Challenging Literary Universals

Common Objections to (and Misunderstandings of) Literary Universals

Zachary Norwood, Valparaiso University


“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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Commonalities behind/beside Differences between Chinese and English Narratives

Dan Shen, Peking [Beijing] University


The difference between Chinese and English narrative works may not be as great as they first appear since we can almost always find commonalities behind or beside differences.

Commonality behind Different Terminology

In China, the traditional study of “文体/wenti” (style) appears to be quite different from the study of style in the West. If we read papers or books or attend conferences on “wenti” (style) or “文体学/wentixue” (stylistics) by scholars in the Chinese departments, we may find that the focus is not language choices as in the West, but generic characteristics. The word “wenti” for scholars in the Chinese departments has kept its ancient sense, concerned with literary genres. Stylistic study means the study of generic classification, generic boundary crossing, generic norms or characteristics, and generic development. When the object of discussion is a specific text, the focus is still on how the textual characteristics reflect or deviate from the generic norms, and how the deviation contributes to the development of the genre.

However, if we shift attention to another Chinese term “风格 fengge,” we’ll find more underlying commonality. The term sounds different (“style” is usually translated as “wenti”, not “fengge”), but actually comes closer to the Western “style” since, apart from being concerned with generic characteristics, it is also concerned with the features of individual authors’ creation of specific texts. But of course the Chinese “fengge” has a much wider sense than Western “style”, covering the artistic characteristics of “the selection and refinement of the subject matter, characterization, the use of language and other representational methods” (Zheng and Tang 38-39).

Behind such differences, we can focus on language choices in the study of style or wenti both in Chinese and in English. Since China opened its door to the West, many younger scholars, especially postgraduate students in the Chinese departments, have drawn on Western stylistics in their research on “wenti,” and some publications in the field of traditional Chinese “wentixue” show traces of the influence of Western stylistics. So long as the focus is language choices, the study of “style” in English and “wenti” in Chinese will be more or less similar. But of course, both Chinese and English have their own language features. For instance, syntactically, the former has paratactic structure (marked by coordination) while the later has hypotactic structure (characterized by subordination); and lexically, the former is typified by four-character structure of idioms which is not shared by the latter. Nevertheless, both Chinese and English (also French, Spanish etc.) do have many language features in common, such as the same subject-verb-object sequence (compare VSO for Irish or Hindi’s SOV). As for stylistic devices, we often find commonalities besides differences. In the following section, I’ll focus on the stylistic means of presenting characters’ speech.

Commonality beside Peculiarity

A most notable feature of Chinese is that it is free from verbal tense indicators. In this language, that is to say, there is no “backshift” in tense when the mode of speech shifts from a direct to an indirect one, nor is the subordinating conjunction “that” or capitalization used in indirect speech. So except for the personal pronoun, which is sometimes left out in Chinese, a language characterized by frequent subject and determiner omission, there can be no perceivable linguistic difference between indirect speech and the speech in quotation marks. This means that indirect speech can sometimes pass for free direct speech (i.e. the type which differs from direct speech only in terms of being free from quotation marks), or vice versa. I have elsewhere suggested using the term “混合体hunheti” (blend) to describe such a peculiar mode of speech in Chinese, one that is liable to two or more interpretations (Shen “Transference” 397).

In effect blend also occurs in English. If a character’s short speech does not involve tense and pronoun changes, such as “What a nice day!” (What a nice day it is!/What a nice day it was!), “To win victory,” “Always going there by car,” it may be liable to the interpretation of either free indirect speech or free direct speech, especially when immediately preceded or followed by free indirect speech. We also find in English the blend of authorial statement and free indirect speech: when the tense and the pronoun selection are appropriate to either, both interpretations become possible (see Leech & Short 338-40), such as “He would never forgive her.”

In Chinese, these two kinds of English blend have their counterparts, but Chinese has peculiar “finite” blends which, by virtue of being free from verbal tense indicators and other formal discriminating features (e.g. pronoun), frequently give rise to a two-ways or three-ways ambiguous mode. For example: Ta dui ziji shuo kanlai gaocuole  He said to himself that he seemed to be wrong (indirect speech);  He said I seem to be wrong (a kind of free direct speech).

However, Chinese and English have more common features than differences in terms of speech presentation. In traditional Chinese novels, direct speech figures most prominently, which corresponds to direct speech in English. Interestingly, as regards classical Chinese novels, we have essential similarity behind superficial difference in terms of the direct mode. In classical Chinese fiction, there are no quotation marks, no comma or full stop, or punctuation of any kind. In addition, there is no paragraph division. This appears to be very different from English novels, classical or modern, where we always have punctuation marks. What we do have in Chinese classical novels is the reporting clause, most often in the form of “X 曰 yue” (X said), which is an unequivocal marker of direct speech. As soon as we see this reporting clause, we know that what follows are the actual words uttered by the character. When punctuation marks started to be used in Chinese literary works, people simply added inverted commas to cases of speech preceded by “X yue,” and the difference between Chinese and English direct speech disappears.

It should also be noted that, in classical Chinese novels, we do not have the kind of blend ambiguous between free direct speech (without quotation marks) and indirect speech. For example, Ta shuo tushuguan de zhuangxiu hai meiyou wan: He said that the library’s decoration hadn’t finished yet (indirect speech) or He said, the library’s decoration hasn’t finished yet (the kind of free direct speech without quotation marks), which occurs only after punctuation marks were introduced into Chinese literature.

Indirect speech is also frequently used in traditional Chinese novels, where if there exists a shift from first-person reference to third-person reference or other shifts marking the narrator’s viewpoint, it will be an unequivocal case of indirect speech, without allowing another interpretation, the same applies to free indirect speech. In traditional Chinese novels, unequivocally indirect speech and direct speech occur most frequently, which correspond to the two modes in English, beside the peculiar Chinese blends.

Commonality behind Different Tradition

If we compare early Chinese novels in the vernacular with 18th-century English fiction, we will find a notable difference: the Chinese ones are invariably in third-person narration, while the English novels are not only in third person but also in first person narration, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy. The exclusive use of third-person narration in early Chinese novels in the vernacular is to be accounted for by the fact that this genre developed directly from storytellers’ scripts. Because of the direct contact between the storyteller and the audience, oral narration does not accommodate first-person narration (neither does it accommodate multi-level narration). But gradually, written Chinese vernacular fiction separated from the oral tradition, and first-person narration is also used in this genre. And since then we can claim that both first- and third-person narration are modes shared by Chinese and English novels.

From the above discussion, we can see that the literatures in different countries may have more things in common than their first appearance. We may be able to find much sharedness under different academic terminology, beside language peculiarities and behind different traditions.

Future Research

In the future, we can continue to investigate what commonalities exist behind or beside differences between Chinese and English narratives in various areas, such as the manipulation of point of view or focalization, the arrangement of plot structure, or ways of narration.

Works Cited

Shen, Dan. “On the Transference of Modes of Speech from Chinese Narrative Fiction into English.” Comparative Literature Studies 28.4 (1991): 395-415.

Zheng, Naizang and Tang Zaixing, eds. A Dictionary of Literary Theory. Beijing: Guangming Daily Press, 1989.

Cultural Variation Does Not Preclude Cognitive Universality

Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, University of Oregon


In her 1966 essay, “Shakespeare in the Bush,” the anthropologist Laura Bohannan challenged the received wisdom that great literary works speak to universal human concerns and conditions and, by implication, that human nature is the same across cultures. Her claim was based on a sample size of one culture: the Tiv of West Africa. In the course of summarizing the plot of Hamlet for a small group of Tiv villagers, she found that their interpretation of the play was different from hers, and took this as evidence of fundamental inter-cultural psychic differences. In so doing, she made two misguided assumptions: (1) that there is a homogeneous “Western” interpretation of the play; and (2) that cultural variation is prima facie evidence of the absence of human universals. My 2003 essay on the subject (Scalise Sugiyama, “Cultural Variation”) addressed the second of these assumptions, showing that cultural variation and cognitive universality are not mutually exclusive phenomena. This becomes apparent when the issue is framed in terms of the ecological niche to which humans are adapted.

Every species occupies a given ecological niche, and every ecological niche poses a set of adaptive problems—problems that affect the organism’s ability to survive and/or reproduce. Collectively, the set of adaptive problems posed by the human ecological niche can be thought of as the human condition, or the ineluctable challenges of human existence. In turn, the cognitive capacities that evolved to respond to these problems can be thought of as human nature. Adaptive problems and the cognitive software designed to address them are more or less constant across cultures; what varies between them is habitat and the events that transpire therein. Due to ecological and episodic variation, the means and information relevant to addressing adaptive problems differ from place to place; thus, different cultures result in large part from universal cognitive structures responding to universal problems as they play out under different sets of ecological conditions. We find differences between cultures not because human neurocognitive architecture varies in design, but because human habitats vary in resources, constraints, and history. On this view, we would expect stories to reflect both, human universals and cultural particularities: we would expect to find universality at the macro level (e.g., adaptive problems, cognitive adaptations) and variation at the micro level (e.g., local constraints on fitness, local solutions to adaptive problems).

In my 2003 essay, I showed that this prediction is borne out by closer examination of fundamental concepts at the heart of the play, such as incest, murder, and revenge. The Tiv not only recognize these behaviors, they exhibit predictable emotional responses to them and rules aimed at regulating them. Their rules differ somewhat from the practices evinced in the world of the play (which largely reflect Renaissance English law), but this variation can be traced to differences in local economic practices, which in turn stem from differences in habitat and historical trajectories. If this variation grew from differences in human psychology, we would expect Tiv culture to lack words, attitudes, and rules pertaining to these behaviors. In the present essay, I supplement my earlier analysis by explaining the role that culture plays in the human ecological niche, and discussing some of the shared reasoning and motivational systems exhibited by Bohannan and the Tiv in their reaction to Hamlet.

The Human Ecological Niche

One of the most obvious facts about human cultures is that they exhibit variation. This would appear to argue against the existence of human universals were it not for another, equally important fact: culture itself is a human universal (Brown, Human Universals, 130). Not merely “creators and users of cultures” (Goodenough, Description, 129-130), humans are a culture-dependent animal (Boyd et al., “Cultural Niche”). To a greater degree than other species, humans depend for their living on complex manipulations of the physical and social environment. This “instrumental intelligence” (Tooby & DeVore, “Reconstruction”) enables humans to bypass their anatomical limitations and acquire resources that would otherwise be unavailable to them (Kaplan et al., “Human Life History Evolution”), and has enabled them to colonize virtually every terrestrial habitat on the planet. Different habitats present different challenges, which in turn require different technologies and tactics. This, along with historical happenstance, is ultimately the source of cultural variation: there is no single set of knowledge, tools, and practices that provides effective solutions under all ecological conditions.

When confronted with the diversity of cultural solutions to recurrent problems of human existence, it is easy to mistake variation for an absence of universals. This is because, in the humanities and social sciences, the study of culture does not tend to concern itself with questions of origin and design. From a biological, evolutionary perspective, however, these questions are paramount: complex cultural behavior is one of the things that distinguishes humans zoologically from other species. Humans use culture because they are designed to—that is, they have evolved cognitive traits that enable them to generate and transmit ideas, artifacts, and customs. Chief among these traits is the ability to reason counterfactually, which enables humans to imagine things that do not exist, have not happened, or cannot be detected by the raw senses. Also referred to as “improvisational intelligence” (Barrett et al., “Cognitive Niche,” 242) and the “mental simulation of alternative perspectives” (Schacter et al., “Remembering,” 660), this capacity scaffolds the ability to generate new ideas, anticipate the future, and intuit the mental states of others. Hand in hand with this capacity goes a profoundly causal understanding of the phenomenological world. Combined, these two capacities enable humans to run mental simulations of possible problems, solutions, and outcomes (Tooby & DeVore, “Reconstruction”), which is the essence of invention, planning, and prediction. Our highly developed capacities for cooperation and communication make it possible for us to share this information, which in turn leads to cumulative culture (Tomasello, Cultural Origins; Tomasello et al., “Cultural Cognition”)–vast, commonly held sets of beliefs, technologies, and behaviors.

This cognitive trifecta—counterfactual and causal reasoning, cooperation, and communication—is what enables humans to generate cultural solutions to the problems posed by their ecological niche. Unlike other animals, humans do not have to wait around for new adaptations to evolve in response to novel environmental developments; instead, they can invent solutions of their own in real time (Barrett et al., “Cognitive Niche”). Our ancestors who moved onto the African savannas millions of years ago did not evolve sharp claws and powerful jaws for digging tubers and killing game, but that did not prevent them from accessing these resource bonanzas. Their ability to experiment, innovate, and share resultant discoveries enabled them to invent and deploy tools and tactics that accomplished the same end.

As our ancestors migrated out of Africa into novel habitats, the adaptive problems intrinsic to the human ecological niche accompanied them. No matter where they went, they faced the same fundamental tasks, such as route finding, acquiring food, securing protection from the elements, forming cooperative networks, selecting mates, rearing children, and resolving conflict. These are universal human problems, but they manifest differently across habitats due to variation in flora, fauna, topography, and climate. Different technologies and resource acquisition strategies, in turn, mandate different practices, customs, and rules. Marriage is a case in point. Coastal Tlingit traders in southern Alaska sought inland Athapaskan husbands for their daughters in order to establish social and economic ties with the interior (Cruikshank, Life, 273). Farther north among the Tareumiut and Nunamiut, however, marriages between people of different resource zones were impractical because a man could not afford to marry a woman untrained in the skills necessary for survival in his own habitat (Minc, “Scarcity”). Whether or not one sees the pan-human aspects of culture depends in large part on whether one is looking at these local solutions (e.g., exogamy or endogamy) or at the universal problems they address (e.g., finding a suitable mate).

The same principle applies to storytelling. The diversity of themes, styles, and genres in world literature may blind investigators to the psychological continuities that underlie them. The most obvious of these is narrative itself: all normally developing humans acquire the ability to produce and process narrative. Narrative is a cognitive universal, exhibiting striking continuities in content (Scalise Sugiyama, “Forager Oral Tradition”), style (Scalise Sugiyama, “Pedagogy”), and structure (Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative”) across cultures. The latter is particularly illustrative: narrative structure appears to be designed to represent agency—that is, goal-directed action and the set of environmental constraints under which it occurs (Scalise Sugiyama, “Narrative”). Narrative is not merely about characters, it is about their goals, obstacles encountered in the pursuit of those goals, and solutions devised and deployed to surmount those obstacles (Scalise Sugiyama, “Reverse-engineering”). In other words, stories are mental simulations of problems, solutions, and outcomes encountered (or that might be encountered) in the course of human experience. Because obstacles and solutions emanate from the local environment, and environments vary across time and space, the obstacles and solutions depicted in stories vary from culture to culture. Thus, as with culture in general, whether or not one sees the universal aspects of storytelling depends on where one looks.

Differences in traditional caribou exploitation among the Tanana, Ingalik, and Chipewyan peoples illustrate how the same psychology produces variation in response to different ecological conditions. Each of these sub-Arctic Athapaskan culture groups depended on caribou for a substantial portion of their livelihood, but their degree of dependency and their hunting methods varied according to the distribution of caribou in their respective territories (Heffley, “Northern Athapaskan”). Caribou were only available in Tanana territory twice a year, when they passed through on their fall and spring migrations. Capture techniques capitalized on this behavior to maximize the quantity of game harvested: caribou were hunted communally using the surround method, whereby a herd is driven between two fences into an enclosed area where the animals can be more easily dispatched. Although the meat was preserved (by freezing or drying) and cached for later use, it was not sufficient to sustain the Tanana year-round, so the diet was supplemented by fishing and moose hunting in the summer and early fall. The distribution and timing of these critical resources affected Tanana settlement patterns: for most of the year, people lived in small two-family bands of 8-20 people dispersed throughout the forest, but in the spring and fall, bands joined together to maintain the surrounds and cooperate in the hunt. The Ingalik, too, hunted caribou in large numbers using the surround method, but only in the fall because the spring migration route did not pass through their territory. As a result, the Ingalik depended primarily on salmon, which they harvested and dried during the summer and stored in permanent villages for use in the winter.

The Chipewyan, in contrast, had access to caribou on a year-round basis, because their territory encompassed not only the animals’ migration routes, but their winter and summer feeding ranges as well. Consequently, caribou were hunted all year and made up 90% of the Chipewyan diet. Due to this heavy dependence on caribou, intercepting migrating herds was critical to survival. This task was complicated by the tendency of caribou to change their migration routes periodically and by the difficulty of predicting the location of new routes. In response to this problem, the Chipewyan developed an elaborate information exchange network. Search parties were sent out from local bands as the animals began to aggregate for migration, and information about their location and direction of movement was shared with other search parties and with other bands. This enabled the people to assemble in large numbers at a site that anticipated the migration route, which was critical to using the surround method. Compared with Tanana and Ingalik settlement patterns, then, Chipewyan movements were more strongly influenced by caribou behavior. The largest concentrations of people (200-400 individuals) occurred during the spring and fall migrations; afterward, when the caribou were dispersed in their summer or winter ranges, the people broke up into smaller groups (11-41 individuals) to hunt independently with bow and arrow or from canoes with spears.

Tanana, Ingalik, and Chipewyan caribou hunting practices show that a solution that works in one place might not be available or effective in another. In each culture, the objective is the same—to hunt caribou—but local conditions constrain the means used to achieve it and the extent to which it may be achieved. As simulations of human environments and events, stories may be expected to reflect regional constraints on and solutions to common human problems. This is evident in the fact that, when we engage in story worlds, we often find ourselves in an unfamiliar habitat—ancient Mesopotamia, the Carolingian Empire, Norse Scandinavia, etc. This experience is analogous to visiting a foreign country and being unacquainted with the local way of doing things. Misinterpretation may be said to occur when we apply the solutions of our own culture to the problems of the culture we are visiting—that is, when we fail to situate the problem in its proper cultural context. This mistake is understandable: faced with an unfamiliar setting, an individual has only her own experiences, beliefs, and practices to consult when determining the exact nature of the problem at hand and how best to solve it. This is precisely what the Tiv do: knowing nothing of Renaissance England or the Hamlet story world, they diagnose problems and prescribe solutions in terms of their own cultural and ecological milieu. It does not follow from this “misinterpretation” that there are no human universals.

Rules and customs may differ from culture to culture, but the logical structure that underlies them and the motivational systems that guide them are part of the deep structure of human psychology. In the remainder of this essay, I discuss three additional sets of universals that play a significant role in the generation and transmission of human culture, and are implicit in the Tiv interpretation of Hamlet: the ability to reason about social conditionals, to recognize and interpret motivational states, and to predict and manipulate the behavior of conspecifics.

Social Conditionals

Rules of behavioral conduct are one of the universals identified by Brown (Human Universals, 138), and one of the most obvious universals exhibited by the Tiv. From a cognitive perspective, these rules are evidence of a capacity for reasoning about social conditionals (Cosmides, “Logic”; Cosmides & Tooby, “Generation of Culture”; Fiddick et al., “No Interpretation”), such as deontic reasoning (i.e., what is allowed or obligatory) and reasoning about precautions (i.e., safety procedures). Deontic reasoning includes social exchange, obligations, permissions, and threats. An example of social exchange reasoning can be seen when the Tiv demand a story from Bohannan in exchange for all the stories they have told her: “They threatened to tell me no more stories until I told them one of mine” (Bohannan, 45). Further social exchange reasoning is seen when the conversation turns to Ophelia’s marriage prospects. Bohannan summarizes the situation in Tiv terms, explaining that Polonius is worried that Hamlet’s romantic interest in Ophelia might compromise her honor, thereby lowering her bride price. A Tiv elder retorts that “‘a chief’s son would give his mistress’s father enough presents and patronage to more than make up the difference’” (Bohannan, 49). The implicit rule here is that, if a father gives his daughter as mistress to another man, then that man must compensate the father for the consequent diminution of her bride price.

The ability to reason about permissions is seen when the Tiv object to the ghost’s choice of Hamlet as his avenger: according to their custom, important matters such as revenge and punishment are the purview of chiefs and elders. This rule, as proclaimed by one of Bohannan’s informants, is clearly framed as a social contract: “‘If your father’s brother has killed your father, [then] you must appeal to your father’s age-mates; they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives’” (Bohannan, 51). Reasoning about social obligations is seen in Tiv rules regarding marriage, which include the practice of the levirate: “’In our country . . . the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children” (Bohannan, 46). Framed as a social contract, this rule mandates that, “If a man dies, then his brother must marry his widow and provide for his children.”

An integral component of deontic reasoning is the ability to determine when a rule has been broken (Cosmides & Tooby, “Social Exchange”). This, too, is in evidence among the Tiv: as noted above, the Tiv criticize Hamlet for seeking to avenge his father, because this violates their rule proscribing violence against elder kinsmen. Further evidence of the ability to detect rule violations is seen when Bohannan describes the scene in which Hamlet chides Gertrude for her prompt remarriage: Hamlet’s behavior produces “a shocked murmur from everyone” because, according to Tiv rules, “a man should never scold his mother” (Bohannan, 50). In a similar vein, the Tiv condemn Hamlet for his desire to kill Claudius: “‘For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing. The elders ought to let such a man be bewitched’” (Bohannan, 51). This pronouncement evinces another important component of social exchange reasoning: the motivation to punish transgressors. The Tiv believe that insanity is caused by witchcraft and thus believe that Hamlet has been bewitched. As evident in the sentiment that such a man “ought to . . . be bewitched,” they see Hamlet’s madness as fitting punishment for plotting to murder his uncle. They condemn Claudius as well: since the Tiv believe that a person can only be bewitched by his/her paternal relatives, they conclude that Claudius is responsible for Hamlet’s madness. They see Claudius’ action as “wicked” (i.e., a rule violation) and Hamlet’s homicidal designs on him as poetic justice (i.e., punishment): “‘if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother’” (Bohannan, 51).

Rules of etiquette and hospitality, another human universal (Brown, Human Universals, 139), are also in evidence, as seen in Bohannan’s description of the protocol for serving beer: “I accepted a large calabash full of beer, poured some into a small drinking gourd, and tossed it down. Then I poured some more into the same gourd for the man second in seniority to my host before I handed my calabash over to a young man for further distribution. Important people shouldn’t ladle beer themselves” (Bohannan, 45). Another proscription is expressed in the host’s comment that “‘One does not discuss serious matters when there is beer’” (Bohannan, 44), which can be re-phrased as the rule, “If there is beer, then one does not discuss serious matters.”

The Tiv also have rules pertaining to personal safety, which attests to a capacity for reasoning about hazards (Fiddick, “Deontic Reasoning”). They invoke one of these precautions in their response to Polonius’s death. Summarized by Bohannan, the rule stipulates that a hunter must give an alarm before loosing his arrow, and that any humans in the vicinity must announce their presence: “at the first rustle in the grass an arrow is aimed and ready, and the hunter shouts ‘Game!’ If no human voice answers immediately, the arrow speeds on its way. Like a good hunter, Hamlet had shouted ‘A rat!’” (Bohannan, 50). From both a Tiv and a Western perspective, then, Polonius’ skulking is seen as a potentially hazardous activity: by not identifying himself, he runs the risk of being mistaken for something (game) or someone (a fratricidal uncle) else. The main cultural difference here is that the Tiv parse the danger in terms of the perils inherent in their own environment—the risk of being accidentally killed by a hunter—instead of the risk of being killed for spying. From their perspective, Polonius’ death is his own fault, attributable to his ignorance or disregard of an eminently sound precaution: “’That Polonius truly was a fool and a man who knew nothing!’” (Bohannan, 50). Bohannan concedes that many Westerners agree with this assessment (Bohannan, 49)–yet another continuity between the two “different” interpretations of the play.


Emotions are motivational mechanisms designed through the process of natural selection to guide responses to environmental stimuli in ways that, in ancestral environments, tended to increase fitness (Tooby & Cosmides, “Past”). In other words, emotions are adaptations. Thus, we would expect all normally-developing humans to exhibit emotions, and to exhibit a similar set of emotions. Tellingly, pain, sexual attraction and desire, and other emotional states are among the human universals identified by Brown (Human Universals, 135). We would also expect developmentally normal humans to exhibit similar emotional responses to a given adaptive problem. Snakes are a case in point: venomous snakes were a recurrent feature of the environments inhabited by early hominins (and their non-human primate predecessors), and most humans readily acquire avoidance-based emotional responses (e.g., fear, revulsion, wariness) to these animals (Russell, Snake; Brown, Human Universals, 115). A related capacity, the ability to infer the emotional states of others using cues such as facial expression and tone of voice, is instrumental to the maintenance of the complex cooperative networks that characterize human life, and is also included on Brown’s list of human universals (Human Universals, 135). Research on facial expressions has identified at least six universally recognized emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust (Eckman et al., “Facial Displays of Emotion”; Eckman, “Facial Expression”). Brown includes contempt on this list, and notes that the coyness response is also common—and commonly understood–cross-culturally (Human Universals, 134). The use of tone of voice to communicate meaning is a universal feature of human languages (Brown, Human Universals, 131). Characterized by Bolinger as “a nonarbitrary, sound-symbolic system with intimate ties to facial expression and bodily gesture, and conveying, underneath it all, emotions and attitudes” (Intonation, 1), intonation appears to be designed to transmit information about the speaker’s affective state.

All of these capacities are exhibited in the Tiv response to Hamlet. The most obvious capacity they exhibit is the ability to recognize different emotions and attribute emotional states to conspecifics. Bohannan tells the story in the Tiv language, and often explains character motivation in terms of emotion; thus, their language clearly contains words for the affective states evinced by the characters in the play, indicating not only that Tiv culture includes the concept of emotion, but that Tiv and Western emotional repertoires are consonant with one another. This can be seen in the Tiv rationale for a leader having multiple wives: “It was better . . . for a chief to have many wives and sons who would help him hoe his farms and feed his people; then everyone loved the chief who gave much and took nothing” (Bohannan, 47; emphasis added). Similarly, when Bohannan explains why Polonius eavesdrops on Gertrude and Hamlet’s conversation, they appear to have no difficulty understanding a mother’s love for her children: “‘The great chief told Hamlet’s mother to find out from her son what he knew. But because a woman’s children are always first in her heart, he had the important elder Polonius hide behind a cloth that hung against the wall of Hamlet’s mother’s sleeping hut’” (Bohannan, 50; emphasis added).

Bohannan references a broad spectrum of emotions, with which the Tiv show no signs of being unfamiliar. For example, her discussion of Gertrude’s hasty remarriage references sadness and grief: “‘The son Hamlet was very sad because his mother had married again so quickly. There was no need for her to do so, and it is our custom for a widow not to go to her next husband until she has mourned for two years’” (Bohannan, 47). She references regret—or its absence–when she tells them that Claudius “‘was not sorry that Hamlet had killed Polonius’” (Bohannan, 51). Fear is referenced multiple times—for example, when she explains that Horatio and his companions were “‘troubled and afraid’” (Bohannan, 46) when they saw the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and when she explains that Hamlet “‘behaved so oddly’” toward Ophelia that “‘he frightened her’” (Bohannan, 49). Her summary of the play-within-a-play alludes to sexual desire, ambition, guilt, and distrust: she explains that Hamlet asked a visiting storyteller to tell Claudius and his household a tale “‘about a man who had poisoned his brother because he desired his brother’s wife and wished to be chief himself. Hamlet was sure the great chief could not hear the story without making a sign if he was indeed guilty, and then he would discover whether his dead father had told him the truth’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv themselves reference emotional states in their interpretations of the characters’ behavior. For example, believing that Hamlet jumps into Ophelia’s grave to prevent Laertes from selling her body to the witches, they attribute Hamlet’s actions to envy and Laertes’ response to rage: “‘Hamlet prevented him because the chief’s heir, like a chief, does not wish any other man to grow rich and powerful. Laertes would be angry, because he would have killed his sister without benefit to himself’” (Bohannan, 52). The Tiv even evince an appreciation for irony, as seen in their “applause” for the old man’s judgment of Claudius: “‘if his father’s brother had indeed been wicked enough to bewitch Hamlet and make him mad that would be good story indeed, for it would be his fault that Hamlet, being mad, no longer had any sense and thus was ready to kill his father’s brother’” (Bohannan, 51). As these examples illustrate, the Tiv clearly understand the power of emotions such as ambition, rage, and desire, and the causal relationship between emotion and behavior.

The Tiv also exhibit the ability to infer the emotional states of others. At one point in her narration, for example, Bohannan feels herself getting angry, and tells her audience, “‘If you don’t like the story, I’ll stop’” (Bohannan, 52). The response from the senior elder—an obvious attempt at appeasement–indicates that he has accurately interpreted her feelings: “The old man made soothing noises and himself poured me some more beer” (Bohannan, 52). The opposite is also true: Bohannan is able to make accurate assessments of her audience’s mental state. For example, when she agrees to tell them a story, she notes that the men sit back to listen, “puffing contentedly” on their pipes (Bohannan, 46). Indeed, over the course of her narration, she repeatedly gauges audience interest and attitude using facial expression, tone of voice, and/or body language. The range of facial expressions she describes is impressive. For example, she reports that that “the old man beamed” (Bohannan, 46) with approval upon hearing that Claudius married his brother’s widow, and that he “frowned” (Bohannan, 48) at his wife for asking a stupid question. When she explains that that there was no need for Gertrude to remarry, she notes that “no one looked convinced” (Bohannan, 47), and when she attempts to explain that the king’s ghost is not an omen, she notes that the “audience looked as confused as I sounded” (Bohannan, 48). She also monitors the glances exchanged between audience members, noting, for example, that the “second elder looked triumphantly at the first” (Bohannan, 46) when the former’s interpretation was vindicated, and that the “old men looked at each other in supreme disgust” (Bohannan, 50) upon hearing the cause of Polonius’ death. Similarly, she monitors the glances directed expressly at her. For example, when Bohannan accepts the old man’s invitation to join in the beer drinking, she notes that he looks at her “approvingly” (Bohannan, 45). And, after explaining that Hamlet changed Claudius’ orders so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were killed instead, she remarks: “I encountered a reproachful glare from one of the men whom I had told undetectable forgery was not merely immoral but beyond human skill” (Bohannan, 51).

The use of gesture and body language to infer attitude and emotional state is also in evidence. For example, Bohannan notes that there was “a general shaking of heads round the circle” (Bohannan, 46) in disapproval of a son exacting vengeance for his father’s murder. She also monitors her audience’s attentional state, noting for example that her “audience suddenly became much more attentive” (Bohannan, 49) when she began discussing Hamlet’s madness. She is particularly alert to tone of voice, noting a “reproachful” (Bohannan, 51) comment, a “growled” (Bohannan, 48) answer, a “bewildered voice” (Bohannan, 49), and a “babble of disbelief” (Bohannan, 48). Her comment that Hamlet scolded his mother elicits “a shocked murmur from everyone” (Bohannan, 50), and an elder’s pronouncement that Claudius was wicked to bewitch his nephew elicits a “murmur of applause” (Bohannan, 51). Bohannan’s descriptions reference a broad range of emotions, and in some cases are highly nuanced, as seen when she notes that her host addressed her “with that insincere, but courteous, agreement one extends to the fancies of the young, ignorant, and superstitious” (Bohannan, 48).

Clearly, Bohannan and the Tiv have no trouble interpreting each other’s tone of voice, body language, or emotional states. The main interpretive difference between the two cultures lies in the motives attributed to the characters, which the Tiv parse in terms of local constraints and practices. For the most part, however, the Tiv respond to the characters in the same manner that Westerners do, expressing sympathy for some and antipathy for others, and understanding their behavior in terms of their motivational state. This is arguably the most remarkable cross-cultural continuity evinced in the essay: Tiv and Westerners alike respond to story characters as if they were actual human beings, assuming not only that they experience emotions, but that they experience the same set of emotions that humans do.

Machiavellian Intelligence

Because humans are highly social animals, one of the main obstacles to the attainment of fitness-related goals is other humans. Resources are finite; consequently, competition for access to food, territory, mates, allies, and other necessities has always been a feature of human environments. The selection pressure exerted by this competition led to the evolution of adaptations for manipulating the beliefs and behavior of conspecifics (Jolly, “Lemur”; Humphrey, “Social”). Commonly referred to by the shorthand term “Machiavellian intelligence” (Byrne & Whiten, Machiavellian Intelligence; Whiten & Byrne, Machiavellian Intelligence II), this capacity includes the ability to dissemble and deceive, and the attendant ability to predict human behavior. This capacity is evinced in the intrigues that pervade Hamlet, as well as the facility with which the Tiv understand these machinations and generate alternative schemes of their own.

The Tiv have no problem understanding that humans engage in intrigue or understanding the nature of this behavior, and readily follow the maneuvers deployed by the characters to achieve their various ends. Consider the plots and counterplots launched by Hamlet and Claudius, beginning with the play-within-a-play. When Bohannan explains that Hamlet’s motive is to “‘discover whether his dead father had told him the truth,’” the old man asks “with deep cunning, ‘Why should a father lie to his son?’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv understand both, Claudius’ plan to send his nephew away “‘with letters to a chief of a far country, saying that Hamlet should be killed,’” and Hamlet’s counter-move in which he “‘changed the writing on their papers, so that the chief killed his age mates instead’” (Bohannan, 51). Even more telling is their response to Claudius’ subsequent plot to encourage Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel. When Bohannan explains that “‘Hamlet’s mother drank the poisoned beer that the chief meant for Hamlet in case he won the fight’” (Bohannan, 53), one of the elders corrects her interpretation. In so doing, he envisions an alternative plot: “‘The poison Hamlet’s mother drank was obviously meant for the survivor of the fight, whichever it was. If Laertes had won, the great chief would have poisoned him, for no one would know that he arranged Hamlet’s death. Then, too, he need not fear Laertes’ witchcraft’” (Bohannan, 53).

This penetrating insight is not a fluke: another example is seen when a debate arises concerning the ghost, which the Tiv interpret as a “false omen” sent to Hamlet. One elder argues that Hamlet should have consulted a diviner, who “could have told him how his father died, if he really had been poisoned’” (Bohannan, 50). Another elder disagrees: “‘Because his father’s brother was a great chief, one-who-sees-the-truth might therefore have been afraid to tell it. I think it was for that reason that a friend of Hamlet’s father—a witch and an elder—sent an omen so his friend’s son would know’” (Bohannan, 50). The Tiv exhibit an equally Machiavellian view of Laertes’ motives. Bohannan explains that, because Polonius was worried that his son might behave in a prodigal fashion while in Paris, “‘he sent one of his servants to . . . to spy out what Laertes was doing’” (Bohannan, 49). One of the elders offers the following interpretation of Laertes’ behavior when, upon his return, he learns of Ophelia’s death and visits her grave:

“Polonius knew his son would get into trouble, and so he did. He had many fines to pay for fighting, and debts from gambling. But he had only two ways of getting money quickly. One was to marry off his sister at once, but it is difficult to find a man who will marry a woman desired by the son of a chief. For if the chief’s heir commits adultery with your wife, what can you do? Only a fool calls a case against a man who will someday be his judge. Therefore Laertes had to take the second way: he killed his sister by witchcraft, drowning her so he could secretly sell her body to the witches.” (Bohannan, 52)

As these and many other examples in the essay illustrate, the Tiv exhibit a keen understanding of humans as political animals. They are neither surprised by the duplicitous behavior exhibited by the characters, nor incapable of generating original schemes on their own.

Future Research

Although it would be an ambitious project, one obvious avenue of inquiry would be a cross-cultural comparison of emotional responses to the main conflicts in the play. This could be done by analyzing a cross-cultural sample of audience responses to Hamlet. For each culture, audience response could be operationalized as the most highly cited or most commonly taught interpretation—that is, the within-culture interpretation for which there is the highest consensus among literary scholars. Since Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into many languages and subjected to international academic scrutiny, the assembly of such a sample is not outside the bounds of possibility. Regardless of culture of origin, we would expect these consensus interpretations to evince similar attitudes toward key behaviors in the story, such as murder, incest, adultery, and betrayal. Specifically, we would expect these behaviors to be associated with a negative valence, and to be explicitly or implicitly characterized as antisocial conduct. We would further expect the targets of such behaviors to be seen as aggrieved parties and, on this logic, would expect to find rules aimed at regulating these behaviors and overt or tacit approval of the punishment of transgressors (e.g., via shaming, ostracism, execution). Finally, we would expect audiences to attribute motivational states to the story characters, to attribute the same motivational states to the characters that they attribute to actual humans, and to understand these motivational states as the impetus for the characters’ behavior. Cross-cultural consonance in these affective responses would constitute compelling evidence that “human nature is pretty much the same the whole world over” (Bohannan, 44).

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Scalise Sugiyama“).]

Works Cited

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Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Originally published in Natural History 75 (1966): 28-33. Reprinted in The Informed Reader: Contemporary Issues in the Disciplines. Ed. C. Bazerman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989, 43-53.

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Cosmides, Leda. “The Logic of Social Exchange: Has Natural Selection Shaped How Humans Reason? Studies with the Wason Selection Task.” Cognition 31.3 (1989): 187-276.

Cosmides, Leda, and John Tooby. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Part II. Case Study: A Computational Theory of Social Exchange.” Ethology and Sociobiology 10.1-3 (1989): 51-97.

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Ekman, Paul, E. Richard Sorenson, and Wallace V. Friesen. “Pan-cultural Elements in Facial Displays of Emotion.” Science 164.3875 (1969): 86-88.

Fiddick, Laurence. “Domains of Deontic Reasoning: Resolving the Discrepancy Between the Cognitive and Moral Reasoning Literatures.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A 57.3 (2004): 447-474.

Fiddick, Laurence, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. “No Interpretation Without Representation: The Role of Domain-specific Representations and Inferences in the Wason Selection Task.” Cognition 77.1 (2000): 1-79.

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Historicism and Universals

By: Bradley Irish, Arizona State University

“Anyone who embarks upon the study of historicism,” Frederick Beiser warned not too long ago, “should be wary: he enters an intellectual minefield” (Beiser, “Historicism,” 174).  The present essay is an attempt to navigate, with necessary tentativeness, a particular corner of this minefield, by broadly charting how the theme of universality (literary and otherwise) has variously featured throughout several centuries of historicist thought.

It is no easy thing to define historicism—or perhaps, rather, it is altogether too easy to define it, given the multitude of (often conflicting) ways that the term has been employed by scholars of historical thought.  In 1954, Dwight E. Lee and Robert N. Beck identified at least five basic senses in which historicism had been understood; two decades later, Wesley Morris affirmed that “the meaning of the term historicism…has become so broad as to make the word useless for the philosophy of history” (Lee and Beck; Morris vii).  The subsequent critical ascendency of its “new” variety—the form of historicism most readily familiar to contemporary scholars—has only complicated matters further.

Clarifying our term is a vital first step.  The wisest course, it seems, is to select a definition that is flexible enough to include the major intellectual trends that have, by common consensus, been deemed historicist, but that is not so loose as to make delineation pointless in the first place.  Here, we may be helped by Beiser, whose understanding of historicism emerges from its operative verb:

Roughly, to historicize our thinking means to recognize that everything in the human world—culture, values, institutions, practices, rationality—is made by history, so that nothing has an eternal form, permanent essence or constant identity which transcends historical change.  The historicist holds, therefore, that the essence, identity or nature of everything in the human world is made by history, so that it is entirely the product of the particular historical processes that brought it into being.  (Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 2).

This statement crystalizes how the topic has been defined by a range of scholars.[1]  Following Beiser, this essay understands historicism as the approach to history (or the philosophy of history) that generally adopts the premise that all features of the human world are the complete product of history, and thus must be understood as emerging entirely from a particular historical context.[2]

From the outset, this definition also makes clear that historicism is no friend to notions of universality—and indeed, may be seen to be fundamentally opposed to them.  The story of this essay, then, is the story of how the broad development of historicist thought gradually worked to undercut intellectual faith in a human sphere that is governed by enduring, universal laws and ideals.  Literary universality per se is seldom the precise target of the historicist project, so my strategy is to treat historicism’s attitude toward universality more generally—with the understanding, of course, that the historicist’s suspicion of universalizing impulses (and insistence on the primacy of context) readily applies to artistic creations, self-evidently the product of human affairs.

In this essay, I map the broad development of historicist thought, beginning with its deep origins in the Enlightenment historiographical tradition and concluding with some reflections on the current state of post-New Historicist scholarship.  Few scholars are expert in every phase of historicism’s many forms—and I am certainly not one of them—so what follows will, at times, naturally privilege my particular area of study, English Renaissance literature.  (Fortunately, this field has played a crucial role in historicist literary scholarship of the last 80 years.)  Because I cover much material (and many exceedingly complex thinkers) in a relatively short space, my goal is merely to account for some of the high-points of historicist thought—with the understanding that such a survey, in an article of this size, is inevitably incomplete.  It is my hope that, at the very least, this can serve as a starting point for thinking about the connection between historicism and literary universality—a topic, I’ll try to show, of considerable interest.


At the most fundamental level, what we now understand as historicism emerged in late eighteenth-century Europe, as a response to the Enlightenment way of doing history.  At the time, the orthodox understanding of history was underpinned by “an unstable mixture of classical, medieval and humanist elements circumscribed by and crammed into the traditional Christian interpretation of universal history” (Reill 9); reflecting the Enlightenment veneration of reason, it maintained that “all human societies were perceived as being ruled by the same rationality whereby they had formed themselves to escape the perils of the lawless state of nature” (Hamilton 27).  Universality was a persistent theme.  Humanity, it was thought, “had remained basically the same in all periods of which we have any knowledge” (Meinecke lv), and the historian’s task was to demonstrate (through a set of “self-evident transhistorical assumptions”) how “the universal rules of religion or philosophy operated in specific instances,” and how “human beings observe laws of their own nature that are everywhere invariable and constant” (Reill 10; Hamilton 26).  This final point is crucial, as Natural Law theory provided an essential framework from which the historical endeavor could proceed:

In particular, it was the prevailing concept of Natural Law, handed down from antiquity, which confirmed [a] belief in the stability of human nature and above all of human reason.  Accordingly, it was held that the pronouncements of reason, though they could certainly be obscured by passions and by ignorance, did nevertheless, wherever they could free themselves from these hindrances, speak with the same voice and utter the same timeless and absolutely valid truths, which were in harmony with those prevailing in the universe as a whole.  (Meinecke lvi)

The Natural Law then, ultimately provided the fundamental criteria for historical judgement: once “the natural laws governing human behaviour at all times [were] formulated,” Enlightenment historians could evaluate geographically and temporally distant cultures “by the degree to which they approximate to this ideal pattern” (Hamilton 2).

A few representative examples from seventeenth and eighteenth-century thinkers can give a sense of this outlook in action.[3]  Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), for example, places Natural Law theory at the center of his political philosophy; early in Leviathan (1651), he famously defines Lex Naturalis as a “Precept, or generall Rule, found out by Reason, by which a man is forbidden to do, that, which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same; and to omit, that, by which he thinketh it may be best preserved” (Hobbes 64).  The German jurist and philosopher Samuel Pufendorf (1632-1694) argued that man is subject to the laws of God, nations, and nature; in On the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law (1673), he similarly argues that “the Law of Nature asserts that this or that thing ought to be done, because from right Reason it is concluded that the same is necessary for the Preservation of Society amongst men” (Pufendorf A6v).  For Pufendorf, it is a “fundamental Law of Nature” that “every man ought, as much as in him lies, to preserve and promote Society, that is, the Welfare of Mankind”—and indeed, “all other Precepts are to be accounted only Subsumptions, or Consequences upon this Universal Law, the Evidence whereof is made out by that Natural Light which is engrafted in Mankind” (44).  Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) suggests the ultimate purpose of Enlightenment historiography when he observes that “by comparing…the experience of other men and other ages with our own, we improve both”; by searching for the universal currents of historical knowledge, he argues, the historian is empowered to “reduce all the abstract speculations of ethics, and all the general rules of human policy, to their first principles” (Bolingbroke 1:147).  And the era’s approach to historical judgment may be inferred from the preface to the English edition of Voltaire’s Essay on Universal History, The Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756): in this “philosophical history of the world,” the translator suggests, “the sagacious author may be said to erect his supreme tribunal, to sit as judge of all that has been transacted for a number of centuries in the various parts of this globe, to pronounce the destiny of the great, to fix their character with posterity, to give lessons to all nations, and to direct the conduct of future ages” (Voltaire 1:v).

These were some of the central orthodoxies of Enlightenment historical consciousness—and it was historicism, then, that “liberated modern thought from the two-thousand-year domination of the theory of the natural law” (Iggers 5).  Historicism thus “emerges in reaction to the practice of deducing from first principles truths about how people are obliged to organize themselves socially and politically,” and came to argue instead “that human nature is too various for such legislation to be universally applicable” (Hamilton 2).  The historicists resisted “our natural tendency to eternalize our values and institutions, as if they were true for humanity in general and held for all time,” and in doing so struck a crucial blow to the universalizing impulses that animated Enlightenment historiography (Beiser, “Historicism,” 158).  This does not mean, however, that their “historical method excludes altogether any attempt to find general laws and types in human life”—and indeed, as we will see, thinkers associated with historicism variously relate to teleological understandings of human affairs that seemingly flirt, however obliquely, with notions of (constrained) universality (Meinecke lv).  But the point is that even those historicists who sought laws of historical destiny understood them not as a priori products of nature, but rather as emerging from the circumstances of history itself—and in that sense, the historicist sensibility did entail a radical shift in how European thinkers related to the past.[4]

Historicism emerged in gradual response to the prevailing mode of Enlightenment historiography, and its early origins can thus be detected even in the work of thinkers who we would not yet necessarily designate as fully historicist.  A good example is that of the Italian political philosopher Giambattisa Vico (1668-1744), a man often credited as both a forerunner of historicism and as the inventor of the philosophy of history (Hamilton 30; Bertland). Throughout his intellectual career, Vico routinely opposed the Enlightenment emphasis on Cartesian rationality; in his magnum opus The New Science (1725), he utilizes scientific principles to develop a sweeping history of human society that is also at odds with the dominant historical assumptions of his day.  While taking no issue with a search for the “principles of universal history,” Vico argued that historians like Pufendorf “err together” by “beginning [their histories] in the middle; that is, with the latest times of the civilized nations (and thus of men enlightened by fully developed natural reason), from which the philosophers emerged and rose to meditation of a perfect idea of justice” (Vico 126; 124).  To understand the rules of history, Vico countered, we must begin with the most remote origins of human society, and his scientific method thus considered the

course [that] nations run, proceeding in all their various and diverse customs with constant uniformity upon the division of the three ages…the successive ages of Gods, heroes, and men.  For the nations will be seen to develop in conformity with this division, by a constant and uninterrupted order of causes and effects present in every nation, through three kinds of natures.  (335)

The emphasis on both diversity and uniformity is crucial.  Vico saw all civilizations as progressing through the same three developmental stages—but the acknowledgement of such development, and of the “various and diverse customs” through which it manifests, implicitly repudiates Enlightenment notions of human universality.  In developing a “new science which could accommodate historical variety without loss of principle,” Vico thus became “the first to take seriously the possibility that different people had fundamentally different schema of thought in different historical eras”—a crucial tenet of what would become the historicist tradition (Hamilton 30; Bertland).[5]

We find Vico’s approach reflected—and vitally extended—in the work of philosopher and theologian Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), a founding voice of the German historicist tradition.  In works such as Another Philosophy of History for the Education of Mankind (1774) and Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784-91), Herder similarly emphasized “the organic development of peoples and nations,” mounting an explicit critique of “the eighteenth century view that the history of humanity was a fundamental unity” (Thomas 32; Antoni xviii).  Railing against the “weakness of generalizing,” he echoed Vico in stressing the diversity of human experience and the inevitability of historical change:

No people stayed or could have stayed the same for any extended period of time; every people, like the arts and sciences and everything else in the world, had its period of growth, blossoming, and decay; each of these changes lasted only the minimum amount of time that could be given to it on the wheel of human destiny; finally, no two moments in the world are ever identical.  (Herder, Against Pure Reason, 38-39)

For Herder, ostensibly transhistoric ideals like happiness are thus “in all Places an individual Good”—they are “climatic and organic, the Offspring of Practice, Tradition, and Custom” (Herder, Outlines, 1:393).  Consequently, he critiqued the “universal, philosophical, philanthropic tone” of the Enlightenment historical method, which “readily applies ‘our own ideal’ of virtue and happiness to each distant nation, to each remote period in history”; contemporary historians, he lamented, “create arbitrary verdicts of praise and blame on the basis of a favorite people of antiquity with whom we have become infatuated, and…use them to judge the whole world” (Herder, Against Pure Reason, 44; 42).  In fact, Herder maintained that even human nature is “a pliant clay which assumes a different shape under different circumstances, needs, and burdens”:

Human nature, even at its best, is not some independent deity: It must learn everything, be shaped through continuous processes, advance further through gradual struggle.  Naturally it will develop mainly, or exclusively, those aspects which are given occasions for virtue, struggle, or process.  Each form of human perfection is, in a certain sense, national, time-bound, and most specifically, individual. (43; 40)

With iconoclastic views on universality, historical judgement, and human nature, Herder is rightly aligned with the general principles of historicism outlined above.  But it is important to note that he was no pure relativist, and did not think that history unfolded without a design; on the contrary, his understanding of human experience emerged from a thoroughly providential framework.  He thus did not actually deny the existence of “universal perspective,” but merely maintained that it “is bound to lie beyond the grasp of the human race”—for it is the “Creator alone,” he suggested, “who conceives the entire unity of one and all nations, conceiving them in all their diversity without losing sight of the unity” (47; 40).  Herder, then, was not only a critic of the Enlightenment, but also reflected some of its intellectual orthodoxies; we see this tension, for example, in his representative position that “the human Race is destined to proceed through various Degrees of Civilization, in various Mutations; but the Permanency of its Welfare is founded solely and essentially on Reason and Justice” (Herder, Outlines, 2:291).

As one of the “godfathers of historicism,” Herder helped set an historical agenda that would be taken up in earnest by his countrymen in the nineteenth century (Beiser, “Historicism,” 156).  Historicism, as it is now known, owes considerably to German thinkers of the time, who made it a central focus of their intellectual endeavors; indeed, it has been said that “almost all German philosophy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century…grew out of a reaction to historicism” (155).  This tradition has been well-documented by modern scholars, and there are ample resources that survey the work of important historicists such as Friedrich Savigny (1779-1861), Johann Gustav Droysen (1838-1908), and Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911).[6]  For the current purposes, it will suffice to treat the thought of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), arguably the most enduring figure to be associated with the nineteenth-century historicists, and the man who “provided the ground for the modern academic discipline of history” (Davaney 27).    A “founding father of the German tradition of historiography,” Ranke famously “sought to differentiate history from other areas of endeavor by defining history as a science whose goal was supposed to be the disinterested pursuit of objective truth”; as such, he maintained that a methodologically-aware historian must both undertake archival research and maintain a critical attitude towards sources (Davaney 27; Cheng 71; Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 254).  This scientific approach meant repudiating the Enlightenment fashion for historical judgement.  “History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and instructing the present for the benefit of the future ages,” Ranke famously observed in the preface to his first publication, History of the Latin and Teutonic Nations, 1494-1535 (1824)—but “to such high offices the present work does not presume: it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen]” (Ranke 58).  Though twentieth-century thinkers, of course, have fiercely questioned the historian’s ability to access to “what actually happened,” this notion nonetheless became a cornerstone of Ranke’s commitment to scientific objectivity.  It also helped underpin his global outlook. Like Herder, Ranke’s historical understanding ultimately emerged from a providential, theological framework, but it was one that similarly allowed him to honor the diversity and uniqueness of human experience.  In a series of lectures in 1854, Ranke memorably declared that “every epoch is immediate to God, and that its value consists, not in what follows it, but in its own existence, its own proper self” (159).  God, he continues,

existing in no particular time, gazes over the whole historic humanity in its totality and finds them all equally valuable.  Although the idea of the education of humanity has some truth in it, from God’s point of view all the generations of mankind have equal rights, and this is the way the historian too must regard them. (160)

For Ranke, then, “historical individuality was already not only the starting point and the foundation, but also the ultimate end of historical knowledge”—he “did place the individual life in a universal-historical context, but as a direct relation to the divine, which cannot be comprehended and historically transmitted” (Berding 45).

Because a full treatment of German historicism lies beyond the scope of this essay, it is enough for now to note its profound influence on contemporary and subsequent philosophical inquiry; besides the names listed above, the thought of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger has all been linked to historicism in one way or another.[7]  Like all things, however, it had its time of ascendency; historicism “ceased to be a dominant force in German intellectual life after the 1920s,” when it became common to worry that an alleged historicist relativization of values had occasioned a “crisis of historicism.” (Beiser, German Historicist Tradition, 24).   But there is no denying that the central tenets of historicism—insistence on contextualization and skepticism of universality—had made their mark, and they would continue to do so as they became integrated into twentieth-century Anglo-American literary scholarship, to which we’ll now turn.


At the turn of the twentieth century, the study of literature in English was characterized by an emphasis on philology and literary history—an emphasis which, in the larger sense, was an inheritance of the nineteenth-century German thought discussed above.  But there soon emerged an alternate agenda—often designated criticism, as opposed to scholarship—which eschewed the historical concerns of contemporaries, and in doing so, brought issues of universality back into the foreground (Graff 121).  Lamenting the dominance of “grammatical criticism and philological exegesis,” critics like Henry E. Shepherd (in a PMLA article of 1891) advocated instead a focus on the “aesthetic brilliance of literary culture” (Shepherd 41).  Four years later, Martin W. Sampson argued that “the study of literature means the study of literature, not of biography nor of literary history…nor of anything except the works themselves, viewed as their creators wrote them, viewed as art, as transcripts of humanity”;  the proper method of analysis, he concluded, is to “systematically approach the work as a work of art, find out the laws of its existence as such, the mode of its manifestation, the meaning it has, and the significance of that meaning” (Sampson 96).  Unsurprisingly, such dehistoricization efforts naturally allowed some critics to resituate literature within an ostensibly timeless, universal realm of aesthetic consideration. We see this manifest, for example, in The Teaching of English in England, a report released by the British Board of Education in 1921:

There is a tendency in some quarters to treat Literature as a branch of History or Sociology. This is in our view a dangerous mistake.  All great literature has in it two elements, the contemporary and the eternal.  On the one hand, Shakespeare and Pope tell us what Englishmen were like at the beginning of the 17th and at the beginning of the 18th centuries.  On the other hand they tell us what all men are like in all countries and at all times.  To concentrate the study of literature mainly on the first aspect, to study it mainly as history, is to ignore its nobler, more eternal and universal element…Great literature is only partly a reflection of a particular year or generation: it is also a timeless thing, which can never become old-fashioned or out of date, or depend for its importance upon historical considerations.  (Board of Education 205)

In subsequent decades, the rise of text-privileging methodologies such as New Criticism in the US and Practical Criticism in England further codified (relatively) ahistorical approaches to literary analysis, which could be adopted for universalist ends.  In The Great Tradition (1948), for example, F.R. Leavis famously declared that “major” writers are those “significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life”—and the “essential interest” of literature, it follows, entails a “concern with human nature” (Leavis 2; 4).

It is at this point that we return to historicism. Because, contra the textualist critics, there came to be a group of influential scholars who insisted on the primacy of historical context to literary analysis—and who would, decades later, become retrospectively known as the “Old Historicists.” The 1940s, which saw the publication of E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture (1943) and Shakespeare’s History Plays (1944), Theodore Spencer’s Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1942),  John Dover Wilson’s The Fortunes of Falstaff (1943), and Lily B. Campbell’s Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (1947), was a banner decade for scholarship in this mode.  Recalling the teachings of nineteenth-century German historicism, such scholars understand literature as the product of a precise moment in history, and generally aim to demonstrate how literary artifacts can be seen to reflect the conditions of this historical “background.”  The rationale of Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture—which has become enshrined today as the quintessential example of “Old Historicism”—suggests this method:

This small book has come out of an attempt to write a larger one on Shakespeare’s Histories.  In studying these I concluded that the pictures of civil war and disorder they present had no meaning apart from a background of order to judge them by.  My first chapter set out to describe that background.  When it was finished, I found that it applied to no more than to the rest of Shakespeare or indeed than to Elizabethan literature generally.  I also found that the order I was describing was much more than political order, or, if political, was always a part of a larger cosmic order.  I found, further, that the Elizabethans saw this single order under three aspects: a chain, a set of correspondences, and a dance. (Tillyard, Elizabethan World Picture, vii)

For Tillyard, Elizabethans “had in common a mass of basic assumptions about the world, which they never disputed,” and establishing the orthodoxies of historical thought was the key precondition of proper literary analysis: “my object then is to extract and expound the most ordinary beliefs about the constitution of the world as pictured in the Elizabethan age and through the exposition to help the ordinary reader to understand and to enjoy the great writers of the age” (4; viii).  As Spencer argued, writers—especially great writers—both shaped and were shaped by the intellectual spirt of their age, which in turn became the ultimate key to unlocking their thought:

I do not suggest…that Shakespeare made deliberate use of any of the particular authors or books which are quoted from or referred to in the first two chapters.  We are in no way concerned with Shakespeare’s specific knowledge of Ptolemy or Copernicus, Sabunde or Montaigne, Cicero or Machiavelli.  Whether he knew them or not is of no importance to our argument.  These writers are discussed because they give the clearest articulation to what Shakespeare’s age was thinking and feeling….In order to best express his time, and the general truths with which its best minds, like himself, were concerned, Shakespeare did not have to spend his days turning pages in a library. (Spencer x)

Despite their commitment to historical context, historicists of this era were not—as the reference here to “general truths” suggests—opposed entirely to transcendent notions of universality.   Spencer concludes his book by considering “Shakespeare’s work not merely against the background of his own time, but in the larger perspective of general human experience,” and Jürgen Pieters has argued that Old Historicists see figures like Shakespeare as “both eternal and of his own time” (Spencer xi; Pieters 28).  But by seeing literary works as historical productions, historicists of the mid-twentieth-century offered a valuable alternative to the universalist, ahistorical tendencies of the New Critics—who, as Douglas Bush put it in the 1948 MLA Presidential Address, were most likely to analyze literature “in vacuo as a timeless, autonomous entity” (Bush 14).[8]

And it is at last that we arrive at the New Historicism, a movement enabled by the theoretical revolution of the 1970s—which, in dethroning the New Critical formalism of the intervening decades, entailed a “shift away from a criticism centered on ‘verbal icons’ to a criticism centered on cultural artifacts” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 3).  This “New” Historicism took historicist work of the 1940s as both a point of origin and a point of departure.  “Set apart from both the dominant historical scholarship of the past and the formalist criticism that partially displaced this scholarship in the decades after World War Two,” New Historicism (as it came to be known) emerged in the 1980s as a loose coalition of scholarship that, aided by the insights of the modern theoretical revolution, insisted on the importance of cultural and historical context to the analysis of literature (Greenblatt, “Introduction,” 5).  Unsurprisingly, there are points of deep continuity between this theoretical “practice” and both nineteenth-century German historicism and mid-twentieth-century Anglo-American historicism—but there is, as the name suggests, something undoubtedly new about this approach, which didn’t hesitate to set itself in direct opposition to its historicist ancestors (Greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture,” 1).  Traditional literary historicism—writes Stephen Greenblatt, New Historicist par excellence— had “a vision of high culture as a harmonizing domain of reconciliation based upon an aesthetic labor that transcends specific economic or political determinants”; it “tends to be monological,” concerned “with discovering a single political vision, usually identical to that said to be held by the literate class or indeed the entire population” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 168-69; Greenblatt, “Introduction,” 5).  By imposing such a “schematic order on the historical real,” Old Historicists like Tillyard found in past eras a “stable, coherent, and collective” worldview “lucidly reproduced in the canonical literary works of the age” (Pieters 30; Montrose, “Professing the Renaissance,” 18).  Scholars of the 1980s, however, rejected this presumption of ideological unity:

New historicism tends to distance itself from historicism on the grounds that historicist critics often viewed the past in terms of epochal trends and orders, and that the Renaissance period, or the Reformation period, for example, was characterized by a single dominating system of explanation and belief; whereas new historicist critics, on the other hand, tend to view the past as consisting of very diverse configurations of beliefs, values and trends, often coming into conflict and contradiction with each other.   (Brannigan 31)

Furthermore, Old Historicists “not only reduce the heterogeneity of a given historical reality to a homogeneous, monolithic and compact framework,” they also “assume that this framework is a historical fact in its own right, not the product of the historian’s interpretation”—a critical naiveté untenable for the New Historicists, who maintained a heathy skepticism about the historian’s ability to ultimately access historical truth (Pieters 28).  In short, New Historicism thus came to radically reinvent the historicist project as they found it, upending the old assumptions that “that history is knowable; that literature mirrors or at least by indirection reflects historical reality; [that] historians and critics can see the facts of history objectively” (Howard 18).  In fact, in a famous passage, Greenblatt surveyed The American Heritage Dictionary’s three definitions of historicism—1) “the belief that processes are at work in history that man can do little to alter”; 2) “the theory that the historian must avoid all value judgements”, and 3) “veneration of the past or of tradition”—only to conclude that “most of the work labelled new historicist, and certainly my own work, has set itself resolutely against each of these positions” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 164).

Much ink has been spilled on the governing tenets of New Historicism, which do not need to be elaborated here.[9]  The important matter is the New Historicists’ deep suspicion toward notions of universality, which were attacked for their apparent ahistoricity, and for their alleged tendency to homogenize the cultural and historical diversity of human experience.[10] As we saw above, scholars of the 1980s critiqued their historicist ancestors for imagining past eras as ideologically monolithic; despite their insistence on the primacy of historical context, the Old Historicists still viewed those precise contexts in largely totalizing terms, as if historical subjects inevitably shared a single outlook. But the New Historicists became even further hostile to notions of universality, eventually embracing an “anti-humanist belief that individuals have few natural characteristics and are simply the products of their social conditions” (Parvini, Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory, 4).  Indeed, it was declared in 1986 that “one of the most striking developments of contemporary thought is the widespread attack on the notion that man possesses a transhistorical core of being”—and like many theoretical schools of their time, New Historicism similarly “overthrew the tyranny of human nature” from their methodological agenda (Howard 20; Belsey xi).  This owed largely to the theorists who influenced it most: thinkers such as Louis Althusser, Raymond Williams, Michel Foucault, and Clifford Geertz are “united by their commitment to anti-humanism,” a rejection of “the belief that there is such a thing as a universal human nature and that individuals have innate traits and characteristics” (Parvini , Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory, 48).  Anti-humanism, with the anti-universalism it entails, accordingly became a central component of much New Historicist thought.  In 1986, Jean Howard observed that one of the two “starting points” for the “new historical literary criticism” is “the notion that man is a construct, not an essence” (Howard 23).  In 1989, H. Aram Veeser remarked that a “key assumption” of New Historicism is that “no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths nor expresses inalterable human nature” (Veeser, “Introduction,” xi).  And in 1990, Stephen Greenblatt exclaimed that “the very idea of a ‘defining human essence’ is precisely what new historicists find vacuous and untenable”—for him and the likeminded, “interest lies not in the abstract universal, but in particular, contingent cases” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 165; 164).

It is crucial to note that the new historicists also explicitly treated matters of literary universality, notions of which were said to obscure the social and material conditions that underpin literature in the first place.  Howard surmised that the rise of New Historicism in early modern studies owed partly to the fact that “teachers of Renaissance literature simply have grown weary…of teaching texts as ethereal entities floating above the urgencies and contradictions of history and of seeking in such texts the disinterested expression of a unified truth rather than some articulation of the discontinuities underlying any construction of reality” (Howard 15).  Louis A. Montrose similarly rejected the notion of “an autonomous aesthetic order that transcends the shifting pressure and particularity of material needs and interests” (Montrose, “Renaissance Literary Studies,” 8).  Greenblatt confronts this matter directly, arguing that cultural forces are responsible for the apparent timelessness that some scholars have found in King Lear:

Modern critics tend to assume that Shakespearean self-consciousness and irony lead to a radical transcendence of the network of social conditions, paradigms, and practices in the plays.  I would argue, by contrast, that Renaissance theatrical representation itself is fully implicated in this network and that Shakespeare’s self-consciousness is in significant ways bound up with the institutions and the symbology of power it anatomizes. (Greenblatt, “King Lear,” 239)

“The ideological and historical situation of King Lear,” he claims,produces the oscillation, the simultaneous affirmation and negation, the constant undermining of its own assertions and questions of its own practices—in short, the supreme aesthetic self-consciousness—that lead us to celebrate its universality, its literariness, and its transcendence of all ideology” (242).[11]

Some, of course, have thought that the New Historicists protest too much: Edward Pechter, for example, argued in 1987 that “they are not less ‘monological’ than the old historicists,” in the sense that they “view history and contemporary political life as determined, wholly or in essence, by struggle, contestation, power relations” (Pechter 298; 292).  Graham Bradshaw has similarly claimed that, in rejecting the ideological implications of older historicism, the anti-essentialism of New Historicist and Cultural Materialist scholars actually replicates the critical method of Tillyard— the “habit of giving particular characters and speeches a supradramatic significance”—while John Lee likewise argues that “New Historicism is only able—at the level of theory—to make coherent distinctions between itself and previous extrinsic literary historicism at the expense of alerting the reader to the many continuities it shares with ‘old’ historicism” (Bradshaw 9; Lee 16).  Other critics have interrogated New Historicism’s relationship to essentialism and universality on different grounds.  Judith Newton suggested that New Historicist skepticism towards universality and ahistoricity was largely anticipated by feminist criticism—a debt “barely alluded to in most of the histories” of New Historicism (Newton, 90).  James Holstun discussed the “new historicists’ tendency to claim a premature totalization of early modern culture on the basis of an immanent analysis of canonical literary works” (Holstun 192).  And Katharine Eisaman Maus influentially challenged the fact that the anti-essentialism of “new-historicist and cultural-materialist critics of early modern English literature [has] tended to deny or downplay the significance of a rhetoric of inwardness in early modern England” (Maus 26).  But whatever the case, the point remains that the New Historicists and their allies represent the most radical historicist rejection of universality that we’ve seen in this essay, and it was one that would have a lasting influence.  As Andy Mousley observes, “historicism has taken a variety of different forms in the last thirty to forty years (cultural materialism, new historicism, material feminism, the new economic criticism, presentism)”—but what largely unites these forms is a “scepticism about universals” (Mousley, Re-Humanising Shakespeare, 76).


In the introduction to Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture (2000), Carla Mazzio and Douglas Trevor declared that historicism had become the “default mode of critical practice” in early modern studies (Mazzio and Trevor 1).  Nearly two decades later, the underlying assumptions of historicism still inform a great deal of new scholarship—but, at the same time, there is no doubt that we, for some time now, have been in a critical landscape that is “post” New Historicist.  What, then, has come after historicism?  Though no single paradigm has yet achieved a new supremacy, there are signs that the critical terrain is becoming ever more welcoming to the notion of universality, via a renewed interest in the potential affordances of (a theoretically-informed) humanism:  Andy Mousley thus speaks of “a return to the human subject, not only in literary studies, but across a range of disciplines” (Mousley, “Introduction,” 137).  Frustrated that historicist orthodoxy has “empt[ied] history of its human interest, scope, and scale,” Mousley has been a vanguard in this movement; because “the pervasive anti-essentialism of contemporary theory had meant that…literature’s human significance has remained under-theorized,” his work aims to “rescue for the academic study of literature, literature’s human significance, interest and appeal” (Mousley Re-Humanising Shakespeare, 76; Mousley, Literature and the Human, 5, 2).  (He also, quite importantly, “underscores the need for a way of talking about universals with a degree of subtlety, such that their existence is neither dismissed out of hand as ideological claptrap nor triumphantly assumed” [Mousley, Literature and the Human, 78]).

And Mousley is not alone.  An increasing number of literary critics are now embracing fields like cognitive and evolutionary studies—partly because, as Paul Cefalu, Gary Kuchar, and Bryan Reynolds have recently noted, “seeming bogeys like universalism, essentialism, and eliminative materialism” are becoming ever more detached from their more “odious” implications (4).[12]  Indeed, Neil Rhodes observes that scientists “have by no means given up on the possibility of identifying essential human-ness”—and that “many of the identifying characteristics proposed are of striking relevance to literary criticism” (Rhodes 23).  In Shakespeare’s Humanism (2005), for example, Robin Headlam Wells argues for the “centrality of human nature in Shakespeare’s mental universe,” suggesting that “criticism can move on from an outdated anti-humanism that has its intellectual roots in the early decades of the last century to a more informed modern understanding [of] human universals” (Wells 5).  In Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution (2007), Marcus Nordlund assumes a “biocultural perspective” based “on the Darwinian interaction between genes and environments” in attempt to “recognize what is universal as well as particular to human beings” (Nordlund 5).  And in Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History, and Early Modern Feeling (2018), I draw on theories of emotion from the modern affective sciences in my interrogation of the emotional past, asking how the transhistorical and transcultural can be brought to bear on the historically and culturally contingent (Irish).[13]  These are just three examples, but they reflect a growing critical trend, and I suspect that scholarship in the coming years will be increasingly tolerant of universalist sentiment.[14]

When the New Historicists gazed into the past, they generally found, in the famous words of Greenblatt, “a stubborn, unassimilable otherness”—and indeed, the scholarship they produced relentlessly emphasized a “sense of distance and difference” (Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 169).  But this is not the only way to approach historicist scholarship.  Perhaps what’s needed, as we increasingly recognize that some aspects of human affairs are “fundamentally trans-historical and trans-cultural,” is what Gail Kern Paster calls a “heuristics of similarity, even perhaps of sameness”—a historicist method that can account for universality, literary or otherwise (Paster 247).  As Patrick Colm Hogan reminded two decades ago, to “argue for the study of universals is not at all to argue against the study of culture and history”: like “laws of nature, cultural universals are instantiated variously,” and we can’t properly understand universals without considering the cultural and historical contexts in which they manifest (Hogan 226).  As historicists themselves would readily admit—and I count myself among them—historicism’s traditional antipathy to universality emerges from, and indeed reflects, a particular set of historical, cultural, and intellectual moments.  But our collective understanding of universality today is not the same as it was in 1880 or 1980.  And, as the work on this website suggests, the contemporary research program on literary universals, based on the insights of cognitive science and related disciplines, obviates many of the traditional historicist objections to universality, and demands that historicist scholars reconsider how the universal may feature in their explorations of the past.  It is thus my hope that historicism of the future, in whatever form(s) it takes, will be daring enough to attend to both the particular and the universal.



I would like to thank Patrick Colm Hogan and an anonymous reader for their very valuable feedback on this essay.


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Pufendorf, Samuel. The Whole Duty of Man According to the Law of Nature. London, 1691.

Ranke, Leopold von. The Secret of World History: Selected Writings on the Art and Science of History. Ed. Roger Wines. New York: Fordham University Press, 1981.

Reill, Peter Hanns. The German Enlightenment and the Rise of Historicism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975.

Rhodes, Neil. “The Science of the Heart: Shakespeare, Kames, and the Eighteenth-Century Invention of the Human.” Posthumanist Shakespeares. Ed. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus. New York: Palgrave, 2012, 23-40.

Ryan, Kiernan. Shakespeare’s Universality: Here’s Fine Revolution. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Sampson, Martin W. “The University of Indiana.” English in American Universities. Ed. William Morton Payne. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & Co., 1895, 92-98.

Semler, L.E. “The Renaissance Gets Emotional.” Metascience 16 (2007): 137-141.

Shepherd, Henry E. “Some Phases of Tennyson’s In Memoriam.” PMLA 6.1 (1891): 41-51.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

Strauss, Leo. Natural Right and History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Thomas, Brook. The New Historicism and Other Old-Fashioned Topics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Tillyard, E.M.W. London: The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

—. Shakespeare’s History Plays. London: Chatto & Windus, 1944.

Wells, Robin Headlam. Shakespeare’s Humanism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Wilson, John Dover. The Fortunes of Falstaff. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1943.

Veeser, H. Aram. “Introduction.” The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989, ix-xvi.

—., ed. The New Historicism Reader. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Ed. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. 3rd Ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Voltaire. An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations. 4 vols. London, 1759.

Zunshine, Lisa, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.


[1] See, for example, the following accounts of historicism: “the tendency to interpret the whole of reality, including what up to the romantic period had been conceived as absolute and unchanging human values, in historical, that is to say relative, terms” (Antoni xvii); “the assumption that there is a fundamental difference between the phenomena of nature and those of history…History thus becomes the only guide to an understanding of things human” (Iggers 4-5); “history is the means by which one acquires an understanding of the human condition” (Reill 213); “the prime importance of historical context to the interpretation of texts of all kinds” (Hamilton 1-2).

[2] In an earlier essay, Beiser argues that we might “define historicism not as a doctrine but as a programme,” united in its aim to “legitimate history as a science”: historicists “wanted history to enjoy the same status and prestige as the natural sciences; but they claimed that it had its own goals, methods, and standards of knowledge, which were unlike those of the natural sciences” (Beiser, “Historicism,” 156).  He goes on, however, to suggest that this programme entailed viewing human affairs in the contextually-dependent manner described in the quotation above.

[3] For more detail on the examples in this paragraph, see Hamilton, Chap. 2.

[4] Though the larger context of historicism’s emergence falls outside the scope of this paper, it is important to note that many scholars do not see it as a purely intellectual movement: it has been argued, for example, that the emergence of eighteenth-century historicism was “bound up with the attempts of political theorists to defend local rights and privileges against the encroachment of the centralizing Enlightenment state,” and that it was part of a pan-European “reaction and revolt of national traditions against French Reason and the Age of Enlightenment” (Iggers 6).

[5] It should also be mentioned that, for Vico, the development of human society had a literary correlate, as humans progress through imaginative modes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony; for this reason, he proved key to influential 20th century literary critics such as Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom (Vico 129-131).

[6] On German Historicism, see Antoni; Hamilton; Iggers; Davaney; Meinecke; Beiser, “Historicism”; Beiser, German Historicist Tradition.

[7] See Beiser, “Historicism and Neo-Kantianism” (Kant); Beiser, “Hegel’s Historicism” (Hegel); Jameson (Marx); Strauss (Nietzsche); Bambach (Heidegger).

[8] It is important to note, however, that both schools similarly grant literary works a sense of unity; as Pieters notes, “to traditional historicists the text’s unity is a reflection of the basic unity of the historical context out of which it emerged,” while “to New Critics, on the other hand, the text’s unity is the autonomous outcome of the organic growth of the creative process” (26).

[9] In addition to the works quoted throughout this section, see Parvini, Shakespeare and New Historicist Theory; Gallagher and Greenblatt; Veeser, New Historicism Reader; Kinney and Collins; Goldberg.

[10] Of course, as the articles on this website suggest, universality and historicity is a false binary, and universality need not be totalizing – but these assumptions have nonetheless informed much of contemporary critical theory.

[11] Greenblatt’s quotation, however, implies that the instantiation of a cross-cultural universal must necessarily entail the (in his mind, impossible) transcendence of ideology: but this is not the case, as universally consistent patterns are perfectly possible of emerging across different, contesting ideological contexts.  See also note 10.

[12] For a convenient introduction to work in this mode, see Zunshine.

[13] The rise of emotion studies in the last decade is potentially instructive: such work not only reflects “the post-1980 fashion for theorizing the body and affect, and the post-1990 fashion for inventing fresh paradigms for historicising subjectivity,” but it also is readily able to engage the universalist, transcultural/transhistorical insights of the sciences (Semler 137).

[14] Though he doesn’t approach the issue from a scientific perspective, see also Ryan, who argues that Shakespeare’s plays have a “revolutionary universalism” that reveals “the potential of all human beings to live according to principles of freedom, equality and justice” (9).

Narrative Empathy: A Universal Response to Fiction?

Suzanne Keen, Washington and Lee University

The proposition that narrative empathy[1] qualifies as a literary universal could have no less likely an advocate than me. I have argued that no one narrative reliably evokes empathy from all its readers, listeners, or viewers (Empathy and the Novel, 65-84).  I have also suggested that the co-creative work performed by readers (listeners, viewers) contributes substantively to the scripted worldmaking of fiction and nonfiction narrative (“Empathy in Reading,” 50-4). It is in my view literally the case that no two readers encounter and respond to the same narrative, because no two readers bring the same set of literary predispositions, life experiences, identities, desires, and memories to the co-creative task (50).

For their part, authors and makers of narrative across media apparently differ in their ambition to evoke empathy from readers: some making it a priority and employing broadcast and ambassadorial strategic narrative empathy to assure empathic responses from as many readers as possible; some taking it for granted as they aim representations at a familiar in-group and employing bounded strategic empathy (Keen “Strategic Empathizing”); and some swearing it off altogether, whether in pursuit of a more rational response, or aiming for discordant emotions such as disgust or shock. Literary historians and scholars of narrative genres have demonstrated that many of the qualities that readers and critics associate with empathic potential in a work of fiction, such as representation of a character’s interior perspective, have histories of development (Fludernik and Keen 456-7). Look early enough in the literary tradition and you just won’t find it.  Treatments of core qualities of narrative that can be presumed to exist from pre-historic oral storytelling to the present diversity of narrative media and modes seem more promising leads in the quest for formal universals, but several logical leaps intervene between identifying a literary universal (such as a character type, event, or plot sequence) and affirming the emotion that its appearance might be supposed reliably to evoke from most people, across the millennia. Empathy may be a narrative universal not in the sense of being a demonstrable effect of narrative (where the empirical evidence is scanty), but rather as an enabling condition for narrative derived from, and evolved along with other aspects of our shared humanity. In that case, however, it ceases being the business of a narrative theorist to describe it. We are on solid ground observing that literary practice in a variety of genres reveals that makers have sought to communicate audiences whose feelings, attitudes, and commitments they might sway by means of strategic narrative empathy, but the uncertainty of the effects and the difficulty of demonstrating causal links between underlying human biological abilities, cultural expressions in diverse historical contexts, motives, messages, and responses should give us pause.

Historians of the emotions such as Ute Frevert argue that empathy is a modern, global, recent arrival—pervasive and influential, to be sure, but no more universal than the emotions, such as honor and shame, that were more highly valued and motivating in the past (Frevert 10-12). In contrast, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists suggest that empathy is an evolved ability that has contributed to human survival from prehistoric times, undergirding care for helpless infants (Hrdy 137-38) and success in anticipating the behavior of prey animals (Sarnecki). The science of mirror neurons suggests that the human shared manifold for intersubjectivity (Gallese) is physiologically related to the capacities of birds to fly in a flock together, primates to imitate each other (de Waal 52, 63-4), or pack animals to support one another (Cassidy and McIntyre). Whether empathy is a new name for a very old phenomenon (Wispé), or a relatively recently fashionable capacity, contributing, as Steven Pinker has argued, to lessening of violence, warfare, and mass murder in contrast to our prehistoric ancestors as a humanitarian context for kinder behavior develops (169-77), remains a subject of debate. As Pinker writers, “the word empathy is barely a century old” (573) and the form of it “that gets valorized today—an altruistic concern for others—cannot be equated with the ability to think what they are thinking or feel what they are feeling” (574).[2]  Pinker astutely observes that “today’s empathy craze has been set off by scrambling the various senses of the word empathy” (576) and he criticizes overselling the consequences of possessing a mirror neuron system (577).

Even for those who regard empathic ability as a fundamental human trait, rooted in our bio-physiology and social natures, failures to empathize over boundaries of difference and limitations of empathy’s reach suggest that its targets are far from universal (Young 32; Keen, “Empathy Studies” 127). Just because humans can feel empathy does not mean that humans routinely do share feelings with one another, especially across boundaries of difference as evidenced by empathic faltering caused by familiarity/similarity biases (Hoffman 197, 206). Furthermore, the psychology of human empathy has amply demonstrated that the variety of phenomena that go under the umbrella term “empathy” (Batson 3-16) exist to greater and lesser degrees across populations of people, as studies using empathy scales such as Mark Davis’s IRI reveal (Davis 85). Some people have such low empathic ability as to find the cognitive and affective invitations of narrative fiction unappealing, whereas others, such as high-empathy individuals who resonate to the imaginary experiences of nonexistent beings, may spend significant numbers of their waking hours immersed in fiction. These individual differences may be altered by exposure to fiction (Koopman and Hakemulder), but it is important to acknowledge that even those psychologists who regard empathy as a capacity of other-orientation shared by all humans generally see it as stronger in some and weaker to the point of pathology in others.

Yet setting all these caveats to the side allows me to ask whether narrative empathy taps into universals of narrative—universals associated with the core ingredients of stories, with the maker or author’s techniques for evoking reactions from an audience, or with the responses of readers/listeners/viewers to the shared qualities of narrativity.  This entire set of possibilities rests on the assumption that narrative is a distinctive form of communication shared by human beings over a certain developmental age, which shows in children’s pretend play (Boyd 5-6) and is fostered by all cultures, albeit in different media and genres. This far I can go. Though it would certainly be possible to generate a list of literary themes that might be supposed to evoke similar reactions from members of diverse human audiences, including potentially empathetic responses, such a project would require many layers of historical and contextual scrutiny, and I do not attempt it here. I accept Alan Richardson’s caution that the study of literary universals “will prove more convincing if it concentrates on formal features and constraints, rhetorical and prosodic devices, and questions of genre and narrative, treating thematic elements or other aspects of content more sparely and with special caution” (Richardson 569-70). In my view, this advice makes sense for two reasons. First, some evidence does exist (for instance about the impact of rhythmic language) of highly predictable effects of literary devices on diverse audiences, and the field of empirical aesthetics.[3] Second, the systematic investigation of impact can proceed towards empirical demonstration if specific devices or features, whose presence, absence, or prominence can be manipulated, receive our scrutiny.  I agree with Richardson that theme and content should be handled with caution. Taking Richardson’s advice means setting aside several promising content-based suggestions about narrative empathy, including Lynn Hunt’s historical argument that in eighteenth century Britain (in tandem with the emergence of human rights discourse), certain character types typified by their vulnerability became targets of compassion, fellow-feeling, and sympathy, precursor terms that contain aspects of what we now label empathy (Hunt 28-32). While representations of cruelty to animals and children certainly play a part in the history of developing empathetic representation and human rights discourse, there is nothing automatic about that trajectory.  As Simon Dickie has argued, cruelty itself may evoke glee and other forms of sadistic pleasure, cementing group identities by mocking and excluding derided others.

To broach the three angles of approach that I have identified—concerning matters of form and genre, matters of craft, and matters of reception—in the endeavor of identifying possible narrative universals, I suggest first how narrative empathy might (or might not) intersect with them. As I have previously defined it, narrative empathy involves “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.” It “plays a role in the aesthetics of production when authors experience it. . . in mental simulation during reading, in the aesthetics of reception when readers experience it, and in the narrative poetics of texts when formal strategies invite it. Narrative empathy overarches narratological categories, involving actants, narrative situation, matters of pace and duration, and storyworld features such as settings” (Keen “Narrative Empathy”). Certainly, the involvement of formal qualities and generic conventions cue up readerly expectations, as Peter Rabinowitz has persuasively argued in Before Reading. Yet documenting the precise role played by narrative techniques deliberately manipulated to evoke predictable audience responses has been rather more elusive than conclusive.[4] The collaborative co-creation of fictional worlds by readers and viewers, the theorizing of what they bring to the narrative transaction, and the documentation of reliable stimuli of empathy in reading or viewing narrative would all benefit from further study.

Many narrative techniques have been nominated as especially likely to induce empathy:

These techniques include manipulations of narrative situation to channel perspective or person of the narration and representation of fictional characters’ consciousness (Schneider 2001), point of view (Andringa et al. 2001), and paratexts of fictionality (Keen 2007: 88–9). Other elements thought to be involved in readers’ empathy include vivid use of settings and traversing of boundaries (Friedman 1998), metalepsis, serial repetition of narratives set in a stable storyworld (Warhol 2003), lengthiness (Nussbaum 1990), encouraging immersion or transportation of readers (Nell 1988), generic conventions (Jameson 1981), metanarrative interjections (Fludernik 2003; Nünning 2001, 2004), and devices such as foregrounding (Miall 1989), disorder, or defamiliarization that slow reading pace (Zillman 1991). (Keen “Narrative Empathy”).

Examining this list for candidates that might universally—or at least ubiquitously and reliably—invoke empathy narrows the scope of inquiry.

In narratives, representation of fictional consciousness from an inside view, using the variety of techniques associated with perspectival narrative situation, develops in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Franz Stanzel intuited and subsequent scholars have demonstrated (Keen and Fludernik). Though it is true that dramatic soliloquies in the early modern period and lyric poetry in the classical period offer internal perspectives, a perspectival center of consciousness (described by some as especially empathetic) develops centuries later. Though ubiquitous now, it is far from a narrative universal taken over the millennia for which we have evidence.  Even in empirical work undertaken with large numbers of research subjects today, formal manipulations of perspectival representations of characters’ consciousness do not necessarily reveal a link to empathy. When put to the test, for example in contrast with first-person narrative perspectives, “manipulation of narrative perspective did not effect empathy for the character” (van Lissa, Caracciolo, van Duuren, and van Lueveren 43). Similarly, paratexts of fictionality only make sense as empathetic primers of readers when the generic distinction between fiction and nonfiction narrative influences readers’ and viewers’ sense of the relative force of a narrative’s truth claims. This distinction also has a history. The possibility of a narrative universal seems not to inhere in the fiction/nonfiction difference, for the boundary between these categories is highly permeable and movable (Lennard Davis). Nailing down the distinctiveness of fictional narrative (as contrasted with nonfictional narrative) from a formal angle is in itself an area of narratological controversy.[5]

Within the scope of narrative artists’ tool-kit lie the various shapes and delivery-systems that alter the pace and offer opportunities for immersion in a story world. These seem more likely to reveal narrative universals than fine-grained decisions about technique. For example, serial delivery of stories—with its repetitions and returns and its leveraging of interruption and gaps to create cliff-hangers around breaks in the narration—seems intuitively to evoke empathy and other emotions of reception, though recipient impatience or boredom pose risks. Lengthiness and seriality on their own may interfere with the story-world trance of transportation or immersion that seems highly likely to be involved in narrative empathy.[6] Several other tactics of stories ancient and modern, metalepsis (commonly known as frame-breaking) and metanarrative interjections,[7] may work with narrative disorder and foregrounding (or defamiliarization) to evoke empathy, as David Miall and Don Kuiken have argued (and provided useful tools for studying).  The core affects associated with narrativity itself, curiosity, surprise, and suspense (as theorized by Meir Sternberg in Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction) may be reliably generated by the tension between the story and discourse, but curiosity about, surprise at, and suspense felt for circumstances and emotions represented within the story world suggest a sympathetic (congruent) rather than an empathetic (matching) emotion structure. Richard J. Gerrig’s now classic work on participatory responses to narrative places readers’ responses at the center of the scholarly endeavor to identify causes and correlates of empathetic narrative impact, a project to which psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley has also materially contributed. The most promising work on narrative universals when it comes to readers’ emotional experiences of empathy and other emotions will combine the insights of psychologists carrying out empirical studies of real readers with the resources of rhetorical theories of narrative as a mode of human communication and persuasion.

Yet when we reach what logically must be the sweet spot for such interdisciplinary collaborations and conversations, profound challenges to acceptable conclusions about literary universals remain. The necessity for limiting variables in empirical work inevitably appears reductionist to literary critics whose disciplinary assumptions include respect for both complexity and uniqueness. I agree with Claudia Breger’s suggestion that narrative worldmaking is a “multidimensional, ‘multivectoral’ assemblage of heterogeneous elements” (Breger 227), where readers criss-crossed with the markers of intersectional identity co-create with authors. As long as we swear off making over-simplified predictions about how (for example) narrative empathy leads inexorably to altruism and good world citizenship (in Martha Nussbaum’s formulation), we need not be at an impasse. Narrative empathy could be an especially vital quality if it is a capacity that permits co-creation and narrative communication in spite of our manifest differences.  If it is true, in Breger’s words, that “the rhetorical processes of narration and reading engage affects, bodily memories, and associations in layered transactions between characters, narrators, implied and actual readers and authors” (227), then narrative empathy could be involved as latent network of connections, potentiating activation of the shared manifold for intersubjectivity. It could work across the ages, crossing the gulf created by time and distance, and it could link makers and recipients despite the barriers of unfamiliarity and dissimilarity. Narrative empathy in this conception could be a literary universal without over-promising a consistent response to any one narrative technique, genre, character type, or plot event, and without boiling down the ocean of story.

[See also Patrick Colm Hogan, “Comments on Keen.’”]

Works Cited

Andringa, Els, Petra van Horssen, Astrid Jacobs, and Ed Tan. “Point of View and Viewer Empathy in Film.” New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective. Ed. Willie van Peer and Seymour Chatman. SUNY P, 2001, pp. 83–99.

Batson, C. Daniel. “These Things Called Empathy: Eight Related but Distinct Phenomena.” The Social Neuroscience of Empathy.  Eds. Jean Decety and William Ickes. MIT P, 2011, pp. 3-16.

Breger, Claudia. “Affects in Configuration: A New Approach to Narrative Worldmaking.” Narrative 25.2 (May 2017): 227-51.

Boyd, Brian.  On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Harvard UP, 2009.

Cassidy, Kira A. and Richard T. McIntyre. “Do Gray Wolves (Canis lupus) Support Pack Mates During Aggressive Inter-pack Interactions?” Animal Cognition 19 (2016): 939-47.

Cohn, Dorrit. The Distinction of Fiction. The Johns Hopkins UP, 2000.

Davis, Mark. “A Multidimensional Approach to Individual Differences in Empathy.” JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10 (1980): 85.

Davis, Lennard J. Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. U of Pennsylvania P, 1983.

de Waal, Frans B. M. “The ‘Russian doll’ model of empathy and imitation.” On Being Moved: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy. Ed. Stein Bråten. John Benjamins, 2007, pp. 49-69.

Dickie, Simon. Cruelty and Laughter: Forgotten Comic Literature and the Unsentimental Eighteenth Century. U of Chicago P, 2011.

Fletcher, Angus and John Monterosso. “The Science of Free-Indirect Discourse: An Alternate Cognitive Effect.” Narrative 24.1 (Jan. 2016): 82-103.

Fludernik, Monika. “Metanarrative and Metafictional Commentary: From Metadiscusivity to Metanarration and Metafiction.” Poetica 35 (2003):1–39.

Fludernik, Monica and Suzanne Keen. “Introduction: Narrative Perspectives and Interior Spaces in Literature Prior to 1850.” Style 48.4 (winter 2014): 453-60.

Frevert, Ute. Emotions in History—Lost and Found. New York: Central European University Press, 2013.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter. Princeton UP, 1998.

Gabriel, Shira and A. F. Young. “Becoming a vampire without being bitten: the narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis.” Psychological Science 22.8 (22 Aug. 2011): 990-4. doi: 10.1177/0956797611415541.

Gallese, Vittorio. “The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis for Intersubjectivity. Psychopathology 36.4 (2003): 171-80.

Gérard Genette, Nitsa Ben-Ari and Brian McHale. “Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative.” Poetics Today 11, 4, Narratology Revisited II (Winter, 1990): 755-774.

Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.

Gerrig, Richard J. and David N. Rapp. “Psychological Processes Underlying Literary Impact.” Poetics Today 25 (2004): 265–81.

Green, Melanie C. “Transportation into Narrative Worlds: The Role of Prior Knowledge and Perceived Realism.” Discourse Processes 38 (2004): 247-66.

Green, Melanie C., Christopher Chatham, and Marc A. Sestir. “Emotion and transportation into fact and fiction.” Scientific Study of Literature 2.1 (2012): 37-59.

Hoffman, Martin. Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice. Cambridge UP, 2000.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights: A History. W. W. Norton, 2007.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. Mothers and Others: the Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Harvard UP, 2009.

Jameson, Frederic (1981). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Cornell UP, 1981.

Johnson, Dan R. “Transportation into a story increases empathy, prosocial behavior, and perceptual bias toward fearful expressions.” Personality and Individual Differences 52, (2012): 150-55.

Keen, Suzanne. “‘Altruism’ Makes a Space for Empathy, 1852.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. [7 Oct. 2017].

—. Empathy and the Novel. Oxford UP, 2007.

—. “Empathy in Reading: Considerations of Gender and Ethnicity.” Focus on Reception and Reader Response. Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies 24. 2 (2013): 49-65.

—. “Empathy Studies.” A Companion to Literary Theory. Ed. David S. Richter. Wiley-Blackwell, 2018, pp. 126-38.

—. “Human Rights Discourse and Universals of Cognition and Emotion: Postcolonial Fiction.” The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies. Ed. Lisa Zunshine. Oxford UP, 2015, pp. 347-55.

—. “Narrative Empathy.” the living handbook of narratology. Ed. Peter Hühn, et. al. Hamburg University.  [view date:13 Jun 2017].

—. “Strategic Empathizing: Techniques of Bounded, Ambassadorial, and Broadcast Narrative Empathy.” Deutsche Vierteljahr Schrift 82.3 (2008): 477-93.

Kidd, David Comer and Emanuele Castano. “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342.6156 (18 Oct 2013): 377-380.

Koopmann, Eva Maria and Frank Hakemulder. “Effects of Literature on Empathy and Self-Reflection: A Theoretical-Empirical Framework” JLT 9.1 (2015): 79–111.

Mar, Raymond A., Keith Oatley, and J. B. Peterson. “Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes.” Communications 34.4 (2009): 407-28.

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—. “On Metanarrative: Towards a Definition, a Typology and an Outline of the Functions of Metanarrative Commentary.” The Dynamics of Narrative Form. Studies in Anglo-American Narratology. Ed. John Pier. de Gruyter, 2004, pp. 11–57.

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—. Reading Fictions, Changing Minds: The Cognitive Value of Fiction. Schriften des Marsilius-Kollegs.  Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 2014.

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—. “Proteus in Quotation-Land: Mimesis and the Forms of Reported Discourse.” Poetics Today 3.2 (1982): 107-156.

van Lissa, Caspar J., Marco Caracciolo, Thom van Duuren,  and Bram van Lueveren. “Difficult Empathy The Effect of Narrative Perspective on Readers’ Engagement with a First-Person Narrator.” DIEGESIS. Interdisciplinary E-Journal for Narrative Research / Interdisziplinäres E-Journal für Erzählforschung 5.1 (2016): 43-63. URN: urn:nbn:de:hbz:468-20160607-151127-7.

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Zillman, Dolf. “Empathy: Affect from Bearing Witness to the Emotions of Others.” Responding to the Screen: Reception and Reaction Processes. Eds. Dolf Zillman and J. B. Bryant. Erlbaum, 1991, pp. 135–67.

—. “Mechanisms of Emotional Involvement with Drama.” Poetics 23 (1995): 33–51.


[1] See the definition and discussion at Living Handbook of Narratology.

[2] On this topic, see Keen, “‘Altruism’ Makes a Space for Empathy, 1852″

[3] The field of empirical aesthetics (after the pioneering research of Berlyne) has focused more on music and visual art than on literary texts, but researchers at the Max Planck Institute are on the case: .

[4] Over a decade ago, in Empathy and the Novel, I documented the lacunae in the research about potentially empathy-inducing narrative techniques.  Since that time, good empirical work has been done about the impact of free indirect discourse (Fletcher and Monterosso), worldmaking that invites immersion reading (Johnson), fiction that offers opportunities for a feeling of belonging through joining a fictional crowd, and sympathetic depictions of outgroup members (Gabriel and Young). The most prominent studies, such as Kidd and Castano’s research on the benefits of reading literary fiction on Theory of Mind do not zero on particular narrative techniques whose presence or absence makes a difference in readers’ empathy (though they speculate about the influence of fiction’s invitation to fill gaps through inferences). Vera Nünning’s research into the cognitive benefits of fiction reading deserves attention, not least because she brings a narratologist’s sensitivity to the potential Protean impacts of form, following Meir Sternberg’s influential cautions in “Proteus in Quotation-Land.”

[5] For starting points on this debate, see Dorrit Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction and the response in Poetics Today by Gérard Genette, Nitsa Ben-Ari and Brian McHale, “Fictional Narrative, Factual Narrative.”

[6] For suggestive theorization of the role of transportation in voluntary pleasure reading, see Nell, Lost in a Book. For an empirical study of the impact of reader transportation/immersion on empathy, see Johnson, “Transportation into a story.” For the involvement of readers’ emotions, experiences, and expectations, see the works of Melanie C. Green and her collaborators.

[7] On the effects of metalepsis and metanarrative, see the discussions of the theoretical issues in essays by Monika Fludernik and Ansgar Nünning.

Comments on Scalise Sugiyama: Less Abstract Universals

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

In “Cultural Variation Does Not Preclude Cognitive Universality,” Michelle Scalise Sugiyama has forcefully argued that the Tiv responses to Hamlet, though commonly invoked as exemplary of cultural difference, manifest important universals. In doing so, she stresses a fairly general or abstract cognitive level of universality. For example, she explains that “the Tiv object to the ghost’s choice of Hamlet as his avenger” because “according to their custom, important matters such as revenge and punishment are the purview of chiefs and elders.” She sees this, quite rightly, as manifesting a cross-cultural commitment to “social contract.” The main point I wish to make in this comment is that, here and elsewhere, the universality does not operate solely at this general level.

Consider the particular case just mentioned. The conflict between social authority and personal impulses of revenge is not special to the Tiv; it is, in fact, a recurring thematic concern in western revenge stories. One of the most important and foundational works of western literature, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, treats the topic explicitly. In focusing on the issue of personal revenge and social authority, the Tiv villagers have isolated a central thematic concern in Hamlet and in revenge narratives generally. Indeed, I would argue that one of the most discussed topics in Hamlet criticism—why does Hamlet delay?—is best understood in light of this conflict. Hamlet delays because he is taking on two roles from two related, but distinct genres. He is not only a revenger, but an (ideally, impartial) criminal investigator as well. In other words, he is trying to address part of the problem isolated by the Tiv villagers.

This is not an isolated point. Scalise Sugiyama goes on to explain that “the Tiv condemn Hamlet for his desire to kill Claudius: ‘For a man to raise his hand against his father’s brother and the one who has become his father—that is a terrible thing’” (quoting Bohannan 51). She relates this to “Tiv rules,” which is of course correct. But the special status of kinship and attachment bonds in this context is not unique to the Tiv. Indeed, “familialization” of conflict is one of the key techniques of emotion intensification in literature across cultures (see my The Mind 227). As such, it is crucial to the development of story universals. To take a non-European and non-African example, we see this sort of intensification in different versions of the important, Chinese revenge story concerning the orphan of Zhao (赵氏孤儿; Zhàoshì gū’ér), where the orphan takes revenge for his biological father against a man who is in effect his adoptive father.

Along the same lines, Scalise Sugiyama discusses Polonius’s concerns about Ophelia’s chastity. She explains that “in Tiv terms . . . Polonius is worried that Hamlet’s romantic interest in Ophelia might compromise her honor, thereby lowering her bride price.” True, Polonius is not going to receive a bride price, so there is a cultural difference there. But this is more than a general matter of sharing “social exchange reasoning.” In terms of story universals, Polonius is here envisioning a fairly prototypical seduction story (see chapter four of my Affective). The seduction story involves a woman’s loss of marriage and life opportunities—and typically her family’s disgrace—due to non-marital sexual relations. This bears on the social and familial control of female sexuality, patterns in the development of ethical systems related to sexuality, and other cross-cultural practices and ideas that are more specific than social exchange reasoning.

As the preceding points suggest, the specificity of these cross-cultural patterns is connected with the surprising specificity of some cross-cultural patterns in genre (see “Story Universals”). There is certainly “diversity of themes, styles, and genres in world literature,” as Scalise Sugiyama points out. But there is also a great deal of continuity in genres (heroic, romantic, sacrificial, familial separation, revenge, seduction, criminal investigation) and themes (celebrating the in-group in heroic stories, criticizing individual revenge in opposition to standard social procedures in revenge stories), perhaps even styles (as may be suggested by points in Dan Shen’s “Commonalities behind/beside Differences between Chinese and English Narratives”).

In connection with this, it is worth noting that universals are not confined to innate patterns. It seems very unlikely that we are born with specific story templates. The common story structures are, rather, the result of storytellers realizing that some patterns are particularly effective. For example, outcome emotions are more intense when there is a change from a preceding emotion. Thus, happy endings are generally happier when they are preceded by seemingly tragic middles. The story structure that proceeds through loss to success need not be imprinted in our genes to arise in different traditions. Social development–of genre or anything else–can be convergent as well as divergent.

In sum, Scalise Sugiyama has written a cogent and insightful essay on the universals that underlie cultural differences. Indeed, Scalise Sugiyama’s argument can be pushed farther. The universals are not confined to a very abstract level, but extend down to the more specific level of genre and theme–though of course they do not go so far as to render genre and theme cross-culturally uniform.

Works Cited

Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Originally published in Natural History 75 (1966): 28-33. Reprinted in The Informed Reader: Contemporary Issues in the Disciplines. Ed. C. Bazerman. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989, 43-53.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Affective Narratology: The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.