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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

"simon says"


Frederick Adams

Herbert Simon says that the lines of communication should be opened between cognitive science and literary criticism. Why? Is it so that the two disciplines will be better able to appreciate and understand one another? I think so and Simon thinks so too. Is it so that cognitive scientists can learn something from literary critics and their understanding of the process of interpreting texts, so that cognitive scientists might better understand how minds work when engaged in this task? Again, I think so, and Simon agrees, citing a few cognitive scientists for whom this understanding has paid off. For these reasons, I applaud Simon's attempt to open communication between the disciplines. However, here are a few reasons that Simon gives for attempting to open communication that seem incorrect (at least, to me). It is on these that I will focus.

Simon says that, while he does not aspire to create a new school of critical theory, he does hope to introduce to literary criticism new precision seldom possessed concerning the meaning of such terms as "meaning," "context," "evocation," "recognition," and "image"(3 through 7). I take it that the goal is to make literary criticism more precise and better (somehow).

I find two issues to be troubling. The first is whether literary criticism really needs extra precision. The second is whether it actually has received it from Simon. With respect to the first issue, for two thousand years literary critics have been armed with many of the folk psychological concepts that cognitive scientists are trying to make more precise; concepts such as "meaning," "idea," "image," "recognition," "evocation," etc. It is true that Aristotle did not have the benefit of Schank & Abelson's work on "Scripts" or other recent works of contemporary cognitive science, but it is not clear that he would not have recognized the idea of a scripted scene by another name. Surely Aristotle and other Greeks knew that their knowledge of various scenes and situations in the Greek tragedies were "scripted" and that this was part of what the audiences used to evaluate the quality of various performances. For ages, literary critics have also known that the context of the author and his writing will dictate the literal meaning of the author's words. It will also determine the significance of the words to the author and to the reader. Because of differences of context, critics also have known that the interpretations placed upon a text by author and reader may not match, may call up different associations between the words, sentences, and a variety of past experiences, memories, and images. Enlightened critics have even known that there can be equal value in the competing interpretations placed upon texts as the result of these differences of context, associations, and interpretations. Thus, it is far from clear that there have not always been terms in literary criticism for the types of concepts that Simon thinks cognitive science can sharpen for literary critics.

It is also not clear that more precision is needed. Simon suggests, but does not say, that precision will make literary criticism better. If true, this could be quite interesting. However, nowhere does Simon say that new precision will improve literary criticism at tasks x, y, or z. So, if new precision is a good thing for literary critics, they should at least be given some hint of the benefits that it may bring.

With respect to the issue of the precision Simon brings, I have two further worries. The first is that some of his offerings do not seem to add things that are new or more precise than any literary critic would have known. Simon says:

Meanings are evoked when a reader attends to words in a text, certain symbols or symbol structures that are stored in the reader's memory come to awareness. . . .This is the sense in which we will use the term "evoke". . . .It denotes a set of psychological processes that bring meanings, or components of meaning, into attention.(4)

What new precision lies here? What literary critic would have thought otherwise? The second worry is that perhaps the most important precision that Simon says cognitive science brings to literary criticism is with respect to the term "meaning." However, here Simon is less than precise, as I shall indicate with examples. Simon says: "Meanings flow from the intensions of people (or perhaps people and computers, a controversial issue)"(4). This is true of what we might call "assigned meanings." These are meanings that we can assign to words and symbols because of the fact that we already can think about things and mean things. However, one of the future benefits that we all expect from cognitive science is help in understanding how it is possible for us to think at all. We need to know how minds pick up information from the environment, convert that information into concepts and ideas (mental structures that have semantic content capable of being true or false), and, once such states have meaning, can explain our ability to assign meaning to symbols that we create (natural language, traffic lights, metaphors, and so on). Simon seems not to recognize a difference between assigned and unassigned meanings, nor to point out which he is making precise for literary critics.

Simon also says: "I use 'intension' in the broad sense in which this term is used in contemporary philosophy"(4), but then he goes on to use it to discuss whether Oedipus intended to kill his father. Philosophers generally use "intension" to refer to a class of linguistic contexts into which the substitution of co-designating terms does not necessarily preserve truth. The classic type of example of this is that Lois believes Superman flies, Superman = Kent, but Lois does not believe that Kent flies (because she does not know Superman = Kent). Philosophers generally try to reserve the term "intention" for purposive behavior or the mental states that bring about that behavior. Talking about intentions does create an "intensional" context, but for the sake of precision philosophers try to use the terms separately.

Later, Simon says:

The whole store of information indexed by the string D-O-G (as well as other things that can be obtained from it by association-cat, mammal, wolf, pet, and whatnot) constitutes the potential meaning of "dog" This tiny subset of this vast totality that is evoked in a particular reader on seeing the word in a particular context may be regarded as the actual meaning in that context on that occasion. . . . In each case, the meaning is that which is evoked by reading the word. . . .or that which it evokes. . . . (9)

Now this is, to put it mildly, a bit troubling. Not only are the visual images that one may use to verify the presence of a dog part of the meaning of "dog," on this view, but so is anything that one might associate with a dog (or with "dog"). This is troubling for several reasons, two of which are these: 1), it smacks of a long-abandoned "verificationist" theory of meaning, and 2), it makes meaning anything one wants it to be (which abandons a useful concept of meaning for the purposes of conveying univocal information). After all, on this view "dog" means cat (potentially), or anything else one associates with dogs (images of dogs, dog barks, or even Churchill, if one associates his appearance with that of a bulldog). But "dog" doesn't mean dogbark, "dogbark" does, and it really would be news to literary critics (that "dog" means Churchill)--and to just about everyone else, I suspect.

It seems to me that in any reasonably precise account of meaning, there ought to be room for a distinction between things that a word, expression, or an entire literary work evokes in a reader (or author), and its meaning. Some of the things evoked make the work significant or meaningful to the author, in the sense of giving it purpose, or enhancing one's enjoyment. Yet, this ought to be able to be distinguished from the meaning of the text. "Dog" means dog, not Churchill, even if "dog" makes me think of Churchill and evokes delightfully rich images. Simon's account of meaning seems, rather than to introduce precision, to blur such useful distinctions.

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