Poetry, according to della Volpe, constitutes an autonomous sign-system, borrowing the meaning of its terms from the general social sign-system: itself ranged between precise technical language and ordinary social language, which possesses some autonomy without acceding to a properly poetic level of autonomy. This sign-system is to be distinguished from Saussure's la langue which abstracts out sociological factors.
This semiological analysis permits della Volpe to criticise the dominant contemporary schools of aesthetic criticism:
1. Romantic criticism, which failed to analyse literary works as sign-systems and so failed to recognise writers as being engaged in formalistic work, subject to various social and historical constraints. Consequently romantic criticism ended up perpetuating various mysticisms.
2. Marxist literary or art criticism such as that of Lukács, which pursued an overly restricted appraisal of literature based on its sociological determination. Consequently this criticism failed to recognise the relative autonomy of writers, and developed a theory of literature restricted to validating:
a. the specific form of the 19th century novel
b. partisanship at the level of content, and this understood in a peculiar way, i.e. the positive portrayal of characters whose social position coincided with that valorised by communist party propaganda, at the time Lukács wrote this meant workers and peasants.
della Volpe explains his approach:
"If criticism is to be rigorous and scientific, rather than a matter of chance impressions, it can only be a comparison of two elements: to start with, the ordinary thoughts and ordinary meanings and the instrumental "form" related to them (the totality of their lexical-grammatical and phonic elements), which are the specific and technical basis of the poetic text; and then, the un-ordinary thoughts and meanings which are developed in the poetic text from the ordinary. The originally denotative lexical terms are developed into connotative terms, while, running parallel, certain related phonic developments may also occur - the two resulting in what can be defined as stylemes. The comparison between ordinary and un-ordinary is to be executed through paraphrases of the un-ordinary meanings and the connotative terms in which they are expressed. Such paraphrase, however, being relational and dialectical, must be discriminatory. The object of its discrimination will be nothing less than the switch, the separation or progress, of meaning or thought or (poetic) cognitive value, realized (expressed) by the stylemes, with respect to the values realized (communicated) by the glossemes, or elements of the linguistic-instrumental "form". Critical paraphrase/paraphrase as criticism in short. Paraphrase, which hasalways been a heresy for critics of a mysticizing bent indifferent to language, ceases to be one. The ingenuous conception these critics have of paraphrase has never extended beyond an unrelated, undialectical, uncritical paraphrase, which they see as an alien interference with aesthetic raptus or poetic "ineffability"."