Content and Form

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Content and Form


interrelated philosophical categories. Content, the aspect that determines the character of the whole, is the sum of all the components of an object—its properties, internal processes, relations, contradictions, and tendencies. Form is the internal organization of content. The relationship of content and form may be described as a unity, as almost a transition of one into the other. However, this unity is relative. Of the two interrelated categories, content represents the mobile, dynamic aspect of the whole; form involves the stable connections of an object. Disparities between content and form are ultimately resolved by the “shedding” of the old form and the emergence of a new one, adequate to the developing content.

The categories of content and form originated in classical Greek philosophy. The first well-developed concept of form was elaborated by the Greek atomists, who believed that form expresses one of the most important determinants of atoms and defines the spatial organization of the structure of a body. In the history of philosophy, the category of content is represented by the concept of matter, the primary material substratum for all changes. Plato regarded form as the real determinant of a body as an entity existing independently of the world of natural things. Resolving the problem of the relationship of the world of forms (ideas) to the world of material things from an idealistic position, Plato assumed that sensory things arise from the interaction of form and matter, with form playing the determining, active role.

The most highly developed classical concepts of content and form were elaborated by Aristotle, who stated that form is the determinant of material things and that corporeal substance constitutes the unity of form and matter, or formed matter. However, in his consideration of the universe as a whole, Aristotle re-cogized the existence of unformed matter and nonmaterial form, which exists independently of matter and originates in the “form of forms,” or god.

G. Bruno was the first modern philosopher to attempt to overcome the idealism in the concept of matter and form. His ideas were developed by F. Bacon, R. Descartes, R. Boyle, and T. Hobbes. Descartes and his followers reduced the wealth of natural things to spatial dimensions and properties, whereas Bacon, taking into account the many qualities of matter, asserted the idea that matter has primacy over form but that the two constitute a whole.

Kant proposed the thesis that form is the organizing, synthesizing principle of matter, defined as a given sensory diversity. He reconsidered the traditional problem of the relation between matter and form but stressed a new aspect of it—the content and form of thought. To more adequately express the essence of the relationship between matter and form, Hegel introduced the category of content, of which form and matter are moments. Content consists of both form and matter. According to Hegel, the relationship between content and form is an interrelation of dialectical opposites, a mutual transformation.

K. Marx and F. Engels deepened Hegel’s distinction between the content and the material substratum of a thing (matter). According to the classical Marxist writers, content constitutes not the substratum per se but its internal state, the totality of the processes that characterize the interaction of the constituent elements of the substratum with each other and with the environment and that determine their existence, development, and replacement. In this sense, content is a process.

Dialectical materialism conceptualizes form as a structure that develops and comes into being. According to Marx, it is necessary “to trace the genesis of various forms” and to understand “the various stages of the real process by which forms are created,” while taking into account the objective subordination of content and form (Teorii pribavochnoi stoimosti, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 26, part 3, p. 526).

Elaborating on the Marxist analysis of the characteristics of development as a struggle between content and form, the constituent moments of which are the transformation of content into form and form into content, and the “filling” of the old form with new content, V. I. Lenin formulated the important thesis that “any crisis, even any turning point, in a development inevitably leads to a discrepancy between the old form and the new content” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 27, p. 84). For example, during the stage of imperialism, capitalist production relations, which constitute a form of the productive forces of capitalist society, lag behind and impede the development of the productive forces. There are various ways of resolving the contradictions between content and form. The old form, which no longer corresponds to the new content, may be completely cast aside. If the old form is used despite considerable changes in the content, the form does not remain unchanged, and the new content “can and must manifest itself in any form, both new and old; it can and must regenerate, conquer, and subjugate all forms, not only the new, but also the old” (ibid., vol. 41, p. 89).

Dialectical materialism bases its consideration of the problem of the interrelation of content and form in thought on the principle that thought reflects the objective world as both content and form. The content of thought includes diverse determinants of reality that are reproduced by consciousness, including the most general connections and relations, which assume specific logical functions under certain conditions and appear as the forms of thought. The categorical structure of thought develops as knowledge develops. As the content of thought becomes fuller, deeper, and more comprehensive, thought assumes more developed, more concrete forms.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 158–59,280–368; vol. 2, p. 143.
Man’kovskii, L. A. “Kategoriia formy i cc aspekty (Iz logicheskikh kommentariev k ’Kapitalu’ K. Marksa.”) Nauchnye doklady vyssheishkoly: Filosofskie nauki, no. 3,1958.
Lektorskii, V. A. Problema sub”ekta i ob”ekta v klassicheskoi i sovremennoi burzhuaznoifilosofii. Moscow, 1965.
Mamardashvili, M. K. Formy i soderzhanie myshleniia. Moscow, 1968.
Naumenko, L. K. Monizm kak printsip dialekticheskoi logiki. Alma-Ata, 1968.
Art. In art, content and form are categories designating the basic aspects of artistic works and art in general. These categories are necessary to each other and are dialectically interrelated in artistic creativity and in the history of art. The principal criterion for distinguishing the two categories is the intellectual character of content, as opposed to the material character of form. Content includes the elements of a work of art that express a knowledge and an intellectual and emotional evaluation of the essence of vital phenomena (the theme), as well as the artist’s attitude toward these phenomena (the idea underlying a work).
Form is conventionally divided into two strata—external and internal. External form depends directly on the medium of a particular type of art (auditory, verbal, plastic, or postural). Thus, the elements of external form differ, depending on the type of art (for example, alliteration, rhyme, and stanzas in poetry; harmony and polyphony in music; line and color in painting; and architectonics and the shaping of space in architecture). Internal form is more closely related to content and serves as its immediate, formal concretization. The main elements of internal form may be the character of the protagonists and the theme in epic poetry and drama, melodic themes in music, and the types of nature depicted in landscape painting or poetry.
Content and form have a complex internal structure that determines the structure of an entire work of art. The structure is hierarchical, with components of varying importance. On the whole, content is the main, determining aspect of a work, because an art work is created to embody the artist’s thoughts and feelings about life and to convey them to others. Form, the means by which a particular problem is solved, depends on and is determined by content. Therefore, the first function of form is communicative. It is the “language” in which content is expressed and through which it can, as L. Tolstoy remarked, “infect” people.
At the same time, form has a relatively independent aesthetic value in art, because it expresses the artist’s mastery, his skillful domination of the medium. Consequently, the perception of a work of art is an extremely complex psychological process that includes the appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of form, the comprehension of form as a special language expressing content, the experiencing and intellectual understanding of content, and comprehension and assimilation. Finally, there is a moment of participation in the act of artistic creation, for the spectator must, to some extent, actively use his imagination to add to the form of the created object, thereby enriching its content. This is known as the phenomenon of the “information increment” in artistic perception.
In art, as in all other spheres of existence and human activity, form depends on and “serves” content, but it also plays an extraordinarily active role in art, exerting a decisive, retroactive influence on content. Consequently, the “correspondence between form and content,” or their unity (harmony), is usually regarded as a criterion of artistic merit. In this context, it is necessary to emphasize that content and form cannot merge organically unless content has artistic and poetic value and form has aesthetic value.
The content and form of a particular artistic creation merge, becoming an entity. Thus, it is impossible to transfer the content of an artistic creation to another nonartistic form (an article or sketch) or even to another artistic form. Every change of form in art leads to a change in content, and every change in content requires a fundamental modification of form. However, the content of a scientific treatise, a technical project, or an ideological publication can be recoded in various ways without losing any information.
Marxist-Leninist aesthetics is critical of metaphysical ideas that reduce art either to pure form or to pure ideology. Formalism in art originates as an attempt to elevate the relative independence of form into an absolute principle or to make form a value in itself, with a purely aesthetic meaning. The other extreme, which neglects the aesthetic value of form and ascribes value only to content, is equally destructive of art.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Ob iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1967.
Lenin, V. 1. O literature i iskusstve. Moscow, 1969.
Hegel, G. W. F. Sochineniia, vol. 12. Moscow, 1938.
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Vinogradov, I. Problemy soderzhaniia i formy literaturnogo proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1958.
Goranov, K. Soderzhanie i forma v iskusstve. Moscow, 1962.
Kagan, M. S. Lektsii po marksistko-leninskoi estetike, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1971.
Kagan, M. S. “Bibliograficheskii ukazatel’.” In Lektsii po marksistko-leninskoi estetike, ch. 9, sec. 2. Leningrad, 1966.
Bakhtin, M. M. Voprosy literatury i estetiki. Moscow, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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