Sunday, November 14, 2004

Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism

A while back I discovered a very interesting, and perhaps even important (though, at least in the cognitive sciences, almost completely unread) paper by Herbert Simon, one of the few psychologists to have won the Nobel Prize. The paper, which can be found here along with several commentaries, attempts to "bridge the gap" between cognitive science and literay criticism. The essay focuses primarily on meaning, because literary criticism is a practice primarily aimed at analyzing the meanings of texts. His account of meaning is clearly impoverished. It revolves around memory retrieval. Here are two paragraphs from the paper that present the gist of what Simon has to say about meaning:
Meanings are evoked. When a reader attends to words in a text, certain symbols or symbol structures that are stored in that reader's memory come to awareness. (In psychology we might say, more ponderously, "having been noticed, the symbols are activated or transferred from long-term to short-term or immediate memory"). This is the sense in which we will use the term "evoke" throughout this paper. It denotes a specific set of psychological processes that have been much studied in the laboratory and in everyday life: the processes that bring meanings, or components of meaning, into attention.

The process that underlies evocation is recognition. Words in the text serve as cues. Being familiar (if they are not familiar, they will not convey meaning), they are recognized, and the act of recognition gives access to some of the information that has been stored in association with them--their meaning (Feigenbaum and Simon, 1984). Recognizing a word has the same effect as recognizing anything else (a friend on the street). Recognition accesses meaning.

Then, a little later, he adds:

The meaning of the text, then, will be a function of the memory contents that are accessed by recognition of words. Which of the whole collection of memory contents will be accessed depends on context, that is upon what contents are both associated directly or indirectly with the word recognized and also the extent to which they have recently been activated.

And to complete the summary:

Thus, the evocation of certain symbols may evoke others by the chain reaction that we call mental association. The burst of evocation that a bit of text may induce is limited only by the richness and complexity of the memory structures that it activates. The more elaborate the structures that are evoked, the more the meaning to the reader is defined by the reader's memory, the less by the author's words. The meaning of text is determined by a relation between the text itself and the current state of the memory of the reader, its contents, and its state of activation. (emphasis added)

I agree with Simon that literary criticism can benefit from a deeper connection with cognitive science (though I'm not so convinced the relationship can be symmetrical), but I also agree with some of the commentators (this one and this one, for istance) that Simon's conception of meaning isn't going to to 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. Still, with all its flaws, I think the aim of the paper is a good one.

I know what you're thinking: how does Chris think cognitive science can benefit literary criticism? Excellent question. The most obvious way is by developing an understanding of the cognitive processes involved in reading. In addition, the elucidation of the cognitive processes underlying literary techniques, like metaphor, imagery, and the construction of representations can benefit the study of texts. Finally, cognitive scientists can help critics to understand creative cognition. How are novel representations produced? How do we create entirely fictional worlds out of the material of the factual world? None of these things is designed to give literary critics a single, all-encompassing view of meaning with which they can interpret all texts. There may not be such a theory, and if there is, cognitive science isn't yet equipped to give it. Still, each of those things plays a role in meaning construction, in the minds of both authors and readers.

Anyway, I recommend checking out the paper, and the commentaries, if this is the sort of thing that interests you. Simon is not much of a writer, but he's very insightful, and even when he's wrong, he still raises important issues.

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