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  • Why Medieval Literature Does Not Need the Concept of Social Minds:Exemplarity and Collective Experience
  • Eva von Contzen (bio)

Medieval examples of characters in interaction with other characters, often in groups, are ubiquitous. This is hardly surprising, and neither is the fact that these groups can act collectively as groups. However, to describe such phenomena in terms of “social minds” as described by Alan Palmer (details below) is problematic: the concept is misleading when applied to representations of collective experience in medieval literature, because medieval culture had a different understanding of the self than the one that underlies Palmer’s argument. Palmer takes for granted the idea of the post-Enlightenment self characterized by the privileging of interior consciousness. The concept of social minds is the logical extension of this idea: the novel shows a belief and interest in groups having a consciousness like the self. Medieval culture, however, had an action-oriented rather than a mind-oriented conception of self. Consequently, representations of collectivity turn out to be different from their counterparts in the age of the novel. The medieval evidence, I propose, may be better described in terms of exemplarity as a special case of collective experientiality, where experientiality is tied much more to acting than to thinking (and its cognitive bedfellows). Collectivity is contained in and expressed through the exemplary individual’s actions, which invite emulation on the part of the audience. [End Page 140]

Action-Oriented Medieval Characters

Let me briefly call to mind a number of aspects that are central to Palmer’s concept of intermental thought. At the onset of his analysis, there is the distinction, or rather the continuum, between the “internalist” and the “externalist” perspective on the mind: “An internalist perspective on the mind stresses those aspects that are inner, introspective, private, solitary, individual, psychological, mysterious, and detached. An externalist perspective on the mind stresses those aspects that are outer, active, public, social, behavioral, evident, embodied, and engaged” (Social Minds 39). Palmer criticizes that traditional narrative theory has favored the internalist perspective (focus on private minds, questions of personal identity, introspection, interior monologue, etc.) and argues for a greater inclusion of the externalist perspective, examples of which include the analysis of social minds, continuing consciousness, and aspectuality (40). With respect to the novel, Palmer maintains that “fictional narrative is, in essence, the presentation of mental functioning” (9) and that readers make sense of a novel because they are able to follow a character’s mind throughout the text. In Palmer’s words, “novel reading is mind reading” (21). The processes of the mind make up the plot: the plot does not consist simply of causal connections between events, but of connections that are causal because of the characters’ experiences that are shaped by these events (“Social Minds” 202). Palmer demonstrates how, in the novel, social minds can function as a prime generator for the plot. This is most pervasively shown by the townspeople in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Even a short passage such as the following illustrates Palmer’s point:

The Doctor [Sprague] was more than suspected of having no religion, but somehow Middlemarch tolerated this deficiency in him as if he had been a Lord Chancellor; indeed it is probable that his professional weight was the more believed in, the world-old association of cleverness with the evil principle being still potent in the minds even of lady-patients who had the strictest ideas of frilling and sentiment. It was perhaps this negation in the Doctor which made his neighbours call him hard-headed and dry-witted; conditions of texture which were also held favourable to the storing of judgments connected with drugs. At all events, it is certain that if any medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having very definite religious views, of being given to prayer, and of otherwise showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption against his medical skill.

(Eliot 125; quoted in “Large Intermental Units” 85–86, Palmer’s emphasis)

Palmer demonstrates that here the “Middlemarch mind” is created by means of explicit references to an actual group (in this case, “Middlemarch” and “his neighbours”), the use of...


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pp. 140-153
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