Schleiermacher: Common sense alternative to the New Critics and other text-obsessed thinkers.


As every discourse has a two-part reference, to the whole language and to the entire thought of its creator, so all understanding of speech consists of two elements—understanding the speech as it derives from the language and as it derives from the mind of the thinker.

Every discourse depends on earlier thought.

It follows that every person is on one hand a locus in which a given language is formed after an individual fashion and, on the other, a speaker who is only able to be understood within the totality of the language.

Grammatical and Psychological are completely equal: the psychological is the superior only if one views language as the means by which the individual communicates his thoughts; the grammatical is then merely a cleaning away of temporary difficulties. The grammatical is the superior if one views language as stipulating the thinking of all individuals and the individual’s discourse only as a locus at which the language manifests itself.

Only by means of such a reciprocity could one find both to be completely similar.

Exposition is an art. Every part stands by itself. Every composition is a finite certainty out of the infinite uncertainty. Language is an infinite because every element can be determined in a specific manner only through the other elements.  And this is also true for the psychological part because every perspective of an individual is infinite; and the outside influences on people extend into the disappearing horizon. A composition composed of such elements cannot be defined by rules, which carry with them the security of  their applications.

Should the grammatical part be considered by itself, one would need in some cases a complete knowledge of the language, or, in others, a complete knowledge of the person. As neither can ever be complete, one must go from one to the other, and it is not possible to give any rules as to how this should be done.

The text is not always the focus of attention. Otherwise the art would only become necessary through the difference between text and discourse; that is to say, by the absence of the living voice and by the inaccessibility of other personal influences.




The office of philosophical disquisition consists in just distinction; while it is the privilege of the philosopher to preserve himself constantly aware, that distinction is not division. In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having so done, we must then restore them in our conceptions  to the unity, in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy. A poem contains the same elements as a prose composition; the difference therefore must consist in a different combination of them, in consequence of a different object proposed. According to the difference of the object will be the difference of the combination. It is possible, that the object may be merely to facilitate the recollection of any given facts or observations by artificial arrangement; and the composition will be a poem, merely because it is distinguished from prose by meter, or by rhyme, or by both conjointly. In this, the lowest sense, a man might attribute the name of a poem to the well known  enumeration of the days in the several months: “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November, etc.” and others of the same class and purpose. And as a particular pleasure is found in anticipating the recurrence of sounds and quantities, all compositions that have this charm superadded, whatever be their contents, may be entitled poems.

So much for the superficial form. A difference of object and contents supplies an additional ground of distinction. The immediate purpose may be the communication of truths; either of truth absolute and demonstrable, as in works of science; or of facts experienced and recorded, as in history. Pleasure, and that of the highest and most permanent kind, may result from the attainment of the end; but it is not itself the immediate end. In other works the communication of pleasure may be the immediate purpose; and though truth, either moral or intellectual, ought to be the ultimate end, yet this will distinguish the character of the author, not the class  to which the work belongs. Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil, from disgust and aversion!

But the communication of pleasure may be the immediate object of a work not metrically composed; and that object may have been in a high degree attained, as in novels and romances. Would then the mere superaddition of meter, with or without rhyme, entitle these to the name of poems? The answer is, that nothing can permanently please, which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise. If meter be superadded, all other parts must be consonant with it. They must be such, as to justify the perpetual and distinct attention to each part, which an exact correspondent recurrence of accent and sound are calculated to excite. The final definition then, so deduced, may be thus worded. A poem is that species of composition, which is opposed to works of science, by proposing for its immediate object pleasure, not truth; and from all other species (having this object in common with it) it is discriminated by proposing to itself such delight from the whole, as is compatible with a distinct gratification from each component part.


Do you know why art and poetry used to be really beautiful?  Because of thinkers like the two above.  To put it as simply as possible, they understood parts, and how parts relate to the whole.

Schleiermacher (b. 1768) makes a useful distinction between two vital aspects of writing: Psychological and Grammatical. Philosophers tend to get bogged down in one or the other; they become obsessed with text, and forget the “living voice,” or they become excited by various insights of their own (think of typical modernist extravagances: Gertrude Stein, John Cage, Charles Olson, etc) which don’t translate into speech that is scientifically sound (we don’t usually think of grammar as scientific, but it is).

Coleridge offers wisdom to both sides of the verse/free verse/what is poetry? debate: poetry is not an empty shell of metrics, but neither is it truth-telling prose—the end of poetry involves three things: pleasure, unity, and the compatibility of each part with its unity in the communication of that pleasure. One can see how metrics may very much be involved in this end—or not. One can also see how the pretentious poetaster of prosey ‘truths’ will not get much of a hearing.  Poetry is difficult to define; Coleridge may have come closest.



%d bloggers like this: