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

reader-response already is cognitive criticism

Norman N. Holland


Herbert Simon suggests cognitive science can improve literary critics' theories about reading and meaning. Those theories address, I think, two questions. Why do individuals' readings of the same text differ so much? Why are they so much the same? Literary theorists offer three explanations-models, really.

One I call "text-active." The text defines the response. This model underlies much postmodern talk about the text dominating the individual, discourse replacing the subject, the text subverting its own meanings, and so on. The self-proclaimed "theory" avant-garde holds this view.

The second model I call "reader-active." Readers make meaning, indeed, construct the whole experience by exploring a passive text with schemas. These range from simple codes, widely shared, about letter shapes, word forms, word meanings, syntax, grammar, on up to complex, individual ideas about character, plot, genre, themes, or values. The feedback from these hypotheses equals the experience and interpretation of the text. Most who pioneered this view are American: David Bleich, Stanley Fish, Elizabeth Flynn, Louise Rosenblatt, and myself. Few literary professors openly adopt this view, but it has greatly influenced teaching.

Naturally, the third model is a compromise. I call it "bi-active." The text causes part of the response, the reader the rest. The German school of reader-response, Rezeptionsästhetik, systematized this view. I think, though, most literary critics anywhere would say that reading works this way.

Which is right? Clearly, I think, text-active is wrong. Focused only on similarities in response, it cannot account for variation. It offers no psychology whatever to explain how text goes from page to mind.

Clearly, I think, reader-active is right. Using well-established feedback models from cognitive science, it explains both likeness and difference in reading. The similarities come from similar hypotheses applied to the same text, hypotheses formed by gender, class, education, race, age, or "interpretive community." The differences come from differing hypotheses out of individual beliefs, opinions, values, neuroses, in short, one's identity. Identity governs the feedback, so that the relation between readerly similarities and differences is not just A and B (=not A), but A drives B.

If reader-active is right and text-active wrong, then bi-active also fails. It is half text-active, therefore half-wrong, therefore all wrong.

Now, where does Herbert Simon stand? He says unequivocally that "the meaning of the text," distinct from its meaning to some person making or reading it, makes no sense at all. Meanings are in heads, not books. He is clearly on the side of the angels, genus reader-response critic, species American.

Occasional sentences, however, sound text-active: "Words are quite as potent in evoking feelings as they are in evoking thoughts." To read him correctly, one must heed his warning that he is using key terms in unusual senses. "Evoke" means: "When a reader attends to words in a text, certain symbol. . . .structures that are stored in that reader's memory come to awareness." The text is not active, even if it is the subject of "evoke." And "meaning": "The meaning we inject into a text or derive from it consists of all of those cranial symbol structures that are evoked by its making or reading." Our critics' catch phrase, "the meaning of the text," Simon says, is empty and has therefore greatly confused our enterprise.

Other sentences use what cognitive linguists call the "container metaphor" for language. An author "puts something into" a text (usually "the" meaning). A reader is to get it "out of" that text. Thus, "The Great Texts. . . .[are] a permanent lode of treasure for scholars." "A multiplicity of meanings. . . .[are] hidden in the work of art in order that they may be discovered."

Were I editing Simon's paper, I would substitute reader actions for these subtly text-active container metaphors. I would drop "meaning" entirely and use a word like "interpretation" to foreground the reader's activity. Similarly, "context" might better be "associations." As for "evoke," I would rewrite sentences that make the text the subject of an active verb to make the reader the subject.

Phrasings aside, I wish my colleagues in criticism and theory would accept Herbert Simon's offer of cognitive science. He suspects they won't and wonders why. Why are our theorists so reluctant to accept a view backed by a vast psychological research into perception, remembering, knowing, and reading?

Most humanists were good in school at English and bad at math. They fear science. For support from another discipline, they prefer philosophy to experimental psychology. Humanists tolerate uncertainty better than scientists do. Indeed, I have heard colleagues say they would rather be uncertain than be limited by definite answers.

Finally, I think we critics deal in fantasy-fiction, poetry, movies-most of our working lives. Occupationally, we suffer from what a psychoanalyst would call omnipotence of thought or magical thinking. We tend to believe that simply saying something makes it so. After all, that works in fiction and poetry. I think we, like the writers we study, need to believe that our words have power. They can do things. It hurts our narcissism to admit that that power comes, not from our words, but from our readers.

Many critics and theorists, then, will not accept his offer, but Herbert Simon will be welcome in one quarter. American reader- response critics will find his ideas completely congenial.

As for this reader-response critic, I have already had that pleasure. I drew on him in The I and in an article with Eugene Kintgen (Holland, 1985: 112, 138-39, 142, Holland and Kintgen 1984, Holland 1988). Kintgen applied Simon's techniques for "observing" people's thinking as they solved cryptarithmetic puzzles to "observing" a student as he read poetry. I showed that the techniques the student chose expressed his "identity." All this squares exactly with Simon's ideas in his literary excursion. Welcome aboard!

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