Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

Fiction as a Source of Self-Knowledge: Cognitive Narratology Faces the Demands of Franz Kafka

Academic journal article Knowledge Cultures

Fiction as a Source of Self-Knowledge: Cognitive Narratology Faces the Demands of Franz Kafka

Article excerpt

Man need not be degraded to a machine by being denied to be a ghost in a machine. He might, after all, be a sort of animal, namely a higher mammal. There has yet to be ventured the hazardous leap to the hypothesis that perhaps he is a man.

Gilbert Ryle

A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us.

Franz Kafka

Is fiction potentially an important source of self-knowledge? If the answer is yes, which scholarly approach to fiction might best defend and promote it as such? And what are the implications of our answer to the latter question for our understanding of ourselves as literary scholars?

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and literature was staged in a culture that gave self-knowledge a privileged position in the hierarchy of knowledge. If, in the modern age, fiction has more or less fallen out of the hierarchy of knowledge altogether, it may be because the surrounding knowledge culture, dominated by the aims and means of the natural sciences, has changed in ways that make claims to self-knowledge subordinate to claims of knowing the world, however much scholars in the humanities may protest. To what extent is the idea of fiction as a source of self-knowledge helped or hindered by marking the contrast between the natural sciences and the humanities?

In what follows, I will discuss these issues in light of an important development, both in term of productivity and influence, within literary studies and especially within narrative theory. This development, often called the cognitive turn, implies a dramatic shift in how we conceive of literary texts as potential sources of self-knowledge and what kind of self-knowledge we take scholarly studies of literature to afford. It also has repercussions for our scholarly activity and how we conceive of ourselves as humanistic scholars.

My discussion will revolve around two questions. What do we mean by interpretation? And: What kind of methodological tools does scholarly interpretation of fiction require? These questions deserve attention in their own right, and our answers to them have many consequences both for what kind of self-knowledge we take literature (especially fiction) to provide, and what scholarly practice we believe is needed if the study of literature is to grasp it. In order to avoid unhelpful abstraction, I will give central place to a specific exchange within narrative theory, and I will work with one particular example: Franz Kafka's "Die Verwandlung," or, in English translation, "The Metamorphosis."

The Cognitive Turn

The cognitive turn in literary studies may be described as an attempt to connect the study of various forms of artistic expression to concepts and results in cognitive science. Straddling the gulf between the human and the natural sciences, this development has been met with conflicting responses, to put it mildly. Some welcome it, and see it as revitalizing literary studies by connecting aesthetics and criticism to recent developments in our understanding of how the brain works. (1) There are even those who claim that this new contact between the study of literature and cognitive science has brought neuroscientists to acknowledge that literary innovators have anticipated many of their findings. (2) For others, the cognitive turn is detrimental to our sense of what it is to be human. Raymond Tallis puts it like this: "To seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds. Those who believe they can find our public spaces, lit with explicitness, in the private intracranial darkness of the organism, overlook what it is that makes us human beings" (Tallis 2011: 11).

Tallis discusses (and dismisses) a whole range of attempts to bring the findings and the prestige of cognitive science to bear on the humanities, and he calls literary criticism "[t]he most bullish discipline in the neuro-evolutionary humanities" (ibid. …

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