Webster's Definition of Literature


In Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary from 1913 we find the following definition of literature:

Literature Lit"er*a*ture, n. F. litt'erature, L. litteratura, literatura, learning, grammar, writing, fr. littera, litera, letter. See Letter.

  1. Learning; acquaintance with letters or books.
  2. The collective body of literary productions, embracing the entire results of knowledge and fancy preserved in writing; also, the whole body of literary productions or writings upon a given subject, or in reference to a particular science or branch of knowledge, or of a given country or period; as, the literature of Biblical criticism; the literature of chemistry.
  3. The class of writings distinguished for beauty of style or expression, as poetry, essays, or history, in distinction from scientific treatises and works which contain positive knowledge; belles-lettres.
  4. The occupation, profession, or business of doing literary work. --Lamp.

Literature, in its widest sense, embraces all compositions in writing or print which preserve the results of observation, thought, or fancy; but those upon the positive sciences (mathematics, etc.) are usually excluded. It is often confined, however, to belles-lettres, or works of taste and sentiment, as poetry, eloquence, history, etc., excluding abstract discussions and mere erudition. A man of literature (in this narrowest sense) is one who is versed in belles-lettres; a man of learning excels in what is taught in the schools, and has a wide extent of knowledge, especially, in respect to the past; a man of erudition is one who is skilled in the more recondite branches of learned inquiry.

The origin of all positive science and philosophy, as well as of all literature and art, in the forms in which they exist in civilized Europe, must be traced to the Greeks. --Sir G. Lewis.


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