- Fiction and Theory of Mind
Lisa Zunshine's Why We Read Fiction aims "to put the cognitive-evolutionary concept of the Theory of Mind on the map of contemporary literary studies" (p. 84). Any literary critic who has stumbled upon this active research program in recent clinical, cognitive, comparative, developmental and evolutionary psychology will have realized that Theory of Mind (ToM)—our intuitive systems for understanding the minds of others—must be relevant to literature. As someone who has long deplored its neglect in literary studies (often on the very pages of this journal) I regret to report that as a cartographer of this new terrain Zunshine has an unsteady hand.
As its title suggests, her book makes a large claim: that we read fiction in order to give ourselves a cognitive workout, to exercise our capacity for ToM. We normally understand readily four levels of embedded intentionality (you doubt that Brian accepts that Lisa knows what Robin says), but we find it rapidly more difficult to handle further levels. Fiction often pushes "our ability to process embedded intentionalities beyond our cognitive zone of comfort" (p. 130). Why We Read Fiction also makes a second, implicit but no less central, claim: that analyzing fiction in terms of ToM offers criticism greater explanatory power, precision, and clarity. [End Page 590]
Zunshine's explicit claim seems unlikely. All peoples tell and attend to fictions, but as Zunshine sometimes concedes not all these fictions push the boundaries of ToM. Many individuals and groups, perhaps most, especially enjoy fiction that does not involve high-level ToM, such as myth, fairy tale, and action adventure stories from epics to Westerns or martial arts movies. Children already engage in pretend play and enjoy stories compulsively long before they attain a uniquely human, yet still imperfectly developed, level of ToM in their fifth year. How can fiction be explained in terms of setting stiff challenges to our capacity for ToM, when so many children and adults enjoy fiction that makes no exceptional demands?
Fiction can experiment with ToM, with, for instance, multiple levels of embedded intentionality. Barth's virtuoso exercise "Menelaiad" (1968) involves seven degrees of embedding, but the story feels, and is meant to feel, comically overloaded. Less flamboyant but more searching experiment with our capacity to comprehend minds, like Tolstoy's in Anna Karenina, may involve at its most original only one, two or three levels of intentionality: Stiva's thoughts alone, brilliantly evoked in the opening chapter, or his thoughts about Dolly's feelings or his own thoughts, or his thoughts about Dolly's thoughts about his feelings.
Zunshine acknowledges that fiction places varied emphases on ToM, but dwells only on examples that support her case, and ignores many kinds of fiction that do not. More damaging still, the examples she does draw on fail to provide the support she thinks they do, thus undermining both her first claim, that fiction provides an intense ToM workout, and her second, that analyzing fiction through ToM sharpens and strengthens criticism. Interpreting fiction with an explicit awareness of ToM can have this effect, but Zunshine inadvertently reveals dangers rather than opportunities.
Since texts are the hard evidence in literary study, we need to see in detail how Zunshine handles them. Her first display example comes from Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. She cites:
And Miss Brush [Lady Bruton's secretary] went out, came back; laid papers on the table; and Hugh produced his fountain pen; his silver fountain pen, which had done twenty years' service, he said, unscrewing the cap. It was still in perfect order; he had shown it to the makers; there was no reason, they said, why it should ever wear out; which was somehow to Hugh's credit, and to the credit of the sentiments which his pen expressed (so Richard Dalloway felt) as Hugh began carefully writing capital letters with rings [End Page 591] around them in the margin, and thus marvelously reduced Lady Bruton's tangles to sense, to grammar such as the editor of the Times...