Empiricism, Cognitive Science, and the Novel

By Kramnick, Jonathan | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Empiricism, Cognitive Science, and the Novel


Kramnick, Jonathan, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


"I see into minds, you see," the robot continued, "and you have no idea how complicated they are. I can't begin to understand everything because my own mind has so little in common with them-but I try, and your novels help."

-Isaac Asimov, Liar!

No one Uterary form has a proprietary stake in the mind, but as genres go the novel has since its inception taken remarkable interest in mental states. Among other things, eighteenth-century fiction is so much writing about the mind: about how thoughts represent things, cause other thoughts to happen, or lead to actions. The same might be said for empiricism. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century phUosophy paid unusual attention to the content of minds and the nature of ideas, to "human understanding" as Locke and Hume put it. While the connection between empiricism and the rise of the novel is a touchstone of literary studies, with a venerable tradition of scholarship dating back to the beginnings of the profession, only recently have critics drawn upon philosophy of mind and cognitive science to talk about the way in which thinking takes shape in particular works from the period.1 This is of course not so much of a surprise, since criticism is as a rule skeptical of framing older texts with present-day models. The risk is one of anachronism or universalism, either shoehorning recalcitrant descriptions of the mind into our current language of cognition or locating both within a timeless and unchanging account of the psyche. Needless to say, my intention in this essay is to do neither; it is rather to consider what kind of insights can be gained by placing the description of thinking in the fiction and philosophy of the eighteenth century alongside certain tendencies within contemporary phUosophy of mind and cognitive science-alongside, that is, the way in which we now talk about the mind. I'll begin with a comparison between empiricist and computational accounts of mental architecture and look at how each describes the shape and process of cognition. I'll then turn to "theory of mind," a line of work in cognitive science that has proven especially attractive to literary studies because it concerns the way in which thinking about the thoughts of other people can be modeled or provoked by works of fiction.

1. MENTAL ARCHITECTURE: FROM THE ASSOCIATION OF IDEAS TO THE LANGUAGE OF THOUGHT

Despite their many differences, there is an important sense in which empiricism is compatible with cognitive science.2 Most but not all philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had some sort of representational theory of mind; most but not all cognitivists do too.3 On this view, the mind works by forming representations of objects and events and then implementing them in various processes of thought. "Concerning the thoughts of man," Hobbes writes in the first sentence of Leviathan, "they are every one a Representation or Appearance, of some quality or accident of a body without us; which is commonly called an object."4 Slide ahead a few hundred years and things are not so different. "Mental processes," writes Jerry Fodor, one of the more influential and controversial philosophers of mind and cognitive science today, "are computations, that is, they are defined on the syntax of mental representations."5 For Hobbes as for Fodor, the work of the mind is to have thoughts about or of some distal entity or state of affairs and then to put thoughts together in such a way that leads to behavior. Thoughts are "intentional" in the sense coined by Franz Brentano: one has a belief about one thing or wants another, and unless those things are other minds, the object of belief or desire does not have intentionality itself.6 Hobbes found this point to be worth some emphasis; "the thing we see is in one place; the appearance, in another" and between the two lies some sort of reference or allusion (14). When "at some certain distance, the reall and very object seem invested with the fancy it begets in us," we ought to remember that "the object is one thing, the image or fancy is another," and we ought to recognize that images and fancies are matters of thinking, while objects and events are matters at which thoughts are directed (14). …

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