Literary Studies and Cognitive Science: Toward a New Interdisciplinarity

By Crane, Mary Thomas; Richardson, Alan | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 1999 | Go to article overview

Literary Studies and Cognitive Science: Toward a New Interdisciplinarity


Crane, Mary Thomas, Richardson, Alan, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Literary scholars have increasingly taken up interdisciplinary frameworks, methodologies, and pursuits in recent years, despite the difficulties of "being interdisciplinary" cogently outlined by Stanley Fish. Such broad-based critical schools or tendencies as the new historicism, gender studies, and cultural criticism by definition stake out their ground between or across disciplines, and some literature departments have remade themselves as "cultural studies" programs, suggesting that interdisciplinarity is becoming not simply a legitimate option for literary scholars but may be gaining the force of an imperative - one all the harder to resist as university presses attempt to maximize sales with academic titles that can be marketed across disciplinary lines.

It might seem initially surprising, then, that those challenging disciplinary boundaries in literary and cultural studies have shown so little interest in cognitive science, the major interdisciplinary initiative marking the convergence of linguistics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy of mind, and anthropology. Our widespread lack of engagement with what has been called the "cognitive revolution" is all the more striking given its obvious bearing on theoretical discussions of language, subjectivity, and consciousness, not to mention its status as one of the most exciting and potentially far-reaching intellectual developments of the late 20th century.

We hope to provoke such engagement - both critical and collaborative - in the essay that follows. We begin by sketching out some key developments in the constitution of cognitive science as a major interdisciplinary venture, emphasizing the transition from pioneering attempts to describe cognition in terms of the logical processing of coded symbols to more recent efforts to ground cognitive activity in embodied experience. We then look at a series of related issues in cognitive science of special interest to scholars of literature and culture, including categorization theory, nonarbitrary aspects of language, metaphoricity, agency, and the material character of thought. Finally, we survey a number of attempts to date, on the part of cognitive researchers and theorists as well as literary scholars and critics, to forge links between literary studies and cognitive science.

The first phase of the cognitive revolution, based initially in linguistics and computer science, successfully dislodged behaviorism as the dominant paradigm within the social sciences. Behaviorism held that only directly observable behaviors could provide a valid basis for scientific study, and that any speculation about the cognitive processes behind those behaviors was insupportable and therefore to be avoided. Reaching beyond the social sciences, the influence of behaviorism was also apparent in the New Critical "intentionalist fallacy" - with its injunction to study only the text as a mode of complex behavior, leaving aside any concern about the author's thoughts or intentions - and in the "affective fallacy" which similarly bracketed off the mental processes of the reader. Another behaviorist axiom, that human behavior is determined by environmental or cultural forces without reference to specific mental functions or constraints, still inheres within several current approaches to literary and cultural studies, such as Marxist and some new historicist criticism.

In fields such as linguistics and psychology, however, behaviorism has for some time been largely discarded in favor of research into the cognitive processes of the brain. Noam Chomsky was the first outspoken critic of behaviorism, arguing in the 1950s that the human mind carried a linguistic capacity that was both innate and universal. Chomsky's work focused mainly on syntax, morphology, and phonology, and generally aimed at an almost mathematical precision in the analysis of natural language, leading his critics to charge him with having evaded semantics, and for failing to account for meaning. …

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