Conceptism origin, history, characteristics, authors, works

Abraham McLaughlin

The conceptism It was a literary trend used in the seventeenth century during the development of the Spanish Baroque. His style is based on the use of ingenious associations between ideas (concepts) and words. The most prominent authors who used the concept in their works were Francisco de Quevedo and Baltasar Gracián.

The writer Baltasar Gracián y Morales (1601-1658) established that conceptism consisted of an act of understanding that aimed to express the correspondence that exists between objects. Therefore, the concept sought to use an expression that concentrates the greatest meaning in the fewest number of words..

Francisco de Quevedo was one of the authors who used the conceptist style. Source: Juan vander Hamen (Public domain)

Consequently, it can be affirmed that the conceptism used polysemy on a recurring basis. In linguistic terms, polysemy occurs when the same word can have different meanings.

In order to establish ingenious relationships between meanings and words, conceptism also used other devices such as equivocation, ellipsis, paradox and antithesis. For this reason, it is stated that conceptist writers had to be well instructed in the rhetorical discipline.

Similarly, the current of conceptism was linked to gongorismo or culteranismo. Some authors defend that they are two different styles, however, most critics establish that culteranismo is actually an aspect or a manifestation of conceptism.

Both styles have in common that they followed the aesthetic lines of Mannerism and Baroque; consequently, the literary work obtained its value through the complication of language. This arises as a response to the Renaissance movement, which proposed the naturalness and simplicity of the language.

Article index

  • 1 Origin and history
    • 1.1 The baroque episteme
    • 1.2 Baroque in art
    • 1.3 Historical context of the Spanish Golden Age
  • 2 Features
    • 2.1 Characteristics of baroque literature
    • 2.2 Characteristics of the concept
  • 3 Authors and representative works
    • 3.1 Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645)
    • 3.2 Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658)
  • 4 References

Origin and history

The baroque episteme

The baroque was an artistic and philosophical movement that developed in Europe and Latin America in the course of the seventeenth century. In its beginnings the word baroque it was charged with a pejorative sense, since it was related to the exaggerated, the extravagant and the overloaded. All these elements were in stark contrast to the order and harmony of the Renaissance..

Some authors establish that Mannerism (a brief movement located between the Baroque and the Renaissance) and the Baroque arose in response to the decline of Renaissance ideals. Therefore, it is proposed that the ideas of balance and order disappeared to give way to a more pessimistic and disillusioned vision of reality..

As a plastic expression of this vision arose an eagerness to demonstrate the unstable of reality, as well as the transience of everything that exists. This attracted an interest in the extravagance, which often manifested itself through the monstrous or the contrived and complicated..

The baroque in art

In painting this manifested itself through the contrast of shadows and lights; curved and brittle lines were emphasized in architecture, as well as labyrinthine gardens. On the other hand, in the literature the gongorist schemes were applied, which were based on the recurrent use of neologisms and hyperbatons..

Likewise, within the literary works the figure of the rogue. This with the aim of making readers aware of the misery of the human condition. However, this image was developed from a satirical and moralizing approach, as can be seen in the work The life of the Buscón (1626), by Francisco de Quevedo.

Historical context of the Spanish Golden Age

The Baroque in Spain constituted a paradoxical period, since culturally it is considered as the Golden Age (due to its development in painting, music and literature), but from the historical perspective it was rather a century of crisis.

For example, demographically the population had decreased alarmingly due to hunger. In addition, the fields suffered a notorious depopulation, which worsened when they expelled the Moors - descendants of Muslims-.

Economically, Spain was bankrupt. This as a consequence of wars and internal conflicts. In this sense, droughts, epidemics, the loss of peasants and the decline in American gold were also influencing..

Spanish society lacked an enterprising bourgeoisie and the court was characterized by its wastefulness. On the other hand, the nobility paid almost no taxes and maintained a monopoly on both land and public office. Commoners had to pay high taxes, in addition to being the first affected by economic crises.

During this period the number of miserables had also grown, a Spanish social stratum that was made up of rogues, beggars, thieves and beggars. This group of people settled in the cities and wreaked havoc. All these elements harmed the development of the Iberian Peninsula during the Golden Age.

From the religious perspective, Spain had assumed the ideals of the Counter-Reformation - opposition to the Protestant Reformation - which were rigorously enforced through the Inquisition. The guidelines of the counter-reform were disseminated through educational centers and the theater.

In addition, the need for cleansing of blood had been socially imposed, which consisted in showing that one had no Muslim or Jewish ancestry for at least three generations. This generated social divisions and resentments..


To understand conceptism in its entirety, it is first necessary to mention some of the characteristics of baroque literature. This is because conceptism is a current that was produced by baroque art.

Characteristics of Baroque literature

- It was a style that wanted to surprise the reader. Thus, the basis of this literature consisted in the difficulty of its texts, which sought to challenge the intelligence of those who read them..

- There was a constant presence of disappointment and pessimism. From this vision some topics such as the Carpe Diem, nostalgia and death. In addition, in some texts a questioning of reality was raised and the transience of life was emphasized, as can be seen in the text The life is dream, by Calderón de la Barca.

- Some authors of baroque literature introduced a critical attitude of a satirical and sarcastic character. This encouraged the emergence of the picaresque as a genre and resulted in the use of characters such as the madman, the drunkard, the funny man or the rogue; these generally located on the fringes of society.

- The literary language was enriched by cultism, as well as expressive twisting. For this reason, word games, metaphors, paradoxes and accumulation of images were used..

Characteristics of the concept

- Conceptist literature gave more importance to the background than to the form. As for conceptist poetry, this was poetry of content and ingenious association between ideas and words.

- Conceptism operated on abstract thoughts. For this he used paradoxes, antitheses and phrases with double meanings.

- Some define conceptism as a game of associations and thoughts where mental and creative acuity is put to the test.

- Conceptism sought the extraordinary to excite intelligence and arouse the admiration of readers.

- The literature of this current was interested in word games and human ingenuity. For this reason, it appealed to the imagination. In some cases it also appealed to the senses, but this corresponded more to the culteranism aspect..

Authors and representative works

Francisco de Quevedo (1580-1645)

He is considered by critics as one of the most prominent authors in Spanish literature. Quevedo wrote poetry, narrative, theater and various philosophical texts where he addressed political, moral, historical and humanistic issues..

One of his most famous works was The life of the Buscón (1626). However, the author never admitted to having written this text with the aim of avoiding the censorship of the Inquisition. It is a picaresque novel where the life of Don Pablos, a ruffian, is narrated.

The life of the buscón is a literary work corresponding to the conceptist current. Source: Francisco de Quevedo [Public domain]

For critics, the text is a satire that can be classified as a bloody caricature due to the exaggeration of its prose; This is because Quevedo did not describe the characters or places in a realistic way, but rather grotesquely. This exaggeration is typical of the baroque style.

In turn, Quevedo demonstrated a remarkable command of language, since he used a very wide vocabulary and played with meanings. For this reason, The life of the buscón It is considered a conceptist work.

Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658)

He was a Spanish Jesuit who dedicated himself to cultivating philosophy and didactic prose. He is considered one of the most important representatives of the conceptist current, since his works were loaded with aphorisms, polysemics and puns. The line of thought of this author is quite pessimistic, which agrees with the baroque period.

For Gracián, the world was a deceptive and hostile space. Therefore, within his works, malice prevailed over truth and virtue. His most outstanding creation was The Criticón, which was published in three parts over several years: 1651, 1653 and 1657.

The play The critic It is valued as the pinnacle of the Spanish Baroque. It consists of an allegory that addresses the entire life of man, represented in two opposing characters: Andreino, who is impulsive and inexperienced, and Critilo, experienced and prudent. The text is focused from social satire and disappointment, however, it follows the structure of a moral epic.


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