Gerald C. Cupchik

Siegfried Schmidt: Founder and Facilitator


In August of 1985 I travelled to the International Colloquium of Empirical Aesthetics that took place at the University of California in Santa Cruz. There I met Dietrich Meutsch and Reinhold Viehoff who were graduate students working with Siegfried Schmidt. Theirs was a world about which I knew nothing; not the themes nor the players, or even the venue. This should not be surprising given that I trained first as a social psychologist in the area of emotion and then as a postdoctoral fellow in visual aesthetics at the University of Toronto with Daniel Berlyne (1972-74). A year later, in 1986, Didi and I were sitting on a very hot summer’s eve by a lake 200 km north of Toronto. Didi told me that there would be a conference on literary aesthetics in Siegen the next year. My response was »that’s nice but what will I do there.« So he sent along reprints and I began to familiarize myself with the NIKOL group. In the end, it all fell into place and the conference changed the direction of my research to include studies on the reception of literature, advertisements, and media.

When we think about our involvement in academic societies, we realize just how central they can be to our professional lives. The International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature, that Siegfried was pivotal in founding, has provided an intellectual home where people who come from very different disciplines work together to advance our understanding of reception processes. This energy sustains us in academic environments where reception studies are on the periphery of the mainstream and where colleagues may not be all that interested in or supportive of our work. I believe that it was Siegfried Schmidt’s sincerity and purpose as a scholar that laid the foundation for IGEL which has become a home to so many of us. For this alone we are indebted to him.


It is always an interesting task to examine the development of someone’s ideas and place them in the context of personal intellectual growth. What were their primary influences and what changed the direction of their work? I had occasion to engage in this kind of exercise in 1986 ten years after the death of Daniel Berlyne (1928-1976) the founder of modern experimental aesthetics (Cupchik 1988). I examined some of his ideas in relation to an autobiographical interview that he gave to Roger Myers of the University of Toronto psychology department. Following a similar strategy, I have asked Siegfried about the emergence of his notion of polyvalence, and about relations between his constructivist approach to reception processes and the information theory perspective that was popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

Information theory took hold of the empirical imagination in the 1960s partly because it encompassed behavioural/cognitive psychology and the mid-century technological explosion centred around television and musical reproduction. Berlyne (1971, 1974) himself was very much influenced by the Franco- (Moles, 1958/1968) German (Bense, Gunzenhäuser) information theoretic school. For Moles (1958/1968), »the essential fact of all deterministic psychology remains the perception-reaction cycle« (p. 4) which of course is the stimulus-response model of behaviourism. Perception is shaped by »messages« which are conveyed to a receiver from the environment through a »channel.« »A message is a finite, ordered set of elements of perception drawn from a repertoire and assembled in a structure. The elements of the repertoire are defined by the properties of the receiver« (p. 9). Thus, technology creates transmission channels which are directed at sensory channels within the organism which are governed by psychophysiology.

»The essential fact here is that information must be considered as a quantity« (Moles 1958/1968, 19) that results in a representation of the world and which can be conceived in terms of originality, a concept of central importance for determining aesthetic value. Berlyne (1971) was attracted to this concept of uncertainty that »depends solely on probabilities or relative frequencies of events« (p. 39). The »actual amount of information conveyed cannot be specified until it is clear which choice was made« (p. 40). Therefore, »To have information about a particular object or event means to identify which of various forms it might take if actually realized« (p. 295). One sees the actual event against the background of what might have occurred; the lower the probability of the event, the more informative the selection is seen to be.

This approach to the notion of informative communication is limited by the fact that it is essentially probabilistic; the lower the probability of the choice (i.e., more options available), the more meaningful the particular selection. Further, the dual notions of information »channel« and »transmission« imply a kind of reification whereby aesthetic information is a thing that is somehow separate from the creator or the receiver. This brings to mind both New Criticism, that favoured a formalist analysis of structure in the literary work, and medieval notions of aesthetic communication in which aesthetic value, a kind of thing, was transmitted from the object to the receiver. The closed nature of this model stands in striking contrast to the open-ended approach favoured by more holistically oriented scholars in the 1960s and 70s who argued that systems are »multileveled« (Kreitler & Kreitler 1972) or »polyvalent« (Schmidt 1982), and »open« (Eco 1989/1962) to continuous interpretation.

Siegfried Schmidt (1992) has consistently argued against a simplistic notion of information transmission. Working within a constructivist paradigm, he maintains that »the perceiver and perceived interact and are reciprocally constitutive of each other. Given the theory-laden nature of perception, it cannot be rigorously distinguished from interpretation« (p. 218). The main point is quite simple: »the living system constructs its environment« (p. 218). As individuals within social systems, people incorporate a set of normative models of reality« (p. 219). Aesthetic conventions encourage people to treat particular events as having »values, norms, and meaning rules that are be constitutive of literature« (p. 221). Further, the polyvalence convention »accords an exceptional degree of freedom to agents operating within the literary pursue what they believe to be the optimal realization of their own subjective capacities for expression and response« (p. 221). Siegfried’s emphasis on aesthetic meaning as a relational product of text/reader interaction stands in marked contrast to Berlyne’s (1971) inconsistent views as to whether collative structural properties, such as complexity and orderliness, were formally in the stimulus or in stimulus/subject interaction.

This broader systemic approach to literary life distinguishes »between the system and its environment (Umwelt)« (p. 216). Pivotal to this analysis is the idea that »Social systems are self-organizing, for they establish, govern, and further develop themselves and are relatively autonomous as a result« (p. 217). This self-organizing tendency of a system also makes it self-referential because »it deals only with the conditions that it itself creates, and each instance of behavior becomes the basis for further behavior« (p. 217). Siegfried’s conceptual structure fosters an historical analysis incorporating literary production, mediation, reception, and processing. It is also of sufficient generality to accommodate »not only books but radio plays, videoclips,...and television images« (p. 216).

This overall analysis provides for a productive reconceptualization of the fixed text that is formally analyzed under New Criticism. Schmidt (1982) has emphasized the distinction between the aesthetic object as a surface text and as a communicative text. The surface text is a »physical apperceptual presentation« which consists of »distinct units that can be connected into chains, sequences, complexes...« (p. 26). It »constitutes a means of communication produced and recognized by the participants to which meanings, sense relations, and relevance can be assigned and which may be followed by further actions. If the uttering of a surface text by one participant actually brings others to carry out the above operations, we can designate the surface text as a communicative text« (p. 26). This lifts from us from any illusion of the physical text as the whole story. Rather, the physical text is left as an object which can be very large and illuminated or small enough to sit on one’s lap for a private reading. It can deteriorate over time or be converted into an image that degrades with lightening speed on the surface of a liquid crystal screen. What is left is of crucial importance; meanings that may be implied by the author using particular techniques (Iser 1978) and understandings that reflect the socialization and private experiences of recipients.

It is important also to appreciate that original ideas reflect emerging zeitgeists and this lends added confidence to their value. While Siegfried’s account of polyvalence is tied to a sociologically oriented analysis, Kreitler and Kreitler’s (1972) notion of multileveledness is more gestalt and psychodynamically oriented. They defined multileveledness as »the capacity of a work of art to be grasped, elaborated, and experienced in several systems of connected potential meanings, each of which allows a meaningful, clear, comprehensive, and sometimes autonomous organization of the major constituents of the work« (p. 295). Accordingly, the content and structure in works of art and literature are carriers of »a multiplicity of meanings and significations whose wholeness persists in the face of a variety of multileveled integrations« (p. 294). This complexity is parallelled by the observer who is able to grasp the »multileveled structuring« and »polysignification.« Further, »..regardless of whether the different levels complement one another, represent hierarchically more comprehensive meanings, remain autonomous, or tend to fuse within the framework of a more general conception, each level affords a view of the whole, without impairing the wholeness quality of the work« (p. 297).

The issue of multilevel processing is central to all areas of psychological and empirical aesthetics. Even information theoretic aestheticians like Moles and Berlyne have described the stimulus as multileveled. The fundamental level of physical/sensory information forms semantic or denotative information at a higher level. An alternative idea about multilevel actions was expressed by Hauptmeier, Meutsch and Viehoff (1987) who followed Kintsch's (1977) analysis of operations which are performed during an encounter with aesthetic objects. They provisionally accepted Kintsch's »levels as levels of sub-ordinated cognitive steps in the process of constructing coherent meaning and sense« (Hauptmeier, Meutsch & Viehoff 1987, 44). Higher levels provide the reader with a means »of mastering situations and events of a more complex and, of course, more abstract nature« ... »the more the process of understanding approximates the top-level, the more the degrees of freedom for mastering unexpected problems increases« (p. 44).


I was very happy that Siegfried found time to respond to my e-mail inquiries about the origins of his positions regarding systems theory, polyvalence, and constructivism. This material provides helpful background material for those who are unfamiliar with formative aspects of his theoretical development. In response to one of my letters this past Fall of 1999, he wrote:

»In your last mail you asked me to describe my way to systems theory and constructivism. It is not so easy to do that but I'll try. I have been prepared for that kind of thinking for two reasons, personal ones and literary ones. You may know that I have been working with the Wittgenstein staff for a couple of years in the early sixties. During my stay at Bielefeld University in the seventies, I came into contact with Niklas Luhmann who was my colleague in sociology, and with J. D. Sneed who came there as a visiting professor, and from whom I learned a lot about the non-statement view in the philosophy of science. Both were representatives of a systemic way of thinking and of a non-positivistic stance towards ontological and empirical questions. So in a way I was rather prepared when I came across the writings of H. R. Maturana in the late 70s more or less by chance - a friend of mine, W. K. Köck, was then trying to translate Maturana's nearly untranslatable »Biology of Cognition«.

During a conference in Madrid, I met von Foerster and von Glasersfeld, and both of them impressed me as warm hearted intellectuals who had a message to tell: the message of self-reference, self-organisation, and paradoxes, i.e. the constructivist message. It took quite a while until I really understood what they meant, I had to learn a lot about cybernetics and neurobiology, which was not too easy for a literary scholar. But I felt it was worthwhile, and since I got in rather close contacts and edited most of those three thinkers writings in German I learned by doing as it were. A turning point in this development has been the publication of the reader »Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus« in 1987. In a long editorial preface, I tried to epitomize the gist of constructivism. This publication was very well received and made constructivism known (and me as a constructivist, too). But at that time my own philosophical background started to remind me that the neurobiological and cybernetic stuff could not be the whole story. So in the nineties I started adding a socio-cultural complement to the biological constructivism which contained hitherto forgotten components like emotions, culture, and above all: the media. The result has been my book on »Kognitive Autonomie und soziale Orientierung«. The next step has been an implementation of crucial topics in the constructivist discourse, e.g. a constructivist notion of »empirical« (in »Die Zähmung des Blicks«) and a constructivist theory of media (in »Kalte Faszination. MedienKulturWissenschaft«, forthcoming).«

In response to my request for the origins and development of the notion of »polyvalence,« Siegfried wrote in a letter of November 9, 1999:

»I developed this concept [polyvalence] the late sixties and early seventies in articles and books, e.g. »Ästhetizität. Philosophische Beiträge zu einer Theorie des Ästhetischen«, München 1971; »Ästhetische Prozesse. Beiträge zu einer Theorie der nicht-mimetischen Kunst und Literatur«, Köln-Berlin, 1971; »Elemente einer Textpoetik. Theorie und Anwendung«, München 1974. None of these publications contains a reference to Eco. The two mutual constitutive concepts ›polyfunctionality‹ and ›polyvalence‹ were developed in outspoken contrast to cybernetic essays of that time (H. W. Franke, M. Bense, R. Gunzenhäuser) to define the aesthetical as an intrinsic property of the art work itself. Instead, I advocated the idea that the aesthetical (just like meaning) is a relational property emerging from the interaction between text and reader: If an art work is produced in a polyfunctional way, ie.such that it is systematically ambiguous due to its structural complexity, a reader is able to reasonably attribute to such a work various readings. This is only possible if a work of art is not pragmatically embedded, i.e., if it is not produced to serve a very specific pragmatic purpose. Only then is a reader able to relate it to vari[ous] possible contexts to constitute the (fictive) semantic text world representing his/her meaning attribution.

When I started to work on my »Grundriss der Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft« in the late seventies, I found out that we have to widen the perspective from texts and readers to text-reader-context-systems, i.e., to the social and the symbolic system of literature. This shift of perspective brought me to reformulate my previous ideas without abandoning the gist of my argumentation. So I reformulated polyvalence in terms of a convention exclusively characteristic for the literary system. This reformulation was designed in terms of a difference (mono/polyvalence). The polyfunctionality stuff was reformulated in the difference between fact- and aesthetic-convention which claimed that only in fictional discourses creative strategies of ambiguity were tolerated.«

We learn from these letters how chance encounters with insightful scholars provided Siegfried with stimulation for personal intellectual growth, taking him far afield from his original efforts as a literary scholar. Not only did he extend his field of interest to include neurobiology, cybernetics, and sociology, but he adopted the broad perspective of a systemic constructivist. Firmly grounded in the field of literary studies, Siegfried reached into other disciplines and nourished the roots of his central ideas.


And so here we have an account of some of the influences and experiences that shaped some of Siegfried Schmidt’s most important work. And how does one conceive of the legacy of a still very active scholar? To my mind we ask the question: How has his work or perhaps the institutions that he helped create shape the ongoing careers and thoughts of others? Let me suggest an important way in which my encounter with Siegfried and IGEL has shaped my own current thoughts. While I have not experienced his works in German, not speaking the language, I have a deep feeling for his constructivist viewpoint and continually revisit this theme in examining how I construct my own life-world. If Siegfried sees his work as extending outward beyond the individual into the Umwelt, then we can ask about how constructivism interacts with the Eigenwelt. How do we imagine the individual in an effort after meaning (Bartlett, 1932), always searching for cause, always being bombarded by the perceptual moment?

Interpretation is not merely a conclusion, but an ongoing process, alternating between the immediacy of experiencing and the distance implied by reflection. And what of the layers within; those that encompass a life history, both distance and momentary? And the body itself, that collection of lenses through which meaning gains it experiential form? These are the questions that are necessitated by a dialogue with Siegfried Schmidt’s constructs. In a sense, the constructivist metaphysic is a process, a never ending effort to peer through Husserlian brackets and find the self within, and without. Thanks always to Siegfried for prompting that search and providing a home within which to dialogue about it.


Bartlett, F. C. (1932), Remembering, London: Cambridge University Press.

Berlyne, D. E. (1971), Aesthetics and psychobiology, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Berlyne, D. E. (ed.) (1974), Studies in the new experimental aesthetics, Washington: Hemisphere.

Cupchik, G.C. (1988), »The legacy of Daniel E. Berlyne«, Empirical Studies of the Arts, 6, 171-186.

Eco, U. (1989/1962), The open work, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hauptmeier, H., D. Meutsch and R. Viehoff, (1987), Literary understanding from an empirical point of view, (LUMIS-Schriften 14), Siegen, FRG: Institute for Empirical Literature and Media Research.

Iser, W. (1978), The act of reading, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University. (Originally published, 1976.)

Kintsch, W. (1977), »On comprehending stories«, in: M. Just & P. Carpenter (eds.), Cognitive processes in comprehension, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 36-67.

Moles, A. (1958), Theorie de l'information et perception esthetique. Paris: Flammarion. [Information theory and esthetic perception. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1966.]

Schmidt, S. J. (1982), Foundations for the empirical study of literature, Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag. (translated by R. de Beaugrande)

Schmidt, S. (1992), »Conventions and literary systems«, in: M. Hjort (ed.), Rules and conventions, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 215-249.