Sunday, August 23, 2015

On the Poverty of Literary Cognitivism 1: Alan Richardson Makes a Case

I’m pretty sure that Richardson would be somewhere between puzzled and shocked at the idea that he believes literary cognitivism to be an impoverished enterprise. In making that odd statement I’m thinking about his current essay-review, "Once upon a Mind: Literary and Narrative Studies in the Age of Cognitive Science," in MFS Modern Fiction Studies [1]. That article ends by asserting, “The current richness, diversity, and sheer amount of work in the new field, along with the pronounced interest evident among younger scholars in particular, augers a period of further growth and institutional consolidation still to come. […] Let a thousand flowers bloom” (p. 368). That certainly doesn’t seem like an argument for poverty. On the contrary, it is an explicit affirmation of riches to come.

I take responsibility for the judgement of poverty, but the judgement is based on a criterion Richardson advances in this essay. The purpose of this post is to examine that essay and identify the fatal criterion. I will then offer a blunt preview of a different, non-fatal, way to go about things which I will explicate in future posts.

Two Books and Eleventy Reference Points

Richardson’s essay focuses on two recent books, Paul B. Armstrong, How Literature Plays with the Brain (2013) and David Herman, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2013). Richardson begins with three or so pages of preliminary orientation in which he outlines his own engagement with literary cognitivism going back to the late 1990s, mentions fourteen other important books that came out in 2013, tips his hat to Patricia Cohen’s 2011 coverage in The New York Times, and offers some observations about institutional weakness. He then begins to steer the ship toward the two books under review, noting that “a great deal of disagreement, including on fundamental issues, persists both within and among the various disciplines making up the cognitive sciences […] and when one adds neuroscience to this already factious mix, still more differences emerge” (p. 316). As he’s piloting the boat through the harbor Richardson pulls a rabbit out of that sow's ear by noting that the field nevertheless has common reference points – he lists about eleventy of them – and then ties the reins to the hitching post (p. 362):
A final gesture made by many cognitive literary scholars, again including both Paul Armstrong […] and David Herman […], concerns the status of the interdisciplinary project itself. As do most of us Armstong and Herman both want to see the relationship between literary and narrative studies, on the one side, and the mind and brain sciences, on the other, as a genuinely two-way exchange. The scientific side does not provide a master discipline for literary scholars to study and incorporate into their own work; the literary side does not simply provide a field for application, but procedures, methods, and special kinds of data that, so the argument goes, scientists would do well to study and profit from.
This “final gesture” is the criterion I have in mind.

Richardson spins out the guts of his essay and then, six pages later, delivers a crushing verdict in his penultimate paragraph (p. 368):
Neither [of the books under review], to my mind, makes a single clear and convincing case for a problem in the mind and brain sciences that can only be successfully addressed through partial adaptation of methods, finds, or evidence from a literary field. I believe that there are such problems – such as the current limitations of recent scientific work on the imagination – and I would like to see many more such issues identified and examined in detail.
I have no reason to doubt Richardson’s judgment on that issue, though I’ve not read the two books myself, and I assume it applies to the field as he knows it, otherwise he surely would have mentioned the exceptions to that pessimistic verdict.

Given that I’ve not read these two books, why would I think Richardson has nailed them on that particular issue? Because that’s the verdict I’d reached a decade or more ago and I have yet to see any reason to alter that judgment.

Moreover, if the field continues along these lines, and I would include the literary Darwinists in here as well, nothing is going to change on that score. This sprawling interdisciplinary extravaganza will draw on the newer psychologies but will produce little that’s interesting to investigators who are more interested in psychology, neuroscience, and biology than in literature. The current asymmetrical flow ideas and inspiration will remain the norm.

THAT’s the poverty of literary cognitivism. Or rather, it’s an index, a sign of that poverty. Richardson doesn’t see that asymmetry as anything more than a temporary problem, one that will surely be overcome by the eager young scholars entering the field. Alas, if they are constrained to follow existing models for such work, in twenty or so years a somewhat older Alan Richardson will be complaining that no one has yet made “a single clear and convincing case for a problem in the mind and brain sciences that can only be successfully addressed through partial adaptation of methods, finds, or evidence from a literary field.”

As I will suggest in later posts, that asymmetry reflects the difference between analysis and design, between science and engineering, between the inanimate world and living beings. Those differences influence how we go about our intellectual business, but they’ve not been adequately theorized by philosophers and methodologists. Until we have that sorted out we’ll be unusually susceptible to misplaced excitement and premature revelations.

An Alternative, Bluntly Stated: Computation

Alas, I am unable to give a good account of why this is so. My certainty on this point lies mostly in the land of intuition rather than the kingdom of explicit argumentation. That intuition is grounded in my own interdisciplinary efforts which, though they include these newer sciences of the mind, are quite different in one crucial respect from Richardson’s or, as far as I know, pretty much anyone else’s in literary studies.

Having said that, I offer some unsupported observations for place markers. I will supply support in a later post or three.

Computation was at the heart of the co-called cognitive revolution. No computation, no cognitive revolution. It was computation that allowed cognitive science to displace behaviorist psychology, with its ban on talk of mental life, from the center of the academy. Computation gave us an explicit way of thinking about mental processes. It made the mind real in a way it hadn’t been before. Literary cognitivism has not faced up to computation and is thus proclaiming a new regime without an adequate appreciation for the ideas inspiring their proclamation.

The cognitivists (and evolutionists) are thus in the situation of the cartoon character who has walked off the edge of a cliff but who remains suspended in air until (s)he looks down. I walked off that cliff almost thirty years ago and I did look down. When I managed to pull myself together – for these embarrassments are never fatal to the cartoon character – I found myself in a very different world from the one I’d set out to explore. I’m still trying to make sense of it.

Computation, the idea of computation, really is central to this strange world. But what would it mean to conduct the study of literature under the sign of computation? It might mean simulating the process of reading literary texts, something that David Hays and I proposed almost three decades ago [2]. I have long since believed that proposal was premature if taken as a roadmap, though it’s not without interest as a thought experiment.

My current belief is that to understand literary texts as traces of computation we must explicitly analyze and describe literary form. I’ve explained that view at considerable length in an article on literary morphology [3]. More recently, I’ve linked that program to a proposal about how to conceptualize literary texts in terms of Bruno Latour’s distinction between mediators and intermediaries [4]. That proposal sees literary form as a function of the circulation of texts in communities as well as a function o mind. It puts form at the interface of the individual and the group.

While that ambition might seem to be another invitation to interdisciplinary sprawl, it is not. But this enterprise will thrive on cross-disciplinary commensurability.

Though I have read widely and over several decades in these newer psychologies, I do not think such reading is a prerequisite to undertaking the naturalist literary investigation I have been proposing. Some background study would certainly be useful, but that could be accomplished in one or two semesters of undergraduate work in relevant areas or in a one-semester graduate course. What is more important is knowledge of literary texts and experience in analyzing and describing them.

But not just any experience.

The experience needs to be in the analysis and description of form. Alas, as far as I know, there isn’t a lot of that available. For all the attention that various critics and schools of criticism have given to the idea of form, the practical analysis of it has been sadly neglected (see e.g. a recent article by Sandra Macpherson [5]). That means that getting this ship out of the harbor is likely to be difficult, for the best way to learn literary analysis is to follow examples. The larger point, however, is that the critical knowledge is direct knowledge of literary texts, not mastery or this or that body of theory.

The key to the treasure is the treasure – and that’s the weakness of interdisciplinary Darwinian neuro literary cognitivism. It’s practitioners do not have a deep faith in the power of the texts themselves, or at least their cognitivism has not given them the means of articulating that power. The most powerful evidence we have to offer other disciplines is our knowledge of the forms of literary texts: literary morphology. Biology has been built on the accurate description of life forms and life ways. If we want at new or renewed discipline of literary criticism, we have to ground it in the accurate description of the formal properties of literary texts.

Yes, I know that description is not sexy, that it seems rather dull and tedious, and often is. It doesn’t carry the thrill of walking over the edge of an interdisciplinary cliff. But description is how you make planks, ropes, nails, fittings, and cloth. When you’ve gotten your materials crafted you can design and build small sailboats. And then you can assemble a flotilla and set course for parts unknown.


[1] Alan Richardson, Once upon a Mind: Literary and Narrative Studies in the Age of Cognitive Science, MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 61, Number 2, Summer 2015, pp. 359-369, 2015.

[2] William Benzon and David Hays, Computational Linguistics and the Humanist. Computers and the Humanities 10: 265-274, 1976. Download:

[3] Literary Morphology: Nine Propositions in a Naturalist Theory of Form. PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts, August 2005, Article 060608. Download:

[4] I make this suggestion in two recent posts:

In Search of Literary Form, August 15, 2015. URL:

Latour, Language, and Translation, August 12, 2015. URL:

[5] Sandra Macpherson, A Little Formalism, ELH, Volume 82, Number 2, pp. 385-405, Summer 2015.


  1. Well, surely some ground must have been covered, then, by formal analysts, who have not been in short supply (ever). Arguably, such notions as narrative structures, conceptual integration or frame analysis manage to bridge some of the ground between cognitivism and literary studies, and to identify distinctive and relevant cognitive structures and maneuvers.

  2. Oh identifying "distinctive and relevant cognitive structures and maneuvers" is easy and happens all over the place. But that's not the same thing as producing an integrated account of (some reasonable set of) the formal characteristics of whole texts. And a lot of this looks like old (rhetorical, tropological) wine w/ new labels on the bottles. What we're getting is, a best, a quasi-ordered pile of conceptual stuff of various kinds and qualities. If you want to build a house you need wood and bricks and nails and plaster and paint and so forth. But you also need a plan. These folks have no sense of a plan except literature itself. The literary texts may themselves be well designed, but the fact that you can hang all these conceptual creatures off the texts doesn't mean there's coherent order in the menagerie. As far as I can tell, the only thing that has a chance of providing organization, a plan, is computation. And none of these folks, neither the cognitivists nor the evolutionists, have dealt with that. Here's a working paper that has extensive comments on cognitive metaphor and conceptual blending: The Jasmine Papers: Notes on the Study of Poetry in the Age of Cognitive Science.