I posted this back in 2010, but I'm thinking about these things these days, so I thought I'd bump it to the top of the queue. Here's a companion piece from last year.Theory of mind (aka TOM) is all the rage in (some quarters of) cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. It’s driving me batsh¡t crazy. And its use by literary critics makes me super-mega batsh¡t crazy.
Why? By the time literary critics use all that's left is the term itself, undisciplined by the observations that gave rise to the idea. For literary critics it's a "get out of (conceptual) jail free" card.
Let me explain
Let me explain
Well, first, in case you don’t know what TOM is, it refers to the capacity humans have for attending to and wondering about what’s on someone else’s mind. It’s a capacity that’s possibly unique to humans, though perhaps not, and it begins appearing at around four-plus years of age. My problem is not with the research itself or the notion that some-such capacity comes “online” at that point in development. What bothers me is the term and its implications.
It bothers Melvin Konner too. Here’s a passage from an opinion piece* he published in Nature a few years ago:
Meanwhile, social-cognition theorists have come up with a phrase inferential enough to make one almost long for the black-boxers: theory of mind. Freud sought one, Skinner assiduously didn’t, and most people don’t bother to ask themselves whether they have or need one. Yet there is serious debate as to whether chimpanzees or four-year-olds have a theory of mind. Closely inspected, the phrase seems to mean something like perspective-taking or, when mutual, intersubjectivity. True, a four-year-old can see and act on another person’s perspective whereas most three-year-olds can’t.
This is fascinating stuff and something we need to understand. But a term such as ‘theory of mind’ simply stands in the way. It makes for catchy article titles but conveys no meaning. Is the maturing orbitofrontal cortex newly able to calm an impulsive and self-centred limbic circuit? Is there a down-regulation of some neurotransmitter receptor, allowing a younger form of social mirror-imaging to grow into identification and parallel perspectives? As long as we are playing with pretty word-coins that substitute for brain functions, we will never know.
This TOM-talk is rather like Richard Dawkins talking about “selfish” genes. He knows perfectly well that genes aren’t the kind of agents that can be motivated by selfish considerations, but it’s a useful way of talking. And, in a pinch, he’s quite capable of explaining what’s going on without recourse to the personification; that is to say, Dawkins and others can give technical accounts that do not require genes to have mental states.
Similarly, the psychologists don’t believe that four year-old children are reasoning about the mind in the manner of philosophers or cognitive scientists. It’s not that kind of theory they’re imputing to the child. But this odd usage of “theory” is, in the end, grounded in experimental evidence and psychologists can talk and reason about those experiments. Konner’s point, of course, is that too ready explanatory recourse to TOM-talk is likely to get in the way of deeper theoretical investigation.
The psychologist’s observations, as far as I know, typically involve either actual face-to-face interaction, or situations where the (human) subject can examine either dolls in a play environment or some picture of a person or persons. TOM behavior is thus something one observes in a selected class of physical situations.
Literary critics, however, face a very different observational situation. They are not observing people interacting with other people, or with dolls, or even people looking at pictures. They’re not observing people at all.
They’re reading books, printed symbols on pieces of paper. The books were written by people, of course, and they are about fictional people. But no real people or dolls or pictures of same are physically present to literary critics. They're reading written words. That’s all.
The critic might well imagine characters interacting. The people and actions they see and hear in their mental theatre are not physically in front of them. Beyond that, what's the physical situation of characters in stories? Are they following one another’s gazes – a typical TOM behavior – so as to know what one another is looking at? Who knows?
As far as I can tell, all literary critics takes over from the TOM literature is the term itself. Nothing else. In particular they are not taking explicit mechanisms and putting those mechanisms through their paces in a literary context. The reason I say that is because the TOM literature, as far as I know, have explicit mechanisms. The literature doesn’t discuss how the child makes such inferences beyond saying, well, it’s theory of mind.
Now, what literary critics do in the name of TOM may very well be interesting and valid as literary criticism. But the psychology literature deals with situations that are so very different that it's not clear how that literature supports what the literary critic is doing. The mechanisms the 4-year-old uses to infer another’s intentions may be a component the mechanisms the adult reader uses in interpreting the words on the page. But we don't know that. As far as I can tell, the TOM critics don’t care about that. All they care about is being able to invoke TOM as an explanation for what they imagine to be going on in a given text.
Thus, I find literary critics fascination with TOM rather disheartening. It's sloppy thinking. It's scientism. It does not bode well for the "cognitive turn" in literary theory. It's beginning to feel like these critics have found a new way to turn literary criticism into high-falutin' BS.
* Melvin Konner, Bad Words, Nature, 411, p. 743 (14 June 2001).