This is a truly remarkable book. The authors sought to unite poetics (literary theory) with criticism (evaluation of literature) with scholarship (research) and literary history (the dynamics of literature in contrast with the statics of theory and criticism). This had to be done in a book of reasonable size, without being eclectic or doctrinaire.
The authors succeeded in their aim and the book achieved a vast and somewhat unexpected popularity, especially as a grad student text. It has been in print forever and has been translated into many languages.
Much of the burden of writing fell on Rene Wellek because Austin Warren (not to be confused with another friend of Wellek, the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren) was seriously distracted during the project by the protracted illness and death of his wife. Fortunately the job was in good hands because there is not much doubt that Wellek is the premier scholar of literature in modern times. He combined all-round mastery of many of the specialisms that constitute modern literary studies, encyclopaedic reading in several languages, a humane vision and commitment to reason.
The book has four parts, first Definitions and Distinctions; with five chapters including 'The Nature of Literature' and 'Literary Theory, Criticism and History'. The second part, Preliminary Operations has a chapter on the ordering and establishment of evidence. Part three The Extrinsic Approach to the Study of Literature, has five chapters including 'Literature and Biography', 'Literature and Psychology' and 'Literature and Society'. Part four, The Intrinsic Study of Literature, contains
eight chapters including 'Style and Stylistics', 'Literary Genres', 'Evaluation' and 'Literary History'.
The chapter titled "The Mode of Existence of a Literary Work of Art" is especially interesting because it gives the lie to the claim that modern literary theory and criticism (exemplified by the deconstructionists) have achieved an unprecedented level of philosophical sophistication. They worked through five possibilities, referring to "the poem" as shorthand for any sort of literature, or perhaps any cultural artefact.
1. The poem is a physical artefact consisting of marks on paper, or the grooves on a Babylonian tablet.
2. The poem is the sequence of sounds uttered by a speaker, reading aloud.
3. The poem is the experience of the reader.
4. The poem is an expression of the experience of the author.
5. The poem is a stratified complex of values, which cannot be reduced to any of the previous four theories.
They rejected (1) because a poem can be preserved in a purely oral tradition. Also the precise physical form of the work is not crucial. Hamlet is the same regardless of the size of the pages or the typeface or errors in typesetting or translation of particular editions.
They dismissed (2) because we do not read for the sounds alone, we read for plot and character and much more besides. As for (3) they argued that readers are influenced by all manner of personal circumstances ranging from their own theories of poetry and value to momentary conditions such as fatigue, worry or distraction.
The fourth type of theory takes two broad forms; in one the poem represents the intentions of the writer, in the other it reflects in some sense the totality of experience of the author, conscious and unconscious. The first of these views has little credibility because the so-called Intentional Fallacy has taken a severe beating in modern times. The second splits in half again, yielding deep psychological accounts of the work on one hand, and on the other, theories that account for the work as the outcome of large-scale historical and social influences bearing on the writer.
Wellek and Warren reject all the foregoing (while allowing some scope for investigations along those lines). They favour (5), a combination of phenomenology and modern linguistics.
"The work of art, then, appears as an object of knowledge sui generis which has a special ontological status. It is neither real (like a statue) nor mental (like the experience of light or pain) nor ideal (like a triangle). It is a system of norms of ideal concepts, which are intersubjective. They must be assumed to exist in collective ideology, changing with it, accessible only through individual mental experiences based on the sound-structure of its sentences."
This perspective clearly has many points of contact with Popper's three world theory of material bodies, subjective minds and objective ideas. The poem is more than a physical (world 1) object because is partly a subjective (world 2) event, and there is even more than that because it has some form of intersubjective existence. Wellek and Warren address this aspect in terms of collective ideology, while Popper speaks of the partial autonomy of the contents. Each formulation calls for a theory about emergent possibilities, sui generis qualities that cannot be reduced, without loss, to the more basic physical and subjective aspects of the poem, in the same way that the higher functions of language cannot be fully reduced to the lower functions.