Categorizing Literary Universals

Areal Distinctness, the Scope of Universals, and the Conceptual Type of Universals

Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

Nigel Fabb’s essay on “Arbitrary Innovations and Literary Universals” treats the degree to which individual authors are able to defy literary practices, including practices that appear to be universal. This issue has a wide range of implications for the study of literary universals, all of which cannot be treated in a single essay. The present article is complementary to Fabb’s and should be read in conjunction with it. Specifically, the following paragraphs consider two issues related to arbitrary innovations. The first issue is the social adoption of innovations. It is addressed explicitly by Fabb, but with a different focus. The second issue is which innovations might or might not violate universals, and potentially falsify them. This is more general and only implicit in Fabb’s essay.

As to the first issue, Fabb points to the difference between innovations that are generally adopted within a tradition and those that are not. For example, we might ask why Gerard Manley Hopkins’s metrical innovations appear to have had very little influence on subsequent versification. As Fabb points out, one answer is that their introduction did not flourish due to historical contingency. (Fabb mentions literary history in particular, but it seems clear that non-literary contingency—such as racist or sexist prejudice against the innovator—may enter as well.) Another answer is that they are somehow in tension with universal patterns (e.g., they are not consistent with linguistic processing tendencies). Similar points might be made about innovations that do have wide social impact. For example, some techniques of Hollywood cinema (e.g., the practices of “continuity editing”) might have caught on because they conformed to universal perceptual propensities (see Bordwell), while others might have succeeded due simply to the accidental success of certain films or the dominant position of particular studios. Moreover, as the example of Hollywood suggests, the point applies not only within, but also across cultural traditions.

The cross-traditional problem is highly significant. As I have discussed elsewhere (“Areal”), it is much more difficult to quarantine literary traditions than languages. Thus, it is often difficult to ensure that one’s research has the appropriate degree of genetic and areal diversity. This is important because claims of universality require specific sorts of support. One has evidence that a feature is universal only if three criteria apply. First, the feature must recur across traditions with significantly greater frequency than would be expected by chance. Second, those traditions must not have descended from a common source with that feature. Third, those traditions must not have influenced one another with regard to that feature. The problem is that it may be very easy for one literary tradition to be influenced by another even with limited contact, and it is not easy to find literary traditions that have had no contact whatsoever. Thus, we may face a fundamental problem with evidence regarding literary universals.

In response to this problem, I have proposed several measures. Of course, we should try to find genuinely genetically and areally distinct traditions. Nonetheless, in some cases, evidence for a universal may be gleaned from traditions that have had contact. That contact, however, should not involve hegemonic relations such that the literary practices of one tradition would be likely to displace the literary practices of another tradition for non-literary reasons (e.g., because one society colonized the other and imposed its literary tradition through the education system). Thus, one should in general not draw on modern, post-colonial literatures for evidence of universals. Moreover, one should take into account the extent of the contact and the salience of the features. For example, as to the latter, the mere fact of dramatic performance is highly salient, thus easily transmittable even with minimal contact. In contrast, certain sorts of background imagery or the use of techniques such as foreshadowing are not likely to be highly salient unless people are already sensitive to them for some reason. Thus, they should not be transmitted so readily. If there is minimal contact and a feature has low salience, then the recurrence of the feature is less likely to have been the result of contact.

Finally, even if we have reason to believe that some feature has been transmitted by contact, we may still wish to incorporate it into a theory of universals. This is because not everything transfers across traditions, especially not everything that has a low degree of salience. We may learn something about universal processes of literary creation or reception or universal functions of literature from the fact that one practice transfers and another does not. Consider, for example, some feature that recurs across different traditions, but that has evidently passed from one tradition to another. If that feature has high salience and the contact has been extensive, then the recurrence has little if any value for the study of universals. If it has moderate salience and the contact has been intermediate, then the recurrence may have some value. If it has low salience and the contact has been limited, we may decide that the recurrence has considerable value. (There are, of course, other possibilities as well.)

The second issue raised by arbitrary innovation concerns, again, what contradicts or falsifies a posited literary universal. Here we need to note that universals differ in their scope and in their conceptual kind. As to scope, some universals may apply to all literary works. I suspect that these are mostly trivial and in general derive from our definition of literature. Arbitrary innovations might seem to falsify a universal that applies to all literary works. However, they are more likely to challenge our definition of literature. To take a simplistic example, suppose we define literature by reference to fictionality. Do autobiographical poems show that literature is not universal? That does not seem to be a reasonable conclusion. Rather, autobiographical poems suggest that we should probably not define literature as fictional. We may of course wish to investigate cross-cultural properties of fictional works. But we simply isolate those as works of fiction, not as the entire body of literature.

More importantly, the scope of universal claims is more often a matter of common practices within a tradition or simply some works in a tradition. As to the former, most claims about poetic line length, for example, do not appear to concern the limits of line length for all poems; they rather concern the normal or default line lengths for a given tradition (such as iambic pentameter in English; see, for example, my The Mind 37-44). Arbitrary innovations would have to displace common practices in order to falsify such universals.[1]

Probably the most frequent claims for universality bear on some works in the tradition. For example, heroic narratives appear in a wide range of traditions. However, not every work is heroic. Indeed, not every work is heroic or romantic or sacrificial or one of the other cross-cultural genres (on these genres, see my “Story”). The universal is that this genre recurs cross-culturally, not that it exhausts the possibilities for story formulation. It is difficult to see arbitrary innovations as violating universals of this sort.

Finally, we may distinguish two conceptual varieties of universal—prototypes, on the one hand, and rules or necessary and sufficient conditions, on the other. Some universals are formulated in terms of prototypes. For example, heroic plots do not have strictly necessary and sufficient conditions, but rather involve greater or lesser approximation to a standard case. It is difficult to see how arbitrary innovations could violate prototype-based claims of universality, though of course authors may arbitrarily innovate highly non-prototypical stories. Other universals are formulated as rules. For example, Kiparsky argues that alliteration “seems to be found as an obligatory formal element only in languages where the stress regularly falls on the same syllable in the word, which then must be the alliterating syllable” (9). This rule could in principle be violated by arbitrary innovations, though the innovation would have to become a standard practice in this case.

Future Research

Future research in this area should continue to examine the kinds and degrees of areal contact and the nature of salience, both theoretically and through specific case studies. It should also consider whether or not there are other factors that might affect the ease with which literary features may be transmitted. Researchers might also address the parallel issue regarding historical development from a common source, taking up for example the degree to which particular features are or are not stable in historical development. It may be that there are specific cases in which a feature persists despite clear pressures for it to change. These may then be cases where genetic continuity could play a role in the isolation of universals.


Works Cited

Bordwell, David. “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision.” In Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Ed. David Bordwell and Noël Carroll. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996, 87-107.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Areal Distinctness and Literature.” In The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Language Sciences. Ed. Patrick Colm Hogan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 105-106.

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

Kiparsky, Paul. “The Role of Linguistics in a Theory of Poetry.” In Essays in Modern Stylistics. Ed. Donald C. Freeman. New York: Methuen, 1981, 9-23.


[1] In addition, some claims about lines may rely on a technical definition, such that the apparent “line” in a poem may not be the line as set out in the technical definition (for a discussion of issues in the segmentation of poetry, including lineation, see Fabb’s discussion of poetic sections). For example, writing conventions may leave lines unmarked, split them in two, or combine them (so that one “line” of writing is actually two lines by the technical definition). In these cases, innovations would have to affect line length in the technical sense of “line.”

Comments on Nannicelli: Automatic versus Socially Developed Universals

Patrick Colm HoganUniversity of Connecticut

For years, I have misunderstood David Bordwell’s idea of contingent universals. When I read Ted Nannicelli’s explication of the concept (“Contingent Universals“), I thought he was wrong on some points. So, I asked David Bordwell. He said that Nannicelli had gotten things exactly right. In this comment, I therefore do not wish to dispute Nannicelli’s account or Bordwell’s concept, but to propose another way of thinking about universals and contingency.

First, I count anything as a universal if it recurs across genetically and areally distinct traditions with a significantly greater frequency than would be predicted by random distribution. Thus, a recurring artistic technique would be no less a universal than any other social practice, such as face-to-face interaction. In fact, I do not really understand the distinction between the two in the Bordwell-Nannicelli account, unless it is specific to film techniques, because there are no genetically and areally distinct traditions in film (an important consideration, as Nannicelli explains).

Second, it does not seem to me useful to separate out universals that have metaphysical necessity from those that do not. Admittedly, I am not sure precisely what metaphysical necessity would mean. But I suspect that all literary, linguistic, or other universals would count as “contingent” by this definition. I therefore had taken “contingent” to mean something very different.

Specifically, some universals so to speak automatically appear with the larger phenomenon of which they are universal features. For example, it seems likely that as soon as we have language, we have hierarchical structure in language, not merely adjacency or temporal sequence. We might refer to these as “necessary,” not in a metaphysical sense, but simply in the sense that we do not have the domain (e.g., language) without the property (here, hierarchical structure). In contrast, some features must be discovered. Thus, a given social practice or psychological process has some function—communication, memory enhancement, whatever. That practice or process is better fulfilled in some ways than others. For example, we tell stories in part to produce satisfying emotional experiences. Those emotional experiences are enhanced by a gradient of change, most obviously a change from sorrow to joy. Our happiness in the outcome of a story is increased to the extent that it involves a change from sorrow or fear to satisfaction. “John and Jane fell in love. They told their parents, who were happy. They got married a few months later” is okay as a story. But it is not nearly as interesting as “John and Jane fell in love. Jane’s parents found out. John was the son of their bitter enemy. They locked Jane in her room and hired assassins to murder John. Soon, Jane saw the picture of a mutilated corpse and learned that John was nowhere to be found. She tried to hang herself in despair”—and so on, until (through complex developments) the lovers are finally united. The love, separation and conflict, enduring union sequence is universal (see the discussion of romantic tragi-comedy in my “Story”). But there is no reason to believe that the structure is automatic. Storytellers presumably had to discover it. It other words, it is socially developed. Of course, it is very easy to discover (thus develop), which is why so many traditions have done so.

Given that “contingent universal” is used by Bordwell for something else, we might refer to this distinction as, say, “automatic” versus “socially developed” universals. We might further distinguish monogenetic and polygenetic versions of the latter. Thus, a socially developed universal might be discovered once, then disseminated across societies. Alternatively, it might be discovered separately in different traditions. I take it that the prototypical story genres are polygenetic, socially developed universals (thus “contingent” universals in the sense in which I previously used the term, but not in Bordwell’s sense). If we like, we may also distinguish socially developed universals that require only discovery from those that require social refinement. Depending on the target and aims of our analysis, other distinctions might prove valuable as well.

The precise status of monogenetic, socially developed universals is not entirely clear. It seems important to distinguish cases where areal influence is a result of cultural hegemony and cases where it derives simply from the good fit between the technique and the shared functions. A technique such as shot/reverse shot is a case of a monogenetic, socially developed universal. Part of what is at stake in the disagreement between Bordwell and some earlier theorists is the degree to which the dissemination of the technique is a result of the economic dominance of Euro-American traditions and the degree to which it derives, rather, from the functional value of the technique, which might have been discovered in different traditions separately if they had developed separately.

Another point is worth mentioning here. I just made reference to cultural hegemony. One claim made by Bordwell, as explained by Nannicelli, is that contingent universals involve biology and culture and thus overcome this “binary opposition.” As I have argued in various places, universals may be explained by biology, or by aspects of the natural world, or by features of development, or by principles of complex systems, or by processes of group dynamics, and so on (see my “What Are Literary Universals?”). There is no necessary connection between universals and biology. Moreover, the relation of culture to universals is, in my view, principally a matter of particularization. Cultures are, to a great extent, complex particularizations of universals—defined by biology, physics, group dynamics, and so on. In consequence, there is no issue of an opposition here, binary or otherwise.

Finally, I take “culture” to refer to distinctive, common patterns in a society. I am not sure how such distinctive, common patterns (e.g., features of capitalist economy or electoral democracy) bear on shot/reverse shot or face-to-face interaction. Thus, I am not sure how culture bears on contingent universals. Culture is generally not significant for socially developed universals, except in a trivial way. A society clearly has to have people making movies if someone in the society is going to develop shot/reverse shot. But there does not have to be any specific (thus non-trivial) effect of culture here. In other words, the sorts of universal at issue in both our discussions do not appear to be usually a matter of culture in any consequential way.

In sum, it is important to consider contingency in the genesis of universals. However, it may be most productive to explore contingency in terms of the difference between automatic and socially developed universals, further distinguishing monogenetic from polygenetic in the case of the latter. In addition, we may wish to draw further distinctions—for example, between socially developed universals that require only basic discovery and those that require social refinement. It is also important to recognize that there are many sources of universality, not only biology, and that social development of universals is rarely explicable by reference to culture in a non-trivial sense. Moreover, culture is not opposed to biology, or any other source of universality. Rather, it is a specification of universals. Indeed, that is largely the point of finding universals across different literary traditions.

Contextual Universalisms

Mukti Lakhi Mangharam

A Meditation on the Connection Between Universals and Universalisms

Universalisms are discourses that posit ‘universal’ categories such as ‘humanity’ or ‘Man’ and then elaborate universalizing concepts such as ‘equality’ or ‘freedom’ on the basis of these categories. In other words, universalisms are discourses that are normative and that base their norms on a presumption of human universality.[1]

By contrast, universals (treated extensively on this site) are evidence of a common humanity. In their demonstration of cross-cultural and trans-historical patterns, they support the idea that all humans have a common denominator of biology or culture that ties them together as humans.

While on the surface of it, universalisms and universals seem to be opposed to one another–with one suggesting that humanity is an idea and the other that humanity is an objective fact–I suggest they are in fact related to one another. This assertion becomes clear when one considers why and how recognizable or comparative concepts of freedom or dignity are found in more than one culture. I explore this question in my recent book Literatures of Liberation: Non-European Universalisms and Democratic Progress, which argues that Enlightenment concepts of ‘rationality,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘ethical exchange’ and ‘rule by the people’ are only one consolidation of universalizing impulses. The book claims that there exist comparable conceptual networks, which I call contextual universalisms, elsewhere in the world. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o makes a similar assertion when he describes particularist universalism, or the insistence that universals appear only in particular forms in particular cultures so that the universal and particular do not exist in a binary opposition to one another. As Patrick Colm Hogan puts it, such a perspective suggests that affirming a universal should never be a matter of denying or devaluing cultural particularity (see ‘What are Literary Universals?’).

In order to engage this point more clearly, we must first understand what is meant by a conceptual network. The terms ‘conceptual network’ and ‘concept’ are used here in a manner that is derived from the insights of research in cognition, which largely agrees that concepts are mental entities, or ways of thinking that are internal representations within the human mind —but which are also simultaneously cultural and shared. ‘Freedom’ as well as other notions such as ‘rational social organization’ and ‘rule by the people’ are simultaneously cultural and individual cognitive concepts that Peter de Bolla would argue provide commonly “identifiable labels to particular routes for thinking such and such, and for getting from one thought to another” (4). These labels activate and support cognitive processing and enable us to sense that we have arrived at understanding. They provide maps or blueprints for enabling comprehension of large items of cognition, sitting, as Peter de Bolla notes, in the background of mental processing. Moreover, these concepts set in motion complex ways of thinking because their coherence is established by the tension that connects them in a network with other concepts. The concept ‘freedom,’ for example, operates in the cognitive background when we encounter other related concepts such as ‘democracy’ and ‘equality.’ Thus, a concept contains both an internal structure as well as external connections to associated yet different concepts within a contextually and historically situated network. Taken together this conceptual network forms a concept’s architecture.[2]

Once we begin to think of universalisms as conceptual networks rather than bounded terms tied to a particular geography and language, we are able to see the terms ‘freedom’ ‘rationality’ etc. as placeholders for conceptual networks that include associated yet unique concepts in non-European epistemes.

For instance, the conceptual network pertaining to the universalism ‘rule by the people’ in antiapartheid South Africa included the Enlightenment concept of majoritarian popular sovereignty, the Marxist concept of the self-rule of the working class, as well as a Bantu contextual universalism of self-rule based on principles of “a chief is a chief through other people.” And all these concepts played a role in achieving the post-apartheid transition to democracy in South Africa through literary forms and structures of thought that enacted universalism in different yet related ways.

Similarly, the conceptual network pertaining to ‘rational social organization’ in India includes the Enlightenment concept of empirical and pragmatist rationality, a post-Enlightenment Marxist-derived socialism, as well as the Kabirian bhakti contextual universalism of rationality as a program of ethical and equitable action that expresses the divinity within.

And the postcolonial conceptual network pertaining to ‘freedom’ in India includes the hegemonic neoliberal ideal of individualism and self-development but also the post-Enlightenment notion of individual freedom and the rasa contextual universalism that truly free actions are shaped by the capacity to feel the affects of others.[3]

So how do these discourses that claim a common humanity (universalisms) actually work with–and as–evidence of a common humanity (universals)? By themselves, the existence of these comparative contextual universalisms does not function as descriptive evidence of ‘universally true’ and consistent qualities. These universalisms are not universals–proof of a human that is necessarily realized in all contexts, or a suggestion that the spiritual freedom of mukti is the same as the ‘individual freedom’ of the Enlightenment. Yet, having said that, investigating contextual universalisms is to recognize the ways in which certain material contexts may activate comparable cognitive capacities that exist as potentials in all human beings but that were previously latent. It is to say in other words that all humans have the capacity to develop concepts of freedom, dignity, or rationality but that certain contexts and conditions make their manifestation more likely. As Patrick Colm Hogan puts it, universals are “always the product of complex interactions among biology, the physical environment, childhood development, group dynamics etc.”[4] Such a claim means that the context within which a concept is manifested and the concept itself are inseparable from each other.

Future Research

We should examine contextual universalisms such as the ones I have highlighted, then, as indicators of discourses that have the potential to be universals – to exist everywhere – under the right conditions. Our democratic goal would be to study how and when these discourses have manifested themselves historically and maximize the conditions under which these concepts can be perpetuated. It is in this way that contextual universalisms could help shift emphasis from the hegemonic instrumentalization of Enlightenment universalisms and the postcolonial dismissal of universalisms overall.


Works Cited

de Bolla, Peter. The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights. Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2013.

Mangharam, Mukti Lakhi. Literatures of Liberation: Non European Universalisms and Democratic Progress. Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2017.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Curry, 1993.



[1] I will be using double quotation marks for quoting others and single quotation marks for all other purposes (e.g., drawing attention to a particular term).

[2] De Bolla 38.

[3] Rasa is a Sanskritic aesthetic device. The word refers to an aesthetic taste or mood experienced by an audience after witnessing the portrayal of emotional components, or bhava, onstage. It is the transferring of emotions or moods evoked to the audience through empathic witnessing and listening.

[4] The term ‘statistical universal,’ which describes the recurrence of a cultural pattern or concept with a cross-cultural frequency that is otherwise statistically unlikely, suggests a similar relationship between particular contexts and the kinds of concepts they encourage (see Patrick Colm Hogan, ‘What are Literary Universals?’).

Contingent Universals

By: Ted Nannicelli, University of Queensland

In the context of scholarship on the arts, the term “contingent universals” derives from a 1996 essay by the preeminent film historian and theorist, David Bordwell. [1] The essay, entitled “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision,” was reprinted in an expanded form in 2008, and it is this version I shall reference in the present entry.

First, some context: In his essay, Bordwell investigates a specific research question as part of his exploration of a broader issue. The broad topic has to do with the nature and function of artistic conventions in cinema. The specific research question Bordwell tries to answer in order to make headway on the broader issue is: “What makes the shot/reverse-shot comprehensible?” (58). Shot/ reverse-shot, as Bordwell explains, is a film editing technique that alternates shots of two characters conversing. Sometimes individual shots will show just one of the two characters (a “single” [see Figure 1]), and sometimes they will feature one character in the frame with a small part of the other character’s body slightly visible in the foreground as if the camera is shooting from behind it (an “over-the-shoulder” [see Figure 2]).


Figure 1. A standard shot/ reverse-shot from Personal Shopper  (2016).


Figure 2. An over-the-shoulder shot/reverse-shot from Raw (2016).


Bordwell argues it is plausible that the shot/reverse-shot is a specifically cinematic technique. It was invented in American cinema during the 1910s, spread worldwide soon thereafter, and is now one of the most commonly used techniques in all of cinema (and other moving image media like television). The wide cross-cultural adoption of shot/reverse-shot demands an explanation: Just how is it that the technique is comprehensible across cultures and cinematic traditions? The challenge, Bordwell convincingly argues, is to develop an account that moves beyond the naturalist/conventionalist binary opposition, according to which the technique’s widespread comprehensibility is either wholly a matter of “nature” or is a purely arbitrary “convention.” According to Bordwell, the nature/culture opposition overlooks the plausible idea that “many aspects of film style [including shot/reverse-shot] are transformations of a variety of cross-cultural skills and practices, both biological and cultural” (76, emphasis in original).

This is where the notion of “contingent universals” comes into play. Bordwell’s contention is that particular cinematic techniques like shot/reverse-shot have developed and spread cross-culturally because they “amplify and streamline” certain “contingent universal” human practices “for easy uptake” (76). On this account, “contingent universals” just are human skills, practices, and the like that are near (if not absolute) universals “insofar as we can find them to be widely present in human societies,” yet “did not, for any metaphysical reasons, have to be the way they are” (Bordwell 61). In the case of the shot/reverse-shot technique, the relevant underlying contingent universals are plausibly face-to-face interaction and conversational turn-taking because these provide a compelling explanation of “why the situation portrayed in shot/reverse-shot is instantly recognizable across cultures and time periods” (Bordwell 64). More broadly, Bordwell argues, “Neither wholly ‘natural’ nor wholly ‘cultural,’ these sorts of contingent universals are good candidates for being at least partly responsible for the ‘naturalness’ of artistic conventions” (61).

Like a number of other leading scholars who have studied and described human universals (e.g. Brown), Bordwell emphasizes that merely asserting the existence of contingent universals does not commit him to a particular account of how or why they exist (62; 76). That is, pace his critics (e.g. Hansen), Bordwell is not claiming that contingent universals are necessarily or essentially products of human nature alone. His more modest view is that they likely arise from the interaction of biological and environmental (broadly construed to include cultural) factors. That said, different contingent universals are likely to depend upon different combinations of nature and environment, such that at least some will owe more to human biological traits and some will owe more to the way certain practices develop within specific environments.

This point leads to the broader question of whether there are any contingent universals in cinema or other art forms, or whether contingent universals are better thought of as merely underpinning, to a greater or lesser extent, certain widespread, cross-culturally intelligible conventions whose realization is nevertheless variable. Although Bordwell doesn’t put things quite in these terms, it would seem that especially good candidates for contingent universals in cinema are indeed techniques or features that are underpinned by factors on the biological end of the spectrum. What he does say is that “among the best candidates we have for wired-in responses” are “sensory triggers [which] are cues that automatically stimulate spectators” (Bordwell 63). In the context of cinema, Bordwell notes, an obvious sensory trigger and plausible contingent universal is apparent motion. That is, our engagement with cinema in any tradition necessarily depends upon our biologically innate ability to perceive motion in certain contexts (like cinema) where in fact there is none. So, apparent motion is at least one plausible example of a contingent universal that underpins our experience of cinema and is a contingent universal in cinema.

One might worry that this is an uninformative claim: Of course, whatever specific characteristics of our biological endowment are necessary to our engagement with a particular art form will underpin a number of contingent universal features of that art form – namely, whatever features depend upon our biological endowment in order to be perceived, cognized, and so forth. But while the claim may seem obvious to some, it is far from uncontroversial. For in some cases, it is precisely those features that depend upon our biological endowment that are contested. According to some traditions in visual culture, art theory, film and media studies, for example, pictures represent content in a way that has little, if anything to do with our natural perceptual capacities because pictorial representation is entirely conventional (e.g. Heath; Nichols; Mitchell). On such views, features of pictures that might strike some theorists as contingent universals – say, the use of lighting to create contour – could well strike others as the “arbitrary” conventions of a particular tradition (Mitchell 86). In other words, anyone who is sceptical that biological factors have any role to play in our engagement with art is likely to be sceptical of some of the best candidates for contingent universals in those arts.

Here is one reason for standing fast against the strong conventionalist position (beyond its intrinsic difficulties [2]) and emphasising the biological grounding of some contingent universals, at least in the context of cinema. Cinema is a “sensual medium” (Plantinga 112). The basis of the sensory triggers Bordwell identifies is the fact that cinema directly engages a number of our sense modalities in ways that are unavailable to an art form like literature (see, e.g., Carroll; Coplan and Matravers 118-126). For this reason, it seems plausible that, if there are indeed contingent universals in cinema, which elicit congruent physical responses across culturally diverse audiences– for example, the “jump scare,” caused by the startle response – they would probably be biologically grounded. According to prominent neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, such precognitive “affective appraisals” occur via a “quick and dirty processing system” (163). It seems likely that those emotions fundamental to our survival — fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness and sadness – are grounded in such automatic “affective appraisals,” which bypass higher-order cognitive processing and, thus, the influence of culture, broadly speaking. This suggests that, in fact, a number of familiar, cinematically elicited emotions might be biologically grounded contingent universals (also see Plantinga and Smith; Smith).

Notwithstanding what has been said so far, it is worth pointing out one reason why the study of contingent universals in relatively newer art forms like cinema may prove particularly challenging. Unlike literature, cinema does not have a range of traditions that are “genetically and areally” (Hogan 17) distinct. That is, thanks to the nature of cinematic technology and its rapid global spread in the 20th century, it seems unlikely that there are any cinematic traditions that have not been mutually influenced to some extent, and thus difficult to identify a feature that has appeared spontaneously across genetically and areally distinct traditions. This is not to downplay the existence or importance of narrative and stylistic commonalities across different cinematic traditions; it is just to acknowledge that such commonalities may not meet the sort of formal criteria Hogan discusses for counting as universals properly so-called. That said, Bordwell’s shot/reverse-shot case study shows that the identification of contingent universals that underwrite widespread (if not technically universal) cinematic techniques is informative in its own right. So, too, we might note that the notion of a contingent universal may prove useful in understanding commonalities of a broader sort – namely, across art and the domain of the aesthetic more generally (see, e.g., Davies; Dutton).

Future Research

Needless to say, there is significant scope for further study of contingent universals. To some extent, this research has been proceeding apace under the guise of different terms such as “cultural universals,” “near universals,” and so forth (see Antweiler 40-45 on differing terminology). One of the merits of the term “contingent universals,” however, is that it signals to potential skeptics its status as a moderate position between nativist and culturalist extremes. At the same time, developing our understanding of how contingent universals underpin and operate within the arts may require scholars to specify a narrower category or class for the purpose of answering particular research questions. In philosophical aesthetics, a live research question is whether there are contingent aesthetic universals. But literary or film theorists are likely to pursue rather narrower research questions, which might involve focusing on a putative class of, say, contingent universals of emotion, contingent universals of language, contingent universals of visual perception, and so forth.

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


Works Cited

Antweiler, Christoph. Our Common Denominator: Human Universals Revisited. Translated by Diane Kerns. New York: Berghahn, 2016.

Bordwell, David. “Convention, Construction, and Cinematic Vision.” In Poetics of Cinema, 57-82. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Buller, David. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005.

Carroll, Noël. “The Power of Movies.” In Theorizing the Moving Image, 78-93. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Coplan, Amy, and Derek Matravers. “Film, Literature, and Non-Cognitive Affect.” In New Takes in Film-Philosophy, 117-134. Edited by Havi Carel and Greg Tuck. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Davies, Stephen. The Artful Species. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Dutton, Dennis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” In Reinventing Film Studies, 332-350. Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams. London: Arnold, 2000.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981.

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

LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Mellor, D.H. “Properties and Predicates.” In Ontology, Causality, and Mind: Essays in Honor of D.M. Armstrong, 101-120. Edited by John Bacon, Keith Campbell, and Lloyd Reinhardt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers: American Film and the Spectator’s Experience. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

Plantinga, Carl, and Greg M. Smith. Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Smith, Murray. Film, Art, and the Third Culture: A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017



[1] As Bordwell notes, there is a helpful, broader discussion of a similar concept – “cultural universals” – in Buller, especially 462-471. It should be noted that there is also a philosophical sense in which the term “contingent universals” is sometimes used (e.g. Mellor). As I discuss below, Bordwell makes clear that his use of the term is not to be understood in this sense, which involves metaphysical claims.

[2] For a good introductory discussion of these difficulties, as well as number of references to key positions in the literature, see David Bordwell, “You and Me and Every Frog We Know,” Observations on Film Art blog (September 20, 2015; accessed August 9, 2017).

Ethical Universals and Postcolonialism

Arnab Dutta Roy, University of Connecticut

Ethical universals broadly refer to systems of ethical principles, patterns, codes, or moral deliberations that are presumed to have a cross-cultural relevance. The study of ethical universals is of two general types: descriptive and normative. This entry considers the latter, as it applied to the study of literature.

Normative or prescriptive ethics mainly concerns the intrinsic value of human conduct, seeking to establish what is morally valuable or politically admirable. While, there are many aspects to the study of normative ethics in disciplines of philosophy and various social sciences, in literary studies, such study is primarily applied to determine the quality of a literary creation, based on its ethical, aesthetic, or political worth.

Evaluations of ethical universals are commonly based on the presumption that humans share certain descriptive properties of emotions, cognition, experience, and reasoning (see Donald Brown for relevant descriptive human universals). While this presumption informs normative conceptions of universalism as broad ethical principles invoked by people cross-culturally (in a variety of situations and circumstances, socially or politically), this entry concerns universalism as it is invoked specifically as a response to oppression. More exactly, this essay concerns the invocation of normative ethical universals in cross-cultural activisms against colonialism as expressed in literary works.

Literary scholars such as Mukti Mangharam, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, Patrick Hogan, Lalita Pandit, Ashis Nandy, and Judith Butler centrally relate the study of universalism to literature. Some scholars such as Mangharam and Ngũgĩ consider literature to endorse a particularistic universalism that places individual differences and social practices in a broader human universalism. Mangharam, for instance, defines universals as a sum of lived particulars. She observes that in the universal scheme “every person is a particular, unique addition to a universal horizon of humanity” (Mangharam 82). More precisely, she emphasizes that this idea of liberal humanism is expressed in the social writings of many Africanist poets such as William Kgositsile, Amiri Baraka, and Aime Cesaire, in responding to the oppression of black communities around the world. Ngũgĩ declares himself as “unrepentant universalist,” advancing the view that “true humanism, with its universal outreach, can flower amongst the people of the earth” (xvii). This view centrally guides his vision for African literatures, in the context of decolonization.

Others develop universalism as an opposition to colonialism. Hogan and Pandit, for instance, find universalism as a pro-social cultural response to practices of absolutisms around the world, examined in postcolonial texts from India, the West Indies, China, Trinidad, and elsewhere (for a more detailed view on empathic universalism, see Pandit’s entry on empathic and hegemonic universalism). Similarly, Nandy distinguishes between the conceptions of homogenized universalism and distinctive civilizational universalism. He defines the former as a product of uprootedness and de-culturation brought forth by colonialism (Nandy x). He finds the latter “embedded in the tolerance encoded in various traditional ways of life in a highly diverse plural society” (Nandy xi). His justification of the latter as a preferred model of social interaction emerges from his readings of Tagore’s novels, Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) and Char Adhyaya (Four Chapters). Butler invokes a distinction between conceptions of wretched binationalism and diasporic binationalism in the poetry of the Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish. She finds that the former expresses colonial occupation, a social formation defined through strict boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized. She articulates the latter in the poetic conception of universal co-existence based on “a set of principles that would defend…the rights of all minorities and refugees… the opposition to coercive containment and expulsion, the necessity of dismantling colonial and military control over borders, natural resources, and human freedom” (41). As such, the conception of diasporic binationalism becomes central to Butler’s political reflections on the history of the Jewish-Palestinian conflict, as evoked in Darwish’s poetry.

Political thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Amartya Sen also find literary analysis valuable in considering universal ethical issues of cultural identity, politics, and human rights. Both Appiah and Nussbaum approach universalism through political conceptions of cosmopolitanism. Appiah, for instance, finds cosmopolitan ethics developing from two interconnected moral views. First, human beings have obligations to others, “obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). Second, humans have obligations to take seriously the values of not just of human lives in general, “but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the specific practices and beliefs that lend them significance” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism xv). His views on cosmopolitanism are drawn in part from his readings of Arabic poetry by poets such as Haji Abdu El- Yezdi, who wrote in the poetic tradition of Qasida that advances a humanism by infusing “an Eastern version of humanitarianism blended with the skeptical or, as we now say, the scientific habit of mind” (Appiah, Cosmopolitanism 260).

Nussbaum defines cosmopolitanism as emerging from two distinct but interconnected spheres of human communities, the community of birth and the community of human argument and aspiration (Nussbaum 7). In the community of birth, she situates an individual within specific socio-political and historical contexts. In the community of human argument and aspiration, she articulates the individual’s place within a larger community of humanity. Nussbaum’s model of “cosmopolitan education” and, more generally, her cautions against narrow patriotisms, bear centrally on Tagore’s critique of the Hindu patriotic ideology of “Bande Mataram,” developed in his novel Ghare Baire. Such normative reflections allow both Appiah and Nussbaum to articulate cosmopolitanism as a model of global politics, that is simultaneously sensitive to particulars of culture and human universalities based on cross-cultural similarities of aspirations, moral beliefs, and so on.

Sen is another noted social scientist who heavily relies on universalism to reflect on issues of global politics and economics. A prime example is his articulation of globalization as a system of ethical universalism that should ensure that “our global civilization is a world heritage—and not just a collection of disparate local cultures” (Sen 85). While this view is developed primarily as a response to the rise ethnocentric nationalisms in India, particularly sectarian politics of the Hindutva movement, it is also the basis of his conceptions of rationality and freedom informing his economic theory of social choice. Sen’s attention to literatures is widely reflected in his social writings. A clear case is his critique of globalization in relation to postcolonial Indian history, developed through a range of literary writings on India from ancient to modern times (including postcolonial readings of Hindu epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata, travel writings by foreigners on India, modern works by writers such as Tagore, Bankim Chandra, and others).

There are several notable influences on these recent studies on universalism. Tagore’s universal ethics, as reflected in his literary and political writings, is foremost in guiding many theoretical approaches to universalism, including works by Nussbaum, Sen, and Nandy. His influence is also clear in Hogan and Pandit, as their positions on the topic are often informed by critical readings of empathy and universal ethics in Tagore’s novels such as Gora and Ghare Baire. Scholars of universalism are also indebted to writings of western philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Rawls. Nussbaum, Appiah, and Sen, in this regard, consistently evoke Kantian theories of cosmopolitan laws, world citizenship, and the categorical imperative (among other things) to formulate their views of the topic in politics and social justice. Similarly, contemporary theories on cosmopolitanisms are often developed in dialogue with certain Rawlsian conceptions of justice and social cooperation (either in agreement or disagreement). For instance, Nussbaum’s responses to systems of patriotisms are informed by implicit references to Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” in social contract (Nussbaum 134). Appiah, on the other hand, finds Rawl’s conceptions of justice overly reliant on systems of nation-state, thus posing a potential challenge to cosmopolitan conceptions at a more international scale (see Appiah’s “Cosmopolitan Patriots”).

Another major influence is Edward Said, particularly his later works on cultures and colonialism. In his preface to Orientalism in 2003, Said distinguishes two different forms of knowledge systems. One relates to ethnocentric knowledges informing “an overall campaign of self-affirmation, belligerency, and outright war” (xv). The other concerns knowledges reflective of the diverse voices of people, formulated through “understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sake.” (xv). Through such clarifications, Said establishes a clear separation between epistemologies that reveal culturally inclusive humanisms, and colonial practices of orientalism. This Saidian view centrally informs Butler’s positions on universalism, particularly her views on wretched and diasporic binationalism. It is also invoked by Hogan in his discussions on social universalism.

Historically, universalism has often been cited in anti-universal ways. To this end, cross-cultural claims of ethics are often the basis for discrimination against marginalized groups and populations around the world. However, recent studies have clarified that such coercive practices never really express universalism, rather, they demonstrate how in many ways cross-cultural practices of ethnocentrism are projected to have universal significance, ethical and otherwise. This is clearly revealed in the scholarships noted in this entry, scholarship that in different ways distinguishes between non-coercive universalisms or cosmopolitanisms and ideologies of colonialism.

Future Research

Research on ethical universals in literary studies is far from conclusive. A potential task in the field of prescriptive ethics is the organization and development of the emerging scholarship on universalism. There is a need for a research program that highlights universalism as a prominent feature of many ethically sensitive postcolonial literatures aiming to address issues of marginalization in the broader context of colonial histories. In this sense, there is a possibility for future research projects to develop a more detailed understanding of how universalisms are differently expressed in particular literary productions across the world, and how such studies can be valuable to enquiries concerning ethics and politics that go well beyond the scope of specific literary texts.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Cosmopolitan Patriots.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 21-29.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. New York: WW Norton & Company, 2010.

Brown, Donald E. Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Butler, Judith. “‘What Shall We Do Without Exile?’: Said and Darwish Address the Future.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 32 (2012): 30-56.

Dasgupta, Uma. Rabindranath Tagore: A Biography. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Dutta, Krishna and Andrew Robinson, eds. Selected Letters of Rabindranath Tagore. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Dutta Roy, Arnab. “Ethical Universals in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies: A Posthumanist Critique of Universal Human Rights.” Humanities 5, no. 3 (2016): 64.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. Colonialism and Cultural Identity: Crises of Tradition in the Anglophone Literatures of India, Africa, and the Caribbean. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2000.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. The Mind and Its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge UP and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 2003.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Trans. Paul Guyer and Allen Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Mangharam, Mukti Lakhi. “‘The Universal is the Entire Collection of Particulars’: Grounding Identity in a Shared Horizon of Humanity.” College Literature 40 (2013): 81-98.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedom. London: James Currey, 1993.

Nussbaum, Martha C. “Patriotism and Cosmpolitanism.” In For Love of Country? Ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996, 3-17.

Pandit, Lalita. “Caste, Race, and Nation: History and Dialectic in Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora.” In Literary India: Comparative Studies in Aesthetics, Colonialism, and Culture. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995, 207-33.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Sabyasachi, Bhattacharya. The Mahatma and the Poet: Letters and Debates between Gandhi and Tagore. New Delhi: National Book Trust (1997).

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Sen, Amartya. Rationality and Freedom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Sen, Amartya. The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2005.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Four Chapters. Trans. Rimli Bhattacharya. New Delhi: Srishti Publishers, 2002.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gora. Trans. Sujit Mukherjee. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2003.

Tagore, Rabindranath. The Home and the World. Trans. Surendranath Tagore. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005.