Common Objections to (and Misunderstandings of) Literary Universals

Zachary Norwood


“To suggest that there are no universals—that they are flatus vocis—is to endanger our uniqueness.” —Richard Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 43)


The term “literary universals,” when not properly understood, can sound pejorative and theoretically dubious: whatever could be universal about literature, one of the most—if not the most—broad, varied, and historically contingent artistic modes of expression? And for that matter, whatever could be “universal” about anything, let alone a literary work? Philosophers such as Wilfrid Sellars—and more recently, neuroscientists, such as Lisa Feldman Barrett (“Are Emotions Natural Kinds?”)—routinely contest the very idea of universality, the idea that there could be an all-encompassing category of properties with common features (see Pap). Against the grain of such anti-universalist sentiments, I should like to address in this essay, first, contentions over the status of literary universals and universals in general and, second, in broad-brush fashion, propose possible candidates for universals themselves. For the first part of this essay, I shall entertain serious-minded theorists’ rejection of “universality,” with the aim of preserving the term’s rightful place in literary criticism and theory; for the second, I shall consider what literary universals—correctly understood—amount to, pragmatically, for literary theorists and critics; last, I shall tersely review possible problems posed by topics covered in previous sections, with an eye to future research.



How one considers “universality,” philosophically, hinges on the nature of properties, namely, attributes (be they physical, mental, aesthetic, non-aesthetic, or some admixture) that assume some reliable, substantive form. According to J. P. Moreland, analytic philosophers usually fall within three major schools of thought regarding the nature of properties: extreme nominalism (properties in general do not exist), nominalism (properties exist but can only be particulars, not universals), and realism (mind-independent properties exist in the world and are universals) (325). Nominalists of various stripes have led the most cogent charge against universality; on their view, universal denotata for terms such as “red” or “sex” (for example) do not exist in the world, only family resemblances for redness and sex; terms such as “red” and “sex” only serve to delude us into believing that redness and sex, as universal kinds of properties, exist; but they do not, from a nominalist standpoint; only particular types of sense-data exist, in perceptual form, and percepts vary across species and cultures (326). Many literary theorists, most notably Derrida, have taken up the extreme nominalist position. Rather than merely contest the relationship between language and what we might believe exists in the world, for Derrida language is all-encompassing: there is nothing even resembling mind-independent universals in the world; there is only language and various collective points of view conditioned by linguistic frameworks (Rorty “The Higher Nominalism”).

Consistent with the Literary Universals project, I shall adopt a realist stance; in particular, I shall adopt a stance known as “indirect realism,” that is, the belief that objective, universal properties exist in the world but that some such properties—aesthetic ones in particular—are mind-dependentuniversals(Levinson “Being Realistic”).

Evaluating a literary work depends, first, on mind-independentdescriptions of the work’s properties; we assess a critic’s (putatively “objective”) grasp on what happened, how it happened, and the language used to evoke a sense of what happened; second, evaluating literature involves some mind-dependentpsychological appraisal (such as viewing a work as “unrealistic,” “silly,” or “sublime”). According to Rorty, Derrida, and others, however, evaluative claims about literary works lack “unities of structure” (and, one would presume, a universal substrate upon which to base such a claim) (Rorty “The Higher Nominalism” 464); on this view, a critic’s aesthetic judgement is relative to her assessment within a particular time, historical context, and interpretive community; if values are relative in this way, then aesthetic judgements cannot possibly be universal, given the raw, individual nature of reader-response; as I shall argue, however, evaluative judgements do have a universal basis (they not only do but must, if any work of art can be said to be more valuable than another; the whole enterprise of literary evaluation, in fact, may hinge on universal categories of valuation).

Realists, for their part, have responded to the nominalist critique of universals by showing how actual, measurable, mind-independent properties do exist, properties that warrant classification as universals or “natural kinds,” that is, objective attributes that persist in some substantive form, no matter how we might think about or respond to them (Richard Boyd and Moreland). Neuroscientists and philosophers have also taken pains to show how natural kind categories are not dogmatically universal, in some strong objectivist sense but, rather, “homeostatic property clusters,” or HPCs (Richard Boyd; Eickers et al.; Panksepp; Scarantino “Core Affect”). An HPC is not an inflexible, Platonic ideal demarcating some essential substance; rather, an HPC designates a set of properties that persist in the world, over time, that have reliable, measurable, behavioral effects (Scarantino “Core Affect” 950). An obvious example of an HPC would be the human heart, whose structure and function are clearly persistent over time, even if (in evolutionary time) the heart has been modified by natural, selective pressures as well as a host of man-made pressures, such as high-cholesterol diets. A less obvious example of an HPC would be the amygdala, whose structure and function has persisted over evolutionary time for millions of years: “Even non-mammalian species such as reptiles, birds, and fish have an amygdala-like brain region with similar circuits and functions to the amygdala in mammals” (Janak and Tye 284); the amygdala—despite its inter-species variability—can be seen as a “natural kind” of persistent structure, with reliable, measurable effects on human behavior. This is not to say that the amygdala is a “modular” structure whose functionality is cut-off from other neurological systems; on the contrary, the amygdala functions in concert with several other systems in the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and sensory association areas (284); what matters, in this case, is that the amygdala is a structure whose functional specialization persists, cross-culturally; the amygdala is a cluster of neurological properties (types of neurons and neuropeptides) with a predictable and measurable impact on reader-response. An HPC, then, can designate anything, from a discrete biological system, non-aesthetic properties underlying aesthetic concepts (e.g., a kind of controlled, delicate movement that distinguishes, say, “graceful” from “jarring”), or something as ubiquitous and persistent as carbon, gravity, and other non-biological kinds of properties.

So although human nature may best be described as an “ensemble of social relations,” to echo Marx, it remains the case that underpinning those relations are biologically preorganized structures in the mind-brain, most notably (for literary works) structures governing social cognition and emotion. Neuroscientists stress, moreover, that if there were no cross-cultural, functionally specialized neural architectures subsuming social cognition and emotion—if there were no neuropsychological HPCs, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex—then cultural diversity would not be possible (Colombetti “The Feeling Body”; de Waal and Ferrari; Hamann; Panksepp; Scarantino and Griffiths). To clarify with an analogy: just as the game of chess is played using a variety of culturally circumscribed openings and defenses—the English opening, Budapest gambit, Dutch defense, and so forth—yet the rules of chess (and functionality of each piece) remain persistent, across cultures, it is also true that without preorganized, neurobiological structures in the mind-brain, without memory and emotional circuitry able to represent, encode, and respond characteristically to a variety of sensory impressions, there would be no means (no substrate within which) to store and express a cultural norm in the first place. The same has been said about universality in the arts. Literary theorists have long championed the centrality of universals, most notably E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (Hirsch “Literary Evaluation”; “Objective Interpretation”). And more recently, philosophers of art, such as Dennis Dutton and Noël Carroll, have written persuasively about how artistic value, while certainly modulated by cultural and linguistic norms, is nevertheless constrained by evolutionary universals (Noël Carroll; Dutton). The “vast realm of cultural constructions,” writes Dutton, “is created by a mind whose underlying interests, preferences, and capacities are products of human prehistory” (206). Even so, “literary universals,” as a theoretical term, appears suspect to many theorists who might otherwise agree that something like an HPC exists; most would demur to the idea that “we all respond the same way” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, yet less problematic (even to a nominalist) would be the claim that preorganized structures in the mind-brain (such as the amygdala) constrain whatever anyone anywhere would find valuable in Hamlet.


Misconception one: naïve uniformity

This brings me to common misconceptions of “universality.” Literary universals imply, to some, that there is a kind of collectively shared response to a particular work (such as Hamlet)over time; this assumption is misguided, however. Barbara Herrnstein Smith rightly challenges naïve universalism of this sort in her classic essay, Fixed Marks and Variable Contingencies; she argues that readers’ values, such as for Shakespeare’s sonnets, change over time depending on their life circumstances. Nevertheless, Smith would not claim that a sonnet on love is ever read as a sonnet on hate, or that the words “love is not love / Which alters when alteration finds” are scanned as “we no longer love someone after having an affair” or, for that matter, that “love is something that changes after undergoing some personal change.” On the contrary, we read and value the sonnets with generally consistent understanding, which suggests that something universal—about the sonnets and ourselves in relation to them—organizes our reception of and values for Shakespeare’s sonnets over time (see Easterlin). Alas, literary movements—and academic careers, for that matter—routinely revolve around denying universalism altogether, going so far as to claim that there is no shared response to anything, only culturally contingent interpretations (Bohannan; Stanley Fish Is There; Smith Contingencies of Value).

Even a few neuroscientists seem to have taken up the anti-universalist banner. Lisa Feldman Barrett, informed by her having taught a course on the eugenics movement and its “scientific justification for racism,” early in her career, rightfully finds any kind of essentialist theory of emotion dubious (“When Is Speech Violence?”). Barrett has made anti-universalism a staple in her social constructivist theory of emotion, perhaps from the same moral skepticism that compelled her to reject eugenics (“Are Emotions Natural Kinds?”). She argues, in nominalist fashion, that “not all mental states belonging to a particular category named by an emotion word such as ‘fear’ look alike, feel alike, or have the same neurophysiological signature from one instance to another,” listing in support of this argument many documented differences in fear-expression (“Variety Is the Spice of Life” 2). The argument is nominalist in spirit insofar as she believes that there is no universal property for “fear” in the brain, only perceived family resemblances for a type of response, such as fear-like behavior that we categorize, misleadingly, with universal terms. Barrett argues that our semantic sense for terms such as “fear” and “love” deceive us into believing that there is some fixed, corresponding referential domain for each category of experience; however, as she contends, emotion terms “do not name mechanisms” in the brain—“fear” is a loose, ambiguous term whose corresponding affective states can vary and involve a whole host of different brain circuitries; words for emotions such as “fear” and “love,” on this view, only designate brain states that recur enough to warrant naming them (8). When anyone reads “love is not love / Which alters when alteration finds,” what is meant by “love,” for each reader, is not anchored in neurological systems dedicated to “love,” in itself, for “love” on Barrett’s view is not a neurological mechanism but an ensemble of complex social relations, sensory impressions, thoughts, moments—“love” is a social construct, not a brain state.

Many have critiqued Barrett’s theory of emotion, in depth (most promisingly, in my mind, Giovanna Colombetti, Andrea Scarantino, and Jaak Panksepp), and while aspects of Barrett’s theory certainly hold merit, I believe her stronger claims—consistent with most nominalist critiques of universalism—rest on a simple, informal logical mistake, namely, a category error. In her critique of emotional natural kinds, Barrett confuses the wholephenomenology of emotion—all its complex expressive variations—withpartsof the brain whose properties reputedly evolved to express emotions, such as the amygdaloid complex. Emotion categories such as fear are “social artifacts,” according to Barrett, that can refer to an infinite number of possible triggering stimuli—there is fear of spiders, fear of clowns, fear of disorderly conduct, fear of getting wet, and so forth; and since the object of an emotional response is constitutive of one’s phenomenological sense of feeling an emotion (spider-fear is surely different from wetness-fear), there cannot be anything “biologically basic” about an emotional category that underpins every instance of its application (Barrett “Variety is the Spice of Life” 4). However, just as it would be a confusion to claim that “water” has no universal properties, because (as we readily observe) there are “watery basements,” “rainy days,” “recreational swimming pools,” and “igloos,” it would be a mistake to say that discrete neural networks (dedicated to processing and expressing “fear”) do not exist in the brain, simply because (as we also readily observe) there are “fearful movies,” “agoraphobic episodes,” “fear of ghosts,” and so forth.

Against category errors of this nature, a far more parsimonious claim would be, simply, that underlying universal properties—“water-properties” and “fear-properties”—structure particular instances of water and fear expressions, constraining whatever meanings we may attribute to types of water and fear. Social constructive elements certainly modulate emotions: I cannot fear a ghost unless I have been indoctrinated with a belief in ghosts, first. However, what binds all emotional semantic categories together, across-cultures, are neurobiological substrata in our mind-brains that facilitate emotional expressions, generally. Even if, say, a particular area in the amygdala dedicated to processing fearful stimuli (let us call it area X) did not activate across all instances of fear, there would be no reason to claim that X is no longer a natural kind of property cluster, namely, a set of functionally specialized neural mechanisms that process types of fearful stimuli (see Scarantino “Functional”).

Put another way, if a universal psychological system—such as one dedicated to processing disgust—is also involved in processing other kinds of affective responses, such as moral repugnance, then that system cannot be said to lack functional specialization fora particular, natural kind of emotion. And most recent neuroscientific reviews on kinds of emotion bear this argument out: while there certainly are complex, overlapping mechanisms for processing different types of fear—some reflexive, some deliberative—there are, nevertheless, doubly-differentiated and genetically differentiated systems dedicated to fear in the brain (Adolphs, Gross and Canteras, Herry and Johansen, Tovote et al.). (Such differentiation is a neuroscience method where functional specialization is determined by showing that independent variables, such as fearful stimuli, trigger discrete anatomical activation but not confounding variables, such as joyful stimuli.) The same could be said for other kinds of emotions, such as disgust, and, yes, even love.

One lesson that could be had from neuroscientific research on emotion, for the Literary Universals Project, is that whatever we might call a “universal” in “literary universals”—such as a universal kind of emotional response—is not undone by the varying ways we emote to literary works, moment by moment; rather, what is “universal” in a literary universal ought to be located in the shared kinds of ways we appreciate particular works of art, at the level of human nature (Brian Boyd On the Origin of Stories; Joseph Carroll “Poststructuralism, Cultural Constructivism and Evolutionary Biology”; Noël Carroll “Art and Human Nature”; Dutton “The Art Instinct”). Patrick Colm Hogan elaborates on this lesson in one of his recent books, Beauty and Sublimity. On his view, “aesthetic universals” (literary depictions of prototypical experiences, such as romantic attachment) “are not only compatible with” differences in taste “but actually entail them” (48). We might say, by analogy, that because all humans share a visual system allowing us to perceive and represent the world, variously, “vision” remains a universalkind of perceptual category; visual systems in the brain form physiological substrata intrinsic to humankind (even blind individuals use a visual system to represent objects and events, non-visually); yet we would not say that because visual systems represent an infinite variety of stimuli, that this fact is at odds with vision’s dependency on evolved HPCs. On the contrary, that we all share a visual system in kinddoes not entail uniformity in representational function, in particular. It is not then a stretch to claim, by extension, that whatever is particular about literary experience is also contingent on universally shared aesthetic sensibilities, what Hume once called “standards of taste” that we have all more or less inherited from human nature.


Misconception two: naïve objectivism

A second challenge to the Literary Universals Project runs thus: even if there were universal kinds of HPC underlying specific types of reading experience, where exactly would they reside? Would they be textual, psychological, biological, perceptual? If there is no invariant substrate in the mind (or in literary works) that, say, is shown to be active for all of us when responding to the death of Romeo and Juliet, then there is nothing foundational upon which to warrant claims of literary universality.

To be sure, the act of reading and comprehending a text, as Stanley Fish has argued, is not about what texts “do” to us, as mind-independent objective artifacts, but what we “do” to texts, as subjectively engrossed readers (“Literature in the Reader”). Language comprehension is a process of decoding objective properties on the page (textual symbols) into subjective responses (mental representations and affective sensations); insofar as readers must construct meaning from symbols, and insofar as that meaning is conceptual and affective (something that occurs within our minds and bodies), it would seem (as Fish contends) that all reading comprehension is interpretive and radically subjectivist, making any kind of “objectivism” (which literary universals entail) impossible (Stanley Fish Is There a Text in This Class?;  “Literature in the Reader”; The Trouble with Principle). Even the most straightforward sentence, such as “the dog barked,” is not meaningful as text, in itself; the meaning of “the dog barked” is a byproduct of translating symbols into encoded sense impressions (memory engrams) for dogs and barking (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”; Caramazza et al.; Zwaan and Madden). We thus interpret“the dog barked,” in a technical neurocognitive sense, that is, the meaning of “the dog barked” resides not on the page but in our heads, and for the simple reason that each of us has acquired different memories for dogs and barking, our representational sense of “the dog barked” will vary between readers. Reading comprehension, in this respect, is both embodied and, to some considerable extent, subjective (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”).

As Lawrence Barsalou’s research has shown, however, we all (more or less) share prototypicalrepresentational engrams (for dogs and barking and whatever else), engrams that share properties across individuals (“Grounding Conceptual Knowledge in Modality Specific Systems”); if this were not so, it would be impossible to understand, reliably, anything written (see Easterlin “Making Knowledge”). Fish’s definition of “interpretation,” by contrast, requires all meaning to be radically group-minded, for he believes that individuals cannot share meaning across readership communities; rather, each “interpretive community” dictates how readers respond to and value texts (Is There a Text in This Class?). Fish’s community-oriented theory of reader-response is empirically underdetermined, however. Community affiliation structures some reception to literary works, to be sure, yet Barsalou’s theory of knowledge puts paid to Fish’s theory, for if all knowledge is acquired from experience (even abstract knowledge, on Barsalou’s theory, is contingent on a concrete perceptual bedrock of memory impressions), then meaning is always constrained by shared, prototypical knowledge of objects and events in the world (Barsalou “Perceptual Symbol Systems”; “Grounding Conceptual Knowledge”; Goldstone et al.). Literary universals must, on this view, rest on epistemological substrates that are stable enough, across individuals, to warrant claims of universality. Epistemological substrata organize around universal systems in the mind-brain. Literary universals, thus, can be better understood as mind-dependently objective, that is, as classifiable kinds of interactions between real (observable, measurable) physical structures in our minds, textual forms, and how we respond to them.

If the above view (what Barsalou calls “grounded cognition”) is correct, literary universals are emergent aesthetic properties, a position developed most extensively by Jerrold Levinson (what he calls “emergentism”) and, more broadly, a philosophically rigorous position known as “indirect realism” (Levinson “Aesthetic Supervienience”; Ward “Direct and Indirect Realism”). For those who find the term “literary universals” suspect on the grounds that universality necessitates stable, mind-independentobjects of comprehension, emergentism offers a strong theoretical (and from the standpoint of neuropsychology, empirical) justification for universal—not uniformly received—kinds of responses and narrative structures. Literary universals are demarcated not by the moment-by-moment state-space of reception but by homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) of various kinds, such as recurring emotional responses (fear, love, jealousy); cognitive universals, such as the limitations of short-term memory, theory-of-mind, the influence of attention on memory; as well as narrative universals (recurring literary motifs, tropes, themes, and the like). There is no single place a literary universal resides; rather, literary universals (like most kinds of universality) emergefrom particular minds, texts, and social norms.



Emotion and literary universals

So far, I have argued that literary universals are contingent, first, on shared cognitive and perceptual systems that allow us to detect and respond to works containing rewarding or punishing aesthetic experiences; both rewarding and punishing kinds of reading experience form a solid bedrock upon which claims of universal value can rest. What you find rewarding or punishing may differ, significantly, from what I find rewarding or punishing, as Hogan details in his works (Beauty and Sublimity; The Mind and Its Stories; What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion); however, interpretive variance does not militate against our ability to classify and make use of literary universals. Nor does a plurality of interpretations serve as evidence for the impossibility for reliable standards of judgment for works of art, as Stephen Davies, Brian Boyd, David Bordwell, Denis Dutton, and many others have argued (Brian Boyd Why Lyrics Last; Davies The Philosophy of Art;  “Relativism in Interpretation”; Dutton). Cross-cultural criticism, for that matter, would not be possible without identifying shared domains of representation. Hogan’s work on universal narrative types follows in this tradition, his comparative analysis of Sappho, Li Qingzhao, and Shakespeare’s treatment of romantic love being the most illustrative, in this context (What Literature Teaches Us About Emotion). Absent of stifling reductionism in his treatment of romantic love, Hogan offers a nuanced account of divergent reception, between readers, as well as how cultural norms inflect universal kinds of emotional content.

Second, I have argued that literary universals (of any kind, be they cognitive or non-cognitive) are emergentfrom objective yet mind-dependent properties. Emergentism conjoins textual, psychological, and social properties, together, in the making of an aesthetic impression and value; an interactionist approach to reader-response, on my account, is compatible with universal kinds of substrate in the mind-brain and likely also at the level of textual forms (again, without any recourse to strong objectivist or essentialist claims about human nature). Both positions, taken together—grounded cognition and emergentism—dissolve charges of naïve realism, absolutism, reductionism, and scientism when appealing to literary universals.

Now I should like to offer three examples of literary universals themselves, within the context of common misconceptions about what “literary universals” entail, as a term: emotional, empathetic, and evaluative kinds of universals.

First, perhaps the strongest candidate for a literary universal (neurobiological substrate) is emotional kinds of response. There has been extensive debate in neuroscience literature on whether emotions can be seen as natural kinds of evolved structures or as socially relative phenomena (Barrett et al.; LeDoux “Rethinking the Emotional Brain”; Panksepp). As I have suggested, anti-universalists in this debate draw on nominalist arguments against the possibility of properties with shared structures in the world (or mind-body); either this, or it is thought that interactions between minds, texts, and cultural norms are so complex and varied over time that it makes no sense to appeal to anything universal about the reading experience (Smith Contingencies of Value). Emotions, on my argument, are founded on homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) in the mind-brain, such as preorganized neural architecture dedicated to processing fear, pain, love, desire, injustice, and so forth.

Evidence for “natural kinds” of emotions, or psychological HPCs in the mind-brain, is overwhelming. One need only venture into Nature Reviews Neuroscience search database—the most prominent journal that publishes work on emotion—to discover the many recent review articles on topics as diverse as non-conscious emotional circuitry, negative affect (such as pain), empathy, music-evoked emotions, social emotions, and so forth. Each review article details empirical findings over the past ten or more years (often decades) on the target subject, and in all such reviews, emotional expression is shown to depend on functionally specialized neural architectures in the brain (Damasio and Carvalho; Janak and Tye; Ruff and Fehr; Tovote et al.). New measurement technology—such as optogenetic stimulation of neural networks, where engineered neurochemicals activated by light are injected into discrete regions of the brain, then turned on (with inhibitory or excitatory results) by light-inducing implants—has been used to map discrete neuronal circuitry dedicated to processing emotional stimuli in structures such as the amygdala (Tovote et al.). Additional research shows how emotional systems can be activated non-consciously, by mere exposure to fearful facial expressions (Tamietto and de Gelder; Yuan et al.); if some emotional kind of stimulus triggers a response, non-consciously, then deliberative, cognitive input when exposed to an emotional kind of stimulus (a disinterested “aesthetic attitude,” for example) may be l­­­­­­­­ess formative than previously imagined when evaluating works of art (Dickie “The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude”). Whatever the case may be, if evolution did not select for dedicated, discreteemotional circuitry in the brain—the basis upon which I am resting my claims for HPCs of an emotional kind—then optogenetic mapping techniques would show no signs of discrete functional specialization; but they surely do (Hess).

Barrett, for her part, appeals to electrical stimulation research conducted at the dawn of neuroscience to support her constructivist thesis of emotion (in particular, Elliot Valenstein’s studies in 1973) (Barrett “Variety Is the Spice of Life” 3). However, these data have been shown to be flawed in both method and experimental design, for they relied on patients’ verbal feedback during a resting state rather than direct, localized measurements of neural function while performing a task, under controlled experimental conditions (Poldrack and Farah). That Barrett appeals to outmoded research to support her claims ought to cast a pall over her psychological construction theory of emotion. Indeed, the evidence is not on Barrett’s side: pick up any neuroscience textbook (such as Principles of Neural Science) and you cannot turn a page without finding research differentiating discrete neural functions, each of which can be seen as a natural kind of universal substrate in the mind-brain. The whole neuroscientific enterprise, for that matter, would lack directive if specialized systems in the brain were not reliably identified. Neuroscience has become so proficient at mapping discrete neuronal functioning, in fact, that it can enable auditory and visual perception in blind and deaf subjects (Hajioff; Nazari et al.); give monkeys the ability to move an electronic arm with mind-control (Velliste et al.); allow rats with computer aided movement implants to solve mazes faster than rats without implants (Yu et al.); and so forth. These feats are predicated on the reliable manipulation of discrete, functionally specialized systems in the brain, and emotional systems are no less reliably manipulable in this respect than other kinds of systems. Emotional kinds of representational content in literary works, and the predictable ways we respond to this content, is therefore governed by universal psychological systems.


Empathy and literary universals

Another candidate for a literary universal, overlapping with recurring kinds of emotional experience, is empathy. Extensive research has shown that empathy is an evolved psychological mechanism triggered by perceiving conspecific distress (see Preston and de Waal). However, insofar as literary theory is concerned, empathy ought to be viewed through a broader lens, within the scope of recognizing shared kinds of experience, knowledge, and finding literary value in empathic reward or distress. Empathy is not only sharing emotions with others and adopting their points of view; more technically, empathy activates “observers’ own distributed representations for the target and their state and situation—including related feelings, memories and associations—in a connectionist manner” (6). From an early age forward, we encode memories into coherent representations for objects and events in the world, memories that form the bedrock of our knowledge about ourselves and others (Barsalou “Grounded Cognition”). These memories underpin our conceptual representations for even the most abstract theories, and they extend into the domain of whatever we might call the “cognitive” input of reception (Yeh and Barsalou “The Situated Nature of Concepts”). Shared, basic architecture for social emotions works in conjunction with our knowledge, forming various clusters of empathic understanding, from general awareness of shared values for love, friendship, family, and so forth, to idiosyncratic preferences for, say, cosplay, Star Trek, polyamory, and other particular categories of shared identity.

Further, as I have already suggested (and argued extensively, elsewhere), literary works able to represent universal kinds of emotional experience—such as sexual jealousy or oppression—confer an intrinsic kind of value (Norwood). By “intrinsic,” I mean a kind of potentiated value within the work itself: words require translation into representational imagery, and imagery must evoke emotional response, before it can be said that “a value” has been conferred. What is notmeant by “intrinsic” is a universally shared interpretation or isomorphic impression. We cannot possibly all share the same kinds of empathic responses to literary works. Moreover, an intrinsic value, potentiated by a (more or less) shared understanding of episodic action, often evokes divergent emotional valences (such as “liking” or “disliking” a character) or interpretations (judging a work to be “good” or “bad”). Perspectivism reigns in literary interpretation, to be sure, yet underlying all divergent responses to a work, on my view, is a substrate of universal HPCs in the mind-brain. Divergent emotional valences are commonplace in literary criticism, precisely because works are written with built-in ambivalences about the moral implications of characters’ actions, as Norman Rabkin argues with reference to Shakespeare’s political plays. That literary works so often depict characters with ambivalent qualities—the treachery and sophistication of Iago, for example—likely reflects an author’s wish to represent (with fidelity) the messy domain of universal human nature in social psychology. As Christopher Boehm argues in his study of social hierarchies, “structural contradictions in our nature tend to produce profound ambivalences in humans, psychological tugs of war that are reasonably predictable because they are anchored in human nature” (231). Divergent reactions to characters likely also reflect changes in our own personal development, as readers. Interpersonal upheavals—loss or gain of a loved one, rejection or acceptance—may at times dramatically alter our perception of a work’s merits, such as finding a novel profound at a young age and mawkish at an older one. It nevertheless remains requisite for a work to represent some emotional kind of experience that readers can readily identity or sympathize with, if that work can be said to offer an intrinsically rewarding kind of experience (see Budd “Artistic Value”).

There are numerous ways in which readers can empathize (or not) with recurring kinds of universal themes, making universalist criticism expansive rather than reductive. Hogan has stipulated two types of empathic response: “categorial empathy” and “situational empathy” (The Mind and Its Stories). Categorial empathy occurs when readers share a group-identity with a work’s representations, such as sharing a sense of class or cultural identity, such as Jewishness, being a white-collar worker, and the like. “Situational empathy,” on the other hand, requires shared memories of basic or particular kinds, such as having experienced the intoxicating effects of power, romantic love, or recalling how it feels to thwart an oppressive force. Situational empathy, thus, may best account for our capacity to empathize with basic kinds of everyday experience, even when situated in fictional narratives, such as empathizing with a superhero’s desire to conquer an evil antagonist, simply by dint of having experienced some type of social oppression, ourselves. The range of empathic identity can be complex, with some works—Shakespeare’s in particular—capturing not only situational kinds of empathy, such as romantic love in Romeo and Juliet, but layering into basic empathic domains additional types of categorial and situational empathies. An example would be understanding why two lovers desire one another—a kind of basic situational empathy—while also understanding why desiring someone in an out-group poses unique challenges (assuming, qua categorial empathy, that we can identify with being perceived as an outsider, or can relate to ingroup versus outgroup antagonisms). Both Romeo and Juliet are born into competing principalities; most of us cannot categorically identify with this type of circumstance; yet we nevertheless empathize, situationally, with the lovers’ unique distress as they struggle to maintain their bonds in the face of familial opposition. Many works exploit our capacity to readily identify with basic kinds of empathic value, such as using children actors in a horror film to appeal to an audience’s empathy for children’s welfare, or the use of dramatic music to enhance an otherwise banal series of events. Critics may judge a work to be weak that relies solely on exploiting domains of intrinsic emotional value, yet such a judgment would not amount to a disinterested aesthetic attitude; on the contrary, if a work reliably provokes emotion, predicated on its own representational content, then it can be said to hold intrinsic value, even if the quality or impact of that value is limited. The degree to which a work provokes emotion depends on the richness of its emotional representational landscape, whether an emotion felt is weak or strong, simplistic or nuanced.

When viewed through the broader lens of shared representational experience—our capacity to emotionally engage with others’ plights and pleasures—empathy thus becomes central to whatever could be said to be universally appealing (or repugnant) about a work of art. Yet again, however, whatever could be identified as “a” universal, intrinsic value in a work does not necessitate some kind of uniform response to that value-conferring content: a universal psychological substrate does not determine shared response-profiles across readers, only predictable patterns of response.


Evaluation and literary universals

Both emotional and empathic domains of universality conjoin in our pursuit for critical agreement over a work’s literary merits. As Malcolm Budd has argued, a work’s value is intrinsic to “the experience the work offers” as a work of art, if we respond, emotionally, to a work with understanding (269). That is to say, we not only must find emotional rewards in a work, if it is to be deemed intrinsically valuable, but also understand (more or less fully comprehend) the work’s content. If we emote to a work from a space of misunderstanding, our value is not of the work—it is not intrinsic to the experience the work offers—but our own subjective appraisal. Many view science-fiction and fantasy genres as unrealistic and fanciful, for example; they cannot tolerate watching aliens and dragons, since these entities (clearly) do not exist. However, such viewers would not understand the narrative utility of representing universal kinds of experiences—and imagined, better alternatives—in science-fictional or fantasy settings. Works able to capture, with fidelity, universal kinds of emotional circumstances (or unique idiosyncratic preference) ought to be seen as “better than” works that try yet fail to represent content with fidelity, whether the nature of the content is realistic or fantastical. If a work tries but fails to represent universal kinds of experience (even within altogether unrealistic narrative backdrops, such as time-travel), readers cannot empathetically engage with the work’s content; such a failure may be on the part of the work, not the author or reader, and so it is commonplace to find critics in disagreement about the extent a work realistically portrays some subject (again, even if what is “realistic” is embedded in some non-realistic narrative context). Disagreement over a work’s handling of a subject, however, merely reflects divergent background exposure to the same, basic kind of experience, such as feeling morbidly threatened by a sexual rival rather than mildly amused, when what is common between both experiences is sexual rivalry. That we can disagree about a work’s representation of a subject strongly suggests that we share universal emotional and empathic kinds of responses to that subject. Universality is thus necessary for judging particular (and idiosyncratic) literary representations of natural kind of emotional experience.

Consider an example. Barbara Herrnstein Smith has argued, using Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 as her reference point, that our values for a literary work are radically contingent on circumstances external to the work’s representational content. When we read “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove,” some readers—on Smith’s account—may respond with identity or repugnance, depending on their life’s circumstance. Having gone through a divorce, Smith found herself responding to Sonnet 116 with an opposing emotional valance compared to how she used to feel, when reading the same sonnet while happily married (13). Would we then say that Sonnet 116 lacks a stable kind of intrinsic value? The short answer is no. The longer answer would be this: there is a complex kind of emotional phenomenology at play in Sonnet 116 that we can all readily appreciate, whether we agree with Shakespeare’s thesis that love ought to remain steadfast over time or not, or whether we can share an understanding for what “true minds” means or not. Having a falling out with a loved one may temporarily shift the valence of our response to love poems, but not our basic understanding of those poems’ intrinsic values. Any kind of emotional theme, for that matter—revenge, injustice, desire—is grounded in psychological systems capable of representing and responding characteristically to the type of emotional scenario in question (Tooby and Cosmides).

Consider another example. Even if we have not experienced intense sexual jealousy, is not Othello’s sexual paranoia readily understood? We find Othello’s situation emotionally sympathetic without any need to have already experienced his particular type of situation. I should think that it is precisely because Shakespeare preoccupies himself with recurring, natural kinds of emotional situations that most readers find his works timelessly rewarding (van Peer).

Works that do not represent emotional kinds of experience, for that matter, cannot then possess intrinsic value, even those works whose emotional contents are not readily apparent in the work itself, as perceived, but found instead in an understanding of the work’s conceptual irony (a commonplace example being Duchamp’s Fountain). That we find Duchamp’s Fountain amusing depends on a shared understanding (grounded in perceptual engagement with works of art over time) of the normative function of urinals and art museums; the value of Fountain may not be intrinsic to the work itself, as perceived in isolation; yet its ironic (amusing) value is readily grasped, all the same, given the obvious contextual mismatch between bathroom and art-display norms, and this mismatch cannot be understood without shared, embodied memories for each normative type of experience that the work calls upon. Many philosophers and neuroscientists have already formulated theories that agree with my thesis, moreover; it has long been held that emotional response is the primary mover of value-attribution (Budd “Artistic Value”; Damasio “The Neurobiological Grounding of Human Values”; Ruff and Fehr; Tappolet). I cannot, for my part, imagine an alternative to the natural emotional kinds thesis as the basis of valuation, since there is no empirical evidence suggesting that psychological, cognitive, or cultural values exist in vacuo, free from underlying emotional bases.

None of the above suggests that cognitive or cultural dimensions of appreciating a work’s value take a back seat to raw emotionality; on the contrary, following Budd’s theory of value, it is often the case that significant deliberation over time is required to fully understand a work prior to correctly gauging its merits (“The Intersubjective Validity of Aesthetic Judgments”). Indeed, neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, and philosophers, such as Robert Solomon, no longer view the binary “emotion-cognition” as relevant, given the vast amount of empirical data showing how these components of thought exercise bidirectional influence on one another (Damasio Descartes’ Error; LeDoux The Emotional Brain; Solomon). Whatever a cognitivist would wish to offer literary criticism ought to be covered, on my view, by a close examination of categorical and situational empathies, how unique experiences lead to divergent evaluations, and the role of careful deliberation in forming final judgments; underlying any such mode of criticism, however, are neurobiological HPCs of an emotional kind. There is simply no other mechanism by which a work can be said to impart value, other than by affective indexing of an aesthetic impression.

Not only is a work’s capacity to reliably elicit an emotional response—or tap into some bit of wisdom not commonly shared across readers—central to the Literary Universal project, but literary evaluation, of any sort, depends on recognizing what a work accomplishes within various domains of universality, at the level of representation. Literary critics routinely elucidate some universally valuable implication that a work offers, even when audiences rarely understand that work’s implications or fail to see them altogether.

In sum: literary universals are not monolithic, abstract laws; they are not naively objectivist; they are contingent on mind-dependent emergence of aesthetic impressions; and they expansively account for and explain pluralities of reception—cognitive and non-cognitive—rather than reduce literary works to some utilitarian rubric of value.



Future research

Last, there is a great deal of work left to be done exploring the nature of literary universals. To what extent, for example, can we disentangle situational from categorical empathy? Empathy seems most intuitively understood, first, not as identifying with memoriesacquired from experience—for memories, in themselves, seem too rationalistic and dry—but with emotionally salientmemories. No longer (as mentioned above) do philosophers and neuroscientists see any empirical warrant in making clear-cut distinctions between memory and emotion systems, as if these domains were somehow in opposition, since both systems coevolved to the extent that they share robust, bidirectional projections, a finding noted, early on, by Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error). Affective and epistemological dimensions of reader response, thus, require new, empirically informed theoretical models that accommodate literary critical nuances.

One promising area of research that may bridge the gap between cognitivism and emotivism is social neuroscience. There is a great deal of research on memory-emotion interactions that could shed light on how underlying emotional systems modulate memory, and how emotionally inflected memories, in turn, facilitate situational empathy in literary works (Kensinger et al.; Phelps and Sharot; Roozendaal and McGaugh). Future directions in literary theory ought to take heed of the many neuroscience review articles developed over the past decade, especially those pertaining to emotion-memory interactions and social cognition.

Moreover, extant literary theoretical frameworks—feminist, Marxist, psychoanalytic, and reader response theories, to name a few—could take stock of recent research that pins down homeostatic property clusters (HPCs) of emotional and cognitive kinds. Marxist critics, for example, might gain immensely from research on epigenetics (Fraga et al.; Levenson and Sweatt). If class struggles create environmental differences (between the haves and have-nots, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, or whatever subclasses one might stipulate), these differences likely impact intragroup phenotypical expressions, from child development onward, such as resource-scarce environments leading to increased dispositional stress in offspring (Weaver et al.). Epigenetic research, thus, may offer new, empirical support for erstwhile (seemingly otiose) Marxist critiques of the literary canon, such as those found in the work of Georg Lukács and others. Postcolonialism, also—dovetailing with the work of Frantz Fanon, perhaps—may find a great deal of empirical support for how in-group versus out-group dynamics induce racial and political biases that affect literary appraisal (Hewstone et al.; Zamboni et al.). And already, neuroscience has given new currency to tripartite psychoanalytic models of mind (id, ego, superego) that may inspire new directions in literary criticism (Solms “Freud Returns”).

Another area where much research is needed is on the intersect between top-down cognition (such as deliberative, after-the-fact appraisals of literary value) and bottom-up affective and cognitive input on evaluation. Can it rightly be said that a work whose content moves us to feel fear or desire—from watching a horror or pornography film, for example—possesses intrinsic value, by default of bottom-up encoding of salient kinds of stimuli? From a neurophysiological standpoint, it seems the answer is yes, but from a literary critical standpoint, we ought to be able to distinguish between qualitatively “superior” kinds of saliency and mere exposure to exploitative emotional content. To be sure, some may argue that “exploitation” of emotional saliency is the driving force of all good works of art, high or low, and so it is the duty of the trained critic, not the empirical researcher, to adjudicate between what counts as “good” and “bad” art of all stripes. Demarcating “good” from “bad” art is a complex problem space, and I should think that writers and critics alike would be informed by empirical research in the areas of aesthetics, value theory, appraisal, and social neuroscience; if so, literary universals that can be shown to affect evaluation, bias, and the like, could help draw lines of demarcation between “good” and “bad” art.

Research in digital humanities may gain from the Literary Universals project, also. If, say, some adaptive neural network was “taught” to identify emotional kinds of content, merely by some means of computerized assessment, then literature deemed “timelessly valuable” could be fed into these programs and subsequently mapped for content that induces emotional memory. There may also be a kind of “emotional syntax” some works employ, independent of basic kinds of emotional, representational content. Turns of phrase and surprising metaphors may drive saliency in Shakespeare’s works, for example, independent of whatever content induces situational empathy. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” contains not only an evocative idea, but the phraseology of the line would seem to enhance its aesthetic impact.

There are so many promising areas of future research that I cannot possibly trace them all, here. I have only scratched the surface. What the future holds in store for the Literary Universals project is unclear; what is clear is that empirical research on emotion, memory, perception, bias, and so forth, can all deeply inform the subtlest modes of literary criticism and theory.


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