Today seems like the perfect time to return to the blog and plug in a second installment of the “why cognitive science” line of thought. This question came up this morning in the dissertation defense of a good friend and colleague, from a committee member who I will not name, but who is a very foundational figure in cognitive linguistics and metaphor theory. This is also a question that I regularly run into at academic conferences, and those asking the question all have varying motives for raising the issue in the first place. These motives range from genuine curiosity (“I recently read an article in journal X, and I’m intrigued — what’s your take on it?”) to simple professional courtesy (“So that’s what I do… what are you working on?”), and of course, frustration (“I don’t see the validity of cognitive science in literary studies — convince me that what you do is important!”).
The first two are easy enough to respond to (and to have a conversation with), but the latter here are often much less open to having a dialogue to begin with. This is partially because, I feel, the field of cognitive literary criticism is just now beginning to take shape, and past experiences with other interlocutors have been less than helpful, for whatever reason. Given that I work with a specific historical era of English literature (Tudor-Stuart England), I find that skeptics are often concerned with what they perceive as a largely anachronistic projection of contemporary theories of mind and consciousness onto literary texts, characters, and historical persons that do not fit these theories well, if at all. My response to this, of late, has been to point to Mary Thomas Crane’s excellent introduction to her wonderful 2001 book, Shakespeare’s Brain. There, with tongue firmly in cheek, she suggests that, given the basic evidence provided by period portraits of Shakespeare, we can reasonably assume that Shakespeare must have had a brain. Following on this assumption, then, we can figure that sixteenth-century brains functioned “approximately as modern ones do,” thus comprising an “occipital, temporal, parietal, and frontal [lobe], as well as the gyri and sulci (bulges and creases) that neuroscientists have identified as important landmarks within the brain.” Thus, the formation of a sentence, even in the mind of the great Shakespeare, would have probably happened the same way it does to each of us today — at least with respect to the neurobiology involved in the process (15). This assumption in turn allows us to better conceptualize what cognitive science has to say about the natural, biological, and physiological processes involved in the formation of literary texts.
The tendency in humanities scholarship over the past four decades (and here I’m speaking very broadly, of course) has been to consider the human brain as a blank slate, tabula rasa, upon which social and cultural forces exerted various levels of disciplinary power, thereby “nurturing” the nascent self into formation via corrections of undesirable differences between the representation of that self and acceptable social-cultural norms. What Crane’s comment demonstrates is that cognitive science does have solid, well-grounded applications in literature of any time period — not just the modern or post-modern period. This does not mean that cognitive science applications should necessarily preclude all discussions of cultural and social influences and discursive power regimes, or that cultural influences should no longer be considered as meaningful in the formation and structure of self-hood in literary works.
Instead, it suggests that before there even is a “self” to be “fashioned,” in the parlance of the New Historicist tradition, there are specific neurobiological functions that must first be initiated. The best application for cognitive science in literary critical contexts, I believe, is as a tool for understanding how those functions make literature itself possible — what evolutionary adaptation does literature serve, how does the brain interact with the physical environment to produce unique and specific meanings for literary texts, and how does the brain’s own sense of being — the sense of being a unique, seemingly transcendent “I” that exists across time and space — find signification in literary texts? The literature we read is, after all, the product of unique minds — unique both in their cultural and social contexts, but also in the physiological experiences and memories of such experiences that they contain. This is “why” (at least, in part) cognitive science has become such a compelling tool for literary studies in the twenty-first century.