Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Do Literary Texts Count as Strong Evidence about the Human Mind?

Once again, I'm reposting this. My concern, as before, is with taking literary texts seriously, as primary evidence. Just how do we do that? It seems to me that interpretive approaches, by directing our attention to "hidden" meaning, allow the text itself to be explained away. At the moment I'm interested in ring form, and I don't want that ring form explained away. It's doing work: what work? It's primary evidence about how the human mind works. We must understand it, not explain it away.

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Given my recent comments on description and the teleome, where I argue that a robust descriptive understanding of the arts is our best source of clues about how the full range of neural systems operates in the course of living a life (Deep Learning, the Teleome, and DescriptionDescription and the Teleome, Part 2), this old post from The Valve deserves a re-post. I originally posted in on December 14, 2009.

Let me repeat my favoriate analogy about the relationship between biology and culture in human life, that of a board game such as chess. Biology provides the game board, the pieces, and the basic rules. Culture provides the strategies and tactics used in joining elementrary moves into viable games play. Literary texts are then records of strategy and tactics in action. The first job of criticism, then, is simply to describe the game as it happened. Interpreting the intentions animating strategies and tactics is secondary and utterly dependent on accurate description.

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Now that Bérubé’s review of Boyd has got me thinking about “Darwinian criticism” or “evocriticism,” I want to look at a passage in Boyd’s book that is, in effect, the generalization of his criticism of the notion that romantic love is culturally specific. Here it is (Brian Boyd, The Origin of Stories, Harvard 2009, p. 385):
Evocriticism can offer a literary theory both theoretical and empirical, proposing hypotheses against the full range of what we know of human and other behavior, and testing them. Though compatible with much earlier theory and criticism [that is to say, before “Theory” and its immediate precursors], it will reject some possibilities, such as assumptions of radical disjunction between human minds of different eras or cultures based on a general cultural constructivism or particular “epistemic shifts.”
It may be the case these days that “radical disjunction” between different eras and cultures is simply assumed, but there was a time when the disjunction was argued on the basis of evidence and, as far as I know, people are still making such arguments and presenting evidence in their favor. Isn’t that what historicist criticism is about? That is to say, Boyd seems to be implying that people just made up stuff about disjunction because they felt like it but that they didn’t have an plausible reason. He’s wrong on that, no?

And the reasons that have been and still are given involve both literary texts and non-literary texts. You read texts of different eras and cultures, you read them closely, and come to the conclusion that they thought and felt about X Y & Z differently than we do know or than those folks over that at that time. Hence there is a disjunction between our mind, their mind, and theirs as well. (I’ll dispense with “radical” as it seems to me to function as something of a weasel word in this general context. Just how much of a disjunction qualifies as radical?)

What I want to know is whether or not these various texts count as primary evidence, evidence that can’t be interpreted away? In particular, is it valid always to subordinate the evidence of those texts to the evidence of evolutionary psychology?

Those two questions imply a mess of issues, and I’m not going to come even remotely close to adequate coverage. The big issue comes from the apparent fact that texts bear or even require interpretation, so how do we judge one interpretation to be superior to another? Boyd has an answer to that question: Interpretations that are consistent with the findings of evolutionary psychology are ipso facto superior to interpretations that are not.

That’s how he structured his book. First he does a review and synthesis of evolutionary psychology, and then he shows how The Odyssey and Horton Hears a Who! exemplify it. In particular, he argues against older claims (pre-Theory in fact) that Homer had little concept of mind. Those older claims are backed up be evidence from texts, Homer’s texts in comparison to other texts. Boyd invokes Theory of Mind, a human universal, and says those older claims are wrong. I’ve got reservations about Boyd’s argument, and said so in my review of his book, so I’m not going to repeat those arguments here except to note that I do suggest that Boyd’s evolutionary psychology isn’t the only psychology that’s relevant.

I suppose the question I’m wondering about is whether or not the evidence of various texts is so strong that any adequate psychology must adapt itself to those texts, not vice versa. In linguistics, at least some varieties of linguistics, linguists don’t get to pick and choose just which sentences and which constructions their grammar must account for. If real people say it, then the grammar must account for it. I think literary texts have that kind of evidential force, they pose that kind of resistance to theory, but I’m not quite sure how to argue the point, but that’s what I had in mind at the end of “Kubla Khan” and the Embodied Mind:
Human life is extraordinarily complex. Intellectual specialization is necessary to cope with the manifold details that must be observed, ordered, and interpreted if our understanding is to deepen. Specialization cannot be avoided. Yet for much of my career I have listened to people bemoan the deleterious effects of specialization, the production of more and more knowledge about less and less. Our libraries are thus replete with earnest essays and books storming the breech between the sciences and the arts and humanities. These sorties generate much sound and fury, but have left few passable bridges behind. I acknowledge that specialization has grave dangers, that science needs a richer account of human life, and that these dangers threaten to turn our intellectual progress into a series of unsatisfying side-trips. But good intentions and hard work will not fix this problem, for it is not primarily one of professional perversion, whether willful or inadvertent.

The problem is that we do not have a way of bringing these disparate specialties to bear on one another. The study of literature and the arts is one way to provide a focal point for such integration. But literary analysis can serve in this way only if it is conducted in terms commensurate with these other disciplines. We must learn enough from these new psychologies so that we can ensure that will happen. Thus informed we can create a body of detailed textual analysis that others can use in formulating their research agenda. Any model of the human mind, or some aspect of it, must be consistent with literary analysis. A linguistics of sentences that cannot account for the sentences of “Kubla Khan,” and for the entire discourse as well, is not an adequate linguistics. A neuroscience of feeling that cannot account for our wonder and joy in “Kubla Khan” is not an adequate neuroscience. If we do our work well, investigators in neighboring disciplines will be more fruitful in theirs.

We need to know: What is the nature of the human mind such that it continually inquires into its own nature, into its place in the world? What is the nature of a poem such that it stills, for the moment, such questioning? A science that fails to address such questions may indeed be a science, but it will not be profoundly of man. As humanists it is our responsibility to see that the new sciences of man are adequate to these questions.
ADDENDUM: Hmmmmm...I'm wondering if the point of, e.g. deconstruction, is that the literay text itself is as strong as anything a critic could say about it and so made non-negotiable demands on the critic and on whatever Theory the critic brought to bear on the text. The text reads the critic as much as the critic reads the text.

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