- Reading Literature Cognitivelyed. by Terence Cave, Karin Kukkonen, and Olivia Smith
Reading Literature Cognitively, the result of work undertaken by a research group led by Terence Cave at Oxford, has the straightforward aim of ‘open[ing] up a space for reflection on the use of cognitive methodologies in literary study’ (p. 1). It fulfils this through a varied and rich selection of essays by its multiple contributors, a selection that gives a strong sense of the range of different cognitive approaches (including enactivism, embodied cognition, Bayesian probability, theory of mind, Relevance Theory, conceptual schemes), their potential within the arena of literary study, and the challenges involved in their implementation. Cave’s succinct Introduction tackles these challenges head on. One has less to do with the method itself than with the ideologies that currently inform thinking about literature. Cave acknowledges that ‘literary specialists have been slow to [End Page 280]draw sustenance from, far less to contribute to, the cognitive conversation’ (p. 3), and that cognitivism has met with resistance, on the one hand from those invested in ‘traditional modes of literary history and criticism’ (p. 3), and from the multiple and various proponents of literary theory as it has emerged over the last fifty years. It is perhaps in the (potential) conversation between cognitive approaches and those to which Cave refers under the term ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’ (p. 9) that this engagement might be most fertile. A fruitful dialogue emerges, for example, through the opposition Cave draws between an account of the structure of language as ‘prison-house’ (p. 9, citing Fredric Jameson on the structuralist view), and a cognitivist notion of language as ‘an instrumentof cognition’ (p. 9; original emphasis), or Cave’s proposition that theory’s ‘suspicion’ might be (re-)absorbed into a ‘hermeneutics of charity’ (p. 9), here foregrounding Raphael Lynne’s discussion of Hamlet’s Ghost scene, in the volume, and the cognitivist concern with empathy and with ‘theory of mind’. Perhaps the most telling distinction arises between the constructive or co-operative tendencies of cognitivism, which aim to understand how and why we know, or think we know, what the other means, does, or thinks, and the ‘unremittingly tragic view of the human predicament’ (p. 10) that arises from an emphasis on the irredeemably deceptive, undecidable, or conflictual aspects of communication. Cognitive theories are not and cannot be imported wholesale into literary critical methods, however. Indeed, as Cave points out, the considerable challenge of the endeavour (one internal to the method) is the tendency towards universalism of scientifically grounded approaches, and the valorization of the particular, the nuanced, and the contingent in the humanities and in literary study in particular. Despite these anxieties, what emerges strongly from the volume is a sense of the contribution literary study may have to make to cognitivism, of what is distinctive about literature as an object of knowledge. Cave implies that this is an attention to ‘the unpredictable, the one-off, the irreducible tangle’ (p. 8). Perhaps above all what the volume offers, then, through a series of encounters between cognitive methodologies and specific literary objects, is a series of tools for close reading and for the valorization of subtlety.