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  • On Experimental Criticism:Cognition, Evolution, and Literary Theory
  • Laurent Dubreuil (bio)
Brian Boyd . On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009.

Creating a dialogue of some sort between "the sciences" and "the humanities" is not exactly a new project, but in recent years, it has once again become the talk of the (college) town. If reasons for this renewed concern are too numerous and heterogeneous to be listed exhaustively, I would nevertheless like to quote three main motivations: the durable success of a techno-scientific model of knowledge and intellectual organization, prompting some "humanists" to reform themselves; the considerable findings coming from the brain sciences and experimental psychology, allowing a precise description of "mental life" in much more positive terms; and, among scholars in literature, philosophy, or the social sciences, especially younger ones, a widely shared desire to bypass relativism or radical differentialism, the scientific element being perceived as possibly providing more assured "truths." The need for "dialogue" might be widespread, but it remains a relatively fuzzy, or plastic, entity. In fact, it is as vague as the ritual description of "the two cultures." But, as is the case with C. P. Snow's category,1 this half-baked slogan has some effective consequences—since approximate definitions or sheer misunderstandings are always apt to be operative nevertheless.

The present article is by no means an attempt to discourage scholars from thinking and elaborating beyond the usual divisions of knowledge. However, if we want to connect, say, some aspect of biology with a part of literary studies, we ought to refrain from accepting theoretical clichés such as "the two cultures," or the suddenly triumphant new era of "consilience." What follows is a reflection on the forces and limits of the disciplines, as well as a general theory of interdisciplinarity and polymathy.2 Furthermore, we must examine what both the sciences and the humanities could bring to the debate, without preemptively ensuring the success of one "camp" over the other. The facticity and the inner plurality of each "culture" have to be acknowledged, even by those who believe in [End Page 3] Snow's simplifications. As for "the unity of knowledge" that Edward Wilson and others are promising to a growing crowd of adepts, let me just say that I have my doubts.3 After all, even the Enlightenment's encyclopedism was nothing more than a discontinuous juxtaposition (alphabetically organized in Diderot and d'Alembert's collective project).

What we could dream of is, at best, a mosaic knowledge, where a big picture would be seen both as a whole and as a composite collection of discrete pieces. At any rate, for the time being, the contemporary proponents of consilience, or of the mythical bridge between cultures, are above all interested in more local intersections. This is certainly true of cognitive studies, experimental philosophy, or Darwinian literary criticism. The latter (emerging) specialty will be the focal point of the present article. My primary aim is to point out both the relative success and the critical pitfalls of this endeavor. Such a failure is not the inevitable result of an "inappropriate" encounter between two separate logics (as a certain institutional conservatism would argue); I rather believe it to be the direct consequence of a naïve understanding of the sciences, coupled with a lack of the critical self-theorization that has been the hallmark of disciplines such as philology, historiography, literary studies, or philosophy. In other words, what we have now in the guise of a grandiose "evolutionary paradigm for literary study" is mainly a downsizing of scholarly objectives and practices to bolster an opportunistic academic strategy, bearing few "discoveries." 4 This situation, while regrettable, does not represent the tragic destiny of all interdisciplinary endeavors. Many interrelations between literary criticism, neuroscience, and biology are possible, as long as the enterprise is sufficiently thought through, and if we avoid some "metaphysical" preconceptions about the unity of the human mind.5 From there, a better articulation of some scientific fields with some discursive disciplines would be a welcome addition to our body of knowledge, and may even be a very appealing path, so I will end with a few...