Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism

By Vernay, Jean-François | Transnational Literature, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism


Vernay, Jean-François, Transnational Literature


Terence Cave, Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism (Oxford University Press, 2016)

Of late, Professor Terence Cave has shown a growing interest in Cognitive Literary Studies: he co-edited with Karin Kukkonen, and Olivia Smith Reading Literature Cogntively (2014), a special issue of Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Critical Theory and has had a chapter entitled 'Penser la littérature' (Thinking with Literature) published in Interprétation littéraire et sciences cognitives (2016), a collection of scholarly articles edited by Françoise Lavocat. Thinking with Literature: Towards a Cognitive Criticism is a further attempt to chart the territory of cognitive literary theory. An interdisciplinary approach, no consonance of paradigms, an inspiration from cognitive science research, a concern for issues in literary studies, and the use of multiple prisms, seem to be the chief characteristics defining this ever-broadening category.

Perception, language, memory, consciousness, emotions and motivity have, in turn, taken centre-stage in the cognitive science debates over the last 50 years. Today, the sheer diversity of mental processes (multiple intelligences, distinct memories, multifaceted perception, attention subcategories, etc.) whose complexity is gradually being acknowledged and investigated, begs for more research in the field of cognitive science while prompting other disciplines, like literary studies, to re-examine their long-held assumptions in the light of recent discoveries.

Yet, according to Terence Cave, 'cognitive methodologies and explanatory frameworks have not yet begun to inflect the common language of literary study; indeed they often meet with resistance both from those who remain attached to traditional modes of literary history and criticism and from those who pursue variants of the literary theory that characterized the late twentieth-century scene' (15). A challenge to this resistance, Thinking with Literature aims at redefining literature (both understood as a practice and as an archive) as a rich cognitive artefact, some aspects of which are being reassessed through the use of neurobabble with words such as implicatures, salience, emergence theory, affordance, motor resonance, cognitive mimesis, to name a few.

Retrofitting literary criticism with scientifically approved concepts enables Cave to afford (that is, to provide) 'openings' - the title of chapter 1 - and turn literary studies into a cognitive discipline. This craving for openings is a tacit acknowledgement that literary studies is suffering from intellectual asphyxia and is therefore in need of a strong wind of change. By expanding the content of the cognitive literary scholar's toolbox, Terence Cave is also contributing to bridging the 'gulf of mutual incomprehension' between literary intellectuals and scientists which C.P. Snow notoriously identified in the wake of World War II.1

Cognitive Literary Studies is strikingly reminiscent of countless methods of critical analysis which more or less involve a desire to establish a literary science.2 While Terence Cave is adamant that 'Literary study is not an exact science, and is not likely to become one in the foreseeable future' - his conception of academic criticism almost comes across as a scientific one when he qualifies his initial statement: 'Yet it aims at precision, whether in its way of accounting for the detail of literary works, in its procedures for establishing those texts as objects of understanding, or in its recourse to historical and cultural contexts of all kinds. …

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