without human universality.1 (A parallel point about understanding human cultural difference was made by Donald Davidson.2) Alternatively, cultural difference is variation on human universality.

  2. 2. It follows that every area of a culture manifests human universality. (Otherwise, those cultural areas would not exist.) It does not follow that all areas of culture are found in all cultures. The empirical study of literature, an area of some cultures, would not exist if it did not manifest human universality. It does not follow that the empirical study of literature exists in all cultures.

  3. 3. The presence of verbal art in any given culture—thus the determination of whether verbal art is found in all cultures—is dependent on the investigator's definition of the term "verbal art," not on the presence or absence of a parallel term in the culture being investigated. "Verbal art" is no different from any other term or phrase in this respect. We would not conclude that there is no color orange in a place that does not have a word parallel to "orange" or that there is no astigmatism in societies without ophthalmology—or that the English do not experience ennui or Schadenfreude.

On Communicative Speech

  1. 4. To understand or even isolate verbal art, we must first understand the general purposes and properties of communicative speech.

  2. 5. Communicative speech aims at producing some mental alteration in an addressee. That change commonly has some direct or indirect action as its desired outcome. For example, suppose I am building [End Page 145] a house with Wittgenstein and I say "Plank!" My aim is to produce a mental change in Wittgenstein that will result in him retrieving a plank and bringing it to me.

  3. 6. Action commonly involves a set of generative principles for bodily motion or mental deliberation, a set of regulative principles for adjusting the motion or deliberation, and a set of motives for initiating the motion or deliberation.

  4. 7. Communicative speech, then, commonly aims at fostering emotions and ideas or representations that, in combination, activate and specify generative principles for action in an addressee. (The emotion may be very weak—for example, a mild aversion to being uncooperative.) It may involve regulative principles as well.

  5. 8. Verbal art—as I am using the phrase—also aims at producing a mental alteration in an addressee. However, that mental alteration is not, in the first place, governed by the overarching goal of effecting a particular actional outcome. Thus it is not designed to engage generative rules for action or to trigger emotions that motivate such action.

  6. 9. Rather, verbal art is commonly designed to communicate regulative principles for action and to inspire emotions that do not have direct actional outcomes in the case at hand.

  7. 10. There are two sorts of regulative principles that figure prominently in both ordinary life and verbal art—ethical and prudential. They constitute the thematic or didactic aspect of verbal art, an aspect noted in every major tradition of literary theory—European, South Asian, East Asian, and Middle Eastern/North African.3

  8. 11. Here and in other cases, individual works of verbal art need not share all universal properties or share them all in the same degree.

    Rather, all cultural traditions have a body of works of verbal art that, as a whole, have these properties.

On Emotion

  1. 12. Any sort of emotion may occur in verbal art. Indeed, verbal art involves all varieties of emotion.

  2. 13. However, verbal art is not about the addressee himself or herself. Therefore a literary work does not inspire narrowly egocentric emotions in its audience. It inspires empathic emotions.

  3. 14. Empathic emotion may be a function of situational particularity or of group identity. In situational empathy, we share a person's or character's emotion insofar as we have been in a parallel situation. [End Page 146] The shared feeling is based on emotional memories. In group-identity empathy, we share a person's or character's feelings because we tacitly understand him or her as sharing our identity. This shared feeling is, then...


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