MLA 1998 Forum Proposal
Literature and the Cognitive Revolution
Literary scholars have increasingly taken up interdisciplinary frameworks, methodologies, and pursuits in recent years, despite the acknowledged difficulties of "being interdisciplinary" (Fish). It might seem initially surprising, then, that those challenging disciplinary boundaries in literary and cultural studies have been so slow to realize the intellectual potential of the major interdisciplinary initiative marking the convergence of linguistics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, and the philosophy of mind: the cognitive sciences. We believe that a significant reason for this neglect is that the cognitive sciences have been inadequately historicized. The literary act – the conception, composition, use, and interpretation of fictional narratives – constitutes one of the most sophisticated and spectacular manifestations of human cognition. However, it cannot be adequately studied within the traditionally ahistorical framework of the cognitive sciences.
In this forum, we wish to take on the challenge of the cognitive sciences by placing the understanding of the mind in a historical context. We propose to make room for a reconfigured universalism, one that affirms a basic cognitive design for the human mind, but is not essentialist or ahistorical. Rather than the traditional humanist vision of a disembodied and essentialist entity, we see the mind as fully embedded in history, a contingent product of time. In this, we build on recent work by George Lakoff, Antonio Damasio, Gerald Edelman, Mark Johnson, and others, which emphasizes the complex, metaphorical nature of human cognition and its roots in the experience of embodiment.
Placing the mind in the historical context of the whole species is an important step towards the historicization of the cognitive sciences, but it is only the first. We are making two significant further claims. Looking at literary history from the Renaissance to the present, with an excursion to early Sanskrit aesthetics, we want to argue that the complex and flexible design of the human mind is the steam in the pressure cooker of history, penetrating and shaping every historical act. In addition, we wish to highlight the ways in which culture in turn shapes cognition, by drawing differentially and in diverse ways on our inexhaustible capacities. In this sense, cognition is the sap in the milkweed of culture – it feeds it, but at the same time it is directed and channeled by it.
The basic cognitive capacities and potentials of human beings can be studied fruitfully from a variety of neuroscientific, computational, and evolutionary perspectives, thus illuminating the locally divergent ways in which these capacities and potentials have been expressed, cultivated, and subverted across cultures and historical periods. 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 proceed indirectly by investigating human behavior such as learning to speak, playing with toys, and solving problems in an effort to cobble together a model of human cognition. Cognitive approaches to literature contribute to this project by providing novel and valuable perspectives on aspects of human cognition not customarily investigated experimentally. Our data is human mental acts of reading and writing. We study human mental capacities at work in literary texts; and engage with the cognitive sciences to challenge the bias against the imagination – to redefine the art of the fictional as a cognitive and neurological art. We view this as a substantive methodological contribution to cognitive science.
Interest in cognitive approaches is growing, as evidenced by a growing body of publications in such journals as the PMLA, Representations, Poetics Today, Philosophy and Literature, MLS, Style, Mosaic, and Poetics; by new issues from such university presses as Chicago, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale; in discussions generated by the special "Cognition and Literature" sessions at the 1996 and 1997 MLA Annual Conventions; and in the meetings of the Society for Literature and Science, the American Conference on Romanticism, and other literary societies. The forum and its two workshops build on these activities, but at the same time they represent a qualitatively different event – one explicitly designed to establish the groundwork for a reciprocal and creative relation to the cognitive sciences and to help galvanize a nascent field within literary studies.
The proposal text for the forum "Historicizing Cognition: Literature and the Cognitive Revolution" was written by Joseph Bizup (Yale U.), Ellen Spolsky (Bar-Ilan U, Israel), Alan Richardson (Boston College), Francis Steen (UCSB), Mark Turner (U. of Maryland), and Lisa Zunshine (UCSB).