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Philosophy and Literature 31.1 (2007) 189-196

Fiction and Theory of Mind:
An Exchange
Lisa Zunshine
University of Kentucky

Brian Boyd's review of my new book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Ohio State University Press, 2006) engages a large variety of issues.1 I would like to address an important question about the integration of scientific methodology with literary analysis suggested by Boyd's discussion.2 As I argue below, two different perspectives of this integration may mark two different—indeed, incompatible—ways of formulating the disciplinary goals and philosophy of the new field of cognitive literary theory.

Why We Read Fiction makes a case for admitting the recent findings of cognitive psychologists into literary studies by showing how their research into the ability to explain behavior in terms of the underlying states of mind can furnish us with a series of surprising insights into our interaction with literary texts. Using as my case studies novels ranging from Richardson's Clarissa, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, and Austen's Pride and Prejudice to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Nabokov's Lolita, and Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, I advance and explore a series of hypotheses about cognitive cravings that are satisfied—and created!—when we read fiction.

Although my study draws on the already well-established as well as forthcoming work of numerous cognitive scientists (including Simon Baron-Cohen, Clark H. Barrett, Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Christopher Frith, Uta Frith, Paul Bloom, Susan Carey and Elizabeth Spelke, Peter Carruthers, Andy Clark, Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Alison Gopnik, Francesca Happe, Paul [End Page 189] Harris, Lawrence Hirschfeld, Stanley Klein, Alan Leslie, Andrew Meltzoff, Robert Mitchell, Keith Oatley, Gloria Origgi, Oliver Sacks, Dan Sperber, James Stiller, and Endel Tulving), it makes a point of being accessible to non-specialist readers. Cognitive science can be incredibly complicated and so can literary criticism, but I wanted to write a book on cognitive literary theory that does not scare anybody away with unnecessary jargon, knotty sentences, and overlong quotations. (Ironically, I must have succeeded too well in making my book reader-friendly and tucking my references in the endnotes since Boyd observes that I rely on only "a few findings" of cognitive scientists in my discussion.)

The book consists of three parts. The first part, "Attributing Minds," introduces the first key theoretical concept of this book: mind-reading, also known as Theory of Mind. Drawing on the work of Simon Baron-Cohen (Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind), I suggest that fiction engages, teases, and pushes to its tentative limits our mind-reading capacity. Building on the recent research of Robin Dunbar and his colleagues, I then consider one particular aspect of Woolf's prose as an example of spectacular literary experimentation with our Theory of Mind. Finally, I turn to Steven Pinker's controversial analysis of Woolf in The Blank Slate to discuss the possibilities of a more profitable dialogue between cognitive science and literary studies.

Of particular importance to this part of my argument is my belief that fictional narratives endlessly experiment with rather than automatically execute our evolved cognitive adaptations. When cognitive scientists succeed in isolating a certain regularity of our information-processing—for example, a constraint on the number of mutually reflecting minds that we can process with ease—we can take that constraint and see how it plays itself out in a fictional narrative. What we discover is that where there is a cognitive constraint, there is a "guarantee" of sorts that writers will intuitively experiment in the direction of challenging that constraint, probing and poking it and getting around it. The exact forms of such probing and poking will depend on specific cultural circumstances, including the mind-reading profiles of individual writers and their readers. The cognitive "limits" thus present us with creative openings rather than with a promise of stagnation and endless replication of established forms. This realization marks the possibility of a genuine interaction between cognitive psychology and...


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