Friday, September 4, 2015

On the Poverty of Cognitive Criticism and the Importance of Computation and Form

I've gathered my posts on poverty of cognitive criticism into a single working paper (title above). Download here:
Social Science Research Network:

Abstract, table of contents, and introduction below.


Abstract: While literary criticism based on cognitive, evolutionary, and neuropsychology has been relatively successful in addressing a wide variety of issues in theory, poetics, and narratology, it has been less successful in accounting for individual literary texts (practical criticism). Moreover it has been unsuccessful in identifying issues where practitioners of those psychological disciplines can benefit from literary criticism. As long as literary criticism remains grounded in discursive thought, where the primary thinking is captured by the prose on the page, it will not be of much value to disciplines where much of the critical thinking takes place in the forms of experimental design, execution, and data analysis, mathematical and formal models, and computer simulation. Furthermore, these newest forms of literary criticism have neglected computation as a model for mental processes, yet that is what precipitated the cognitive revolution. Properly understood, a computational view allows us to treat literary form as the trace of a computational process. It thus follows that literary critics should be producing detailed analytic descriptions of literary texts. Finally, the subjective activity of interpretation should be recognized as a separate intellectual activity and should reincorporate the normative activity (criticism proper) that it has put at arm’s length.

Introduction: Theory and Practice in a Broken World 2
Alan Richardson Makes a Case 9
What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism 14
The key to the treasure IS the (form of the) treasure 25
The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do 41
It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox 51
Appendix 1: The Disciplines of Literary Criticism 58
Appendix 2: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, a Brief Chronology 61
Appendix 3: A Graduate Syllabus in Naturalist Literary Criticism 66
Consolidated References 70

Introduction, Theory and Practice in a Broken World

In his Preface to Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (1991) Mark Turner declared that the age of cognitive science would put literature at the center of the study of the mind [1]. Over two decades later that future has not yet become the present. Just this year Alan Richardson has written an essay-review of two new books in cognitive literary studies, “Once upon a Mind: Literary and Narrative Studies in the Age of Cognitive Science” [2], in which he laments that the authors of those books, while calling for students of cognition and the brain to adopt methods from literary studies, have themselves failed to make a compelling case for a line of inquiry where investigators of the cognitive sciences place methods and evidence from literary studies on par with their own methods and evidence (see my first post, Alan Richardson Makes a Case).

What we have here is a failure of interdisciplinary reciprocity. The traffic between literary studies and the cognitive sciences is still pretty much one-way. It is that perceived failure that prompted me to start drafting what I thought would be a single longish – 1500 to 3000 words – post.

But it didn’t work out that way. It just grew and grew, so I broke it in two and published the first piece. And the second grew and grew, and I ended up with five long-form posts. Now it’s time to call a halt to this project and move on to the next.

You can’t get there from here

The core issue, of course, is that, because the psychologists are scientists and literary critics are humanists, they groups don’t think in the same way. Here’s how I put it in my fifth post, It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox:
When, for example, literary critics went to psychoanalysis for ideas they found a discipline that dealt in dreams, fantasies, and stories, the stuff of literature. These newer psychologies deal with a lot of things, but not so much with dreams, fantasies, and stories – and where they do trade in stories, the stories are too simple to yield insight into literary texts. So literary critics have been busy gathering psychological ‘components’ into assemblages usable for thinking about literary phenomena.

Theory-building has thus far been the central activity, and accomplishment, of these literary investigators. Their theories, like most work in the humanities, are prose-centric or discursive in the sense that their central thinking takes place in the prose on the page. But the cognitive sciences have other ways of thinking, ways in which the central thinking takes place in some other medium and the prose exists to support that non-discursive thought. Some of this thinking takes the form of laboratory observations and the subsequent statistical analysis of data. Other thinking takes place in the proof structures and equations of mathematical modeling. And of course we have thinking that is embedded in computer simulations.
It’s not simply that analyzing poetry is different from hunting down mirror neurons or that theorizing narrative point of view is different from investigating recursive depth in sentence structures, it’s that the core thinking is different. Literary critics do their core thinking in prose; that is, it is of a kind best conveyed in prose. Cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists do much of their core thinking elsewhere.

Not only is the core thinking of humanists different from that of the psychologists, but we are thinking about different things. In The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do I developed the metaphor of understanding a whole building, with its functional design and component parts, vs. understanding the sciences of its constituent materials and the craft skills needed to assemble them into a completed structure. Literary critics and psychologists think in different ways and about different things. The mere fact that the things the psychologists think about somehow constitute the things the critics think about is not in itself enough to bridge the conceptual gaps.

So, if the goal of literary critics is simply to learn from the psychologists, procede on. If the goal is to produce something that they can use for investigating their problems, you can’t get there from here.

Two things: 1) When Richardson doe propose a topic where the critics have something that the psychologists need, he proposes the imagination (p. 368). It’s no more than a passing remark so I don’t know what he had in mind, but I note that imagination, like literature, is a big sprawling field. Not only do we have the literary imagination, but we’ve got the musical imagination, the scientific imagination, the spiritual imagination and on and on. Pending more specific information from Richardson I’d say that presents the same problems as literature, differences in core thought processes and mismatch between functional wholes and components parts and processes. 2) Despite the fact that this enterprise has been ongoing for two or even three decades, its work in practical criticism has been weak, which I discuss in It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox, as opposed to general theory.

Given that, I make one observation and two more arguments in this series of posts:
1.) The cognitive revolution happened with the idea of computing percolated through psychology, linguistics, and philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s, but the cognitive critics have not confronted computation at all and so, in a fundamental sense, they don’t know what the “cognitive revolution” was about. This is a matter of core thinking.

2.) If we examine what it would mean to develop an explicit computational model of reading a literary text – which I do in my second post, What I Learned When I Walked off the Cliff of Cognitivism – we can see that literary form is a trace of the underlying computational process. Thus the analysis and description of literary form, whole texts, is necessarily central to participating in this cognitive revolution. I argue and illustrate that in my third post, The key to the treasure IS the (form of the) treasure, where I examine ”Kubla Khan”, Heart of Darkness, and President Obama’s eulogy of Clementa Pinckney.

3.) Explicating the meaning of a literary text is different from modeling the underlying cognitive processes. We need to explicitly recognize this as a critical imperative that is different from the naturalistic understanding of literary processes and we need to restore ethical and aesthic judgment to this activity. Following Wayne Booth I call this ethical criticism and discuss it in The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do.
I want to return to ethical criticism by way of looking at arguments about interpretation and the limitations of cognitive criticism.

Interpretation and the Sharable Promptuary

Let’s start with a passage from a reply that Alan Richardson and Francis Steen wrote to critics of cognitive criticism [3, p. 155]:
It is our firm conviction that science will not and cannot provide authoritative answers to the meaning and significance of literary works. Indeed, a central challenge to a cognitive description of culture is to account for the sharply different human purposes of science and literature, not to reduce one to the other. Taking a vital interest in the models, theories, and findings emerging from work in the cognitive sciences and neurosciences does not commit one to a scientific methodology, any more than taking an interest in psychoanalysis commits Freudian or Lacanian literary critics to a therapeutic discipline.
I’m not sure that I agree with that first sentence. I’d rather talk about objective knowledge than science, not because I don’t think science achieves objective knowledge, but because I don’t think worrying about whether or not we’re being scientific is a way to achieve objective knowledge in literary matters. Those naturalists who roamed the earth describing plants, animals, and their life ways weren’t looking over their shoulders and worrying about whether or not they were being scientific. They just wanted to describe things so that they could be reliably recognized by others [4].

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Yes, sure, we can’t get objective knowledge about the meaning of this or that specific text, though perhaps we CAN create objective knowledge about a wide variety of literary processes.

Let’s see how a literary critic who is somewhat sympathetic to cognitive criticism explains interpretation. Here’s Tony Jackson, “Literary Interpretation” and Cognitive Literary Studies, ([5] p. 202):
That is, a literary interpretation, if we are allowed to distinguish it as a distinct kind of interpretation, joins in with the literariness of the text. Literary interpretation is a peculiar and, I would say, unique conjunction of argument and literature, analytic approach and art form being analyzed.
I have no problem with that. Whatever it is, interpreting texts is not a well-defined process. Asserting that the critic somehow joins with the text is a reasonable way of expressing what happens.

But earlier in that same article Jackson had this to say (p. 200):
As I have said above, the literary text depends upon interpretation in order to become itself; which is to say, to become indeterminate or polysemous by virtue of the nature of its determinate, fixed inscription. […] Literature must have interpretation. Rocks or atomic particles or low-pressure weather systems or even economies do not depend on explanation in order to become what they most intrinsically are. Literature does. Further, since we are here concerned with written literature: if literature can be supposed to express meanings about the world, then written interpretation must be the strongest realization of literary meaningfulness.
I don’t know quite what to say. At the very least it’s rather overstated.

Is Jackson serious that “the literary text depends upon interpretation in order to become itself”? Does that mean, for example, that Shakespeare’s texts were incomplete all those years until after World War II when professional literary critics finally came along to write those interpretations that are their “strongest realization of literary meaningfulness”? Have all those audiences and all those readers been little more than appreciative zombies? Lacking the ability to provide written interpretation of his own work, was Shakespeare himself a zombie? And if the written interpretation really is the strongest realization of a text’s meaning, should we dispense with the text altogether?

Put that way, Jackson’s statement seems absurd. But there aren’t a lot of inferential steps between his words and mine. It’s one thing to maintain that literary texts contain ‘hidden’ meanings which people unknowingly absorb when the reading them. This leaves Shakespeare and every other writer just where they’ve always been, but there’s more going on in the literary transaction than writers and readers know. Under this dispensation the critic uncovers some of that, but this uncovering is separate from and a commentary upon that basic transaction.

That, however, is not what Jackson is arguing. Whether or not there is any ‘hidden’ meaning, the text is somehow ‘incomplete’ until the critic comes along and ‘completes’ it through the act of writing about it. He is worried that calling on cognitive science in literary study will close off the essential participative creativity of interpretation.

He’s not the only one. Here’s Hans Adler and Sabine Gross ([6] p 215):
Cognitive analysis focuses on general patterns and models of comprehension. Literary texts are designed to open up spaces for interpretation: different readers in different contexts weigh elements and fill gaps in different ways that complement the common ground of comprehension that is determined both by the text and by shared assumptions and contextual knowledge.
There it is: “Literary texts are designed to open up spaces for interpretation.” Designed by whom? How did Emily Brontë gp about placing those open spaces in Wuthering Heights? What about that “common ground” of comprehension? Do we know how that works, or is it simply too obvious to merit discussion? They continue:
In a sense, the positioning of noncognitivist and cognitivist literary studies reenacts the discussions about predictability/determination versus subjectivity/individuality in reader-response theory in the 1970s and 1980s: how much freedom do readers have in filling in gaps and creating the actual text or interpretation; to what extent do written text and interpretive communities (substitute here: the cognitive apparatus common to all readers) determine individual readings? Models of language comprehension and mental operations have barely begun to bridge the chasm between what may go on in the brain and an actual reader’s response to a literary text: the reasons for reading it, the sources of the interest and pleasure it provokes, the relevance of personal, situational, contextual elements.
What is this “actual text” that is apparently different from the “written text”? As I have argued in It’s Time to Leave the Sandbox, literary critics have elided the distinction between the physical text and the various psychological and socio-cultural processes implicit in the text. It’s in sorting through that muddle that interpretations are born. And what is this peculiar “chasm between what may go on in the brain and an actual reader’s response”, as though the readers were here while their actual response is taking place over there.

Let’s consider one last critic, Norman Holland. He’s a well-known reader response critic working from psychoanalysis. Here’s what one reader response critic, Normal Holland, has to say about the role of texts in readers experience ([8], pp. 286-287):
Every reader has available to him what the writer created—the words-on-the-page, that is, the promptuary (a store of structured language) from which he can build an experience. To be sure, the promptuary includes constraints on how one can put its contents together, but these constraints do not coerce anyone. One is always free to go to the extreme of total delusion […] But most reading is not solipsistic […] [Readers] work with what is publicly available—the words-on-the-page as a readiness of structured information. They make from that sharable promptuary a completely original and private experience.
What’s that sharable promptuary?

Standard, mainstream, ordinary, whatever you want to call it, literary criticism leaves us with, on the one hand, subjective interpretations in which critics merge with text and, on the other hand, with a sharable promptuary which is either beneath description and attention or is mysterious hidden. The so-called cognitive revolution happened when, among other things, computation was enlisted as a way of understanding “language comprehension and mental operations” but cognitive critics have rejected that (see my discussion in The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do).

This situation is untenable. But let’s focus on interpretation. One could simply reject it all together, noting that it’s a relatively new phenomenon in literary culture. Literature got along without it from the ancient days of human origins up through the middle of the previous century. Literature will survive its cessation.

The cognitive critics have not suggested that, nor have I. What I do believe is that recognize it as relatively new kind of ethical and aesthetic inquiry (again, see my discussion in The ‘Middle Way’, What It Can and Cannot Do).

As for that sharable promptuary, let’s treat it as the trace of a cognitive process and describe it accordingly (as I have illustrated in The key to the treasure IS the (form of the) treasure). Modern biology emerged from centuries of careful description of life forms and lifeways. Naturalist criticism needs to give the same descriptive attention to literary texts. That’s perhaps the basic way of attending to individual texts within the scope of the newer psychologies.

Not readings, but analytic descriptions. Not meaning, but form.

Three Appendices

In addition to the five posts I’ve written in this series I’ve added three appendices to this working paper.

Appendix 1: The Disciplines of Literary Criticism: This is a brief document I’ve been refining off and on in which I suggest that academic literary criticism comprises four activities: Description, Naturalist Criticism, Ethical Criticism, and Digital Criticism.

Appendix 2: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, a Brief Chronology: This is a brief chronology that I compiled some years ago in which I ran the development of cognitive science in parallel with the development of literary theory (aka Theory). With its publication of Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures and Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, 1957 is a useful reference point. I’ve added to landmarks in cognitive criticism to this version.

Appendix 3: A Graduate Syllabus in Naturalist Literary Criticism: Another blog post from way back. In the context of this working paper there are two things to note about this syllabus: 1) it includes works of cognitive and evolutionary criticism, despite my misgivings about both. 2) It has a lot else besides. I’ve got a brief discussion of the rationale behind my selections.

Finally, in addition to the reference section for each post, which I’ve retained, I have also created a consolidated bibliography which I’ve placed at the end.


[1] Turner, Mark. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton university Press. 1991. Preface is online at:

[2 Richardson, Alan. 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.

[3] Richardson, Alan, and Francis Steen. Reframing the Adjustment: A Response to Adler and Gross. Poetics Today 24:2, Summer 2003, pp. 151-159.

[4] Ogilvie, Brian. The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. University of Chicago Press. 2006.

[5] Jackson, Tony E. “Literary Interpretation” and Cognitive Literary Studies. Poetics Today 24:2, Summer 2003. pp. 191-205.

[6] Hans Adler and Sabine Gross “Adjusting the Frame: Comments on Cognitivism and Literature,” Poetics Today 23:2, Summer 2002, pp. 195-220.

[7] Holland, Norman. Five Readers Reading. Harvard University Press, 1975.

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