Psychological School

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Psychological School


a trend in literary criticism that originated in Western Europe and Russia during the last third of the 19th century and reflected the general turn of sociology, philosophy, and aesthetics toward psychologism.

Revising and developing the ideas of the school of cultural history and the biographical method, the psychological school placed itself in opposition to speculative (general philosophical) aesthetics, including classical German aesthetics. For the psychological school, the main object of study became the inner, psychological aspect of creativity, particularly the inner life of the author. Emphasis was placed on this inner life of the artist since, in the words of W. Wundt, one of the founders of this school, art “expresses all that man bears within himself, both impressions of the external world and his own inner movements of the soul” (Osnovy iskusstva, St. Petersburg, 1910, p. 7). The artist creates for himself: embodying in images the thoughts, feelings, and moods that torment him, he thereby frees himself from them, and the work itself becomes a model of its creator’s soul. All distinguishing characteristics of the work are deduced from the distinctive features of the artist’s personality, and the differences between works are explained by the differences in experience and psychological types (poets of expressiveness and poets of embodiment, artist-observers and artist-experimenters). The historical development of art (literature) and its determination by social factors were relegated to the background.

Members of the psychological school did not acknowledge the objective nature of the content of art: art was always an elusively fleeting process, inasmuch as it was generated by the reader himself and depended on the reader’s own unique life experience. “The achievement of the artist is not to be found in that minimum of content which he conceived while creating but in a certain flexibility of the image, in the power of the internal form to suggest the most heterogeneous content” (A. A. Potebnia, Mysl’i iazyk, Kharkov, 1892, p. 187).

In Western Europe, the psychological school was represented by such literary critics as S. Girardin, E. Hennequin, and W. Wetz, as well as aestheticians and art historians, including Wundt, E. Elster, and J. Volkelt. At the turn of the 20th century, the psychological school gave way to the schools of intuitivism and psychoanalysis.

In Russia, the first to expound the school’s ideas was A. A. Potebnia (Thought and Language, 1862). The school’s ideas were later taken up by Potebnia’s disciples, including D. N. Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, A. G. Gornfel’d, T. Rainov, and M. S. Grigor’ev, and the journal Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii (Questions of Philosophy and Psychology, 1899–1918). The school as a whole ceased to exist in the 1920’s.

Although they adopted the legacy of Potebnia and the psychological school, Marxist scholars criticized the school’s absolutist stance on the subjective side of art, its assertion of the unlimitedness of interpretations of an artistic idea, and its underestimation of the historical dynamics of art.


Ovsianiko-Kulikovskii, D. N. Voprosy psikhologii tvorchestva. St. Petersburg, 1902.
Müller-Freinfels, R. Psychologie der Kunst, vols. 1–2, Leipzig, 1922–23.


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