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Literary Theory 101: Pragmatism and Literary Communication


Literary Theory works as a social institution, a science that tries to study literature and every aspect that surrounds it. Due to its scientific intentions, it avoids working with beliefs and ideologies, although sometimes it is difficult to separate them. Literary Theory concentrates on possibilities and not on reality since literature, like art, is not a fixed science. This series of articles will explain some of the different areas that academics study in this field of knowledge and how it has been used to explain the evolution of literature.

Literary Theory 101 is divided into six chapters including:

  1. An Introduction with Terry Eagleton

  2. Pragmatism and Literary Communication

  3. Institutionalization

  4. Roles and Practices

  5. Intertextuality

  6. Canon

Many researchers have tried to determine what the functions of literature and art are. Some may suggest that their roles are to entertain and to be aesthetically pleasing. However, this article will prove that there is more to the arts (with a special focus on literature) than simply beauty. The article will follow Walter Benjamin's idea that the function of art varies with regard to the time frame in which it is being studied. Additionally, the article will also focus on the ideas of pragmatism and literary communication. These two aspects represent notions that are both interesting and complex, and their focus aims to investigate the difference between (artistic) literary communication and the ways in which people communicate in their everyday lives. Moreover, these notions try to prove the function of literature from different points of view - although connections can be drawn between the theories , which makes investigations of literary theory increase in difficulty, as the object of study does not have one specific function.

Walter Benjamin and the functions of art and literature

Figure 1: Aphrodite de Milo. Of Antioch, A. 150 BC - 125 BC.

Just as society does, the function of art evolves with time. A piece of art might have been conceived with a specific meaning at the moment of its creation, but the message conveyed might differ through the centuries. Walter Benjamin, philosopher, sociologist, and literary critic, explains this assumption in his book The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). In analyzing the role of the statue of Aphrodite through history, he comments on how the statue functioned as a ritual icon in Ancient Greece at the moment of its creation, but became a symbol of malice and corruption in the eyes of the medieval church many centuries later. In fact, the change of perspective introduced by the Christian religion concerning the naked body deeply altered its original reception. Through this example, Benjamin demonstrates how an artwork is not only affected by the artists who create it but also by the perspectives and points of view of critics who study them in different time periods. In this regard, a connection between history and the function of art acquires different connotations.

According to Benjamin, history is further linked to a work of art when its path through time is taken into account. In fact, he remarks that an important aspect of what makes a piece of art stand out is its history (1936/2012). A particular importance is attributed to an artwork that has been stolen or passed through the hands of a relevant historic figure. For example, the Gioconda gained more fame after it was stolen. With literature, this concept might be more difficult to apply since the book industry is not based on unique pieces. However, the historical surroundings do affect many written works; for instance, part of what makes Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid (19 BC) such a significant text is that it was a form of publicity for Emperor Augustus, who made sure it would achieve a higher rate of distribution through the Roman Empire, by promoting it as an educational book.

Figure 2: Mona Lisa. Da Vinci, L. 1519


Pragmatism follows a philosophical system described as a “theory of inquiry that included a particular method of truth and a specific method for determining it” (Gunn, 2014, p. 42). In pragmatism, the inferential and the possible play an equal role to the practical and verifiable; theorists do not limit themselves to what a work of art is but consider what it could be. This approach was conceived by the 19th-century philosopher William James. He replaced deductive reasoning, which is defined by psychologist P.N. Johnson-Laird (1999) as "a process of thought that yields a conclusion from percepts, thoughts or assertions" (p. 110), and initial presuppositions with imagination, defined as what an artwork could be instead of what it is. This idea of studying literature and art through possibilities requires examining them through history and the future, or at least, a possible future, since theorists must study and predict the evolution of the art form or of a specific work through the centuries. James' theory works by building a model of the environment (location and time period) where the piece of art is found, making the model work faster than the environment, and then predicting the results of how the environment might behave in response to the artwork (Egalanter and Gerstenhaber as cited in Greetz, 1973). For example, in considering a poem about Apollo persecuting Daphne made by a contemporary famous poet in New York, the pragmatist must imagine not only how it will be received in the present, but also its reception ten and twenty years in the future, and he must continue as far in the future as logically possible. Pragmatism believes in the open-ended nature of a world characterized by constant change (Perry, 2001). This links the philosophical notion with Benjamin’s theories so that during different time periods, art and literature will have different functions and will be understood in different ways.

Figure 3: Las meninas. Velázquez, D. 1656. - In this painting, Velázquez thought of an alternate form of painting a portrait, he chose to draw the point of view of the King and Queen at the moment of him drawing, making them appear only at the very end as a reflection of a mirror. Pragmatism mirrors this way of thinking.

Literary communication

Another element to further consider in the field of pragmatism is its relation to communication, an aspect that has been studied by researchers such as John Dewey, who focused his study on pragmatism as a result of social communication (Perry, 2001). He centered on pragmatism from a philosophical point of view, conceiving communication as casual language and not specifically the language employed in literature. A distinction is to be made between common communication and literary communication, as they have different aims and functions. Literary works may have a general purpose, as art does, to make the reader “think the unthinkable, say the unsayable, hear the unhearable, feel the unfeelable” (Gunn, 2014, p. 45). However, one must find an answer to the question of what the specific function of the language used in poems, plays, and novels is. Roman Jakobson, one of the greatest 20th-century linguists, believed that poetic language was made up of three different codes: the hereditary poetic language code (passed down as a tradition), daily language code (used in everyday life), and aesthetic code (what the writer adds) (Valencia, 1984). These three language codes constitute the building blocks of literary communication, and after identifying the code under examination, one must search for the effects that this specific type of communication has on the receiver. Valencia (1984) wrote, quoting Jakobson, that a text must be considered poetic when its words are not just a way to denominate reality, but to generate ambiguity and autonomy. In brief, the words in literature must be able to make reality enter an identity crisis. Having taken Jakobson's theory into account, the proposed answer to the question of what the role of literature is when talking about literary communication would be that it is a piece of text capable of affecting the world that surrounds it, or at least able to make its readers question reality, making them reflective.

Figure 4: The Boyhood of Raleigh. Millais, J. E. 1870. The painting depicts the famous explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh listening to the tales of a mariner. Is the mariner using common communication of poetic language?

Unlike math or biology, the function of literature is constantly changing and that makes the study of literary theory difficult. Literature, with its intrinsic nature as the art form it is, builds itself from interpretation. As John Harker states in his article (1988) “meaning is seen to be generated by the reader acting on the text” (p. 5). Since it is the reader who acts upon the text, all institutionalizations and canons are to be condemned because interpretations of texts vary through time; novels, plays, and poems that at a time were considered essential texts might now be forgotten. That is why pragmatism plays a role of the utmost importance - it leaves the door open for many possibilities of interpretations and evolutions in works of literature. One of the few unchangeable notions in literature is “literary communication,” - how a piece of text is capable of affecting the world that surrounds him or makes the reader question reality - , but it only becomes immutable if the term avoids a fixed definition, since art and literature, as this article has shown, are in constant change, gaining new interpretations and perspectives with the passage of time.


Benjamin, W. (2012). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Prism Key Press.

Greetz, C. (1973). The Interpretations of Cultures. Basic Books.

Gunn, G. (2014). Is there a pragmatist approach to Literature? Complutense Journal of English Studies, 22, 41–49.

Harker, W. J. (1988). Literary communication: The author, the reader, the text. The Journal of Aesthetic Education, 22(2), 5–14.

Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1999). Deductive reasoning. Annual Reviews Psychology, 50, 109–135.

Jurado Valencia, F. (2004). Roman Jakobson: el lugar de la función poética. Universitas Humanistica, 28, 79–88.

Perry, D. K. (2001). American Pragmatism and Communication Research (1st ed.). Routledge.

Visual References:

Cover figure: Renoir, P. A. (1880). Young Woman Reading an Illustrated Journal [Painting]. Risd Museum.

Figure 1: Of Antinoch, A. (130BC.-100BC.) Aphrodite de Milo. [Sculpture]. Louvre.

Figure 2: Da Vinci, L. (1519). Mona Lisa [Painting]. Louvre.

Figure 3: Velázquez, D. (1656). Las meninas [Painting]. Museo Del Prado.

Figure 4: Millais, J. E. (1870). The Boyhood of Raleigh. [Painting]. Tate Museum.

Author Photo

Alejandro Cabrera Martínez

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