Intermental Functions, Evolved Cognition, and Fictional Representation

By Easterlin, Nancy | Style, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Intermental Functions, Evolved Cognition, and Fictional Representation


Easterlin, Nancy, Style


In "Social Minds," Alan Palmer extends the perspective he developed in Fictional Minds, offering an important revisionary perspective that notes the centrality of a cognitive approach to all other approaches and points attention to intermental function as a corrective to a too-exclusive attention to internal character thought in narrative theory. How people think as groups and how such "mind beyond the skin" becomes represented in fiction forms the central purpose of his essay and his forthcoming book (6, 27-28). In concert with scholars like Lisa Zunshine and Blakey Vermeule, Palmer's claims that readers make sense of storyworlds primarily through the construction of fictional minds and through the comprehension of intermental activity are vitality important to grounding narratology in the social nature and function of cognition. However, I see three aspects of Palmer's argument that could benefit from some strengthening: 1) the reason social minds are so fundamental in human life; 2) the definition of "intermental thought"; and 3) the differences between literary representations of intermental function and this same phenomenon on the ground, so to speak. Early in the essay, Palmer asserts emphatically that he is not saying that fictional minds are the same as real minds, but, toward the end of his essay, in his otherwise valuable discussion of the Middlemarch mind, Palmer does not elucidate the differences between the narrative representation of intermental function and everyday intermental function.

When Palmer presents the Middlemarch passage, he asks four questions: Who? How? What? Why? Stepping back and returning to the initial portion of the essay, I would like to suggest that bringing this pragmatic spirit to bear on the fact of social minds might result in a more comprehensive theory. Both Palmer's present and past work stresses that our motivating interest in fiction stems from our interest in persons, and hence, from a fundamental human sociality. Like many others in cognitive narratology and cognitive poetics who have begun moving in the promising direction of the phylogenetic and ontogenetic underpinnings of our aesthetic accomplishments, Palmer stops short of exploring the "why" of human sociality, since his research base consists in the areas of cognitive neuroscience allied primarily to AI and philosophy. Extending beyond this domain into some of the subdisciplines that comprise evolutionary social science and developmental psychology provides a profound rationale for the ultimate cause of human sociality.

Although there are a wide range of perspectives in evolutionary social science (Laland and Brown), no one, to my knowledge, disputes the importance of the human group to the survival and evolution of the species, and it is here that we should look for the source of intermental function. Beginning approximately five million years ago, the evolution of stronger and more extensive emotional attachments and greater cognitive power formed the basis of kinship groups (approximately fifty to one hundred persons) that eventually provided the security for medium-sized, vulnerable human to exist on the open savanna. Evolving the mechanics of high-level sociality and bipedalism, however, takes some time: the first of these groups, the gracile autralopithecenes (including a. afarensis and a. africanus, between 4 and 2.5 million years ago), was partially arboreal, not fully bipedal, and slowly developing group-dependence (Mithen 25). Ultimately, cooperative groups afforded protection not only from larger, faster predators but from other groups of humans competing for territory and resources. Citing Peter Carruthers, Palmer points to the need early humans had for tracking movements and updating representations, and he especially stresses the enhanced cognitive power that intermental function offers. Explanatory power is certainly crucial to the way finding, knowledge-seeking human species (Kaplan), which does not have built-in homing mechanisms like other species but must instead interpret clues cognitively (Ross). …

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