Textes et contributions |

« Écritures de l’histoire, écritures de la fiction » - Dossier issu du colloque 16 au 18 mars 2006

Between Immanence and Chance: The Contribution of Czech Structuralism to Historiography - Tomáš Kubíček

The concept of history, as elaborated by the PragueSchool, should really be a subject for an extensive monograph. It is a journey full of adventure, with many returns and detours. However, its basic principles are by now well-known in literary theory.1Thanks to developments in modern narratology, it has found an attentive audience and, along with that audience, a secure place in current theory. For this reason, I should like to concentrate here on only one of its aspects, one which is perhaps rather general, but which is, in my view, no less commanding. This concerns the reconstruction of stories based on historical events, with a focus on the underlying constitutive principle governing the selection of events and processes.

I will surprise no one by saying that from the narratological point of view, historiography – as a transcription of processes into history – depends on the structural development of a narrative assisted by a certain generic pattern that co-defines the selection and sequence of events to be narrated. Along with this generic pattern, the writing of history also depends on the author’s intention and activity (in the sense of valence) in relation to facts that, in themselves, have no significance and which are only encountered through a process of denotationand engagement. The process is executed by means of narrative, whether this is viewed from the point of view of intention or from that of reception. In transcribing history, we try to understand it, and we do so by retelling it. Understanding, as literary theory has taught us, is a process which takes place with the help of a unique form of signification, though not only with this. This process is accomplished through frames that help us find mutual relationships and links between events, and it helps us to understand the structure of historical development. But what is the mechanism that triggers this process – a process not only of events, but also of our reconstructions?

In an essay entitled ‘The Tasks of General Aesthetics’, dating fromthe early 1940s,Jan Mukařovský (2000, pp. 75–80),2 a prominent representative of Prague School structuralism, wrote: ‘The positivist period of scientific investigation has hitherto held allegiance to an absolute unidirectional causality: according to this, phenomena are linked together in an endless chain of causes and effects – a chain in which activity always corresponds with cause and passivity with effect’ (ibid., p. 75).3 Such a unidirectional relationship failed to satisfy him, for he realized that no phenomenon is merely related to another passively but also influences it. He therefore replaced the notion of causality with that of ‘mutual relationships’. In support this notion, he argues: ‘According to the causalist concept, no free initiative is possible except at the very beginning of a series of events; the subsequent sequence of facts follows automatically’ (ibid., p. 76). In Mukařovský’s theory of mutual relationships and mutual influences between phenomena, however, each subsequent stage of development is simultaneously obligatory and accidental – ‘obligatory, to the extent to which it is based on the previous stage, but accidental and therefore unforeseeable, because it cannot be decided in advance how far either of two mutually related forces will prevail at a given moment’ (ibid., p. 76). Mukařovský then went on to base his idea of historical development on this proposition. It was adopted by his disciples and through them influenced the further development of theory. The persuasiveness of Mukařovský’s view depends on the fact that he drew on structuralism to explain and validate this principle, using it as a cornerstone that had already been laid by Roman Jakobson and further developed in the work of Mukařovský, Vodička and Veltruský: a functionalist approach to reality. Within this framework, every event is constituted by a number of factors that, in practice, are either foregrounded or backgrounded.

Every human activity has three sides to itwith regard to reality: practical, theoretical and aesthetic, which are also the basic functions of human conduct. Within this scheme, the most basic side is one of practicality, based on the relationship of a human being to things: in the course of his activity, the subject exerts his will on the world of things. The will of the subject is projected into the world of things as the goal of behaviour, the thing is a mere means. This is a stance by which reality is simplified. The theoretical stance also tends towards simplification: it excludes the subject and focuses on mutual relationships between things for the purpose of generalizing them. Finally, the aesthetic approach separates the thing from reality: Mukařovský calls this a kind of ‘luxury that does not correspond with the basic interests of human life’. At the same time, however, the Prague Structuralists believed that this attitude of ‘luxury’ accompanied every human operation in every act of perception or creation.

Mukařovský’s theory of historical development was elaborated by his student, Felix Vodička,4 who introduced the principle of context, showing the active role of context in the formation of developmental tendencies. He emphasized that relationships between observed phenomena and their context, as well as relationships within that context, are not unidirectional but mutual. In Vodička’s structural concept of development, no possibility can be excluded in advance, and the result of a train of events depends only on the active or passive nature of the individual elements that brought it about. To understand a development, therefore, it is also necessary to investigate the mutual relationships that cause some elements to become active and others passive within it. But even the passive elements should not be ignored. It is remarkable how close the Prague Structuralists came to the concept of ‘counterfactuality’ in historiography, where it is asserted that in order to understand what happenedin historical development, it is necessary also to consider possibilities that did not occur. (See Ferguson: Virtual History. Alternatives and Counterfactuals, 1978)

Following Vodička’s and Mukařovský’s ideas, we can see history – comprising human acts to which Mukařovský’s functional framework applies – as a structure in constant flux. This applies not only to history as such, but also to our understanding and reconstructions of it. Developmental relationships within this structure not only depend on general rules (standards, laws) of development but may also result from modifications of them, or, in incidental cases, may show where they are inapplicable or fail. The PragueSchool anticipates here the arguments of pragmatist theorists, who take into the way context is used to establish premises for meaning.

Using these ideas as a foundation, it is possible to understand the mechanism of history. But what is the principle, the pivot on which history turns? In rejecting causality as a mere linking of events and in conceptualising history as a complex structure, we are still not provided with an answer. What determines the form of our reconstructions and of historical narrative?

It is at this point that the principle of smysl (‘sense’, ‘import’) enters the picture. The Prague Structuralists looked at the problem of smysl in close connection with the construction of meaning (význam) in a literary work, constructing a hierarchy in which the highest element is the ‘semantic gesture’, or consolidation of meaning. The concept of semantic gesture appears in Mukařovský’s work as part of the semiotics of the subject. He introduced it in response to psychological determinism, unidirectional positivism, and in dialectical tension with the intersubjective, which he understood as a network of interaction. From this tension a generally valid account of value and smysl began to emerge. Smysl is not itself individual, but is capable of absorbing the individual. Its components are the norms, values and taste of the period,togetherwith the possibility of contradicting them.

Following Mukařovský and Vodička, Miroslav Červenka5 speaks of a certain ‘universe of discourse’ to which smysl pertains, also comprising intersubjective ‘states’ or situations of human consciousness. It would seem that to understand the structural nature of history and historical development, we might use Červenka’s concept of ‘integral meaning’ (celistvý význam). Integral meaning issues from the basic structuralist postulate that a whole is not a mere aggregate of individual parts, but is extended with some kind of spatial energy. According to Červenka, integral meaning not only implies the juxtaposition of a multiplicity of disparate elements but should also take into account the ‘depth’ of the investigated structure. Such a structure is pervaded with tension between different levels ‘that, together, create a multidirectional and at the same time single energetic current, a cluster of mutual motivations’ (Červenka, 1992, p. 47). So in Červenka’s notions as well, the basic question of the Czech Structuralists in connection with smysl recurs: is smysl something potential, accidental or intentional?

As a consequence of Vodička’s theoretical ideas, smysl is connected to context. Thus to understand the smysl of a certain phenomenon or that of a historical development, it is necessary to activate the relevant context. But where is such a context located? Vodička’s suggestion was often interpreted to mean the original historical context: to understand the smysl of a historical phenomenon, we must locate it within the network of contemporary relationships of which it is the product. However, such an interpretation is somewhat one-sided, confirming once again the prevalence of reductionist causalism. Moreover, we must take into account that what we regard as the original historical context of a phenomenon is only a subset of our current context, which also reflects our current knowledge, understanding, interests and experience as well as the intersubjective relations of which Červenka spoke. The context of an original phenomenon or historical event also comprises the later interpretations that have accrued to it. Accordingly, the smysl spoken of by the Prague Structuralists becomes a complex structure of constantly varying relationships. Defining smysl therefore becomes a task of ‘concretization’, a task that, in Vodička’s opinion (and not only his), still lies ahead of us.6 The Prague Structuralists in this way examined the question of history, of historical development, in close connection with the question of the identity of a literary work. (The works of Felix Vodička are often cited by Hans Robert Jaussand other members of the Constance school.)

The problem therefore turned for them around the identity of historical development, or the identity of history. This question arose in connection with the term ‘immanent development’ (imanentní vývoj), introduced into the debate by Roman Jakobson. It bears on the attempt to confirm the identity of the work (as an event accomplished in a certain way at a certain time) in opposition to formulations in terms of psychology and sociology. The work, language and genre were investigated as if they had a life of their own; in this reading, the tendencies of development become the product of the properties of development. However, the Prague Structuralists soon realized the insufficiency of ‘immanence’ as a concept, and they thus located phenomena within the whole system of cultural and social relationships, thereby broadening and confirming their structural concept of history. Consequently, smysl becomes a structure, the product of intentions that are accessible to us through stories as frameworks for actions: in effect, stories represent a kind of minimal resource, transmitting conditions and motivations that serve as patterns for behaviour and actions. At the same time, smysl is a product of the potentialities which are part of its dynamic structure. Chance is part of this structure, representing a dynamic element that is capable of rearranging mutual relationships in favour of a possible smysl that thereby moves from the category of the potential to the category of the actual. Consequently, the relationships that generate smysl extend from the category of unique occurrences towards the category of general tendencies without disturbing the individual nature of smysl itself, a process reflected in its actualisation as a unique variant. In this view, smysl does not lie outside the structure itself, which is in a constant process of evolution, but as a constituent part within it, a potentiality. Hence the Prague Structuralists were able to frame the identity of a historical development in terms of the identity of its smysl – its creation of smysl– even though this was constantly subject to change.

To understand this process, through which a sense of historical structure is also generated, it is possible to use the term ‘transduction’ (transdukce), introduced into structural semiotics by Lubomír Doležel (see Doležel,1989 and 1998), to explain the changes in reception to which the original intention has no access. The content of smysl is in a continuous state of development, governed by the relationships into which it enters, so that the original intention of smysl changes in accordance with changes in context. Consequently, the theory of transduction integrates miscellaneous cultural activities into one complex model.

The philosopher Jan Patočka,7 who significantly influenced the thinking mainly of the third generation of the Prague Structuralists, uses the concept of structure in connection with human history, the basis of which lies in individual human actions that nevertheless point towards a smysl beyond the individual. In the structure of history, he makes a threefold distinction between action, convention, and consequence. An action in itself is, according to him, individual, but it adopts means (language, legal order, conventions or other rules) that do not derive from it.

The historical meaning of an individual action is based on modifying some of the objective intellectual features in its given, factual form. […] On the other hand, every contact between people, every mutual communication, collaboration or conflict, necessarily takes place through the medium of conventional forms such as language according to, or in contradiction with, certain rules governing contacts and conventions and making use of artefacts bequeathed by human actions. […]Each[operation] must have a subjective side through which it is incorporated into an action connected with an individual, each[operation] has one side reflecting conventional significance and another reflecting objective fact. (Patočka, 2002, p. 689)

In his study ‘Has History Smysl?’ (see alsoJan Patočka: Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, 1996),Patočka emphasises the important anthropological constant that becomes essential in the search for an answer to the question, whether smysl precedes or follows events. Patočka argues that any attempt to derive smysl from purpose and purposefulness means subordinating it to the category of causality, and he further claims that it is necessary to examine smysl in its mutual relationship with value. In his view, values show ‘that a being has smysl, and they [values] designate what endues it with smysl’ (Patočka, 2002, p. 63). These values (projected onto smysl), ‘that attract and repel us’, then cause ‘the being not to be an indifferent presence to us, but to address us, say something to us and to be subject of positive or negative interest’. For us, this implies that ‘things in themselves do not produce smysl (make sense), but their smysl is produced when someone gets it for them: so smysl does not originally reside in a being, but in this openness to, in this comprehension of them; a comprehension which is, however, a process’ (ibid., p. 64). At the same time, however, smysl ‘is not perfectly clear by itself, but must be won by a construction that will discover what originally prevents us from seeing, what shields it, distorts it, obscures it’ (ibid., p. 62).

‘Are not we ourselves, then, those who give smysl to things?’, asks Patočka. And he replies:

Each individual smysl points to a general one, each relative smysl to an absolute one. As smysl is inseparable from our openness to things and their potential for meaning, it is possible to say that where such openness is absent, the world cannot address us, and that consequently human life as existence in the world is impossible. Furthermore, this implies that human life is impossible without a belief, whether naïve or acquired critically, in an absolute smysl, in an overall smysl of a universe of being, life and actions. […] The antinomy of sense (smysl) and senselessness (nesmyslnost), of smysl and being, thus seems to indicate that life is possible only through a constant illusion of total smysl which, at a certain level of experience, proves to be an illusion. (ibid., p. 67)

It is not my intention to move to an even higher level of abstraction through Patočka. However, in his determination of smysl, an important contradiction – which can also be observed in the concept of smysl offered by the Prague Structuralists – comes to light and, at the same time, a possibility of resolving this contradiction. On the one hand, smysl sets us a task (we are challenged to produce it) while on the other hand, we cannot understand it without activating the context that belongs to it and that produces it, one that – at least partly – resides in the original historical context. Or to put it in another way: we cannot create smysl, but only search it out. In this search, however, an element of subjectivity is present. Smysl is therefore intention and potentiality at the same time.

In an exaggerated form, we can encounter the consequence of this antithetic tension in the work of contemporary historians who assert that the history we write is always, and without exception, invented. To understand this assertion as offering an almost unbridled licence in the writing of history, is, however, to vulgarise the structuralist concept of smysl. It is precisely the projection of the unique into the absolute that uncovers the need to recognize the way in which human behaviour is generalized, one that should be aiming towards smysl. This projection, as a generalizing of behaviour, is capable of resolving the above-mentioned conflict and of saving us from epistemological scepticism. Here, the interdisciplinary intersection of narratology and cognitive theory can come to our aid. These disciplines tell us that our own actions and our recourse to smysl depend on the activation of frameworks of behaviour available to us as a result of our observation of the behaviour and actions of others. These frameworks are a type of socio-cultural experience framed as stories, immediately available to us, that serve to model our behaviour.

We use these frameworks (cognitive frames8) to understand the behaviour of others, but also to make our own behaviour understandable. Now, is it possible that these frameworks overlap completely with individual behaviour, or that they also overlap with our own behaviour? We can activate the frameworks we have at our disposal to understand historical events that are also the consequences of people behaving or acting in a certain way, but we must do so with the knowledge that it is impossible to identify them comprehensively with an individual mind. If we were to rely completely on the activity of the framework, it would mean a nod to the causalist approach to history in which free initiative is possible only at the starting point of a chain of causality – in the selection of a framework – the remaining development then being purely mechanical. Nevertheless, our effort to gain access to this individual mind and its share in the production of history, and consequently also the effort to understand the mechanism of history as such by means of those possible frameworks, is not unjustified, as Patočka and the Prague Structuralists demonstrate when they speak of the prerequisites for meaning.

If narratology currently feels the need to specify a minimal level of narrative, this need seems to correspond closely with that of cognitive theory to define the minimal form of the framework for generalizing behaviour (see Turner, 1996): both of these concepts bear on the minimal conditions for generating smysl. These minimal conditions, then, are not a matter of mere causal or temporal-causal sequence; rather, certain values pertain to them by which events are turned into narration, by which these events are ‘narrativized’, as H. Porter Abbott (2008) convincingly claims.9(Fludernik, 1996, p. 33–35 et passim uses this concept, and also White, 1981; see Alber, 2005 for an overview).The Prague Structuralists point out that a human being is not an abstract subject embedded in a transcendental attitude towards being, but neither is he an unchangeable anthropological entitynor an unrepeatable individuality: he is a historically situated being in which individual and social powers are combined into a variable unity. Attempts to determine the smysl of history tend to show that social phenomena (nation, civilization, the work of art) are not subjected to an indifferent passage of time, but that these phenomena themselves bring timeunder subjection (see Grygar, 2006). The establishment of smysl as a sort of axis of continuity in history upsets the category of chance, as it were. But this would be so only if we were to rely upon a reductionist, materialist conceptualization of history in which smysl is closely bound to the idea of progress, thus becoming something given in advance, that merely generates events. However, for the Prague Structuralists, smysl is not given in advance, once and for all, but is generated only in the process of denotation. In this concept, chance is given its rightful place as a key element in a process of development in which ‘something new is created that was not completely contained in the previous phase’ (ibid., p. 44). Through chance, a space for the individuality of human participation in history, and also in the dramatic conflict between the subjective and the objective, impinges upon the tension between purposefulness and purposelessness. The Czech-French writer Milan Kundera also alludes to this tension when he speaks of the paradox of history that turns actions against their originators.10 Behind this tension, in his view, we hear the laughter of history: the intentions of actors are parodied by history, producing results that are neither desired nor intended. But it is precisely this tension that encourages us to learn to understand stories, and therefore also our own deeds and thoughts, and in this relationship it enables us also to understand the stories through which history functions.


Abbott, H. Porter (2008). The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative. 2nd ed. Cambridge/New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Alber, Jan (2005). ‘Narrativization’. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. Edited byDavid Herman, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan (pp. 386–387). London/New York, NY: Routledge.

Červenka, Miroslav (1992). Významová výstavba literárního díla. Prague: Karolinum.

Doležel, Lubomír (1998). Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doležel, Lubomír (1989).Occidental Poetics. Tradition and Progress. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Doležel,  Lubomír (2000). Kapitoly z dějin strukturální poetiky. Brno: Host.

Eco, Umberto,Richard Rortyand Jonathan Culler (1992). Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge/New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ferguson, Niall, ed. (1998). Virtual History. Alternatives and Counterfactuals.London: Papermac.

Fludernik, Monika (1996). Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology. London/New York, NY: Routledge.

Greenblatt, Stephen (2000). Was ist Literaturgeschichte?Translated by Reinhard Kaiser and Barbara Naumann.Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

Grygar, Mojmír (2006). Trvání a proměny. Prague: Torst.

Kundera, Milan (1986). The Art of the Novel. London/Boston, MA: Faber and Faber.

Mukařovský, Jan (2000). Studie I. Brno: Host.

Patočka, Jan (2002). „Mají dějiny smysl?“ In: Péče o duši III(pp. 61–83). Prague: OIKOYMENH.

Patočka, Jan (1996).Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History.Edited by James Dodd. Trans. Erazim Kohák. Preface by Paul Ricœur. Chicago, IL: Open Court. [French translation: Essais hérétiques sur la philosophie de l’histoire. Erika Abrams (trad.). Préface de Paul Ricœur. Postface de Roman Jakobson. Lagrosse: Editions Verdier, 1982]

Turner, Mark (1996). The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. New York, NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Turner, Mark (2001). Cognitive Dimension of Social Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vodička, Felix(1948).Počátky krásné prózy novočeské. Prague: Melantrich.

White, Hayden (1981). ‘The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality’. In On Narrative. Edited by W. J. T. Mitchell (pp. 1–23).


1 I am referring mainly to the functional semiotics proposed by thePrague structuralists: the distinction between work and text andbetween meaning and sense, the conception of the work as a sign and elaboration of the issue of the relation between the part and the whole within the framework of structure in which structure is defined as energia and ergon.

2 Jan Mukařovský (1891–1975), one of the founders of the PragueStructuralistSchool, literary theorist and aesthetician. He was trained in Russian formalism, which he reworked into the form of structuralism that can also be called functional semiotics. By 1948 he had nearly terminated his work, but after the communist takeover in that year, he publicly renounced structuralism and adopted the viewpoint of the Marxist literary science.

3All translations from Czech sources are my own.

4 Felix Vodička (1909–1974). Disciple and successor to Jan Mukařovský. He developed the thoughts of Prague structuralism in the 1950s and 60s and is credited with its new establishment in the Czech literary science. His main interest was in literary history, and his theory of reception influenced for example Wolfgang Iser, Robert Jauss as well as the whole Constance school.

5Miroslav Červenka (1932–2005). Felix Vodička’s disciple. His attention was devoted mainly to the theory of verse and semantic construction of a narrative work. Within the scope of semiotics, he concentrated mainly on the semantics and poetics of the literary work.

6While Ingarden understood concretization as a process which goes “above” the work and therefore destabilizes the identity of the textual meaning, Vodička understandsconcretization as a process in the sense adopted by Prague structuralism in which process is a result of the semantic movement of the work. (Mukařovský speaks about semantic movement in a rather metaphorical way, calling it semantic gesture, i.e., a gesture in which the reader follows with his act of understanding.) In Vodička’s approach, therefore, concretization does not go beyond the work but forms part of the constantly changing energy of the semantic movement of the individual elements of the structure. Concretization is thus part of the work’s identity. By entering the semantic field of a work, the recipient participates in this semantic action, providing the work with a unique sense which, however, is not definitive; the resource of this semantic movement must be the text. Vodička’s proposal is a precursor to concepts developed later by Umberto Eco or Jonathan Culler, for example, under the names interpretation, overinterpretation, underinterpretation (Eco, 1992).

7 Jan Patočka (1907–1977), Czech phenomenologist, disciple of Edmund Husserl and Martina Heidegger, one of the most important Czech philosophers of the 20thcentury. His ideas from the 1960s were echoed in the environment of the newly born Czech structuralism of the second generation.

8 The cognitive framework theories issue from the knowledge that any information processing, perceptual or symbolic, is mediated through a system of categories or concepts that represent models of the world. A model of the world consists of structures of knowledge determined by the individual and his or her social experience.

9There is one more topic, narrativity, that needs some mention in this chapter on the definition of narratives. From time to time so far, I have been using as examples tiny narratives like “I fell down” and “She drove the car to work” to illustrate how narrative works. And you may have understood in the abstract how the terms “narrative” and “story” apply to these strings of words. But given the way we customarily use these terms, it somehow does not feel right to apply them in these cases. One way to put this is that these narratives lack “narrativity.” […] Narrativity is a matter of degree that does not correlate to the number of devices, qualities or, for that matter, words that are employed in the narrative’ (Abbott, 2008, pp. 24–25).

10 his is a principle which is often thematized in both story and narration (by means of an essay) in Kundera’s novels. One of its forms can be found in the essay ‘Jerusalem Address. The Novel and Europe’ as well as in many of his other essays (Kundera, 1986, pp. 157–165).


flux rss  Actualités du CRAL

Musique en mouvement : sons et nouvelles mobilité

Lire la suite

Écologie de l'écoute et virage numérique

Lire la suite

Musiques en démocratie : acteurs, institutions, pratiques, discours

Lire la suite

flux rss  Actualités du CEHTA

Les psychogéographies d'Opicino

Lire la suite

Un Michel-Ange, des sixtines ? L'histoire de l'art à l'épreuve de la voûte de la chapelle Sixtine

Lire la suite

All the World's Futures. La 56e Biennale de Venise

Lire la suite

96 Bd Raspail - 75006 - Paris
Tél  : +33 (0)1 53 63 56 23
Fax : +33 (0)1 53 63 56 21
Contact : cral@ehess.fr

Responsable éditorial du site : Simone Morgagni

Écrire au responsable éditorial du site

dernière modification
27 février 2017 15h58