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Philosophy and Literature 28.1 (2004) 202-217

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Literary Universals and the Sciences of the Mind

St. Lawrence University

The Mind and its Stories: Narrative Universals and Human Emotion, by Patrick Hogan; 302 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, $65.00.
Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists, by Patrick Hogan; 244 pp. New York: Routledge, 2003, $19.95.


Two recent books by Patrick Colm Hogan deserve attention for all they get right and, to a lesser but important extent, for where they go wrong. Hogan is among the most accomplished members of an expanding group of humanistic scholars who are assimilating and putting to use the most promising models of human potential taking shape in the human sciences. By drawing on theory and research in cognitive and brain sciences, evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, and cross-cultural anthropology, this group is finally beginning to push literary studies beyond defunct tabula rasa and psychoanalytic theories of human potential that have served as the main foundations for the elaboration of literary theory over recent decades.1 Varieties of hard social constructivism and psychoanalysis have continued to dominate thought in the humanities, despite the fact that those theories have lost all credibility in the human sciences.2 Hogan's books provide a preview of the kinds of theoretical models that will fill the vacuum once literary scholars fully assimilate [End Page 202] the news that stubbornly fashionable constructivist and psychoanalytic theories of human potential are obsolete.

In Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts Hogan presents an accessible introduction to the exploration of the arts from the perspective of cognitive science. As a literary scholar, his main concerns are with literature, written and oral, but his conviction that cognitive science can illuminate all of the arts is clearly indicated in examples from painting, music, and film. The writing is pitched at a level appropriate for the general reader, and no prior reading in cognitive science is assumed. The introductory chapters provide an overview of the broad outlines of theory and research in cognitive science to date, and explain the types of problems the arts raise from the perspective of cognitive science. The middle chapters examine aspects of art making and consumption in light of specific issues that have been important in cognitive study. These chapters focus primarily on artistic creativity, metaphor, literary universals, audience response, and literary emotion. The final chapter considers attempts to explain why human cognitive architecture takes the precise form it does, and includes an extended skeptical critique of the source of the most influential explanations: evolutionary psychology. Hogan's critique of evolutionary psychology is important and I will discuss it at length later in the review.

Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts will be welcomed by any reader who wants to better understand basic developments in cognitive science and their potential importance to the study of literature and the arts. It is addressed mainly to the uninitiated and is thus suitable for upper-level literary theory and criticism courses. The Mind and its Stories is a more ambitious volume that seeks (1) to clear the way for the reestablishment of a revamped research program in literary universals, (2) to show how literary data bears on important questions in cognitive science and psychology, and (3) to present a specific hypothesis about the proliferation of certain plot structures in world literature.

In The Mind and Its Stories Hogan does nothing less than restore the political and intellectual respectability of the study of literary universals. The Mind and Its Stories begins where it must, with a cogent critique of the most common objection to the development of a sustained research program in literary universals: the largely unexamined conviction that the identification of human universals (in literature and other fields) almost necessarily supports doctrines of inequality that justifies one group's domination of others. Hogan exposes the fundamental illogic of this position, which holds essentially that theories of human equality [End Page 203] are too dangerous to entertain because they might serve to prop up...


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