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A Scientific Justification for Literature: Jane Austen’s Free Indirect Style as Ethical Tool

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 43, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 1-18 | 10.1353/jnt.2013.0011

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The prospect of a ‘scientific’ approach to literature has long excited scholars, inspiring such varied efforts as Francis Bacon’s allegorical naturalism, Coleridge’s organic formalism, I.A. Richard’s practical criticism, Roman Jakobson’s linguistic structuralism, Marx’s dialectical aesthetics, Freud’s psychoanalytic interpretation—the list goes on. Each of these has quietly faded as the science behind it has fallen into obsolescence, and yet the underlying ambition has lived on, manifesting itself most recently in the push to apply cognitive science, Darwinism, and the other branches of modern experimental biology to literature. For two reasons, this new push—which we will refer to as ‘biological criticism’—has seemed more poised to succeed than earlier efforts. First, a large and diverse body of peer-reviewed publications supports its particular version of science, and second, it has arrived at a time when the humanities are struggling. Literature departments are losing enrollments, funding, and institutional prestige to the sciences, and they could use a justification to lure back students and financial support. Yet even though this turn to modern biology has a wider empirical basis and more professional urgency than its predecessors, its reach has extended little beyond a devoted coterie (Vermeule, “Comeuppance” 221–24). The bulk of literary critics remain unconvinced, so the prospect of a scientific approach to literature remains at present what it has always been: an intriguing but uncertain possibility.

Among biological critics, the favored explanation for this situation is a bias against scientific practice in the humanities, but over the following pages, we will suggest that it stems at least in part from a methodological weakness within biological criticism itself. Although there is by no means a consensus over how to apply modern biology to the study of literature, the method of biological criticism has broadly consisted of using scientific theories to interpret the function of literary forms. Most Literary Darwinists and many cognitive literary critics take this approach, and the cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley has even employed it recently as a substitute for direct scientific experiment. Using Theory of Mind to interpret the function of Free Indirect Discourse (FID), Oatley has argued that Jane Austen’s free-indirect style offers a “cue to the reader to imagine himself or herself into the minds” of Austen’s characters, fostering “better abilities in empathy and theory of mind” (148, 114). The problem with using scientific theories to interpret the function of literary forms, however, is that it reverses the usual method of both modern biology and literary criticism. The former does not begin with a theory, but builds toward one, and the latter does not culminate in textual analysis, but starts with it. As a result, Oatley’s interpretation of FID fails to satisfy the standards of either discipline. To literary critics, the claim that FID is a product of our biology not only implies a politically regressive humanism, but makes literature derivative. Scientists, meanwhile, are skeptical of the power of literature to teach “mind reading” and have in fact discovered empirical evidence of exactly the reverse. Most strikingly, children given storybooks in which the narrative provided characters’ internal thoughts (mimicking what Oatley identifies as the “mind-reading” function of FID) did not improve their Theory of Mind skills. Quite the opposite: their development of these skills was delayed (Peskin and Astington 253–73).

Over the following pages, we would therefore like to take the opposite approach to developing a biological justification for literature: instead of starting with a scientific theory and using it to interpret the function of a literary form, we will begin with a literary analysis of form and open it up to scientific verification. As our title suggests, we premise this approach on the claim that literary forms can be treated as “tools” that help people respond to environmental problems. From the vantage of modern science, the majority of such problems stem from biological imperatives (e.g. the need to eat, reproduce, or evade threats) but are nevertheless heavily shaped by cultural particulars. The problem of hunger in Neolithic societies, for example, resulted from the failure to capture enough prey, whereas the problem of hunger in America today results from a failure to...



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