Formal Method

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Formal Method


in literary scholarship, a view that form is the predominant element in literature and is capable of independent development. To a certain extent, the foundation of the formal method was laid by neo-Kantianism.

The formal method emerged as a distinct trend in the late 19th century, at first as a reaction to impressionist literary criticism and to positivist trends in literary theory and art studies, for example, the school of cultural history in literary scholarship. The formal method later became a theoretically based method of studying the inner (structural) laws of works of art.

The formal method was most clearly expressed in the West between 1910 and 1920 in H. Wölfflin’s theory of the representational arts and in the comparative studies of different fields of the arts made by O. Walzel in Germany. Their research was valuable in that it contained valid observations on descriptive (formal) typology. In literary studies, the formal method was represented in Germany by W. Dibelius’ research on the morphology of the novel and in Austria by L. L. Spitzer’s linguistic stylistics. The methodology of a number of variants of the formal method in the West amounted to a close reading of a work of literature that disregarded all extraliterary elements. In the 1920’s the formal method established a methodology of statistical description and rejected genetic and developmental approaches to literature.

An entirely different view of literature in terms of origin and methodology was that of the Russian formalist school (c. 1915–26), which was not based on the concepts of art studies but was oriented toward linguistics. This orientation was particularly characteristic of the Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOIAZ) and the Moscow Linguistic Circle. The theories of I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay about language as a functional system were reinterpreted to apply to literature. As a result, V. B. Shklovskii’s earlier mechanistic formalist poetics, which regarded a work of literature as the sum of its component devices, was replaced by Iu. N. Tynianov’s view of a literary work as a system of functional units, a concept typical of functional poetics.

At the same time, the formal method developed a new view of theoretical and historical poetics. Previously, form had been regarded as the only significant element in a work of literature; content had been viewed as irrelevant to the sphere of art. Now, general concepts of content as a component of form were developed and substantiated. According to earlier views held by the formalists, changes in literary trends resulted from altered perceptions of literature and from conflicts between existing, canonized literary schools and new, as yet unaccepted, literary trends. This viewpoint changed to a concept of historically conditioned shifts of genres and styles.

The representatives and supporters of the formalist school made valuable contributions to literary scholarship by examining a number of problems that had not been previously investigated. Their studies included works on the stylistics of speech and language (V. V. Vinogradov), on rhyme, metrics, and verse structure (V. M. Zhirmunskii), on the correlation between semantics and verse structure (Tynianov), on syntax and poetic intonation (B. M. Eikhenbaum), on rhythm and meter (B. V. Tomashevskii), on the linguistic innovations of the futurists (G. O. Vinokur), and on rhythm and syntax (O. M. Brik). Other important works by formalists were devoted to plot structure (Shklovskii), to the articulatory and auditory interpretation of artistic speech (S. I. Bernshtein), to the systemic description of fairy tales (V. la. Propp), to the phonetic principles of poetic techniques (E. D. Polivanov), and to the phonological study of verse and the semantics of style (R. O. Jakobson).

During the 1920’s the Russian formalists developed concepts that are still applied in structural poetics, information theory, semiotics, and machine translation. After 1925 the formalist scholars no longer limited themselves to their earlier approach. For example, their post-1925 theory of functional poetics recognized the inadequacy of the synchronic study of poetics and demanded that this approach be supplemented with diachronic study. As a result, the formalists went beyond the study of literature as such to an investigation of literary patterns within a broader context of literary milieu, social environment, and historical epoch, factors which in turn had their own patterns. Later scholars who agreed with the principles of the formalist school developed broader and more universally applicable methods of clarifying the unity of form and content.

In the West, such representatives of the Prague Linguistic Circle as J. Mukařovsky arrived at concepts similar to those of the Russian formalists. Some, such as Jakobson, for a time retained elements of the earlier doctrine of the formal method. In the 1920’s and 1930’s attempts were made to renew the formal method by associating it with the semantic analysis of I. A. Richards, which in England and the USA was called the New Criticism. In the 1940’s and 1950’s the formal approach was reflected in Switzerland in the interpretative methods of W. Kayser and E. Staiger.

The concepts of the formal method and of OPOIAZ have recently aroused great interest in the West, owing partly to attempts there to create a neoformalist methodology in literary theory and criticism. The advocates of the formal method have asserted that they have exhaustively revealed the essence of literature. However, these claims are unfounded, since the essence and true value of literature cannot be apprehended without taking into account the organic unity of content and form.


Shor, R. “‘Formal’nyi metod’ na Zapade.” In Ars poetica, 1. Moscow, 1927.
Voloshinov, V. N. [and M. M. Bakhtin]. Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1930.
Strukturalizm: “za” i “protiv.” Moscow, 1975.
Bakhtin, M. M. Voprosy literatury i estetiki. Moscow, 1975.


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