László Halász

Who's afraid of Siegfried Schmidt?

   
             
 
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When Fechner (1897) established experimental psychology and experimental aesthetics practically simultaneously, he sharply confronted inductively-empirically based aesthetics with a deductive-normative philosophical one. In this frame, however, »empirical« is a wider notion than »experimental«, and for a psychologist dealing with arts it has meant an unambiguous engagement. It has meant a break with a speculative approach from an »armchair«, and has connected theorizing with a systematic data-gathering verifiable by others.

Thus, for me as a (social) psychologist interested in studying literary understanding, »studying« has always been obviously equivalent to investigating the phenomena in question empirically based on some theoretical considerations and putting forward a theoretical construction based on some empirical considerations. But during my research work I soon had to face up to the evidence of my own eyes, evidence of which literary scholars were unaware. And I had to see at best they did not understand the role and possibilities of the empirical study of the psychology of literary understanding owing simply to their lack of relevant knowledge. Usually their attitude was categorically negative or mistrustful they denied the need for such an area of science and/or thought it empty play. They were certain that what such psychological studies could discover was already known to them, or that it was not worth knowing.

It is easy to imagine how much I was encouraged when nearly two decades ago I first read the attractive phrase: »empirical study of literature«, coined by Siegfried Schmidt. At that moment without knowing anything definitive as to what the phrase really meant, I felt just the opposite of Moliere's famous protagonist who was unaware that he had been speaking in prose his whole life. My idea was that I had been working - of course, not alone - on the empirical study of literature even before its foundation. By the way, this idea was correct. At the time of ESL's founding, Klemenz-Belgardt's paper (1981), which referred to more than a hundred items based only on studies in the US, gave a picture of the wide spectrum of related activity.

No doubt that there were some psychologists, sociologists and linguists dealing with literature who first thought, as I did, that ESL was practically an interdisciplinary legitimacy of the approaches and efforts they had tried mainly in the previous four decades. Naturally, we all recognized that systematic interdisciplinarity might contribute to enlarging knowledge of both literary scholarship and psychology, sociology and linguistics.

But on reading Schmidt's main ideas it quickly became clear that he required something different. ESL is not »an empirisation of literary studies which tries to solve old questions with new (...) methods« ESL »tries to look through new glasses at a much broader and partially innovative field of problems (in the LITERATURE-system) which (...) intends to solve as far as possible and reasonable with empirical methods« (Schmidt 1981, 324).

I am afraid that the consequences of this cautious but clear proposition on how to deal with empirical methods were more significant than Schmidt could have realized at that time. Considering the fact that nobody could predict where the limits of possibility and reasonableness were, »empirical men« like myself have tried to show heightened interest in Schmidt's ideas and Schmidt has to some extent reciprocated. To avoid any exaggeration, I mean to say that his interest was at least greater than that of the majority of literary scholars who followed »a hermeneutic tradition (in the broad sense)«, to use his phrase (Schmidt 1997, 140). This reciprocity was more than enough for these literary scholars not to accept ESL. And we should not forget that this was only one factor (see below). Thus, ironically the interdisciplinary legitimacy within ESL, instead of contributing to the organic embedding of the empirical sociological, psychological and mathematical-linguistic studies of literature on the one hand, and of Schmidt's (and his closest colleagues') work on the other hand, into literary scholarship, has institutionalized the sharp borderlines.

When I began my research work I was rather uncertain about many issues but there was one point on which I had no doubt. Namely, I thought that I knew what a literary work was. (Nowadays - with some exaggeration - I could say that this is the very point on which I have nothing but doubts.) I thought my task was to find reliable ways to ascertain how a reader could identify the meaning of it, or if he/she could not, then what sort of (personality) traits could be shown. Within some years I had to realize that this was not a fruitful idea. It was more instructive when by systematic falsifying-simplifying an unambiguously literary (according to judgment of experts) text from different semantic, structural and stylistic points of view I made a whole series of texts of the same topic and length partly along the dimension of original - banal, and partly along the dimension of fictive-nonfictive. I could study how a reader to whom the name of the author were not given and to whom all the versions (including the original) were unfamiliar was able to understand, remember and evaluate each of them separately, then compare them. During the seventies, to a certain degree I could see within the same frame of reference and within the same context how a highly educated expert group and a less educated, but not completely naive group of readers constructed meanings and values, or if you wish, constructed their own texts. This process and result were not only characteristic of the nature of their understanding but of that of the text-types themselves. (Following their publication in Hungarian in 1970s, I published them in English: Halász 1980, 1986 and in German: Halász 1993.)

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