A Semiotic Profile: Lubomír Doležel

Lubomír Doležel

Lubomír Doležel (1922) is Emeritus Professor of Comparative literature at the University of Toronto. In his theoretical approach to literary artworks he combines the structuralist heritage of the Prague School with semiotics, logics, linguistics, narratology and other disciplines of the humanities. He is a renowned expert in the history of poetics. He is also a co-founder and principal contributor to the fictional worlds theory.

Lubomír Doležel studied Czech and Russian philology at Charles University in Prague (1945−1948). After obtaining his doctoral degree in Czech philology (1958, under the supervision of Bohuslav Havránek) he became a research fellow at the Institute of Czech Language of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and also taught at Charles University.

In general terms, with regard to his theoretical development, it is important to note that Lubomír Doležel in his work builds on the foundations established within the Prague School approach to linguistics and literature: for him literary artworks primarily serve as a specific kind of communication (communication model) and their structures are fully determined by this factor (function). Thanks to structuralist linguistics these structures can be uncovered, described and interpreted in the work as a whole. Moreover, literary artworks represent specific language signs with a special reference which differs from that of non-fictional works. At the beginning of his career Lubomír Doležel paid special attention to structuralist stylistics which, in its deeply elaborated form, extended to the investigation of literary artworks. On the one hand, the focus on investigating new, more exact methods which could enrich stylistic inquiry led him to the realm of computational linguistics; on the other hand, the focus on approaches to the investigation of literary artworks as structures led him to the revelation of the history of (structuralist) poetics. Finally, his dissatisfaction with existing structuralist treatments of fictional reference led him to the model of fictional worlds as a more effective means of representing referential frames for fictional texts. In more general terms, Doležel’s theoretical starting point, the functional stylistics of the Prague School has been enriched during his long lasting scholarly carreer by new results of mathematical linguistics, logic, cybernetics, semiotics and information theory.

The beginning of Lubomír Doležel’s scholarly path is marked by the influence of Bohuslav Havránek and Felix Vodička (both Doležel’s teachers) and his involment in the study of style and stylistics which resulted in several collective publications, such as Kapitoly z praktické stylistiky (Chapters on Practical Stylistics 1955) or Knížka o jazyce a stylu soudobé české literatury (Book on the Language and Style of Contemporary Czech literature, 1962). Nevertheless, In the 1960s Lubomír Doležel was one of the pioneers of the application of mathematical methods (statistics) to the the study of language and became an editor of Prague Studies in Mathematical Linguistics, a series focused on modern computational methods in linguistic research. From 1965 to 1968 Lubomír Doležel was as visiting professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1968 he briefly returned to Czechoslovakia, to the Institute for Czech Literature, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. However, after the Warsaw Pact invasion he left for the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto where he taught as a professor of Czech language and literature. In 1982 he became a professor at the Centre for Comparative Literature, University of Toronto. Since 1988 he is Emeritus Professor of the Centre.

Lubomír Doležel has introduced his ideas at many North American and European universities and international conferences. He was a visiting professor at the University of Amsterdam, University of Munich, Masaryk University in Brno, and Charles University in Prague. He has also been awarded with doctor honoris causa from Masaryk University in Brno. Lubomír Doležel has lived in Prague since 2009 and now works in collaboration with several academic organisations and institutions.

During his long lasting career Doležel has enriched several contexts of linguistics, literary theory and semiotics. Nevertheless, in his work it is possible to trace specific leitmotifs which actually cover all the areas of his main scholarly interest. First, Doležel claims that literary artworks are specific semiotic objects which are created by the power of poiesis and can be empirically analyzed – by using a combination of means borrowed from linguistics, semiotics, poetics, philosophy and other disciplines. Second, literary artworks serve specific purposes in human society: they carry specific information and fulfil specific functions. Third, in order to understand the role and fiction of literary communication it is necessary to study literary artworks in terms of their developmental metamorphosis.

From Linguistics to Literature

In 1960 Lubomír Doležel published a book entitled O stylu moderní české prózy. Výstavba textu (On the Style of Modern Czech Prose Fiction. The Construction of the Text) which was based on his doctoral dissertation of 1958. The book represents an important contribution to the return to the Czech structuralist tradition in linguistic and literary research after a post-war period in which structuralism in Czechoslovakia was dissmissed for political reasons. In this book Doležel examines several texts of modern Czech prose by employing the stylistic investigation devices introduced by the Prague School , but focuses on a deeper analysis of (fictional) statements and their types in order to provide a more thorough examination of narrative techniques and their interpretation. This approach, based on a combination of stylistic and literary theoretical approaches, later became known as a study of narrative modes, as introduced in Doležel’s second book published in Canada under the title Narrative Modes in Czech Literature (1973). This study is not only the first book on Czech literature published in Canada but also offers an elaborated system of narrative modes which can be used for more thorough analyses of literary artworks as well as an analysis of their developmental and generic relations. Doležel, in order to articulate concrete narrative modes, uses a multi-leveled-set of detectable and analyzable (linguistic and semantic) features ordered into a well-arranged system which can be used for a precise analysis and description of narrative literary texts. The system of narrative modes represents one of the most important concepts in Doležel’s career: it strongly links his own mode of analysis and research to the tradition of the Prague School, and its focus on style-analyses of literary artworks, with his own future contribution to the semantics of fictional worlds. To this day, narrative modes represent one of the few systematic tools offered to the analysis of the formally describable features of literary artworks – together with other systems suggested by Gérard Genette, Franz K. Stanzel and others.

The History of (Structuralist) Poetics

In 1989 Lubomír Doležel published his Occidental Poetics: Tradition and Progress. The book, ably complementing the author’s own literary theoretical and narratological suggestions, became very influential in the field of the history of literary theory and has introduced new perspectives to the history of structuralist poetics. Occidental Poetics represents a highly erudite and methodologically unified “systemic reconstruction” of the milestones of the development of a poetics which had slowly taken shape over the last two millenia: “The research tradition of Occidental poetics stretches over millenia, linking Aristotle’s aesthetics with contemporary semiotics of poetic art. It has been advanced by scholars from many different countries and cultures, ranging from old Greece to eighteenth-century Switzerland to nineteenth-century Germany. Twentieth-century structural poetics originated in France, Russia, and Czechoslovakia and became a movement of unprecedented international scope and cooperation” (Doležel 1989: 7-8). As can be seen, Lubomír Doležel employs the term “research tradition” which actually justifies his own purpose, that of introducing the history of poetics as a developing process which can be systematically described: “The research tradition of poetics is constituted by two general assumptions, one ontological, the other epistemological: (1) literature is the art of language produced in the creative activity of poesis; (2) poetics is a cognitive acivity governed by the general requirements of scientific inquiry” (ibid.: 4).

Thanks to Occidental Poetics it is possible to observe the develompment of ideas and systematic approaches to literature which led poetics to the modern form of literary theoretical structuralist thinking. This fact has important consequences for our better understanding the tradition of the study of literature – Doležel’s book claims that there exists a tradition and development in poetic thought and that particular stages of the tradition of poetics share some basic assumptions which can, according to Doležel, be viewed as structuralist: he explicitly claims that the idea of literature as structure has been an essential assumption of Occidental poetics since its beginnings.

Occidental Poetics, translated in seven languages, has been widely recognized and appreciated by its readers. Among others, David Herman sums up the achivements of Occidental Poetics in his penetrating review: “Lubomír Doležel’s represents, first of all, a major achievement in the historiography of poetics. But at the same time, Doležel’s study marks a signifiant advance in poetics itself. Subsuming two millenia of thinking about literature under the rubric “occidental poetics,” the book in large measure produces precisely that global framework or “research tradition” of which it purports to give a (genealogical) account” (Herman 1992: 397).

Fictional Worlds as Possible Worlds

The idea that narrative artworks found specific literary worlds reappeared in the literary theoretical environment in the 1970s when a group of literary theoreticians started thinking of fictional worlds as a possible direction leading out the crisis of literary theoretical thought of that period. Among other scholars, namely Thomas Pavel, Marie-Laure Ryan, Ruth Ronen and Umberto Eco, Lubomír Doležel started claiming that fictional narrative texts have the potential to create fictional worlds that are created by a poietic act of the author and accessible to readers during the act of reading. The concept of fictional worlds as a theoretical instrument for a more thorough investigation of literature is based on a general assumption, that the universe of discourse spreads over possible worlds which are nonactualized worlds. This assumption connects fictional worlds to possible worlds of modal logic from which fictional worlds theory borrows in order to demarcate fictional worlds more precisely: both kinds of worlds are semiotic objects made of entities with a specific ontological status and fictional worlds semantics thus uses the achievements of logical investigation to establish the theoretical base of fictional worlds. At the same time, it needs to be noted that on the one hand, fictional worlds share important characteristics with possible worlds while, on the other, the concept of possible worlds as a whole is not completely applicable to the field of fictional worlds. This incongruence, however, does not mean that some of the concepts developed in the field of possible worlds are not of great importance with respect to the analysis of fictional worlds – among others we should emphasize terms such as trans-world-identity, accessibility relation and counterpart-theory.

In 1998 Lubomír Doležel published his most influential book Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. This book, although published only after other canonical books on the fictional worlds theory, namely Fictional Worlds (1986) by Thomas G. Pavel, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991) by Marie-Laure Ryan and Possible Worlds in Literary Theory (1994) by Ruth Ronen, represents the most detailed and systematic survey of fictional worlds and their qualities yet produced. In Heterocosmica fictional worlds are viewed as specific semiotic entities which serve a specific kind of communication: “Fictional worlds are not constrained by requirements of verisimilitude, truthfulness, or plausibility; They are shaped by historically changing aesthetic factors, such as artistic aims, typological and generic norms, period and individual styles. The history of fictional worlds of literature is the history of an art” (Doležel 1998: 19).

Undoubtly, one of the most important contributions of Lubomír Doležel to fictional worlds theory is the division between extensional and intensional structures of worlds. This assumption, inspired by Gottlob Frege’s division between Sinn and Bedeutung, suggests that every expression has two semantic components, extensional and intensional meaning (or reference and sense). Following this idea, Doležel states that fictional worlds, which are purely semantic entities, consist of both extensional and intensional structures. Whereas the extensional structure involves paraphasable semantic elements, the explicitly and implicitly given sequences of the narrative’s plot, agents, settings, etc., the intensional structure of a fictional world is firmly connected with the intension of the text: the very form of expression, the texture of a text. Intensional functions arise from the texture and thus form the intensional structure of a fictional world; in other words, they vectors from the texture of a fictional text to the fictional world.

Among other fictional functions which connect narrative texts to their worlds, Lubomír Doležel elaborates on two of them in more detail: the authentication function and the saturation function. The authentication function is essentially bound to the notion of fictional existence, its degree and its distribution within fictional worlds.The saturation function controls the fictional world’s density, its structure and its distribution. Here we should point out that Lubomír Doležel not only defines two of the intensional functions but he also offers a path for their investigation. By definition, intensional functions can be investigated only through the fictional text which accomodate them: “The method of indirect analysis […] identifies intensional functions by uncovering the global ‘morphology’ of texture, its formative principles, its stylistic regularities. Intensional function is redefined as a global regularity of texture that affects the structuring of the fictional world” (ibid.: 139).

Doležel’s idea of the authentication function borrows from J. L. Austin’s theory of performative speech acts. According to Austin, these acts can carry a specific illocutionary force, meaning that they become a part of the action itself, under specific felicitous circumstances that depend on the speaker’s authority. Doležel adopts the idea of performative speech acts for the purpose of narratives and connects it with fictional existence. The status and degree of fictional existence depend entirely on authentication power: “We conclude then, that the speech acts of fictional persons in the binary type have, potentially, a performative force, but its origin is different from that of the authoritative narrative. The narrator’s authority is given by genre convention and is analogous to Austin’s performative authority; the fictional persons’ authority rests on consensus and coherence and is analogous to the pragmatic conditions of natural discourse” (ibid.: 150–51). As a result a fictional world’s structure is fundamentally formed by the intensional function of authentication of which the classical form is the dyadic authentication. The dyadic authentication splits fictional worlds into the factual (it is authenticated by authoritative narrative and by the consensus of fictional persons) and into the virtual domain (it is authenticated by individual fictional persons). Nevetheless, apart from the classical (dyadic) narrative modes it is possible to consider various narrative modes and strategies that challenge the dyadic model (for example subjectivized Er-form, and impersonal Ich-form) and therefore a different authentication scheme, graded authentication has to be employed: “We have to introduce a generalized, graded authentication function that can formally express the world-constructing force of all available narrative modes. The function assigns different grades (degrees) of authenticity to fictional entities, distributed along a scale between ‘fully authentic’ and ‘nonauthentic.’ Consequently, it provides world constituents with different ranks or modes of fictional existence” (ibid.: 152). This approach itself combines a study of the formal features of narrative style with a functional point of view: narrative modes as speech acts serve specific functions within narrative structures.

The intensional function of saturation projects the density of the fictional text onto the fictional world by determining its saturation. According to this assumption the texture of the fictional text is of three kinds -explicit, implicit and zero- and this division splits the fictional-world structure into three domains: the explicit texture creates the determinate domain, the implicit texture the indeterminate domain, and zero texture the domain of gaps. The determinate domain founds the core of the fictional world and this core is supplemented by the domain of indeterminate facts.

Schema 1. The domains of fictional worlds.

In Doležel’s conception, in contrast to other, usually receptionist-based approaches, cannot and are not supposed to be filled: fictional narrative lacks cognitive procedures that would be able to fill gaps in fictional worlds, because there is nothing that could be inserted into the gaps, no witness, no evidence, no new discovery. Gaps are just an inevitable part of fictional-world structure: gaps are necessarily present in all fictional worlds.

In order to describe the extensional structure of fictional worlds Doležel introduces the notion of narrative modalities. Narrative modalities form the global design of particular fictional worlds by describing a set of possible narrative constellations and are based on of four type sof possible narrative constraints: alethic, deontic, axiological, and epistemic. Whereas alethic constraints divide fictional worlds into the realms of possible, impossible and necessary, deontic constraints split them into permitted, prohibited, and obligatory, axiological constraints into good, bad, and indifferent, and epistemic constraints split them into the realms of known, unknown and believed.

Doležel claims that all narrative situations are constituted by constellations which can be characterised in terms of the presence or absence of these constraints which “have a direct impact on acting; they are rudimentary and inescapable constraints, which each person acting in the world faces” (ibid.: 113). Thus, narrative modalities lead to the very logic of the story. They model the actual motivations and preconditions of its actors and determine all narrative actions and their characteristics. Obviously, the offered system represents an alternative to traditional systems of narrative grammars as they were introduced mainly by French structuralists in the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, the system of narrative modalities is not based on linguistic structures, as the narrative grammars are, but is fully derived from the findings of the philosophy of action – as such this model does not suffer the constraints common to the narrative grammatical approach.

In Heterocosmica Lubomír Doležel combines several research approaches, categories, and concepts deriving from various theoretical contexts, however, these categories and concepts are given new roles and co-create a specific theoretical system which represents the most fully elaborated and analytical view of fictional worlds, yet to appear. In other words, Doležel’s semantics of fictional worlds uniquely systemizes and harmonizes ideas from linguistics, literary theory, semiotics, philosophy and logic in a specific model which grounds our better understanding of fictional texts and their meaning.

Fictional Worlds – Afterlife

Today, the theory of fictional worlds represents one of the well established theories which are used for our better understanding of the ways in which literature enacts its creative (poietic) power and encodes it into specific semiotic entities. Nevertheless, in the case of Lubomír Doležel the theory is used as a valuable tool which can be used for the examination of the basic ontological issues of fiction. In 2010 Doležel published his Possible Worlds of Fiction and History: The Postmodern Stage (2010) in which he re-examines the old Barthesian and Whiteian claim that there is not diference between fiction and history. Lubomír Doležel, approaching this question from a completely different perspective, argues that there is a fundamental diference between worlds of fiction and worlds of history: “The possible-worlds framework enables us to reassert the status of historiography as an activity of noesis: its possible worlds are models of the actual past. Fiction making is the activity of poesis: fictional worlds are imaginary possible alternatives to the actual worlds” (Doležel 2010: viii). Using fictional worlds theory Doležel not only reveals the diferences between historical and fictional worlds at the purely theoretical level but he also undertakes thorough analyses of both kinds of texts which found thein respective worlds.

Possible Worlds of Fiction and History primarily focuses on examining the relationships between historical and fictional worlds based on the set of their specific features: the position of the author, fictional and historical counterparts, gaps in the worlds etc. Among other types of literature, such as historical fiction, factual fiction, fiction, special attention is paid to an analysis of counterfactual historical texts and their worlds. Doležel argues that conterfactual histories are of a fictional character (as though experiments) and become historical only when fulfiling certain criteria. Therefore, these counterfactual histories, in contrast to fiction, contribute to our historical knowledge. This claim clearly illustrates the important development of Doležel’s view of the role of fiction in our human knowledge of the real world.

Axioms of Doležel’s Thought

As the above observations have explicitly indicated, Lubomír Doležel has enriched several contexts of linguistic, literary theoretical and semiotic thought. However, even in this broad area of his contributions it is possible to detect essential assumptions which designate the axioms of his approach. It has been claimed that Doležel is heir to structuralism of the Prague School (of which he is one of the most important interpreters and contributors) which he combines with aspects of other theoretical perspectives. These factors fundamentally form Doležel’s view of literary artworks: literary artworks are the product of a creative poesis embodied in linguistic forms and service as aesthetic signs in human society. As such literary a artwork can be analyzed and interpreted by a system of specifically developed means, such as structure, function, fictional world and related concepts.

Works cited:

Doležel, Lubomír
1989 Occidental Poetics. Tradition and Progress (Lincoln−London)
1998 Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore−London)
2010 Possible Worlds of Fiction and History. The Postmodern Stage (Baltimore−London)

Herman, David
1992 Review of Lubomír Dolezel, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.3 (1999): 377-81.

Selected Bibliography of Lubomír Doležel


O stylu moderní české prózy. Výstavba textu (Prague 1960)
Narrative Modes in Czech Literature (Toronto−Buffalo 1973)
Occidental Poetics. Tradition and Progress (Lincoln−London 1990)
Heterocosmica. Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore−London 1998)
Identita literárního díla (Brno−Prague 2004)
Studie z české literatury a poetiky ( Prague 2008)
Possible Worlds of Fiction and History. The Postmodern Stage (Baltimore−London 2010)

Co-authored, edited and co-edited books

Slovník spisovného jazyka českého, vol. 1 (1960)
Mathematik und Dichtung (Munich 1965)
Statistics and Style (New York 1969)
Text Processing. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium (Stockholm 1982)
Language and Literary Theory. In Honor of Ladislav Matejka (Ann Arbor 1984)
Identity of the Literary Text (Toronto−London 1985)
Possible Worlds in Humanities, Arts and Sciences. Proceedings of Nobel Symposium (Berlin–New York 1989)
The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (Baltimore−London 1993)
The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Vol. VIII. From Formalism to Poststructuralism (Cambridge et al. 1995)
Narratologies. New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis (Columbus 1999)
Essays on Fiction and Perspective (Bern 2004)
A Sense of the World. Essays on Fiction, Narrative, and Knowledge (London−New York 2007)
Fictionality − Possibility − Reality (Bratislava 2010).

Edited and co-edited books

Prague Studies in Mathematical Linguistics, vol. 1 and 2 (Prague 1966, 1967)
Statistics and Style (New York 1969)
Language and Literary Theory. In Honor of Ladislav Matejka (Ann Arbor 1984)
Possible Worlds. Semantics and Fictionality. A monothematic volume of Style (1991, vol. 25, n. 3).


C.-A. Mihailescu − W. Hamarneh (eds.): Fiction Updated. Theories of Fictionality, Narratology, and Poetics (Toronto−Buffalo 1996)
B. Fořt −J. Hrabal (eds.): Od struktury k fikčnímu světu. Lubomíru Doleželovi (Olomouc 2004)
V. Ambros − R. Le Huenen − A. Perez-Simon: Structuralism(s) Today. Paris, Prague, Tartu (New York−Toronto 2009)
B. Fořt (ed.): Heterologika. Lingvistika, poetika a fikční světy (Prague 2012)

Ondřej Sládek
Bohumil Fořt

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