22 Aug 2016

Iser (5.2.1) The Act of Reading, ‘[The open structure of the intentional sentence correlates]’, summary


by Corry Shores


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Summary of


Wolfgang Iser


The Act of Reading:

A Theory of Aesthetic Response



Part III.

The Phenomenology of Reading:

The Processing of the Literary Text



Chapter 5:

Grasping a Text



The Wandering Viewpoint


5.2.1 [up to the first subdivision]

‘[The open structure of the intentional sentence correlates]’




Brief summary:

When we read a literary text, our eyes pass over its series of sentence clauses. Each clause tells us something about the literary work’s world and its unfolding. The way this happens is that when we read the sentence, our phenomenal, “intentional” consciousness constitutes that part of the world that the sentence describes. It performs this constituting act by means of interpretation, imagination, and inference. So, each sentence in the text is correlated with a part of the story world – which is constituted in our intentional consciousness – that the sentence is describing. Thus this phenomenalized part of the literary work’s world (which corresponds to some particular sentence evoking it in our phenomenal awareness) is called the “intentional sentence correlate.” Intentional sentence correlates, as parts of our phenomenal awareness, bear the tripartite structure of temporalized consciousness that holds for all acts of conscious awareness, namely, {1} a present intentional part directed at the currently given intentional sentence correlate (that is,  the presently described situation in the story world), {2} a protentional part that expects certain things (more or less concretely) about the future, and {3} a retentional part that keeps what was previously intended and protended in the background of our current awareness. The second two parts serve as connecting structures that allow the reader to find coherence among the fragmented intentional sentence correlates that call for connection but do not explicitly provide it. Normally in a literary text, not every new sentence fulfills the protentional expectations of the prior sentences. Rather, there is often a defiance of expectations (which means that there is a tension between the retentional part of the correlate, which retains the prior expectation, and the current intentional part, which contains something in defiance to that retained protentional expectation). The overall process of reading a literary work, on account of these twists and turns in the story development, is a “wandering viewpoint,” because the way the reader configures the story world is continually under variation, as it navigates through the swings in the story’s progress.






Iser notes that “the whole text can never be perceived at any one time” (Iser 108). Rather, “the text can only be imagined by way of different consecutive phases of reading” (109). This is different than how objects are given to us, since they are all given more in their wholeness [even though it might take time to explore all their aspects], and also, “We always stand outside the given object, whereas we are situated inside the literary text” (109). [So when we view an object, our viewpoint largely remains from a particular outside perspective on the object. (Of course however we do move around the object and perhaps look inside it and so on. I am not sure how this differs from the experience of a literary text except perhaps that we do this exploration to a much greater degree with literary texts and also the constitution of the literary text involves much more irregularity and dramatic modification. Iser also notes that we explore the literary work from inside it rather than from outside it. One exception to this distinction could possibly be things like puzzle boxes, where their constitution is something obtained through an active participation with it and where its constitution unfolds gradually and through a series of unexpected discoveries.)]

The relation between text and reader is therefore quite different from that between object and observer: instead of a subject-object relationship, there is a moving viewpoint which travels along inside that which it has to apprehend. This mode of grasping an object is unique to literature.



Iser then notes a complication with understanding texts as objects. The text does not simply denote objects in the empirical world. Rather, literary texts remove objects from this context, which invites us to reconsider them and perhaps even develop new judgments of them. “Instead of finding out whether the text gives an accurate or inaccurate description of the object, he [the reader] has to build up the object for himself – often in a manner running counter to the familiar world evoked by the text” (109, bracketed insertion mine).


Iser now refers to this moving viewpoint as the “reader’s wandering viewpoint” (109). We apprehend the object in phases, and it is always incomplete. [So we look at the text sentence by sentence. None of them is final (except perhaps the last, but even that last is not final in the sense that we might continue to reconsider the whole text upon further reflection and additional rereadings). This means that we must constantly synthesize each part with the prior and following parts. Because this is an act of consciousness, the synthesizing activity brings the text into the reader’s consciousness.] “The incompleteness of each manifestation necessitates syntheses, which in turn bring about the transfer of the text to the reader’s consciousness. The synthetizing [sic?] process, however, is not sporadic – it continues throughout every phase of the journey of the wandering viewpoint” (109).


Iser will examine this synthesizing activity in greater detail. He has us consider the “span of the text which can be encompassed during each phase of reading and from which we anticipate the next phrase,” and this has been called the “eye-voice span” (109-110). [Iser will then use the notion of ‘intentional sentence correlates’. The idea seems to be that when we read a sentence in a literary text, correlated to it in our phenomenal awareness is the part of that literary work’s world. All these partial determinations of the literary work’s world (that is, all these intentional sentence correlates) form connections (on the basis of the reader’s interpretative and imaginative interacting with the correlates) to constitute the entire world of the literary work.]

It may help us to understand the nature of this synthetizing [sic?] activity if we examine in detail one paradigmatic moment in the process of reading. We shall, for the present, restrict our analysis to the sentence perspective of the text, and here we may turn for support to the empirical findings of psycholinguistics. What is known as the “eye-voice span,”when applied to the literary text will designate that span of the text which can be encompassed during each phase of reading and from which we anticipate the next phase: “. . . decoding proceeds in ‘chunks’ rather than in units of single words, and . . . these ‘chunks’ correspond to the syntactic units of a sentence.”6 The syntactic units of sentences are residual ‘chunks’ for perception within the literary text, although here they cannot be identified merely as perceptual objects, because the denotation of a given object is not the prime function of such sentences. The main interest here lies in the sentence correlate, for the world of the literary object is built up by these intentional correlates.

Sentences join in diverse ways to form semantic units of a higher order which exhibit quite varied structures; from these structures arise such entities as a story, a novel, a conversation, a drama, a scientific theory. By the same token, finite verbs constitute not only states of affairs which correspond to the individual sentences, but also whole systems of very diverse types of states of affairs, such as concrete situations, complex processes involving several objects, conflicts and agreements among them, etc. Finally, a whole world is created with variously determined elements and the changes taking place in them, all as the purely intentional correlate of a sentence complex. If this sentence complex finally constitutes a literary work, then I call the whole stock of interconnected intentional sentence correlates the ‘portrayed world’ of the work.7


How is one to describe the connections between these correlates — especially as they do not have that degree of determinacy pertaining to a declarative sentence? When Ingarden speaks of intentional sentence correlates, the statement and information are already qualified in a certain sense, because each sentence can achieve its end only by aiming at something beyond itself. As this is true of all the sentences in a literary text, the correlates constantly intersect, giving rise ultimately to the semantic fulfillment at which they had aimed. The fulfillment, however, takes place not in the text, but in the reader, who must ‘activate’ the interplay of the correlates prestructured by the sequence of sentences. The sentence themselves, as statements and assertions, serve to point the way toward what is to come, and this in turn is prestructured by the actual content of the sentences. In brief, the sentences set in motion a process which will lead to the formation of the aesthetic object as a correlative in the mind of the reader.

[Footnote 5 on p.109 (quoting):

5 See I.M. Schlesinger, Sentence Structure and the Reading Process (The Hague, 1968), pp.27ff. The similarity between and indeed congruence of the “eye-voice span” and the span of short-term memory has been demonstrated with psycholinguistic experiments by Frank Smith, Understanding Reading A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read (New York, 1971), pp. 196–200. His book also contains important observations on the part played by the “eye-voice span” in “identification of meaning”.

Footnotes 6 and 7 on p.110 (quoting):

6 Schlesinger, Sentence Structure, p. 42; see also Ronald Wardhaugh, Reading: A Linguistic Perspective (New York, 1969), p. 54.

7 Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, transl. by Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston, 1973), p. 31.]



Iser then notes Husserl’s notion of protention [the temporalized mode of intentional consciousness that is directed toward the future and by which we have expectations of what will later enter our present awareness]. Since all intentional correlates are structured with protentional expectation, this means that none of them will entirely fulfill our expectations [including even the final sentence correlate, which also will keep the literary text’s world open to further development, even if that development does not unfold by means of the text itself.]

The semantic pointers of individual sentences always imply an expectation of some kind – Husserl calls these expectations “protentions.” As this structure is inherent in all intentional sentence correlates, it follows that their interplay will lead not so much to the fulfillment of expectations as to their continual modification.


Iser locates the wandering viewpoint in this temporalized structure of intentional consciousness.

Now herein lies a basic structure of the wandering viewpoint. The reader’s position in the text is at the point of intersection between retention and protension [sic?]. Each individual sentence correlate prefigures a particular horizon, but this is immediately transformed into the background for the next correlate and must therefore necessarily be modified. Since each sentence correlate aims at things to come, the prefigured horizon will offer a view which — however concrete it may be — must contain indeterminacies, and so arouse expectations as to the manner in which these are to be resolved.


So, because each correlate has an open protentional horizon generating expectations that are either fulfilled or not, and also because even with every fulfillment there are indeterminacies that still call for further fulfillment, the reader’s viewpoint is always in a state of flux. Another consequence of this is that if the described object confirms expectations, that means “the range of possible semantic horizons will be correspondingly narrowed” (111). Normally writers use this pattern (of expectation fulfillment) for describing objects in the literary work’s world, because in these cases, “their concern is to narrow the range in order to bring out the individuality of that object” (111). But normally literary texts are formulated so that it is like a series of defied expectations [and perhaps we might think of it as a series of more or less drastic plot twists, with many being very subtle and others drastically defying expectations and causing significant retroactive revision of the reader’s configuration of the story world. (A notable film that is structured on the basis of these drastic sorts of turns is the original Total Recall. Kafka novels also seem to have a constantly reconfiguring story world.)] “In most literary texts, however, the sequence of sentences is so structured that the correlates serve to modify and even frustrate the expectations they have aroused. In so doing, they automatically have a retroactive effect on what has already been read, which now appears quite different” (111). [I am not sure, but I think the next point is the following. As we acquire new information about the story world, the prior information recedes into the background of our retentional consciousness. For, the new information takes precedence, as it is adding something that now seems most important to consider. However, since each new piece of information calls for us to reconsider something in the past, it also calls up from our retentional awareness something that we were only marginally attending to in the background.]

Furthermore, what has been read shrinks in the memory to a foreshortened background, but it is being constantly evoked in a new context and so modified by new correlates that instigate a restructuring of past syntheses. This does not mean that the past returns in full to the present, for then memory and perception would become indistinguishable, but it does mean that memory undergoes a transformation. That which is remembered becomes open to new connections, and these in turn influence the expectations aroused by the individual correlates in the sequence of sentences.




So as we can see, each new sentence we read can both revise what we have read and modify what we expect to transpire next: “throughout the reading process there is a continual interplay between modified expectations and transformed memories” (111). Iser then notes that the text does not tell the reader how to perform these modifications. It does not tell us specifically exactly what to expect nor how to connect our memories in the proper way to account for the present circumstances. Iser then describes the basic structural features of the intentional sentence correlates. It has two temporally connecting parts of its structure. One part is hollow, and it is the protentional expectation that is related to the forthcoming correlates, in that it “looks forward to the next correlate”. The other structural linking part of the intentional sentence correlate is the retrospective section, “which answers the expectations of the preceding sentence (now part of the remembered background)” (112). [This point about the retrospective section is a bit complicated. Let us take for example the Aesop fable of the fox and grapes. We first learn that the fox is thirsty and sees grapes somewhat high up on the vine. The sentence correlate to this is what comes into our mind as we form the story world in our imagination on the basis of that sentence. We might picture the fox standing underneath the grapes, looking longingly at them. Since this is the first sentence, the retrospective part is perhaps not as obvious. But we would also presume, by means of inference, that the fox was somewhere else walking toward the grapes and suddenly noticed them. We would also presume that in the past the fox had not had anything to drink. The important part in this first correlate is our expectation that the fox will see the grapes as an opportunity to solve its problem of thirst, and perhaps try to get the grapes. That is the protentional expectation section of the intentional correlate. Then we read the next sentence(s). It tells us that the fox tries over and over to get the grapes, and then quits. So here, the retentional part “which answers the expectations of the preceding sentence (now part of the remembered background)” is the part of it that recalls how the fox was thirsty and had the motivation for his current actions. Our expectations, which began vague, are now fulfilled by current correlate, which is thus continuous with these prior expectations. Let us for convenience lump into this correlate his quitting. We might now sense some uncertainty about what will happen next. Will the fox devise some clever trick to get the grapes? Will the fox accept defeat? Since the fox was thirsty at the beginning, and there is no indication yet of him being clever, we might just assume he will leave thinking that he failed. However, the final sentence tells us that he concludes regarding the grapes, “They looked sour anyway”. This implies that he never wanted them. It would be an example of our expectations being defied. How does that defiance of our expectations occur with regard to this structure? It is a conflict between our retained protention and current intention. Or more precisely, it is a tension within our current intentional sentence correlate between its retrospective section (which retains the prior protentional expectation of him regretting not getting the grapes) and its intentional section (which conflicts with that prior protentional expectation, now found in the retrospective section. So, instead of regretting his failure, he instead thinks it was not a loss anyway). We might also note in this example how even the final sentence leaves a lot open in this story world. Will the fox later realize it was being dishonest with itself? Did we misinterpret the beginning where it said he was thirsty? Did the fox actually learn by jumping and getting a better view and smell of the grapes that they really were sour? The final sentence of a story, by necessity of its structure, leaves parts of the story world open. Some endings, however, leave a lot more open and encourage further rereadings to explore all the interpretative possibilities. And perhaps that openness or ambiguity of the ending is itself something significant, as for example it captures an important way that things often work in life.]

It is clear, then, that throughout the reading process there is a continual interplay between modified expectations and transformed memories. However, the text itself does not formulate expectations or their modification; nor does it specify how the connectability of memories is to be implemented. This is the province of the reader himself, and so we have a first insight into how the synthetizing [sic?] activity of the | reader enables the text to be translated and transferred to his own mind. This process of translation also shows up the basic hermeneutic structure of reading. Each sentence correlate contains what one might call a hollow section, which looks forward to the next correlate, and a retrospective-section, which answers the expectations of the preceding sentence (now part of the remembered background). Thus every moment of reading is a dialectic of pretension and retention, conveying a future horizon yet to be occupied, along with a past (and continually fading) horizon already filled; the wandering viewpoint carves its passage through both at the same time and leaves them to merge together in its wake. There is no escaping this process, for — as has already been pointed out — the text cannot at any one moment be grasped as a whole. But what may at first sight have seemed like a disadvantage, in comparison with our normal modes of perception, may now be seen to offer distinct advantages, in so far as it permits a process through which the aesthetic object is constantly being structured and restructured. As there is no definite frame of reference to regulate this process, successful communication must ultimately depend on the reader’s creative activity.



Iser will “now take a closer look at the basic structures that regulate this process” (112). Iser’s first observation is that “on the level of the sentences themselves, it is clear that their sequence does not by any means bring about a smooth interaction of protention and retention” (112). Iser then quotes Ingarden on this issue, where Ingarden observes that often times the next sentence flows continuously from the prior one. But in some cases there is a gap that the reader must overcome somehow.

Once we are transposed into the flow of thinking the sentence, we are prepared after having completed the thought of one sentence, to think its “continuation” in the form of another sentence, specifically, a sentence which has a connection with the first sentence. In this way the process of reading a text advances effortlessly. But when it happens that the second sentence has no perceptible connection whatever with the first, the flow of thought is checked. A more or less vivid surprise or vexation is associated with the resulting hiatus. The block must be overcome if we are to renew the flow of our reading.9

(Iser 112, the above is entirely Iser quoting Ingarden)

[Footnote 9 on p. 112 (quoting except for curly brackets):

9 {Roman} Ingarden, {The} Cognition {of the Literary Work of Art, transl. by Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston, 1973),} p. 34.]

Ingarden thinks that there should not be such gaps and frustrated expectations. Iser assess this as a result of his classical notion of an art work “as polyphonic harmony” (Iser 112). However, “in literary texts, not only is the sequence full of surprising twists and turns, but indeed we expect it to be so – even to the extent that if there is a continuous flow, we will look for an ulterior motive. There is no need for us now to go into Ingarden’s reasons for demanding a ‘flow of sentence thinking’; what concerns us here is the fact that there is such a hiatus, and that is has a | very important function” (112-113). The important structure here is this gap or hiatus that “enables the sentence correlates to be set off against one another” (113). [The function it seems is to enable the literary work to unfold in a dynamic way:] “On the level of sentences themselves, the interruption of expected connections may not be of any great significance; however it is paradigmatic of the many processes of focusing and refocusing that take place during the reading of the literary text. This need for readjustment arises primarily from the fact that the aesthetic object has no existence of its own, and can consequently only come into being by way of such processes” (113).








Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. London / Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.





  1. Once again Corry I find myself responding to the title ‘[The open structure of the intentional sentence correlates]’ esp. 'the intentional sentence.; Thinking right off does that intentional sentence send me right away to jail? to a reading jail, The Reading Gaol? I don't mean literally (of course not but connotatively hyperlinked (a term fallen into dis-use these days): https://inthereadinggaol.blogspot.ca/

    Is our reading then a prison which releases us into an Outside In?

    1. I wonder too. With Iser's idea that the reader is confined to the given sentences, but on the basis of the gaps between them (like the gaps between prison bars?), the reader is fully liberated to create the story world in their own way. But still in the end I wonder if a phenomenological approach is too confining to one's own phenomenal apparatus, no matter how free one is with it. By the way, I find your notion of connotative hyperlinking very useful. Normally I think of a connotative meaning as something in the background of the explicit denotative meaning. But connotations also have a hyperlinking function that transports from one meaning to another and not just gathers other meanings into the background.

  2. Yes indeed there's a lot to be said and or thought about concerning the hyperlink/connotation area of significance. There are at least two sides to the question , the first being the simple move from one sense of meaning to another and then the formal sense of that movement in the electronic text to wit, in the electronic text there really is a move from one modality to another,I mean from one literal 'space' to another. Whereas with the connotative text, the moves are mental , we follow things with our head, We track the sense being connoted cognitively . As in a simple reference in a poem we would either know the connotation of a given word, or image, or not, and if not we might look it up. In the hypertext we don't look anything up at all, it's more like we are looked up! we are hooked up directly to the reference in the hyperlink. In the Fictions blogs I used to do hypertext linking but it seemed to be useless after a while. And it's only recently I've been doing some research into the background of the original hypertext writing styles and or movement. Linking in blogs is not necessarily identical to hypertext but there are strong similarities, but I've come to see that linking is really the simplest form of it and in that sense it resembles more denotation. Denotation is a sort of one for one right? ie. the denotation of the word red is its meaning __ the color red . Nothing more or less. And that's a lot actually. Not to belittle it. After all to say the word Red is quite an accomplishment.Think of the history (the etymology etc) of such a simple word. Red, a mere three letters but how rich! So red denotatively in contrast to the connotative side. I think our brains work between these two spheres regularly.

    That comment I made about hyperlinking in the Fictions blog is sort of hanging in the air and isn't finished as I've not even remotely figured out a solution to the problem if there is one, I mean a problem. As words were already richly connotative i thought why hypertext link them? then I realized I was not hypertexting as such, but linking with perhaps one or two shades of allusion and reference. I'm not sure if I'm really making sense here.!

    1. Thanks Clifford! I never thought about there being a difference between hypertext and blog linking. What is that difference? I am not too familiar with the idea of hypertext. I like what you wrote here in the Gaol post "It also strikes me that this movement of connotation to denotation is a back and forth thing that is not dissimilar to the double articulation sense of deterritorialization and reterritorialization ... and the lines of flight and escape subsequent upon it." I like how you characterize connotation and denotation in terms of this movement. The connotations seem to escape the confines of the denotations, but then after reflecting on the connotations in a more explicit way, we might be able to render them into a more denotational form. I am not sure though. I can see why this issue is important in poetry, and your poetic experiments with hyperlinking are useful for exploring the conceptual mechanisms at work.

  3. I've added some more commentary to this subject here at The Reading Gaol(Jail) an older blog that I recently 'reactivated.'

  4. Also you wrote :But still in the end I wonder if a phenomenological approach is too confining to one's own phenomenal apparatus, no matter how free one is with it.' I too wonder about the phenomenological approach but more on that another time.