A matter of shared knowledge

by Alessio Nencini

September 12, 2011



The link connecting a reader to a text is so strong that we cannot consider the one without also looking at the other. All too frequently, literary reception is studied by focusing either on the textual features or on the reader’s dispositional characteristics, which come into play in the reading process. The present paper proposes an integrated approach: reader and text carry different kinds of knowledge in reading, which cannot be easily separated. This knowledge may differ according to the extent to which it is shared among readers, but it all contributes to construct the final literary meaning. Consequently, literary reception can be seen as the result of the action of both widely shared and less shared knowledge, which together produce nomothetic and idiographic forms of meaning.



A matter of shared knowledge. Possible theoretical integrations in the study of literary reception


In 1975 Norman Holland wrote 5 readers reading, trying to shed light on one of the most controversial questions of literary studies: why do people interpret the same text differently? The question might appear of little importance; one might quickly provide several possible answers. But behind that simple interrogative statement, there are fundamental aspects that regard various disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, cognitive and literary studies.

Literature is probably one of the most ancient form of mass communication; even today it is an appreciated form of art and is often used, by other disciplines, as an impressive example of an explanation (or rather, a description) of our world, our feelings, relationships, shared meanings and ideas. Thus, literature must be considered a significant part of our sociality and therefore, a relevant issue for all who are interested in studying the world and the people that live in it.

A literary work and the person/s who will receive it are connected by an indissoluble link. This means that to study one of the two elements, the other must also be studied because reading is essentially a process that regards both the reader and the text in a work of cooperation (Eco, 1979). Information that enters the interpretation process and contributes to form the reader’s complex representation of the literary work derives both from the text (and its features) and from the reader’s personal characteristics: the literary meaning is constructed as function of these two variables.

But even if we accept this perspective (and this is all but given!), we need to pay attention to the way the two parts come together and construct the final, specific, and maybe idiosyncratic result, that is the literary fruition. What is the “weight” of the text and of the narration? And how important is the role played by the reader in this interpretation process? If we want to study literary perception, literary criticism or if we want to use literature in our field of study, we need to answer these questions more precisely.

The two faces of literature studies

Coming back to the initial question posed by Holland, most probably if we asked one hundred people to read Joyce’s Ulysses and then asked them to give us a summary, we would probably obtain something close to one hundred different plots. This is because, as various authors have pointed out, every person has a personal experience of what s/he reads (Nemesio, 1999).

Some might say that each reader receives the text differently: others will say that readers re-construct the story in a personal way, while yet others will probably argue that different individuals will read the same book differently because the text is substantially undetermined and indeterminable. And, most probably, there will be further positions as to the causes that can explain the reception process.

Looking back on literary studies of the last decades, we might imagine an ideal continuum that goes from “text”, at one end, to “reader”, on the other and which represents how different approaches have defined the relationship implied in the construction of literary meaning.

Starting from the “text” end, we can identify those authors who considered the objectivity of the literary work as something incontrovertible. As stressed by the narratological approach (László, 1999), from the late sixties onwards, literary works, and in particular narrative prose, have formal qualities that can be studied and made explicit. With reference to the theories of the Russian Formalists, the literary work has been investigated as a source of secrets, looking for those characteristics that make them literary and show how the magic of literature works. The words that constitute a novel are not a simple sequence of pieces that form the whole, tidy points on a straight line; in their specific dispositions, they determine artistic possibilities, new dynamic correlations between events, representations, emotions that denote the difference between fabula and sujet (Propp, 1968; Vygotskij, 1971). Scholars’ attention was therefore directed towards what were considered the principle features of literariness, i.e. language, style and composition.

This approach to the study of literature has received criticism over the last few decades, but it has never faded away, especially among literary scholars. Even today, one of the most controversial themes in literary criticism is literary discourse and the attempt to assess whether literature is a fundamental category of discourse or a cultural formation produced during the last 200 or 300 years (Miall, 2002).

Returning to our imaginary continuum, if we jump to the opposite end, the “reader” end, we can find authors and theories that see the reader as the builder of meaning at the moment of reading. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (1953), meaning can be considered what a person puts into action as a response to how another person acts as a consequence of a previous action by the same person. Applied to literary reception, this concept can be used to affirm that the meaning a reader attributes to a literary text is what he/she will think or will do as a consequence of the thoughts and the emotions deriving from the reading of that particular text. In other words, what we call literary meaning is essentially dependent on the reader’s contingent reactions to the act of reading (Iser, 1978). This way of conceptualising the literary reception, which is completely centered on the reader, has led to a subjective criticism, in the seventies and eighties, with contributions from authors such as Bleich (1978), Fish (1970) and Iser (1978). The core of the subjective criticism, as it was developed, is that the text has no objective and observable qualities and therefore all that remains and that can be studied is the reader’s interpretation. Literary works induce the reader to participate in the comprehension of the literary meaning that cannot exist without the reader who constructs it.

More recently, this current of studies has led to the development of essentially two lines of interest, focused on considerably different aspects of literary reception. On the one hand, reader response research (Miall, 1990) considers the reader’s participation in both the production and the comprehension of a literary work as the core issue. Attention is therefore focused on the reader’s cognitive and emotional characteristics involved in the reading process as a whole and the specific processes that lead to literary reception.

On the other hand, the Empirical Study of Literature approach aims to broaden understanding of how people read texts, what affects interpretation and how literature functions as a social institution and a product of linguistic socialization carried out in the interests of social groups. According to this view, we can consider the literary system as a sub-system of a society regulated by socially shared conventions (Schmidt, 1982; 1992). As Fish (1980) puts it: “because everyone’s thinking is limited by the conventions he or she knows, people can never create completely novel or idiosyncratic interpretations” (p. 331). As a consequence, research interest must be directed to the social and psychological conditions of literary socialization and literary meaning formation (Viehoff, 1986). In this sense, the Empirical Study of Literature approach can be considered an interactive approach to literary understanding, where both readers’ interpretations and literary features of texts are equally important as they can be used as the objective empirical material to build up a complete theory of literature (László, 1999).

The core issue

As already mentioned above, in the last few years several disciplines have been studying literature from different perspectives. David Miall (2002) has recently pointed out that most studies produced by these disciplines have shown limited attention to questions of interpretation or literary meaning. Mainstream literary criticism has focused principally on the text and its features (hermeneutic approach) or on the cultural elements that affect literary production and reception (contextual approach).

Some could argue that it is since the 80s that we “know” that reading is the result of a work of cooperation between reader and text. Iser (1978) wrote that since interpretation is necessary to bring out the meaning of a text, the meaning cannot already be in the text. At the same time, if a text is made to communicate something, it must somehow control the way in which it is understood. But what is exactly that “something”? Although this statement appears to be substantially shared and accepted by scholars, there are aspects that still remain unsolved and unexplored. For example, the specific processes that regulate the relation between reader and text, the major (consistent) differences that can be observed on the basis of different groups of readers, different literary genres and the peculiar characteristics of a single reader.

Larsen and László (1990), for example, have shown the importance of readers’ application of knowledge derived from personal experiences in the appreciation of literature. They revealed the influence of the process of “personal resonance” (Larsen & Seilman, 1988) on the appreciation of a literary text and, in particular, the importance of readers’ cultural-historical knowledge, which may be brought to mind by a novel. Other studies revealed how readers’ interpretation changes in relation to various features of the text: Halász (2001; 2002), for example, analysed the different psychological responses given to fictional and non-fictional texts. More recently, Levorato and Nemesio (2005) pointed out the importance of the way in which the information is presented in the text and the subsequent “involvement during reading”, showing how the presence or absence of anticipations at the beginning of a text influenced the reader’s possible expectations towards the story and, as a consequence, literary appreciation (see also Levorato & Nemesio, 2003). Again, Kuiken and colleagues (2004) identified the personality trait “absorption” as a reader’s attribute that comes into play during reading and influences overall affective involvement, showing how those who are high in absorption were more emotionally participating, especially in particularly stressful passages of the story. Variations in the text features, as well as different readers’ attributes, are both involved in the final literary reception, but what is the link between the textual information and the reader’s use of that particular text? Is there any relation between the meaning embedded in a novel and the final meaning the reader constructs about that novel?

A matter of shared knowledge

The theoretical lines briefly described above show how hypotheses and expectations of literary studies are deeply affected by the theoretical assumptions of the underlying different approaches. The result is a number of research studies in different fields investigating literature, often with the interpretative lens of different disciplines, but which still do not share the central topic of what there are trying to investigate, i.e. literary meaning.

Literature and psychology share the attention, and maybe the aim, to examine, to describe and to interpret the whole of human experience. From the point of view of psychology, literature and literary studies have often represented and still represents both a source of psychological data and a theoretical source of insight for psychologists (Moghaddam, 2004; Contarello, 2008). But let us consider the possibility of the other way round, i.e. psychological theories as a source of insights for literary studies. Social Representations Theory (Moscovici, 1961/1976) is an appreciated meta-theory in social psychology that well describes how individuals construct, negotiate and share their experience and meaning to create a socially shared representation of their “reality”. In particular, Social Representations Theory propose a model of social knowledge in which new, unfamiliar phenomena are inserted into an existing system of categories that enable them to be part of coherent and culturally acceptable narratives (László, 1997). Without going into too much detail, the Social Representations Theory, especially in some of its further developments (Doise, Clémence & Lorenzi Cioldi, 1992), shows how different groups of individuals could share the same elements of a representation, but, at the same time, also introduce original elements that might give them a different position towards the object of representation. In other words, every individual can “use” the same representation as other individuals, and therefore can communicate with and understand other people, but always in a personal and idiosyncratic way on the basis of his/her own specific contribution to the representation. This contribution is the result of every person’s personal experiences and personal meanings.

If we take the theoretical assumptions of the Social Representation Theory and try to apply them to the literary domain, we could say that literary meaning is constructed by the single individual with reference to the other individuals of the same community/ies, to the text and its “visible” features, to the socially shared interpretations of that text and other more or less shared elements. In other words, there is a body of shared and shareable knowledge that gives a homogeneous basis of meaning. At the same time there are a series of less shared contributions that make the final literary reception a whole composed by aspects of sharing but also subjective specificities.

Literary meaning, therefore, can be seen as the result of the function of the reader’s action and of the text. The two actions are indissolubly intertwined and neither the one nor the other can be seen as separate aspects of the function. The reader and the text complete their duties only by working together, because as separate entities they cannot produce any meaning.

Nomothetic and idiographic

The terms nomothetic and idiographic were coined by the philosopher Wilhelm Windelband at the beginning of the 20th century to describe two distinct approaches to knowledge: nomothetic indicates a tendency to generalize, to derive laws that explain objective phenomena, and it is especially expressed in the natural sciences; idiographic refers to the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, accidental, and often subjective phenomena, especially in the humanities. More recently, within the psychological domain, the two terms were renewed to better adhere to the modern aims of the discipline: idiography was defined as the study of individual events and their specificities, while nomotheticism was intended as the study of common knowledge and groups, rather than universal and general laws (Lamiell, 1998).

Since reading is a social act, social actors and their tools construct literary meaning. As a consequence, the study of the literary reception process needs to be studied in its multifaceted aspects, both from the methodological and theoretical point of view. In other words, the whole and complex literary meaning should be studied focusing both on its idiographic and nomothetic aspects.

On this basis and with the aim of describing a point of view rather than presenting a model, it is possible to imagine many concentric circles that stand for different levels of sharing, which represents the co-presence of the possible elements that come into play in the reading process.

At the widest level we can find all the knowledge that is highly shared and that produces shared literary meaning among readers. We could therefore call this the “nomothetic” level, made by general relations and possibly common meaning. The smallest circle, i.e. the more specific level, is constituted by the less shared knowledge between readers: the kind of information that is subjective, personal or specific. Thus, we can call this level the “idiographic” level. Between the nomothetic and the idiographic levels of knowledge there are various intermediate elements, which refer to different degrees of sharing. The literary meaning, that is the complex meaning deriving from what we call literary reception, is constructed by assembling all this kind of information, coming both from highly shared and less shared knowledge.

For example, language is a highly shared tool within a community (even a large community, such as a nation): the possible semantic meaning of the words as well as the grammatical and syntactic rules that regulate the sentences are all shared conventional elements that lead to widely shared explicit information. The sharing of the linguistic conventions allows people to communicate with each other and make sure that when we speak with another person we can expect that, though he or she may not understand exactly what we are saying, at least he or she has grabbed the gist of our speech. The same is true for a literary text during reading. Authors’ concepts are inserted in a system of shared knowledge exactly as for their readers: the words written on a paper are not simply “specks of carbon” (Holland, 1975, p. 12), but the most powerful tool that an author can use to narrate his/her fictional world.

Scripts (Schank & Abelson, 1977), i.e. fixed sequences of actions directed to a goal, are another kind of highly shared knowledge, referring to a specific context. This means that a reader needs to know at least the final action that is described to understand the references in the text and make successful inferences. For this reason, scripts are a kind of knowledge that we can locate, on our imaginary stratified structure, a little away from the “nomothetic” level in respect to language.

Proceeding with the same assumptions, genre features (cfr. Todorov, 1990) are a less shared kind of knowledge needed by the reader; group knowledge, such as cultural-historical knowledge (Larsen & László, 1990) is again less shared information, and so on until we come to the more idiographic information like readers’ personal experiences, concepts and opinions (Nencini, 2007; Kuiken et. al., 2004; Klinger, 1978).

To sum up, during reading there will be some explicit and highly shared information, some that needs to be interpreted and some blanks (Iser, 1978), i.e. empty spaces left there by the author which must be filled in by the reader. In the end, the explicit information contained in the text is merged with the receiver’s internal meanings. This leads to a more or less idiosyncratic meaning in readers’ interpretations, depending on the importance (or salience) of the different kind of information involved. For example, in a recent research (Nencini, 2007) we investigated the complex representation that a reader (re)constructs in his/her mind about the main character of an Italian novel (“Pereira Declares” by Antonio Tabucchi, 1994), starting from how the character is described in the text. Results showed that readers evaluate the character differently from one another, although they all read the same novel. Readers used the information deriving from the text to reconstruct the protagonist in a personal way.

In other words, access to the same information produced a general representation of the character, more or less shared by each reader, which we can conjecture was based on some highly shared and common knowledge such as, for example, the Italian language and its grammatical rules, the possible semantic meaning of words indicating the character’s qualities, membership of the same social group, and so on…The final complex image of the character depicted through the evaluation task was connoted by each reader differently, on the basis of his/her personal opinions/positions towards the themes made salient in the story.


In the last few decades, researchers and scholars have tried to examine and use literary texts from different perspectives and with different aims. Unfortunately, it is still not clear which basic processes are involved in reading and which fundamental elements produce the so-called literary reception. Although it is assumed that literary meaning is something that must be sought in the pages of literary works and by asking readers about their literary experiences, the precise components that are called into action are not yet clear. It is like having a recipe where the main ingredients are listed without the quantities or the other ingredients.

The present paper put forward a possible integration at a theoretical level between different approaches to the study of literature. Our research shows the potential of such an integrated approach. The final evaluation of the character seems to be related to the way the reader sees him/herself, i.e. what the reader thinks about what happens to the character, what the character thinks, does, feels… Furthermore, the salience of the information available to the readers seems to be in correlation with the reader’s personal or shared interpretation. Overall, it is possible to emphasize the close interrelation between textual information and readers’ personal attributes and in particular the different degree of subjective interpretation of each reader on the basis of frequency of information (salience) and personal relevance of the themes narrated. We thus propose a plastic vision that comprehends different forms of shared knowledge. On the basis of the accessibility of the literary information, the various stylistic features of the novel, the cultural and social community to which the reader belongs, and other forms of more potentially shared knowledge, the reader “uses” his/her personal concepts to complete her/his final interpretation, or, as Iser might put it, to fill the blanks left (intentionally) by the author.

Through the text, the author of a literary work provides the reader with some information, the words printed in the book, which are explicit but that are not, at the same time, sufficient to perfectly communicate the same meaning in the author’s mind. This means that the reader, starting from the material acquired from reading, can construct some complementary meaning, which guarantees the idiosyncrasy of literary reception, but which cannot upset the global sense of the work.

It is something like a guided tour: the text represents the itinerary that must be followed, somewhat rigidly at some points, less so at others, in which the “visitor-reader” can observe this or that other object with varying degrees of attention, leaving some out and following the group to some particular masterpieces that are universally acknowledged. The visitor can either stop or proceed quickly, casting just a glance, or he can admire the landscape under a particular light or from different perspectives. At the end of the tour, all visitors will have seen the same exhibition, but each of them will have had a personal experience of it.


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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Alessio Nencini "A matter of shared knowledge". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/nencini-a_matter_of_shared_knowledge. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: September 12, 2011, Published: September 12, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Alessio Nencini