Literature as Part of the Cognitive System: Middlemarch
Using Ron Giere's term "cognitive system," I approach George Eliot's Middlemarch and the knowledge problems its text poses. "Cognitive system" refers to the human mind and whatever means it employs or invents to extend its knowledge. Thus, a scientist and her lab and an accountant and his spreadsheet are examples of the cognitive system which allows people to perform cognitive acts which the unaided brain cannot reach.
I hold that Giere's concept applies to literature, and particularly to those texts that depict and attempt to resolve well-defined cognitive problems in a historical context. The constant risk in literature, of course, is that the fictional world may pose just about any solutions it wants whether or not these are tenable in life as we live it. Middlemarch is a literary text that qualifies as part of the cognitive system.
My paper will develop in four stages.
First, I explore the cognitive problems of the characters in the novel. At this level, the novel conveys how people think, how their thinking is limited, and how one person's thinking impinges on another's. One of the issues at the character level is how and why some characters learn about other consciousnesses and viewpoints and some don't. Emotions play a large part in several characters' cognitive economy.
Second, I explore the problem of how to grasp cognitive problems generally. That is, I stand back with Eliot's narrator and view characters' cognitive problems from the more inclusive social and cultural framework the narrator conceptualizes by means of scientific images and other models. At this level we observe the narrator and, I think, Eliot mapping multiple and not fully compatible images and models onto a world more complex than any character grasps, or can grasp. For the reader, the mapping of scientific images and network models provides a provisional explanation to be applied back onto characters and projected into the reader's experience.
Third, and here is where the usefulness of the "cognitive system" comes into play, I pinpoint ways in which the problems the novel clarifies can only be resolved by----novels. That is, only novels can provide the kind of knowledge to whose brink it draws us readers. In this light, the novel can be seen as a historical attempt to assimilate what could be grasped of cognition as an individual, social, and cultural phenomenon.
Fourth, I argue against those (especially deconstructive) readings that suggest that Eliot undercuts the possibility of reliable individual and social knowledge. These critics reason that knowledge is so mediated by the imagery and models (microscope, mirror, spoon, web) the narrator uses as to preclude any access to objects, selves, and others. I point out that such readings mistake the verbal interface of such imagery for what we might call the modular interface. A linguistic representation can refer to various sensory and cognitive modes without pretending to totality and finality. Eliot's imagery keeps pointing us in the direction of multiple inputs and modular interfaces. The knowledge she spins, though delicate, is not exhausted in language and is therefore not as vulnerable to linguistic deconstrucion as some critics seem to think. Her linguistic representation is prone to be supplemented, rounded, confirmed, and complicated by cognitive inputs from many domains.
David B. Paxman
Brigham Young University
Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles