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The or the[1] Essay (plural: essays), also called an essai, is a witty treatise in which scientific, cultural, or social phenomena are considered. The focus is often on the author’s personal exploration of a topic. The criteria of scientific methodology can be neglected; the writer (the essayist) thus has relatively great freedom.

Similar text types, sometimes used synonymously, are tract, essay, and (obsolete) causerie. Related journalistic forms of presentation are the gloss, the column, the journalistic commentary and the editorial.

In terms of the richness of the mind of a good essay, the essay can be thought of as the “big brother” of the aphorism.


The French term essai, like the Italian saggio and the Spanish ensayo, derives from the rarely attested Late Latin noun exagium (“the weighing”, “the weight”), which specifically denotes “the shot samples which the emperors of the 5th century had presented to them of each new strike of coinage, 1/6 of an ounce, = 1 solidus”[2] and is derived from the frequently attested verb exigere (inter alia “to test”, “to examine”, “to judge”, “to weigh”, “to 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 was still a collection of sayings, aphorisms and wisdom in the latter, Montaigne now provided with comments and criticism. In doing so, he opposes the scholastic claim to absoluteness with his experiences and considerations, based on a skeptical attitude.

Montaigne appears as a questioner who seeks (and ultimately fails to find) answer(s). A good essay raises new questions and/or outlines a new problem. Insights and claims are often elaborated only to the extent that the reader can associate them himself and consider them as his own thought(s), not as a dogmatic doctrine.

Montaigne’s commitment to subjectivity and his doubt about the existence of absolute truth contradicted the official doctrine of the Vatican at the time. The Vatican first published an Index Librorum Prohibitorum in 1559; Montaigne’s essays(Les essais) were placed on the Index in 1676 (i.e. 84 years after his death).[3]

His successor, the Englishman Francis Bacon, expanded the genre of the essay in the direction of a cautionary, moralizing form with deductive reasoning; subsequently, the essay oscillates between these two orientations. Thus, the essay also became a popular literary form of moralists and enlighteners.

The encyclopedists adapted the original literary-philosophical form into a scientific style. Unlike a tract or scientific treatise, an essay dispenses with objective evidence and definitive answers. But this does not preclude partisanship, as in Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” in which she advocated women’s rights, or Jonathan Lethem’s “Confessions of a Deep Man,” in which he argued for a generous approach to copying ideas.

In his text Lebenslauf III, Walter Benjamin interpreted his essays as follows: “Their task is to promote the integration process of science […] through an analysis of the work of art that recognizes in it an integral expression of the religious, metaphysical, political, economic tendencies of an epoch, which cannot be restricted to any particular area.”


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

Many essays are characterized by a certain lightness, stylistic sophistication, intelligibility and humor. Each new term is introduced and introduced. Plots are recounted chronologically and quotations are clearly marked; but it is usually free of many quotations, footnotes, and marginal notes. At times it is simply stylized, aestheticized chit-chat.

While the author of a scientific analysis is required to present his subject systematically and comprehensively, an essay is written more dialectically: with rigor in methodology, but not in systematics. Essays are thought experiments, interpretations – unbiased, often seemingly random. For an essay to be convincing, it should be sharp in thought, clear in form, and “smooth” in style (See also level of language, stylistics, rhetorical figure).

See also

  • Diatribe
  • Essay (China), a genre of Chinese literature
  • Essay film


  • Theodor W. Adorno: The Essay as Form. In: Ders: Notes on Literature. Ed. by Rolf Tiedemann. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1988 (first 1958).
  • Hans Peter Balmer: Aphoristics, Essayistics, Moralistics. In: Hans Vilmar Geppert, Hubert Zapf (eds.), Theories of Literature. Foundations and Perspectives. Vol. III, A. Francke, Tübingen 2007, pp. 191-211.
  • Max Bense: On the Essay and its Speech. In: Merkur 1, 1947, pp. 414-424.
  • Bruno Berger: The Essay. Form and History. Bern 1964.
  • Erwin Chargaff: Alphabetische Anschläge. Stuttgart 1989, therein: Versuch mit oft unzulänlichen Mitteln, pp. 223-230.
  • Michael Ewert: Vernunft, Gefühl und Phantasie, im schönsten Tanze vereint. The Essayistic of Georg Forster. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1993, ISBN 3-88479-769-7.
  • Petra Gehring: Der Essay – ein Verbindendes zwischen Philosophie und Literatur? In: Winfried Eckel, Uwe Lindemann (eds.): Text als Ereignis. Programmes – 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-Critique. In: Ders, Reise durch das Ungeschick. And Other Masterpieces. Haffmans, Zurich 1990, pp. 199-220.
  • Reto Rössler: Vom Versuch – Experiment und Essay. Bauteile zur Zirkulationsgeschichte einer impliziten Gattung der Aufklärung. Kulturverlag Kadmos, Berlin 2017, ISBN 978-3-86599-332-8 [= study of the DFG project “Versuch” und “Experiment”. Concepts of Experimentation between Natural Science and Literature (1700-1960) at the University of Innsbruck].
  • Michael Rutschky: Keyword Essay: Ignoring Distinctions. In: Hugo Dittberner (ed.), Kunst ist Übertreibung. Wolfenbütteler Lehrstücke zum Zweiten Buch 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 Essayism in the 20th Century. In: Walther L. Bernecker et al. (eds.), Mexico Today. Vervuert, Frankfurt am Main 2004, pp. 759-786.
  • Peter M. Schon: Vorformen des Essays in Antike und Humanismus. Ein Beitrag zur Entstehungsgeschichte der Essais von Montaigne. Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden 1954 (Mainzer Romanistische Arbeiten, Vol. 1).
  • Georg Stanitzek: Essay – BRD. Vorwerk 8, Berlin 2011.
  • Klaus Weissenberger (ed.): Prosakunst ohne Erzählen. Die Gattungen der nichtfiktionalen Kunstprosa. Niemeyer, Tübingen 1985.
  • Andreas Martin Widmann The shape of the hour. In: Der Freitag, 26 January 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.
  • Andreas Beyer: “Lichtbild und Essay. Kunstgeschichte als Versuch” in Wolfgang Braungart and Kai Kauffmann (eds.): Essayismus um 1900, Universitätsverlag GmbH Winter, Heidelberg 2006, pp. 37-48, ISBN 3-8253-5125-4

Web links

Wiktionary: Essay– Explanation of meaning, word origin, synonyms, translations

Individual references

  2. Pierer’s Universal Encyclopedia. 4. Edition. 1857–1865.
  3. Internet Modern History Sourcebook