Wednesday, December 24, 2014

For the Historical Record: Herbert Simon on Literary Criticism

Some time ago I was cruising through the blogosphere and came across a post at Mixing Memory entitled Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism (from 2004! almost the Jurassic era). The post summarized a decade-old article by Herbert Simon, AI pioneer and Nobel Laureate in economics. The article had appeared in The Standford Humanities Review in a did a special issue on cognitive science and literary criticism. After Simon had his say some 30+ folks from a number of disciplines, including Kathleen Hayles, Norm Holland, Mark Turner, and Hubert Dreyfus, made comments.

Simon expresses his intentions thus:
. . . it is not my aspiration to create a new school of critical theory. Rather, I hope to cast some light on the relations among existing doctrines by reinterpreting them in a language that can lend to them a precision that they seldom seem to possess in contemporary literary discussion. Familiar terms like "meaning," "context," "evocation," "recognition," and "image" have gained a clarity from the researches of contemporary cognitive science that they did not have in earlier writing and still do not have in literary criticism and its theory. I will try to introduce some of that precision, divorced as far as possible from technicalities, into the discussion.

That will not be easy, for I will not be using the key terms in their ordinary senses, but in senses dependent upon a theoretical framework and formal language that I can set forth here only in broad outline. Focusing on the term "meaning" and how that term is interpreted in contemporary cognitive science will concentrate most of the technicalities and difficulties in one place. Much of the rest of the conversation can be carried on in ordinary language. If what I say sounds like common sense, so much the better.
I rather wish I could give Simon's article a strong endorsement. I like cognitive science and think literary scholars need to know about it. Simon is a brilliant man, and his Sciences of the Artificial deserves a place in the "general knowledge" portion of one's library. But the article has not had much influence among literary scholars pursuing "the cognitive turn" (BTW, who is responsible for that trope, the X turn?) and I am reluctant to lay the blame on the literary scholars. Chris, the proprietor of Mixing Memory, observes:
. . . Simon's conception of meaning isn't going to do anyone, much less literary critics, much good. If it were only that his description of the cognitive scientific view of meaning was an oversimplification, I think that would be OK. It's a short paper, and cognitive science has a lot to say about memory. However, I think oversimplicity is not the only problem. The paper's account of meaning is just wrong. It's wrong in how it describes memory (which is probably more case-based, more reconstructive, and much less encyclopedic than he would lead us to believe), and I think he pays far too little attention (none, in most cases) to things like inference, imagery, layers of meaning, and the role of creativity in extending meaning.
That may explain it.

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