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The essay (plural: essays ), also called essai , is a witty treatise in which scientific, cultural or social phenomena are considered. The focus is on the author's personal engagement with his respective topic. The criteria of scientific methodology can be neglected; the writer (the essayist ) thus has relatively great freedom.

Similar types of text, sometimes also used synonymously, are tracts , essays and (outdated) causeries . Related journalistic forms of representation are the gloss , the column , the journalistic commentary and the leading article .

In view of the wealth of ideas in a good essay, one can consider the essay to be the “big brother” of the aphorism .


The French expression essai , like the Italian saggio and the Spanish ensayo, comes from the rarely used late Latin noun exagium (“the weighing”, “the weight”), which in particular means “the shot samples which the emperors of the 5th century take from each new one Have a coin strike presented, denotes 1/6 of an ounce, = 1 solidus ”and is derived from the frequently used verb exigere (including“ examine ”,“ examine ”,“ assess ”,“ weigh ”,“ consider ”).


Michel de Montaigne
Francis Bacon

The essay as a literary form or genre goes back to the French author Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592). Montaigne developed the essay from the Adagia of Erasmus of Rotterdam . What is still a collection of sayings, aphorisms and wisdom in this one , Montaigne now provides with comments and criticism. In doing so, out of a skeptical attitude, he contrasts his experiences and considerations with the scholastic claim to absoluteness.

Montaigne appears as a questioner who searches for answer (s) (and ultimately does not find them). A good essay raises new questions and / or outlines a new problem. Findings and demands are often only elaborated so far that the reader can associate them himself and view them as his own thoughts (suggestions), not as a dogmatic doctrine.

Montaigne's commitment to subjectivity and his doubts about the existence of absolute truth contradicted the official doctrine of the Vatican at the time . In 1559 the Vatican first published an index Librorum Prohibitorum ; Montaigne's essays ( Les essais ) were placed on the index in 1676 (that is, 84 years after his death).

His successor, the Englishman Francis Bacon , expanded the genre of the essay in the direction of an instructive, moralizing form with deductive evidence; as a result, the essay oscillates between these two orientations. The essay thus became a popular literary form of moralists and enlighteners .

The encyclopedists adapted the originally literary-philosophical form to a scientific style. In contrast to a treatise or a scientific treatise, an essay dispenses with objective evidence and definitive answers. But that does not rule out taking sides, as in Virginia Woolf's essay “A Room of Your Own”, in which she advocated women's rights, or Jonathan Lethem , who pleaded for a generous approach to copying ideas in “Confessions of a Stacker”.

In his text Curriculum Vitae III , Walter Benjamin interpreted his essays as follows: “Your task is to promote the integration process of science [...] through an analysis of the work of art, which in it is an integral expression of the religious, metaphysical, recognizes political and economic tendencies of an era. "


The essayistic method is an experimental way of approaching the object of reflection and looking at it from different perspectives. The most important thing, however, is not the subject of reflection, but the development of the thoughts in front of the reader.

Many essays are characterized by a certain lightness, stylistic sophistication, comprehensibility and humor. Each new term is introduced and introduced. Actions are told chronologically and quotations are clearly marked; but mostly it is exempt from many quotations , footnotes and marginal notes. Sometimes it is simply a stylized, aesthetic chat.

While the author of a scientific analysis is required to present his topic systematically and comprehensively, an essay is written more dialectically : with rigor in the methodology , but not in the systematics. Essays are attempts at thought, interpretations - impartial, often seemingly random. In order for an essay to be convincing, it should be sharp in thought, clear in form and supple in style (see also language level , style , rhetorical figure ).

See also


  • Theodor W. Adorno : The essay as form. In: Ders .: Notes on literature. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1988 (first 1958).
  • Hans Peter Balmer: aphorism, essay writing, moralistic . In: Hans Vilmar Geppert, Hubert Zapf (Ed.), Theories of Literature. Basics and perspectives. Vol. III, A. Francke, Tübingen 2007, pp. 191-211.
  • Max Bense : About the essay and his speech. In: Merkur 1, 1947, pp. 414-424.
  • Bruno Berger: The essay. Form and history. Bern 1964.
  • Erwin Chargaff : Alphabetical stops. Stuttgart 1989, therein: attempt with often inadequate means , pp. 223-230.
  • Michael Ewert: Reason, feeling and imagination, united in the most beautiful dance. The essay by Georg Forster. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1993, ISBN 3-88479-769-7 .
  • Petra Gehring : The essay - something that connects philosophy and literature? In: Winfried Eckel , Uwe Lindemann (Hrsg.): Text as an event. Programs - Practices - Effects. Berlin 2017, pp. 157–175.
  • Gerhard Haas: Essay. Stuttgart 1969.
  • Osborne Bennett Hardison, Jr .: Binding Proteus. An essay on the essay. In: The Sewanee Review 96.4, 1988, pp. 610-632. Reprinted in: Alexander J. Butrym (Ed.): Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre. The University of Georgia Press, Athens / London 1989, pp. 11-28.
  • Ludwig Rohner: The German essay. Materials on the history and aesthetics of a literary genre. Luchterhand, Neuwied / Berlin 1966.
  • Ludwig Rohner: German Essays. Prose from two centuries in 6 volumes. dtv, Munich 1982 DNB 540088889 , ISBN 3-423-06013-1 (Volume 1).
  • Michael Rutschky : We essayists. A self-criticism. In: Ders., Journey through Clumsiness. And other masterpieces. Haffmans, Zurich 1990, pp. 199-220.
  • Reto Rössler: About the attempt - experiment and essay. Components for the history of circulation of an implicit genre of the Enlightenment. Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-86599-332-8 [= study of the DFG project "Trial" and "Experiment". Concepts of experimentation between science and literature (1700–1960) of the University of Innsbruck].
  • Michael Rutschky: Keyword essay: ignoring distinctions. In: Hugo Dittberner (ed.), Art is exaggeration. Wolfenbütteler Lehrstücke for the second book I. Wallstein, Göttingen 2003, pp. 228–237.
  • Christian Schärf: History of the Essay. From Montaigne to Adorno. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1999, (online) .
  • Friedhelm Schmidt-Welle: From Identity to Diversity. Mexican essay writing in the 20th century. In: Walther L. Bernecker et al. (Ed.), Mexico today. Vervuert, Frankfurt am Main 2004, pp. 759–786.
  • Peter M. Schon: Preliminary Forms of the Essay in Antiquity and Humanism. A contribution to the genesis of the essays by Montaigne. Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1954 (Mainz Romance Works, Vol. 1).
  • Georg Stanitzek : Essay - BRD. Vorwerk 8, Berlin 2011.
  • Klaus Weissenberger (ed.): Prose art without storytelling. The genres of non-fictional art prose. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1985.
  • Andreas Martin Widmann : The form of the hour . In: Friday, January 26, 2012, p. 15.
  • Peter V. Zima : essay / essayism. On the theoretical potential of the essay. From Montagne to postmodernism. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-8260-4727-5 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Essay  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  2. ^ Pierer's Universal Lexicon. 4th edition. 1857-1865.
  3. Internet Modern History Sourcebook