Would you say that there are postulates, or presumptions that lie on the basis of any literary piece? What could they be?

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    This feels very broad (and opinion-based) to me. Can you say more about what you're looking for? Dec 10, 2017 at 18:55
  • @MonicaCellio I don't think it is either broad or opinion based. Postulates exist in certain fields and in some sense define the nature of inquiry in those fields. This is something highly specific about those fields. And by the same token they are not a matter of opinion since what the axioms of a field are at any given time is a matter of public fact (even if the axioms themselves are, by their nature, unprovable). It is therefore a highly specific fact based question to which the answer is (I am reasonably confident): no.
    – user16226
    Dec 10, 2017 at 20:06
  • @MarkBaker is there reason to believe that all of literature shares a set of postulates? If it asked about a particular subdomain or genre that would feel more answerable to me. I'm asking, not asserting (I didn't put the question on hold, nor have I voted on the question). Dec 10, 2017 at 20:45
  • @MonicaCellio I don't see any reason to believe that there are any postulates that apply to all of literature, which means the answer is simply "no". It is an interesting case because "no" is purely informational. There is no how-to component to it. But if the answer were "yes" then it would be a practical question because you could derive actions from the axioms. So the question is practical or abstract depending entirely on what the answer is. Which is weird. But does that make it off topic?
    – user16226
    Dec 10, 2017 at 22:24
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    @SelinKöksal An example to justify my opinion that there are no postulates of literature? I don't know how to give an example of the non-existence of something. I tried to make the argument in my answer that literature does not go back to first principles in itself. But I don't know what an example of that would look like. Would you like to explore this in chat?
    – user16226
    Dec 11, 2017 at 22:37

3 Answers 3


Well, within any discussion of literature -- any answer given on this SE for example -- there tend to be lots of ideas postulated. That is, simply, that they are taken as accepted truths by the writer, and usually by the readers as well. They are postulates in context -- simply the things we think we all agree on in order to be able to talk about the question we are answering.

Of course, such postulates can be challenged and sometimes are.

Here are some of the things that I postulate here on a regular basis:

  • All literature is moral -- it is about a choice of values
  • Literature is an experience, not a proposition
  • All stories have story shape
  • Story shape is driven by desire

But these are just postulates in context. If challenged, I could produce argument based on evidence to support them. They are not axiomatic statements in the strong sense of a geometric axiom, for example.

I don't believe that there are any axioms in this sense in literature. The study of literature is based on the study of aesthetics, psychology, and sociology, and I think that any statement you could make about literature specifically could be shown to be an instance of a more general statement in those fields.

The danger in literature, I think, is quite the opposite though, not a dearth of axioms but gross surplus of facile rules of thumb that are often taken as axiomatic but are, in fact, misleading at best and outright wrong at worst.

Finally, I think it is worth saying that the writing of a good story, despite all the advice on can find on structure, character development, etc. remains largely an exercise of tacit knowledge and skill. We cannot fully describe what we are doing when we write in objective terms. We learn it by osmosis and inform it with individual experience. If there are axioms, I think that they are axioms we have not yet learned to articulate, and I suspect we never will be able to articulate them.

  • Really like this answer. I think the bad axioms still make good exercises, and help us learn why they are bad when we apply them and see the result.
    – SFWriter
    Dec 10, 2017 at 19:45

I think the only postulate of literature, by which I mean an axiom, by which I mean something that must be self-evidently true and does not have to be proven, is that literature must have content and ideas that are given some positive value by some audience.

Or it isn't literature. A grocery list is not literature, it is just writing a memorandum.

As Mark says, we have many ideas about HOW to make content and ideas valuable to some audience, but in the end the fact that people got something out of it (entertainment, understanding or awareness) is what makes it literature instead of writing. It doesn't have to be for everybody, but it has to be valued by some as having been worth the time to read it.

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    Not sure content is axiomatic. There is 'What Every Man Thinks About Apart From Sex' which contains only blank pages shedsimove.com/content/blank-book-5. There is also John Cage's 4′33″, which is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence and Robert Ryman's $15M blank canvas bloomberg.com/view/articles/2014-11-14/…
    – user16226
    Dec 10, 2017 at 20:13
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    @MarkBaker If those are given positive value by some audience, then they must contain ideas that have meaning to that audience. The book has a title and implied promise, illustrated by nothing. 4'33" and the blank canvas is not blank: It is white paint on canvas, and must have some insider interpretation as commentary, critique on culture or painting, or just a joke and conspicuous display of wealth, or "touch magic": meaning the painting is valuable because it was painted by Robert Ryman, not because of what was painted. Like paying thousands of dollars for a Picasso paint brush.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 10, 2017 at 22:46
  • Indeed - for all of your examples there are non-trivial and vigorous arguments to the effect that they are "not literature", "not music", and "not art", @MarkBaker .
    – Beanluc
    Dec 10, 2017 at 23:09
  • So, art has meaning to someone. Is that an axiom? If so, is it an axiom from which we can draw actionable conclusions? The use of axioms is that we can make logical deductions of other properties based on them. Can we do that here?
    – user16226
    Dec 10, 2017 at 23:21
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    @MarkBaker I would stipulate aesthetic meaning to someone besides the artist, and probably to an audience that is not clinically insane. You can use it to divide art from other forms of expression, or (based on audience size) rank the "artfulness" of projects, which in turn can influence politics and funding of arts. So, for example, excluding from such funding projects that are all business, like manufacturing shipping containers or logging a forest. Or deciding (for govt or art philanthropy) whether funding a project is likely to provide "enough" return in public aesthetic experience.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 11, 2017 at 13:02

Based on my experience in other fields that do have postulates, I'd say the sign of them is that they're positions which enjoy a consensus, seem too fundamental to be provable as such, and are a basis for other inferences. Based on what reader and writer alike consider, I'd suggest postulates of literature may include these:

  • A writer shouldn't make you want to stop reading. (A lot of the advice you get on how not to write is based on evidence that readers dislike encountering such things.)
  • Good writing persuades you of the author's opinions.
  • Great literature shows a rich command of what the language can do, commensurate with its audience. (For example, although Dr Seuss couldn't use arbitrary vocabulary or sentence structure for his audience, he better understood what he could do within those constraints than did the countless children's authors who were much less successful.)

What these have in common is that, being oughts, we can't really prove them as such, but they do seem correct.

I am not, however, aware of a list of these you can look up.

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