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Cognitive Science and the Future of Literary Studies

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 23, Number 1, April 1999
pp. 157-173 | 10.1353/phl.1999.0023

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Cognitive Science and the Future of Literary Studies

The future of literary studies, never a very clear prospect, seems especially hazy at the present moment. Poststructuralist approaches, basing their accounts of language, culture, and subject formation largely on the theories of French thinkers like Lacan, Derrida, Althusser, and Foucault have increasingly been found problematic. 1 Dissatisfaction with poststructuralism, particularly at its relativistic and anti-humanist extremes, have come not only from expected corners but from critics working in feminist, Marxist, postcolonial, and gay studies, fields that have been closely associated with poststructuralist theory in the recent past. 2 Calls to move “beyond” poststructuralism and to imagine a future “after postmodernism” have by now become routine. 3 Where to go from here, however, and whether to absorb some aspects of poststructuralist thought or reject it wholesale are questions that not only remain open but have barely begun to be asked.

Given the immense promise of work on the brain and cognition, which has already revolutionized a number of academic fields, one might expect literary critics and theorists to consider the constellation of new ideas emerging from the cognitive sciences in their search for new paradigms for literary studies. Even if we define cognitive science broadly to include relevant aspects of neuroscience, however, literary scholars have as yet shown remarkably little interest. This lack of engagement may seem surprising. After all, issues of subject formation, language acquisition, agency, rhetoricity, and the like have become central concerns of literary theory and criticism, and yet much of the [End Page 157] most exciting relevant work in linguistics, psychology, and philosophy of mind, not to mention neuroscience and artificial intelligence, has been ignored. That what must be the great interdisciplinary venture of our times, cognitive science (or, as a number of researchers now prefer, the cognitive neurosciences), has been left largely unexamined in a much heralded era of interdisciplinarity scholarship only adds to the sense of perplexity. 4 Areas within literary studies that most closely border on the relevant disciplines within the cognitive neurosciences—particularly reader response criticism, metrics, and narratology—all but cry out for rethinking in terms of recent work in cognitive psychology, psycholinguistics, and artificial intelligence (AI). And such rethinking has indeed begun in these fields, as the work of Reuven Tsur, Norman Holland, David Miall, and Marie-Laure Ryan (among other literary scholars) attests. 5

These pioneering attempts to bridge the gap between literary studies and the cognitive neurosciences have been matched by a handful of researchers in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and AI, notably including Jerry Hobbs, Roger Schank, Richard Gerrig, Raymond Gibbs, and David Rubin. 6 I will concentrate in this essay, however, on a few exemplary efforts on the part of scholars in literature departments to enter into dialogue with work in the cognitive neurosciences. 7 The term “dialogue” must be stressed at the outset: the best work to date does not borrow paradigms or methods uncritically from the sciences, but rather weighs and evaluates them, challenges them using literary examples (generally much more complex and demanding than the simpler examples relied on in cognitive psychology or AI), and often proposes modifications in theory or method that may in turn be adopted by cognitive scientists. As representative of the most considerable work to date at the intersection of literary studies and cognitive science, I will discuss Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind (1996), Ellen Spolsky’s Gaps in Nature (1993), and Elaine Scarry’s article “On Vivacity” (1995), followed by a look at several recent essays more specifically addressed to issues in literary history. First, however, it may be useful to review some of the factors most obviously affecting the reception of such work within the literary academy, now and for the near future.

Those seeking a rapprochement between literary studies and the cognitive sciences can readily find reason for encouragement. The anxieties provoked by a neuroscientist like Francis Crick when he addresses a popular audience on the brain and mind—fear of determinism, defensiveness regarding the integrity of the self and the validity [End Page 158] of conscious introspection, distrust of materialism, and a deep-seated resistance to give up the notion of an immortal soul...