Criticism: The Foundations of Modern Literary Judgment

By Mark Schorer; Gordon McKenzie et al. | Go to book overview

W. K. WIMSATT, JR.:
The Structure of the "Concrete Universal" in Literature*

THE CENTRAL argument of this essay, concerning what I shall, taking a term from Hegel, call the "concrete universal," proceeds from the observation that literary theorists have from early times to the present persisted in making statements which in their contexts seem to mean that a work of literary art is in some peculiar sense a very individual thing or a very universal thing or both. What that paradox can mean, or what important fact behind the paradox has been discerned by such various critics as Aristotle, Plotinus, Hegel, Whitehead, and Ransom, it will be the purpose of the essay to inquire, and by the inquiry to discuss not only a significant feature of metaphysical poetics from Aristotle to the present day but the relation between metaphysical poetics and more practical and specific rhetorical analysis. In the brief historical survey which forms one part of this essay it will not be my purpose to suggest that any of these writers meant exactly what I shall mean in later parts where I describe the structure of poetry. Yet throughout the essay I shall proceed on the theory not only that men have at different times used the same terms and have meant differently, but that they have sometimes used different terms and have meant the same or somewhat the same. In other words, I assume that there is continuity in the problems of criticism, and that a person who studies poetry today has a legitimate interest in what Plato said about poetry.

The view of common terms and their relations to classes of things from which I shall start is roughly that which one may read in the logic of J. S. Mill, a view which is not much different from the semantic view of today and for most purposes not much different from the Aristotelian and scholastic view. Mill speaks of the word and its denotation and connotation (the term, referent and reference of Ogden and Rich. ards) (the sign, denotatum and designatum of Charles W. Morris). The denotation is the it, the individual thing or the aggregate of things to which the term may refer; the connotation is the what, the quality or classification inferred for the it, or implicitly predicated by the application of the term or the giving of the name.1 The main difference between all modern positivistic, nominalistic and semantic systems and the scholastic and classical systems is that the older ones stress the similarity of the individuals de. noted by the common term and hence the real universality of meaning, while the modern systems stress the differences in the individuals, the constant flux even of each individual in time and space and its kinetic structure, and hence infer only an approximate or nominal universality of meaning and a convenience rather than a truth in the use of general terms. A further difference lies in the view of how the individual is related to the various connotations of terms which may be applied to it. That is, to the question: What is it? the older writers seem to hold there is but one (essentially right) answer, while the moderns accept as many answers as there are classes to which the individual may be assigned (an indefinite number). The older writers speak of a proper essence or whatness of the individual, a quality which in some cases at least is that designated by the class name most commonly

____________________
*
The Structure of the 'Concrete Universal' in Literature first appeared in Publications of the Modern Language Association, March 1947, and is reprinted here with some minor revisions by permission of the editors and the author. W. K. Wimsatt Jr. (b. 1907), is the author of The Prose Style of Samuel Johnson ( 1941).
1
The terms "denotation" and "connotation" are commonly and loosely used by literary critics to distinguish the dictionary meaning of a term (denotation) from the vaguer aura of suggestion (connotation). But both these are parts of the connotation in the logical sense.

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