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

cognitive science and literary theory

Mark Turner


The conflicting species of cognitive science uniformly view meaning as residing in minds, however intricately distributed. Research in cognitive science searches for regularities across individual minds, for structures and processes of mind, and for constraints on the mental construction of meaning. It assumes that the science of mind can inform us about human acts, including linguistic and literary acts, and that mind is in crucial ways prediscursive: not entirely created or structured through cultural discourse as a patchwork of narrow historical contingencies.

This grounding conception makes intelligible such claims as that the eleven basic colors and their best representatives are universal for human brains, that interpretation of art depends upon this capacity, that its precise underlying neuronal activity in the lateral geniculate nucleus has been discovered, that linguistic terms for color derive in patterned ways from this neurobiology, and that its essential operation is prediscursive.

But this frame of cognitive science is widely rejected by literary theory. It would be customary to locate this rejection in Derrida's "Il n'y a pas de hors texte" or in Foucault's observation that the human being is only a recent invention, a wrinkle in our knowledge that inevitably will be displaced as other wrinkles arise. I find the most memorable statement of this rejection in Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author":

Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. . . .. [T]he modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing. . . .. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology.

"The reader is an impersonal space without psychology." The inevitable bridge between cognitive science and the study of literature will have to be built from the ground. First, from the direction of cognitive science: although cognitive scientists often view their work as intricately attentive to the role of culture, literary theory routinely dismisses cognitive science as mistaken about the nature and existence of human individuals, readers and writers, and minds. Cultural discourse and textuality are far more than merely influential; they are "always already" and without alternative. Cognitive scientists will be obliged to begin by persuading critics that readers and writers exist, that mental events occur, and that neither individuals nor minds are in general reducible to external discourse. Simon carefully acknowledges that he does not "in any way rule out the influence of the language community on the meanings an individual assigns to a text" but that he "recognizes that a writer or reader is an individual, not a language community." Literary theory often denies this recognition.

Second, from literary criticism: C. S. Lewis observed that parable-the figural projection of one narrative onto another-belongs fundamentally to mind in general. Claims of this sort litter the history of criticism. The student of literature typically respects metaphor, metonymy, irony, narrative, and other literary processes as central and irreducible. It is wonderfully refreshing of Simon, as a cognitive scientist, to note that writing tells us about mind and characteristically gracious of him to propose that literary critics have made discoveries that can guide cognitive science. The everyday mind may be essentially literary. It may be based on capacities that have always been taken to be literary.

In Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science, I have tried to sketch a blueprint of this two-way bridge, and to erect a few candidate sections. Herbert Simon offers an alternative blueprint that raises issues unavoidable by any such future bridge-builder and valuable now for their attention to the mental processes of the writer writing and the reader reading.

But it calls for an odd support: digital computing, he claims, is in certain circumstances equivalent to human understanding and models reading and writing. He writes, "We do know, thanks to modern electronic computers, that memories can be stored in physical devices and that such processes as evoking, activating, and associating can be carried out with them." If we know this, it is because the relevant physical device is the one inside our skull. Most literary critics will subscribe to the belief that they have a brain. Many fewer will be inclined to adopt Simon's artificial intelligence model of that brain. As Hilary Putnam has observed, "The question that won't go away is how much what we call intelligence presupposes the rest of human nature" (Putnam, 1988: 277).

Where Simon's blueprint disregards "the rest of human nature," it will seem suspect in the humanities. A human brain resides in a human body in a human environment, which that brain must make intelligible if it is to survive. To what extent do mental processes of constructing meaning depend upon that human condition? Roland Barthes banished the writer writing and the reader reading, right down to the body of the writer and the brain of the reader. It would be unhappy if cognitive science were to begin by disregarding them, too.

The great value of Simon's blueprint lies in his motivating conviction-a conviction as wise as it is anomalous-that "there is surely a wide expanse of ground common to literary criticism and cognitive science." It may seem strange to imagine a unit of the university that would combine cognitive science and literary criticism, neurobiology and rhetoric, or linguistics and psychology, but it would not have seemed strange when the humanities were originally carved out as the study of what belongs to human beings, by contrast with the study of divinity, already established as the study of what belongs to divine beings. That Simon seems bold to us in imagining a connection between cognitive science and literary criticism is a reminder of how dismembered the humanities have become.

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