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Reviewed by:
  • Strange Concepts and the Stories they Make Possible
  • Michael Austin
Strange Concepts and the Stories they Make Possible, by Lisa Zunshine; 232 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008, $25.00.

Unlike much recent evolution-themed scholarship in the humanities, Lisa Zunshine's Strange Concepts and the Stories they Make Possible is not a manifesto. It does not announce the arrival of any new order, herald a radical paradigm shift, or promise to deliver the study of literature from the jaws of evil or irrelevance. Whatever manifesto-writing impulses Zunshine may have had seem to have been worked out sufficiently in her 2006 book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. In her new book, she gives herself a refreshingly modest assignment: to demonstrate that a certain cognitive predisposition has contributed to the development of, and continued interest in, specific literary motifs that occur across a wide variety of cultures. This is all that she tries to do, and she does it very well.

The cognitive disposition in question has to do with the way that human [End Page 227] beings conceptualize the things we encounter as we interact with the world. Zunshine argues—with abundant evidence from both evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology—that the human mind comes preloaded with two different thing-conceptualizing mechanisms. When we encounter inanimate objects, we tend to view them as extensions of their function: chairs are for sitting in, toothpicks are for picking teeth, flugelhorns are for making music, and so on. When we encounter living things, however, we generally represent them to ourselves as essences—abstract and vaguely metaphysical realities that define a "whatness" or a "suchness" (or, in religious terms, a "soul") that goes beyond mere material existence.

In making her argument, Zunshine steers clear of the standard philosophical debates about, and discussions of, essences and essentialism. She has no wish to cross swords with Plato or Sartre or to insert herself into the presence of those who do. What matters for Zunshine's argument is simply that humans have a cognitive predisposition to divide the world into two categories of things: objects, which have functions, and beings, which have essences. Thinking in this way, Zunshine suggests, provided our ancestors with survival advantages in dealing both with objects (because we can figure out how to use them) and with organisms (because we can make useful generalizations based on what we perceive to be their essential natures).

But these two categories don't really describe the world. Organisms don't really have hidden essential natures that define them beyond their material properties. (Disney movies aside, a mother and a daughter couldn't really inhabit each other's bodies, no matter how freaky the Friday; nor could the soul of a warrior ever really be transported into the body of a brother bear.) Similarly, not every inanimate object has a definite function (a hammer may have purpose, but a rock just is). Given enough time, most people could think of dozens of things, real or imagined, that defy this simple categorization. These are the "strange concepts" of which Zunshine speaks, and, precisely because they cannot be assigned easily to one of our two cognitive file cabinets, they command our attention and engage our interest. I suspect (though Zunshine does not explicitly argue) that this interest stems from yet another adaptive trait: the tendency to be fascinated by things that we do not understand because such things are very likely to present dangers that we cannot anticipate. Fascination leads to extra attention, which often prevents disaster.

The fact that humans tend to classify things as either functions or essences, and feel intense interest when something doesn't fit nicely into this scheme, means that we have a whole bundle of cognitive predispositions that can be exploited by the right stories. Zunshine does a good job of selecting examples of these classification-defying concepts. Her gaze travels across the realm of narrative. From Harry Potter, she draws an emotionally insecure door that must be spoken to politely, or tickled, before it will open (an inanimate object with an essence). From Great Expectations she draws the story of a woman who...


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pp. 227-230
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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