Key Theories of Hans Robert Jauss

The phenomenological method of Husserl and the hermeneutics of Heidegger paved the way for what became known as reception theory. One of the foremost figures of reception theory, Hans Robert Jauss (1921-1997), studied at the University of Heidelberg with the hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer. In 1966 he became a professor at the University of Constance where, along with other leading proponents of reception theory such as Wolfgang Iser, he established the “Constance School.” One of his most important texts was Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory (1969, 1970), a refined version of a lecture he had given at the University of Constance as his inaugural address. In this text, Jauss challenged objectivist views of both literary texts and literary history, urging that the history of a work’s reception by readers played an integral role in the work’s aesthetic status and significance.

Part of Jauss’ purpose, as he states, is to bridge the gap between historical and aesthetic approaches to literature, the former exemplified by Marxism and the latter by formalism. The factor of the audience or listener or reader, he urges, is largely neglected in these approaches.1 He insists that the audience of literature does not merely play a passive or formal role; indeed, the “historical life of a literary work is unthinkable without the active participation of its addressees.” Literary studies have largely been confined to a “closed circle” of inquiry which has highlighted the processes of literary production and representation. This circle must be opened up to “an aesthetics of reception and influence” if we are to gain a coherent understanding of literary history (TAR, 19).


To begin with, we must overcome objectivist prejudices: instead of grounding the history of literature on so-called “literary facts,” we must ground it on the history of a work’s reception, on the succession of readers’ experiences of that work. A literary work, Jauss insists, “is not an object that stands by itself and that offers the same view to each reader in each period. It is not a monument that monologically reveals its timeless essence” (TAR, 21). Rather, literature is “dialogic”: it exists only in the form of a dialogue between text and reader, a dialogue whose terms and assumptions are ever being modified as we pass from one generation of readers to the next. As such, literature is not an object or a thing but an event and it can exert a continued effect only if readers continue to respond to it. Jauss uses the hermeneutic philosophical term “horizon of expectations” to designate the framework of expectations and assumptions that bring the worlds of reader and author together in the constitution and interpretation of texts. The “coherence of literature as an event is primarily mediated in the horizon of expectations of the literary experience of contemporary and later readers, critics, and authors” (TAR, 22).

Jauss counters the “widespread scepticism,” as exemplified in the objectivism of critics such as René Wellek, which assumes that any study of readers’ responses will inevitably be reduced to “an arbitrary series of merely subjective impressions” (TAR, 23). The responses of individual readers, he argues, do not occur in a vacuum but are situated within a horizon of expectations (a framework of assumptions) that can be objectified. The “continuous establishing and altering of horizons,” he urges,

determines the relationship of the individual text to the succession of texts that forms the genre. The new text evokes for the reader (listener) the horizon of expectations and rules familiar from earlier texts, which are then varied, corrected, altered, or even just reproduced . . . the question of the subjectivity of the interpretation and of the taste of different readers or levels of readers can be asked meaningfully only when one has first clarified which transsubjective horizon of understanding conditions the influence of the text. (TAR, 23)

Hence the concept of “horizon of expectations” is both historical and trans-subjective, furnishing a common framework against which the differing responses of individual readers might be assessed. This “objective” status of the horizon of expectations is most clearly visible in cases where a literary work evokes “the reader’s horizon of expectations, formed by a convention of genre, style, or form, only to destroy it step by step.” For example, Cervantes in Don Quixote allows the horizon of expectations of old tales of knighthood and adventure to arise before parodying it (TAR, 24). Another integral part of this objectifying of the horizon of expectations lies in the fact that the reception of a text consists of “the carrying out of specific instructions in a process of directed perception” (TAR, 23). The author’s anticipation of an audience’s disposition toward a given work is effected by means of three “generally presupposed” factors: the familiar norms of the genre to which the work belongs; the implicit relationship between this work and others in its literary-historical surroundings; and through the contrast between fiction and reality, between the poetic and practical function of language (TAR, 24). By this last point, Jauss means that a reader can view the literary work within both the “narrower horizon” of literary expectations and through the “wider horizon” of her actual experience of life.

If the “horizon of expectations” of a work is formulated in this way, says Jauss, we can determine the artistic character of the work by the nature and extent of its influence on a presupposed audience. He uses the term “aesthetic distance” to characterize the discrepancy between a given or already established horizon of expectations and the appearance of a new work, which might simply conform to, or subvert in varying degrees, this horizon. In the latter case, the reception of a “subversive” work might result in a change of horizons or a “horizonal change,” a concept taken over from Husserl (TAR, 25). Jauss suggests that this concept of aesthetic distance can provide a criterion of the artistic value of a work: to the extent that no change in aesthetic values is demanded of a work, which merely relies on familiar conceptions and experiences, the work might be seen as belonging to the sphere of mere “culinary” or entertainment art. Such a work demands no horizonal change, but fulfills previous established norms and expectations, satisfies the prevalent norms of taste, and confirms familiar sentiments (TAR, 25). A work which does demand a horizonal change will create an aesthetic distance between the audience’s expectations and its own new and alienating perspective.

However, this distance can disappear for later readers, as the work initiates an alternative horizon, and as it becomes increasingly understood and its value recognized. So-called literary masterpieces belong in this category, of a second horizonal change: the “self-evidence” of their beauty and their “eternal meaning” – in other words, the very pervasiveness of their acceptance – bring them “dangerously close” to being a mere “culinary” art, so that it requires a special effort of reading “against the grain” to bring out their truly artistic character once again (TAR, 26). Some new works only gradually develop an audience for themselves. For example, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary appeared in 1857, the same year as his friend Ernest Aimé Feydeau’s novel Fanny. At the time, Feydeau’s novel was far more popular. However, as Madame Bovary formed an increasingly wider audience attuned to a newer horizon of expectations (such as Flaubert’s principle of “impersonal narration”), these newer expectations saw clearly the weaknesses of Feydeau’s novel, which is now forgotten (TAR, 27–28).

Deriving certain insights from Hans Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, Jauss urges that the reconstruction of the horizon of expectations also highlights the differences between past and present understandings of a particular work, calling into question the objectivist dogma that “literature . . . is eternally present, and that its objective meaning, determined once and for all, is at all times immediately accessible to the interpreter” (TAR, 28). Following Gadamer’s critique of historical objectivism, Jauss states that such a focusing on the history of a work’s reception precludes the dangers of historical objectivism where the interpreter, “supposedly bracketing himself, nonetheless raises his own aesthetic preconceptions to an unacknowledged norm and unreflectively modernizes the meaning of the past text.” Such an interpreter pretends that “he had a standpoint outside history,” beyond all error, and denies the presuppositions that “govern his own understanding” (TAR, 29). On the contrary, as Gadamer points out, understanding can never occur outside of history: we do not have access to the original horizon of a work because this horizon is already enveloped within the present horizon. Jauss cites Gadamer’s statement that “Understanding is always the process of fusion of these horizons that we suppose to exist by themselves” (TAR, 30). In the light of the intrinsically historical nature of understanding, the claim of critics such as Wellek, that we must “isolate the object,” is a “relapse into objectivism.” The significance of a literary work over time “is the successive unfolding of the potential for meaning that is embedded in a work and actualized in the stages of its historical reception,” via the understanding achieved through the process of fusion of horizons (TAR, 30).

This theory of the aesthetics of reception insists not only on the development of the work’s form and meaning through historical understanding, but also on the insertion of the individual work into a “literary series”: we must undertake not only a diachronic analysis of the responses to the text over time but also a series of synchronic perspectives that reveal the text’s relationship with other texts, genres, and overarching norms at a given time (TAR, 36). In this way, we can view literary history – represented both synchronically and diachronically – as a “special history” with its own unique relationship to “general history” (TAR, 39). The social function of literature, says Jauss, occurs when the literary experience of the reader enters into the horizon of expectations of his lived experience and “preforms his understanding of the world” as well as shaping his social behavior. Jauss resists the notion of literature as a representational art: the specific achievement of literature is that it does not simply reflect, at another remove, the processes of general history; rather, literary history as a special kind of history shows that literature has a socially formative function, and it “competes with other arts and social forces in the emancipation of mankind from its natural, religious, and social bonds” (TAR, 45).


1. Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” in Toward an
of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 18–19. Hereafter cited as TAR.

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