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The Epistemology of Cognitive Literary Studies

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 25, Number 2, October 2001
pp. 314-334 | 10.1353/phl.2001.0031

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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 314-334


Literary scholars have begun incorporating the insights of cognitive science into literary studies, bringing to bear on questions of literary experience the results of explorations within a wide range of fields that define today's cognitive science. The investigation of the human mind and its reasoning processes encompasses a rich variety of empirical and speculative disciplines, including cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, evolutionary psychology, developmental psychology, computer science, philosophy, and anthropology. These disciplines are all related to one another by the questions they ask about the brain and mind and the ground they cover in staking out their research agendas; but each also contributes uniquely in terms of individual scope and focus. Literary critics, eavesdropping on this maturing coalition, are now producing critical works that apply cognitive research to a similarly impressive range of literary concerns, with results so far that seem to span the gap between traditional and more contemporary literary critical approaches.

All such criticism is dependent on scientific studies of the brain and mind and so accepts axiomatically some degree of epistemological efficacy in scientific empiricism. But this acceptance has not been naive or uncritical and has, in fact, been at times carefully qualified by critics' sensitivity to debate -- to the lack of consensus among cognitive scientists, and to the fact that cognitive science is itself in its infancy stage, with its own practitioners often openly tentative about their results and descriptive capabilities. As it happens, such debate, in recent years, has even proven beneficial for literary scholarship since an important paradigm shift has taken place that now makes some aspects of cognitive science more compatible than ever with the interests of literary studies. This is because, whereas an earlier phase of cognitive science focused its energies on Artificial Intelligence and on theories of language and psychology that supported AI, grounding its theories implicitly in a metaphor of the mind as a computer, today's cognitive scientists tend to concentrate instead on the more organic metaphor of the "embodiment" of mind, that is, of the mind's substantive indebtedness to its bodily, social, and cultural contexts, and on the figurative phenomena of metaphor, metonymy, image schemata, "fields," "frames," other "integrative mental spaces" (as they are called), and the gradient structures and prototypical bases of semantic categories, all of which contribute to recasting human reason into a set of highly imaginative -- not logical but figural -- processes. For literary theory and criticism, this shift in cognitive science toward "the body in the mind" --tantamount to a wholesale rejection of philosophical rationalism -- has given rise to a new kind of interdisciplinary practice, to the potential for a sincere engagement between diverse sciences and even between literature and science that stretches all the bounds of what literary scholars generally mean when they speak of being interdisciplinary (e.g., exchanges with history, art history, anthropology, film studies, sociology).

In the discussion that follows, I would like to explore this new interdisciplinarity in literary studies by examining its epistemological implications. I begin with a description of the kinds of criticism now being produced under the rubric of cognitive literary criticism or -- to reflect the field's scope more accurately -- cognitive and cognitive-evolutionary criticism. This description is not intended as a comprehensive or evaluative survey, since in-depth review articles of extant works are available elsewhere. Rather, I hope to familiarize my readers with the basic orientations of this theory and criticism so that they can grasp the epistemological relations that will become the essay's focus. To lay a further groundwork for this focus, I will review various uses of the term "cognitive" (or "cognitivism") in the scholarship and offer an analysis of its meanings, first in cognitive science and then in literary theory. Building, then, on what "cognitive" might signify for literary studies, I show how a literary approach based on today's cognitive science is uniquely situated among other approaches because of its underlying theory of human knowledge: I argue that cognitive and cognitive-evolutionary literary epistemology shifts the terms of age-old epistemological debate from a binary to a continuum of positions that enables, to varying degrees, a unique synthesis of...

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