Cogntive Cultural Studies
Literature and the Cognitive Revolution
Cognitive Approaches to Literature
A Discussion Group at the MLA
(revised 7 April 2002) 

Executive Board
Petition text
General Resources

1999 | 2000 |
| 2002 |


Mariani, La Mano Ubbidisce all'Intelletto (1983)
Carlo Maria Mariani
La Mano Ubbidisce all'Intelletto
Rome, 1983



Introduction   |  Executive Board   |   Petition text   |   General Resources

Introduction  top

The Executive Council of the Modern Language Association approved the petition (below) for the establishment of a Discussion Group on "Cognitive Approaches to Literature" in June 1998. The Discussion Group is an integral part of the MLA and has no autonomous activities. Members of the MLA have the option of joining to receive mailings initiated by the Discussion Group and to vote for members of its executive committee.

Executive Committee    top

The founding meeting of the Discussion Group at the MLA's Annual Convention in San Francisco in December 1998 elected the first committee of five members. In an informal and efficient meeting, the thirty or so participants got a chance to present their broadly ranging interests in this emerging area of literary studies. A new member is elected to the committee each year; cf. PMLA 112 (4): 578-79 for detailed policies. This lists all past and present members:

(click on the first name to send e-mail and the last name to reach home pages/vitae)

Petition text    top

We hereby petition the Modern Languages Association's Executive Council to establish a discussion group entitled "Cognitive Approaches to Literature."

The past five years have seen mounting interest on the part of literary scholars in the major interdisciplinary initiative marking the convergence of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, and the philosophy of mind: the cognitive sciences. This interest has expressed itself in publications in PMLA, Representations, Poetics Today, Philosophy and Literature, MLS, Style, Mosaic, Poetics, and other journals, in discussions generated by the special "Cognition and Literature" sessions at the 1996 and 1997 MLA Annual Conventions, as well as in meetings of the Society for Literature and Science, the American Conference on Romanticism, and other literary societies.

The consensus emerging from these discussions is that cognitive science can contribute significantly to our engagement with and understanding of literary texts (and other forms of discourse) in their historical contexts, though the details of such an understanding remain contentious. Basic cognitive capacities and potentials of human beings can usefully be addressed in the context of a host of neuroscientific, computational, and evolutionary paradigms, thus illuminating from novel angles the locally divergent ways in which these capacities and potentials have been expressed, cultivated, and subverted across historical time and from culture to culture. By recognizing texts as historically-specific records of human minds in action, we can achieve new insights into both individual texts and the cultural milieus in which they exist. Knowledge developed by cognitive science about such subjects as perception, metaphor, concept formation, and categorization can be recruited to support recognizably literary and historical kinds of scholarship and criticism: the exegesis of individual texts, studies of authorial corpuses, examinations of genre, investigations into the structure and parameters of historical discourses, and so on.

Just as we believe the study of the mind is one of the best avenues to the study of literature, so we hold that the study of literature is one of the best ways to study the mind. The mind sciences work indirectly by investigating human behavior—learning to speak, playing with toys, solving problems—in an effort to cobble together a model of human cognition. Cognitive approaches to literature are providing novel and valuable perspectives on aspect of human cognition not customarily investigated experimentally. Our laboratory is human mental acts of reading and writing. We offer a study of human mental capacities at work in literary texts, and view this as one of the most direct and illuminating methodologies available to cognitive science.

Several programs in English now offer a special emphasis in cognitive science for their graduate students. A number of award-winning web sites, including Blending and Conceptual Integration, CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies, and Literature, Cognition and the Brain, have been serving as virtual forums for this emerging field. As more and more scholars begin to explore cognitive approaches to literature, we seek for new venues of organizing and directing these efforts. We sincerely request that the Modern Language Association, with its openness for intellectual diversity and its well-established set of procedures for ensuring quality scholarship, will provide a new forum for this exciting interdisciplinary development.

The application for the Cognitive Approaches to Literature Discussion Group was organized by Lisa Zunshine (UCSB) and the petition text was written by Joseph Bizup (Yale U.), Patrick Colm Hogan (U. Connecticut, Storrs), Todd Oakley (Case Western Reserve U.), Alan Richardson (Boston College), Ellen Spolsky (Bar-Ilan U, Israel), Francis Steen (UCSB), Mark Turner (U. of Maryland), and Lisa Zunshine (UCSB). The petition was signed by scholars from twenty different universities.

General Resources   top

Blending and Conceptual Integration. Mark Turner's site with links to articles on the subject by a wide variety of scholars.

CogWeb: Cognitive Culture Theory. Francis Steen's site exploring the relevance of the study of human cognition to literary and cultural studies.

Literature, Cognition & the Brain: research at the intersection of literary studies, cognitive theory, and neuroscience. Edited by Mary Crane and Alan Richardson, Boston College.


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Literature and the Cognitive Revolution
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1998-2001Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles