What are Literary Universals?

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

For any given domain of literature (e.g., narrative), universals are features of works in that domain that recur across genetically and areally unrelated traditions with greater frequency than would be predicted by chance. I use the word “feature” here very broadly. In this broad sense, features include properties, relations, and structures. Genetically unrelated traditions are distinct in origin (e.g., Greek and Chinese traditions are genetically unrelated; Greek and Latin traditions are not). Areally unrelated traditions have not influenced each other, at least not with respect to the feature under consideration.

Kinds of Universals

If a particular feature is found in every tradition, then it is called an absolute universal. Otherwise it is called statistical. The point here is that is a pattern may occur with a cross-cultural frequency that is statistically unlikely without occurring in every tradition. The fact of its disproportionate occurrence remains important, even though it is not absolute. If there are two possible ways of doing something—A and B–then random distribution would lead us to expect each way to occur about fifty percent of the time. If A occurs in ninety percent of cases, then that is something that needs to be accounted for. For example, in principle, in grammar, objects could precede subjects as frequently as they follow objects. However, they do not (see Comrie 86). It is important to identify and explain such patterns, even though they are a matter of statistical frequencies, rather than absolutes.

When statistical universals cluster together in correlational patterns, then they are called typological. For example, oral traditions share certain features distinct from those shared by written traditions. Universals of oral composition and universals of written literature thus constitute typological universals. (For a discussion of the basic principles of universals, see Comrie or Croft.) Sometimes, we do not have a few categories encompassing many features, thus types, but simpler correlations of two or three properties. For example, we may not wish to isolate a full-fledged type of literature based on having obligatory alliteration. But we may wish to connect the use of obligatory alliteration with syllable stress occurring always on the same syllable. In that case, we have an implicational universal, because the use of mandatory alliteration implies constant syllable stress; if a language has the former, then it has the latter (see Kiparsky 9).

Other varieties of universal may be distinguished as well. I have argued elsewhere that some universals are indexical in that they make variable reference to particular conditions of each instantiation (“Possibility”). For example, it may be a universal that readers are inclined to identify with characters with whom they share some important category (e.g., religion, nationality, or sex). Clearly, this universal would vary for each instantiation because different people would be inclined to identify with different characters depending on their own religion, nationality, and so on. I have further argued that the existence of indexical universals indicates that one widespread view of universals is mistaken. People often believe that the existence of literary universals entails general agreement on which works are great and which works are not. The existence of indexical universals, however, predicts at least some disagreement in matters of taste.

My response to this misconception is relevant to a broader issue in the humanities, where universalism has often been criticized on political grounds. In connection with this, Lalita Pandit has drawn a distinction between hegemonic and empathic universals (“Caste”). Hegemonic universals are a variety of what Appiah calls pseudouniversals (58). According to Pandit, hegemonic pseudouniversals involve an attempt to impose one’s own image on everyone else. In contrast, empathic universals begin with the assumption that all humans share the same sort of experiential subjectivity and proceed, not by imposing an image, but by seeking to uncover and articulate what is common in that subjectivity and its various products.

The post-colonial theorist, Ashis Nandy, has formulated a similar division between homogenized universalism, which denies the value of cultural particularity, and distinctive civilizational universalism, which connects universals with their cultural particularizations, affirming the value of both the universal and particular components of cultural practices (see Nandy x-xi). This is related to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s assertions of what may be called particularist universalism (Hogan, Colonialism xvii; see Ngũgĩ 26), which is to say, the insistence that universals appear only in particular forms in particular cultures and thus that affirming a universal should never be a matter of denying or devaluing cultural particularity. (On other political and ethical aspects of universalism, see Hogan “Literary” and Colonialism 303-16.)

In keeping with this, it is important to emphasize that universals are not themselves normative (though they may concern norms, insofar as certain sorts of normative judgment are universal). Again, humanists have often objected to the study of universals on the grounds that it involves the imposition of local preferences on the entire world. There is a normative use of the word universal for which that is the case. In keeping with this use, some writers might claim that Shakespeare is more “universal” than Kālidāsa or Zeami. However, in the context of the Literary Universals Project, it makes no sense to claim that a particular author or tradition is “more universal” in this sense, just as it makes no sense to claim that one language (or one sentence) is more universal than another.

Of course, this is not to say that one cannot claim that some works have greater cross-cultural appeal than others and thus are more “universal” in the sense of drawing readers from a range of traditions (see, for example Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate 409). However, it is important to distinguish this use of “universal” from the “recurring feature” use that is of concern to the Literary Universals Project (again, “feature” here is used in a very broad sense). Indeed, even the cross-cultural appeal use of “universal” may be descriptive or prescriptive. One might say that a blockbuster with jaw-dropping special effects has more cross-cultural appeal than a film involving thoughtful meditation on a difficult ethical issue. It does not follow that one is claiming aesthetic or other superiority for the former.

David Bordwell’s discussion of contingent universals (“Convention”) involves a distinction broadly related to those of Pandit, Nandy, and Ngũgĩ, but primarily cognitive, rather than politico-ethical. Bordwell’s main idea here is that some film practices (e.g., shot/reverse shot) may take time to develop. But they are so close to our cognitive inclinations that, once they have arisen, they spread rapidly. Indeed, one could argue more generally that the great majority of literary universals are not spontaneous, but result from convergent development. It may take many attempts by many individuals to produce the practice in question. However, given the nature of human cognition, along with common features of the environment, etc., all traditions may tend to develop a particular practice or, in the case of typological universals, one of a few related practices. Once developed, the practice or practices could be widely acquired within traditions (or through areal contact) by exposure alone rather than explicit instruction.

If literary universals are generally the result of convergent development, one might wish to confine the use of the term “contingent universals” to universals that emerge or are initially implemented in one tradition only (thus monogenetic universals), but are then passed rapidly across traditions by exposure. The more general distinction here would be between spontaneous universals, that arise immediately or almost immediately in various traditions, and historically developed universals, that are achieved only after a number of tries. Historically developed universals may be monogenetic or they may be polygenetic, which is to say, achieved by different traditions independently.

Perhaps the opposite of contingent universals (which might never have arisen) are logical universals. These are universals that necessarily apply to all traditions for logical reasons. For example, the relations between temporal order in story and discourse (i.e., the story and the way the story is told) are necessarily parallel or not. Thus, the discourse order is either chronological or anachronous. In other words, the discourse either presents events in the same order as they occur in the story or it changes that order. Logical universals are important principally insofar as they allow us to isolate empirical universals. For example, random distribution would suggest that discourses should be anachronous fifty percent of the time. It seems, however, that they are far more commonly chronological in every tradition. Without the initial, logical universal, we would not be able to recognize this distinct, empirical universal.

The Problem of Areal Influence

The idea of monogenetic universals returns us to the issue of areal contamination. Given the ease with which a particular literary technique (e.g., dramatic performance) may pass from one tradition to another, we often cannot maintain the same rigor in separating areally distinct literary traditions as we do in separating areally distinct linguistic traditions (for discussion, see Hogan “Areal”). Of course, we can focus our attention on traditions prior to the development of massive influence, such as the spread of European colonialism. Indeed, this is crucial for work on literary universals. However, it is not sufficient. A stray individual from Italy traveling to China will not make Chinese more like Italian. Of course, it may lead to the borrowing of some lexical items, and we need to recognize that before making claims about lexical universals. But the situation in literature is much more extreme. For example, the appearance in China of a single play from India may suffice to introduce dramatic performance into Chinese tradition.

This could be taken to mean that we should restrict our evidence for literary universals very narrowly. Certainly, some researchers may wish to proceed in this way, developing what we might call “the austere program” in literary universal study. However, if pursued exclusively, such a program would underestimate literary universals to a considerable extent, and thus limit our knowledge of the human mind and human society. A more liberal program would tentatively accept certain limited forms of areal contamination—at least if these are supplemented by patterns of the same sort that occur without such contamination. But what forms are acceptable?

Consider the most extreme case of areal influence—monogenetic universals. Monogenetic universals are of interest to a project on literary universals only if they indicate some universal property of human cognition, childhood development, social interaction and group dynamics, or the like. Monogenetic universals are not of interest to a project in literary universals if they are primarily the product of historical particularities. If England governs two-thirds of the globe and puts English literature in classrooms around the world, the presence of, say, English genres or conventions of imagery in the literatures of those colonies is inconsequential for the study of universals. (Or, rather, it is inconsequential as regards the features of the genres. It may be consequential for a universal regarding, say, the relation of political domination and conventions of literary genre.) Indeed, this is true even when there are no relevant laws or administrative policies, such as those governing education in a colony. It is true whenever one culture has particular power or prestige.

Thus, to count as suggesting a universal, a monogenetic property must not spread due to political dominance or cultural hegemony. In any particular case, one must consider carefully whether a given monogenetic universal is or is not likely to be the result of these factors. For example, one might suspect that cultural hegemony is the reason for the dissemination of film techniques. However, Bordwell makes a convincing case that, at least in some instances, that is not so. Rather, such universals as shot/reverse shot do tell us something about cognition—conversely, their explanation makes necessary reference to universal cognitive processes. Thus, such universals do contribute to a research program in literary universals.

A further way of qualifying concerns about areal contamination is by reference to exposure rather than teaching or self-conscious assimilation. It is easy to introduce dramatic performance from one tradition to another. The idea of such performance is straightforward and self-conscious (even if it is not “taught” in a narrow sense). In contrast, it will be much harder to introduce background imagery from one tradition to another. At the very least, even experiencing the background imagery requires adequate familiarity with the source language (e.g., Sanskrit, in the case of an Indian drama influencing authors in China).

Lingering Misconceptions About Universals

The preceding paragraphs include references to some common misconceptions about universals (e.g., that they imply universal evaluative judgments). It is important to address two other misconceptions. First, the existence of universals does not in any way entail direct, cross-cultural comprehensibility. The specification of a universal pattern is almost certain to involve many culturally specific features that may be entirely opaque to readers unfamiliar with that tradition (including people who happen to have been brought up in the associated culture but without much exposure to the literary tradition proper).

Second, as should be clear from the discussion of convergent development, universals are not necessarily biologically innate (though they may involve extensive innate elements in some cases; see Evolution). (On the many ways in which universals may be explained without reference to innateness, see Hogan “Universals, Non-Genetic.”) Universals are always the product of complex interactions among biology, the physical environment, childhood development, group dynamics, etc. For example, it seems very likely that, whenever adults try to raise children, certain things will happen. It seems very likely that whenever groups try to live in close proximity, certain practices will develop. These different aspects of child rearing or group organization are not innate. They are nonetheless universal. Recognizing this is particularly important in the development of a research program in literary universals. It is important that we not assume a biological origin for each particular universal, but that we look at all the factors that could account for the universal and propose the most parsimonious alternative. That alternative is rarely just biological.

Prototypes and Principles

Finally, it is important to note that theories of literary universals often involve one of two distinct sorts of descriptive generalization. In some cases, an account of universals may articulate the patterns in question by reference to rules or principles. For example, it appears to be a rule that standard practices of literary form (such as conventions governing verse forms) bear only on features of the literary work that we are equipped to encode automatically, which is to say, perceive and cognitively process. (Note that this does not mean the encoding is necessarily untrained; it simple means that it either arises spontaneously or can be trained.) It would be theoretically possible for standard practices to be defined by reference to features that we can ascertain only through self-conscious actuarial processes of counting and calculation. But this does not seem to be the case. Rather, we appear to be constrained by the encoding sensitivities available to us from various (non-literary) cognitive operations, such as phonological processing. For instance, verse patterns may involve alliteration on stressed syllable onsets, but not alliteration on the third speech sound in a word. As Kiparsky analysis indicates (see “The Role”), this is because, in phonological processing, we encode stressed syllable onsets, thus we are able to experience the musicality of patterns across such onsets (within a limited time span). However, we can discern the third speech sound only by using self-conscious calculations.

In specific cases, principles may be further specified in relation to variables. For example, Kiparsky explains that alliteration “seems to be found as an obligatory formal element only in languages where the stress regularly falls on the same syllable in the word, which then must be the alliterating syllable” (9). This could be understood as an implicational universal (as already noted) or as a parametric variation on a principle. The idea is the same in both cases. Phrased in terms of principles and parameters, the principle would be that syllable stress governs obligatory alliteration, with the parameter settings being “stress does not fall on the same syllable” (which entails “no obligatory alliteration”) or “stress falls on the same syllable.” The latter involves further parameters (assuming this is not an absolute implicational universal, but a statistical implicational universal). One is “without obligatory alliteration.” The other is “with obligatory alliteration” (which entails “the alliteration must fall on the stressed syllable”).

The other sort of descriptive generalization is a prototype. A prototype is a standard case of a category. Roughly speaking, this standard case is produced by our mind’s unself-conscious averaging of instances of the category that we have experienced (on prototypes and averaging, see McLeod, Plunkett, and Rolls 63). For example, the prototypical face is roughly the average face. That averaging process may however be biased by difference from a contrasting category. In other words, our minds do not appear to calculate prototype averages by pure, objective, statistical methods. Some cases count more than others, producing an enhancement of distinctive features for a given category, exaggerating differentiation from other categories. For example, the prototypical woman’s face produced by one’s mind is likely to be more feminine than the statistically average woman’s face, while the prototypical man’s face produced by one’s mind is likely to be more masculine (on contrast effects and prototyping, see chapter one of Hogan Beauty and citations therein).

Prototypes enter into literary universals at many places (see, for example, Story Universals). One illustrative case is beauty. In some cases, our experience of aesthetic pleasure appears to be a matter of prototype approximation (for discussion of these points, see chapter one of Hogan Beauty). For example, we seem to feel a face is more beautiful to the degree that it approaches the average or prototypical face. The universal principle here is that individuals experience aesthetic delight when a target is unusually (non-habitually) similar to the prototype for the operational category. (The operational category is the category through which one is responding to the target—for example, “duckling” or “swan” in the Hans Christian Andersen story of the ugly duckling.) Note that this particular universal entails very little in the way of actual universal properties. It is contingent on individuals’ experiences, which will vary historically and culturally, as well as in biographical idiosyncrasy. Thus, the shape of a beautiful nose or the color of beautiful hair will differ depending on one’s experiences. However, any sort of averaging is likely to yield left-right symmetry in facial prototypes. Thus, we would expect all individuals to find such symmetry aesthetically pleasing, despite their different experiences. Here, once again, we see that universals do not require uniformity of response or the imposition of ethnocentric norms. Indeed, an understanding of the operation of aesthetic pleasure indicates that there will not be uniformity of response (except for a limited number of features, such as left-right facial symmetry) and that ethnocentric norms are unjustifiable.

Future Research

All the topics of the essays on this site provide possibilities for research that would further our understanding of literary universals. At a general level, however, there is still obviously work to be done on types of universals, their nature and interrelations—for example, on whether or not it makes a difference for us to treat some universals as implicational or as parametric variations on principles. We need further consideration of the ways in which literary universals involve innate elements and the ways in which universals can arise through childhood development, group dynamics, properties of complex systems, and so on. We lack a full analysis of and broad historical research on the problem of areal contamination in literary study. We also would benefit from a richer understanding of the place of prototypes versus principles in a theory of literary universals. In short, even at this general level, there is still a great deal to be done.

Works Cited

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