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Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 215-232

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Eighteenth-Century Print Culture and the "Truth" of Fictional Narrative

Lisa Zunshine

As a session entitled "Truth" at a recent Modern Language Association of America annual convention has demonstrated, the obsession with the epistemologies of truth is alive and well. Our "familiar ways of thinking and talking about truth," as one of the speakers, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, observed, remain "theoretically elusive, discursively slippery, and hard or perhaps impossible to articulate clearly in relation to other current concepts and ideas" 1 --an irresistible invitation to further thinking and talking on the subject. My essay enters this conversation by attempting to contemplate truth not as a stable attribute but as a ongoing attribution, that is, not as an inherent property but rather as a dynamic process predicated upon functional idiosyncrasies of our evolved cognitive architecture. The broad question posed here is this: What if our never-ending quest for truth is itself cognitively constructed and the various forms that this quest takes manifest the (not necessarily harmonious) interaction between our evolved cognitive capacities and the ever-changing specifics of our cultural environment?

Consider just one of the forms of such an interaction, namely, our age-long preoccupation with the "truth" of literary narrative. In many respects, this preoccupation is counterproductive: the most "fantastic" story contains a number of contingently useful "truths" about the world, whereas the most "factual" narrative manipulates facts by virtue of being a narrative or a subjective arrangementof information. Still, we persevere in wanting to put the label "fiction" or "nonfiction" onto any story that comes our way. As I will argue, the bookstore's organization of its sections satisfies this species of "cognitive" craving as well as [End Page 215] reinforces it, making it seem culturally inevitable. Viewed from this perspective, our culture appears to be a multifaceted feedback mechanism engaged in the process of satisfying, reinforcing, struggling with, and manipulating our cognitive predispositions.

The cultural manipulation of our cognitive predispositions is the topic of the present essay, which discusses several examples of such manipulation that respond to our desire to assign a certain "truth-value" to a given narrative, i.e., to attach a label to it announcing its "factuality" or "fictionality." "Truth-value" is a loaded term, resisting definition, and liable to lead me into trouble. Imperfect as it is, however, I need it in order to shuffle between two scholarly discourses that do not (yet) have much vocabulary in common: literary criticism and cognitive science. The reason for turning to cognitive science in my discussion of literary narrative is that cognitive anthropologists and psychologists frequently engage the same problems that we do when we ask, What is "Fiction"? How is it different from "History"? How do we decide whether what we are reading is "true?" The key difference between the two approaches is, however, that whereas the literary critic focuses on specific texts produced and read in specific cultural circumstances, the cognitive anthropologist pays attention to the cross-cultural insistence with which people wish to and often claim to distinguish "truth" from "fiction" and inquires into the possible evolutionary history of the cognitive architecture implicated in our never-ending quest for "truth." The latter perspective can thus be useful for literary studies because, by suggesting that our evolved cognitive architecture often "encourages" us to construe the world as a negotiation of "truths" and "nontruths," this perspective begins to account--at least on some level--for the fact that people may approach a complex cultural artifact, such as a novel, with a "truth"/"non-truth" binary in mind that is ultimately not very productive. 2 Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists frequently point to disjunctions between the tasks that our brain evolved to solve and the tasks that we have to deal with in the modern environment; our vexed insistence on determining the truth-value of the 500-page printed narrative--not an object one would come across in the Pleistocene--can be seen as yet another instance of such a disjunction.

Thus, I suggest that, on the...


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