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

of gaps, bridges, and close encounters of one of a kind:

an introduction

Stefano Franchi & Güven Güzeldere


What could literary critics and cognitive scientists have to say to each other? Their fields seem disparate, not only in objects of study and methodology, but still more deeply in terms of intellectual temperament. And yet the encounter could prove fruitful to both parties.

Cognitive science tries to provide an explanation of higher human cognitive functions, providing models of skills and abilities that are usually considered typical manifestations of human intelligence-the ability to solve certain types of mathematical problems, for example, or the sophisticated competence required to play complex games like chess. Very often, the theories elaborated to describe a specific cognitive ability (say, chess-playing) are transformed into computational models which, when implemented, can reproduce the skill in question. Thus the computer program becomes the testbed of the theory it embodies; the program's results, the best assessment of the theory's explanatory power. The performance of a chess-playing program faithfully implementing a theory of chess-playing becomes the best measure of the theory's adequacy for explaining the phenomenon itself.[1]

There is little doubt that the production of meaningful signs and their correct interpretation-in short, the manipulation of written or spoken "texts"-is among the higher, and perhaps the highest, human cognitive functions. Although cognitive science usually takes as its object the study of the thought processes underlying the actual production, as well as the interpretation, of texts, rather than the study of texts themselves, it is easy to see how its interests overlap with those of literary criticism. Criticism is concerned with the literary text-its meaning, its mode of functioning, its internal organization, its history and tradition, its internal articulation in genres and styles, its modes of production. Can the two disciplines benefit from each other's work?

Cognitive Science Meets Literary Criticism:

Close Encounters of One of a Kind

The present volume is aimed at setting up an encounter between cognitive science and literary criticism, and at exploring the possibilities of interaction-whether they be genuine intellectual exchanges, merely friendly handshakes, or passionate confrontations. Perhaps the most striking outcome of this encounter, at least on the face of it, is the fact that each side comes equipped with sufficient theoretical armament to offer its own territory as "conceptual ground" for the other. In preparing the volume we began with the idea of "experiment in communication between the two cultures of the humanities and the sciences." But what we had seen as a "bridge" between them was at times interpreted by each as a scaffold planted in its own soil, on which the other would sit as a kind of superstructure.

What kind of resources do cognitive science and literary criticism have such that they can be relevant for one another, if not beneficial? Cognitive science develops models of linguistic interaction which, even if regarded as too simplistic to support a full-scale generalization to something as complex as a literary work, could nonetheless prove useful in their possible application to literature. It could turn out, on the other hand, that such an application would reveal a need for internal theoretical realignments or changes of focus for cognitive science itself. The extension of cognitive science's theories to these new "phenomena" might thus be greatly enhanced if built upon the analysis of the structure of the text-the territory of many literary critics' expertise.

Think, for example, of the models of "story understanding" elaborated by cognitive scientists to explain the thinking processes that underlie the correct interpretation of short tales; it is conceivable that an application of these models to the narrative structure of short stories and novels could provide useful insights into the models' adequacy and explanatory power. On the other hand, such an application would be greatly improved if it were to take into account the work on the internal structure of narrative prose that has been carried out in the literary field. The sophisticated text analysis elaborated by the semiotic school of criticism might be particularly useful in this context. A few promising forays in this direction have been attempted already. For example, Jerry Hobbs and Patrizia Violi (Hobbs, 1990: 131-164) combine tools developed by artificial intelligence to analyze the structure of discourse with the classical semiotic framework to explicate the meaning of Gérard de Nerval's novella, Sylvie.

Furthermore, the analyses of cognitive science could gain in depth from a comparison with the work of literary critics. It is by no means obvious that the difference between the common and literary use of language is only a matter of degree. It might be argued that the experience of language provided by the poetic text, for example, is essentially different from what can be experienced in everyday linguistic interaction, since one of poetry's points is precisely to expose the essential instability of language by bringing to light both its inherent possibility of failure and its inexhaustible richness. But if these uses really are different, in what sense do they differ? Does this difference point to essentially distinct underlying processes, or rather to a deeper underlying unity that surfaces in different manifestations? Similar arguments could be developed (and indeed are developed by Simon) to show how literary criticism could benefit from comparison with cognitive science.

If we push further to investigate the possible overlaps and reciprocal exchanges between the two disciplines, however, we see that such friendly encounters have the potential to turn into "imperialistic take-over" attempts, and ultimately into belligerent confrontations. Cognitive science, for instance, when considered within the broader perspective of its own research programme, attempts to provide an explanation of all human cognitive faculties. Indeed, cognitive scientists have several times expressed their conviction that their approach would eventually broaden to encompass the "whole man, fully equipped with glands and viscera" (Simon, 1981: 65).

That is to say, cognitive science is not just interested in the analysis of literary texts, but is committed, in the long run, to coming to terms with literature itself, by trying to provide a "cognitive" account of the modes of production and fruition of the literary work of art. To renounce such a goal would amount to renouncing its aspiration to be an account of the "whole man," and to admit that its theory of cognitive functions-complete and consistent however it may be-will never do justice to some of the highest productions of the human mind (to phrase the issue in its own terms). Two possibilities, or two variations on the same theme of incompleteness, would be opened by the refusal to take up this challenge-admittedly, in the long run-of the interpretation of literature: either the best account of the thinking processes that cognitive science can ultimately hope to give is essentially incomplete-because it does not cover phenomena that seem to require "thinking"-or what it calls "thinking" is essentially incapable of expressing the wholeness of human being.

Taking Up the Challenge:

Herbert Simon and his Peers 'round the Table

If cognitive science is to live up to this challenge it is compelled to offer a theory whose basic elements are applicable to literature. In other terms, it ought to provide the basic concepts and methods used in any account of the production and interpretation of literary texts. It is precisely this goal that Herbert Simon takes up in the article that we present as the opening of this debate. Simon's paper has two aims. First, he tries to provide a cognitive science-based theory of a central concept of the general theory of thinking-the concept of meaning. Second, he wants to show how his theoretical account can be applied to the explanation of literary texts. Or, more precisely, he wants to show how such an account of meaning-of its production, retrieval, storage, etc.-can provide the infrastructure to be later used by literary critics in their trafficking with such texts.

This program is obviously pregnant with consequences. What is at issue is an encounter between a humanistic discipline and a science, the latter trying to lay out the ultimate foundations, the basic tools and elementary axioms of the former. The conflict might resolve itself in several ways.

Literary criticism can accept the proposal and redefine its goal: to work out the details of a general architecture of the mind supplied by cognitive science in the specific case of the production and interpretation of literary texts. This would affirm Herbert Simon's prophecy that "criticism can be viewed (imperialistically) simply as a branch of cognitive science."

Alternatively, literary criticism can refuse the cognitive scientific intervention and try to stake out (or preserve) a theoretical space exclusively for itself. In doing so, it can challenge, for instance, cognitive science's ability to do justice to literature-to its desirable ambiguity, its holistic effects, and so on. In other words, literary critics could argue that cognitive science's instrumental definitions of meaning, context, etc., might have some (if any) use within a certain very narrow view of language, but are otherwise useless to understand the complexity of the literary phenomena. Operational definitions and processes outlined by cognitive science, it could thus be argued, programmatically exclude, from the beginning, all the aspects of language that really matter to literature: its essential instability, its performative aspects, etc.

There is yet a third option: literary criticism can choose not only to reject the "friendly offer," but to launch a counterattack. It could try to show that cognitive science's approach is not only insufficient for an "explanation" of literature, but that the shortcomings of cognitive science in this particular case point to more general theoretical problems endemic to the entire cognitive territory. In other words, a literary critic unsatisfied by the cognitive scientist's treatment of the literary may take cognitive science's explanatory inadequacy in literary matters as an indication of problems that are or will be afflicting cognitive science on its own home ground.

With the latter move, the confrontation would be completely inverted. In fact, it would be only a small further step to claim that any investigation of cognition must start not from cognitive science's traditional assumptions, but from the form of reflection on thinking manifest in the analysis of literature and poetry, and then to conclude that any comprehensive science of human thinking cannot but adopt literary criticism's starting point. Most importantly, it would also have to adopt literary criticism's methodology and standards of rigor.

Arrival at this point would certainly constitute the most interesting juncture in this debate. The relationship between the two disciplines would be forced to assume an asymmetric form in which one of the two tries to lay the ground and provide the theoretical foundations for the other. Is this a juncture to be avoided, or, despite its prima facie awkwardness, is there anything to be learned in "being there"? We have cognitive science, on the one hand, which offers to provide ultimate theoretical foundations for criticism, and expects to receive, in exchange, a wealth of "raw data" on which to test its theories. Literary theory, on the other hand, envisions something similar, but inverted in form: if what literature is will forever escape scientific reduction, then science (cognitive science, in particular) will always be in an ancillary position with respect to literary theory. From this perspective, it will be literature's prerogative to provide the more general horizon of sense within which science in general and cognitive science in particular, are constrained to set their direction.

From what we have said one might expect encounters between the two disciplines to assume more the form of heated confrontation between rivals than tranquil discussion among fellow travelers. It is worth noting, however, that among the thirty-three peer commentaries to Herbert Simon's provocative proposition, we find reactions of all sorts-from aggravated refusal to enthusiastic welcome, to suggestion to meet in the middle ground-any adequate categorization of which would have to reach deeper than simple disciplinary alliance. We hope that the debate that follows will be a step towards thinking further about gaps and bridges, and that we can all meet again on similar ground.

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Note

1. For the purposes of this introduction, given Herbert Simon's central position in both Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence, we will be glossing over the many differences between the research programmes and methodological commitments of these two disciplines. In doing so, we will also be disregarding various alternative movements internal to Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence. That is, we take "cognitive science" to refer just to what Herbert Simon's research programme contains (what John Haugeland has dubbed GOFAI: Good Old Fashioned AI (Haugeland, 1985)), ignoring both the connectionist research line (epitomized in Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986) , and the "situated action" perspective (see, for instance, the special issue of Cognitive Science on "Situated Action", 17, 1, 1993).