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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Monday, August 07, 2006

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Crit

Posted by Bill Benzon on 08/07/06 at 10:00 PM

In a recent cruise through the blogosphere I came across a post at Mixing Memory entitled Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism. The post summarized a decade-old article (part one here, part two here) by Herbert Simon, AI pioneer and Nobel Laureate in economics. The article had appeared in a special issue of the The Standford Humanities Review 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 the article a strong endorsement. I like cognitive science and think literary scholars need to know about it. Simon is a brilliant and original thinker, and his Sciences of the Artificial deserves a place in the “general knowledge” portion of one’s library. But, so far as I know, this 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 relucant to lay the blame on the literary folks. 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.


I recently read Patrick Colm Hogan’s “Cognitive Science, Literature and the Arts: A Guide for Humanists,” which promises to “allow us to begin to understand how the brain works and makes us feel as we read.” But what I found it boils down to is the layering of some attractive spider diagrams and some neurological jargon on top of an essentially traditional form of criticism.

For example, (and I don’t have the book with me, so may misremember) in analysing Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, Hogan shows how our facial memory is triggered first by the faces in the centre foreground, and then we have to involve other, less everyday, neurological faculties to understand and recognise the more surreal faces around the sides. Tell us something we don’t know! A poem works by forcing our brains to work through permutations of meaning down multiple choice charts that are not the same as the simple routes to comprehension we use in everyday conversation. Sometimes, the routes can overlap, so that we need to work out which meaning is dominant. But William Empson emphasised up the role of ambiguity in poetry seventy years ago.

Cognitive science is going to provide an injection of new methodologies into the humanities. But to work successfully (and I hope it does), it needs to be recognised that neuroscientific approaches run parallel to, not over and above, traditional critical ones. Cognitive scientists need some of the humbleness of Freud, who admitted in his studies of the unconscious that literature had got there 300 years before him.

By Ishmael on 08/08/06 at 05:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Probably Rorty’s “Linguistic Turn” book, when he got on the ordinary-language bandwagon before 1960. That man can spot trends.

By John Emerson on 08/08/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hm, later than I thought (1967).

By John Emerson on 08/08/06 at 10:11 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks, John. The later date seems to me about the right time frame.

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/06 at 10:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I will fight to the death against the injection of cognitive science into the humanities.  TO THE DEATH!!!

This, even though I’m ostensibly studying divinity rather than humanity.  But the doctrine of the Incarnation troubles that binary, certainly.  Stepping back for a moment, perhaps we can use cognitive science in biblical studies—“What can cognitive science tell us about Jesus’s messianic consciousness?” You know, what neurons were firing, what brain states lead to a messianic consciousness rather than run of the mill consciousness, etc.

By Adam Kotsko on 08/08/06 at 11:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

By 1967 ordinary-language philosophy was already slipping I think. I’m puzzled, because I could swear I saw that book in 1964 or 5.

By John Emerson on 08/08/06 at 11:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, you’ve been served.

John, the narrative as I understood it is that Rorty was contemporaneous to the advent of poststructuralism on American shores.  (I mentioned it in this conversation, and would link directly to it, were such a thing possible with LS comments.) I think the Hopkins conference was ‘66, the publication of its proceedings a year later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/08/06 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, Adam, Aldous Huxley coined the term “neurotheology.” The Wikipedia has an entry for it. And Google turns up c. 84K entries. There’s been 50+ years work on the brain and meditative and other altered states of consciousness.

Soldier on.

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/06 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

The Hopkins proceedings weren’t published until 1970, though some papers may well have been in private circulation before then. I know I read the translation of the Derrida well before it was formally published.

By way of further calibration, Chomsky’s second major book, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax came out in 1965, and the first edition of Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial was published in 1969.

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/06 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, my memory is that the “Linguistic Turn” book was pretty Anglocentric and dealt with the heirs of Wittgenstein and Austin. I don’t think that Rorty picked up on Derrida immediately when he reached these shores, though I could easily be wrong.

By John Emerson on 08/08/06 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Although I am interested in cog sci generally speaking, I agree that it is not necessarily useful for producing literary criticism (Adam’s point well taken). However, where it can be helpful is with aspects of literary (or film) theory. By this I mean that literary scholars frequently put forth and rely on theories of the mind and of language (usually based on Freud, Lacan, Saussure, et al) that could greatly benefit from contemporary research in psychology, linguistics, etc.

Instead of thinking of cog sci as some sort of applied critical method to churn out an interpretation of a text, I consider it more foundational knowledge in thinking about how the human mind works related to issues of memory, language, etc. This in turn can benefit research into areas such as narratology, genre theory, aesthetics, and reader/audience interaction with works of art, to name a few.

I really do think that humanities scholars could learn and benefit from work in the various fields of cog sci if they were open to it (and some are).

My opinion certainly seems in the minority....


By on 08/08/06 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m pretty sure that John E. is right about this.

You can find the table of contents here.

By on 08/08/06 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

James, you leave my dead horse alone!

John and Mike, I wasn’t clear up there.  What I meant to say is that Rorty was part of the same movement to reevaluate theories of language.  He picked up Derrida later, but had been, how to say it, “primed” to do so by the work he’d done in the mid- to late-60s.  (Of course, this is largely received wisdom on my part, since the Rorty I’ve studied had been completely decontextualized--and by Rorty himself, no less, for a mini-seminar ages and ages ago.)

And Bill, you’re no doubt right about the private circulation.  One of the problems with having worked with people like Hillis is that your sense of when things were circulating and when they were published is likely to be a little skewed, esp. on matters Derridean.  (Also, it may be sad that I remember his anecdotes better than actual publication dates; but hey, such is the power of narrative.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/08/06 at 01:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wow, I sound pretentious.  I’ve also taken classes with George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and The King of England.

(Sorry about that.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/08/06 at 01:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I believe Norm Holland is on record with a view similar to your, James, though I don’t have a citation at hand. He said something to the effect that the newer psychologies haven’t affected how he read texts, but they’ve certainly affected how he thinks about the mind. I believe he wrote that before the turn of the century. I don’t know whether he’s felt a need to reconsider.

They’ve certainly affected how I analyze texts as well as how I think about the mind and langauge and so forth. In fact, starting with graduate school work on a Shakespeare sonnet (129) and Coleridge ("Kubla Khan"), the analysis of literary texts has affected how I think about the cognitive sciences. 

My current series of posts on fictional characters seems to me rather in the middle-muddle between traditional literary methods and these newer psychologies, especially numbers 2 (mental models?) and 4 (simulation). The second doesn’t speak to how one analyzes texts beyond suggesting that we cannot explain the actions and thoughts literary characters in the same terms we explain those of real humans. The fourth engages in a bit of off-the-cuff analysis of a scene from Shakespeare that suggests analytic possibilities I’ve not yet explored.

I don’t think that cog sci has ideas that we can simply apply to texts—in cookie cutter fashion—and come up with new and interesting readings. But it can focus our attention on things we hadn’t explored before and thereby indicate new possibilities. It’s up to us to realize those possibilities.

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/06 at 01:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What I meant to say is that Rorty was part of the same movement to reevaluate theories of language.

I really think that it isn’t the same, except in the sense that everything is the same. (How can Fichte’s wife stand it?) There’s a kind of hand-waving around distinctions in Rorty’s writing ("As Heidegger, Dewey, and Wittgenstein have shown us. . . “), and I guess it crept into his seminar. 

Anyway, nothing in the history of analytic philosophy should be construed as a revolt against Structuralism.  People might be startled by how little influence Saussure has had on analytic philosophy.  Quine doesn’t mention him in Word and Object.  (There are some scattered discussions there of Jakobson, Sapir, and Bloomfield.) Analytic philosophers of language trace the modern origins of their subject to Frege and Russell, and, though I’m sure there are exceptions, they generally don’t read Saussure.

By on 08/08/06 at 01:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mike, I think we’re saying the same thing, I’m just speaking at a level of (perhaps unconscionable) generality--plus, I’m probably putting too much stock in Rorty’s own re-reading of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and his thought in the ‘70s. 

What I mean is, I’m certainly not saying that Rorty or analytic philosophy directly responded to structuralism, only that at a given point in his career--according to the grand narrative he now proffers--Rorty began to think seriously about the analytic philosophy’s shortcomings, and that this line of thought came to its fruition in the ‘70s, around the same time post-structuralism began dominating literature departments.  A coincidence made meaningful in retrospect, perhaps, but one that Rorty argues was inevitable.  (That said, I can’t speak to his conviction behind his hand-wringing, having only read bits and pieces of and around his work.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/08/06 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m just speaking at a level of (perhaps unconscionable) generality

I wonder how Fichte’s wife is handling it.

I can’t speak to his conviction behind his hand-wringing

It seems to me that he isn’t much of a hand wringer at all.  With the hand waving goes a lack of distinctions and a devil-may-care attitude, all of which stand in the way of serious hand wringing.  I think he’s one of the least anxious philosophers around.  Did he seem anxious in the flesh?

By on 08/08/06 at 02:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Rorty the one who observed that literary criticism has taken over the world synthesizing function that used to belong to philosophy?

By Bill Benzon on 08/08/06 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Is Rorty the one who observed that literary criticism has taken over the world synthesizing function that used to belong to philosophy?

I don’t know.  It doesn’t really seem like the sort of thing that you can observe, does it?

By on 08/08/06 at 03:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mike, I read “hand-waving” as “hand-wringing,” too different beasts entirely.  No, no hand hand-wringing whatsoever.  Much hand-waving, however, was observed by all.

Bill, that was essentially the argument he forwarded during his talk/mini-seminar out here.  Literary theory carries on the Romantic tradition which philosophy proper.  I really wish I’d taken better notes, or at least wrote a post intended to be substantial instead of entertaining.  Or could find my notebook from the talk, so I could outline his overall position.  Needless to say, whatever its contours, it went over like gangbusters…

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 08/08/06 at 03:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters. Volume 405, Issue 3 , 25 September 2006, Pages 186-190

Mario Beauregarda, b, c, d, e, ,  and Vincent Paquettea, c, e
aDépartement de Psychologie, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Que., Canada
bDépartement de Radiologie, Université de Montréal, Montréal, Que., Canada
cCentre de Recherche en Neuropsychologie et Cognition (CERNEC), Université de Montréal, Montréal, Que., Canada
dCentre de Recherche en Sciences Neurologiques (CRSN), Université de Montréal, Montréal, Que., Canada
eCentre de Recherche, Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (CRIUGM), Montréal, Que., Canada
Received 23 March 2006;  revised 8 June 2006;  accepted 26 June 2006.  Available online 26 July 2006.

The main goal of this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study was to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience. The brain activity of Carmelite nuns was measured while they were subjectively in a state of union with God. This state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem. Other loci of activation were seen in the extra-striate visual cortex. These results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.
Keywords: Carmelite nuns; Mystical state; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Temporal lobes; Prefrontal cortex; Parietal cortex; Spiritual neuroscience 
Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 514 343 7651; fax: +1 514 340 3548. 
Copyright © 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved. ScienceDirect® is a registered trademark of Elsevier B.V.
Source: The Neurocritic

By Bill Benzon on 08/13/06 at 11:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Is that not a little bit sickening?  But certainly not for us…

By on 08/13/06 at 03:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It is what it is. This sort of research has been going at least since the late 60s - early 70s. I’d rather know it than not know it. But it’s not very deep work.

By Bill Benzon on 08/13/06 at 03:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Seeing a thing is generally not considered an unethical act.

By on 08/13/06 at 04:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

it’s not very deep work

Au contraire.  Yes, this was a Scientific American-type of pop. science topic 3-4 years ago, yet, regardless of its somewhat pulp sci-fi aspects (a PK Dick might have spun a novel off the study), it is rather significant research, and in a sense significant for what is taken to be “metaphysics”: the obvious inference being that there are no transcendental, and/or immaterial mystical states: what is taken to be mysticism (religious experience as a whole? ) can be reproduced, simulated, and brought about by physico-chemical methods.  It’s another nail in the coffin of Descartes, however vul-gar that might seem to the ghost-intoxicated.

By on 08/13/06 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Mr. Chesterton, are you implying that we can prove physicalism via experimentation?  I thought that was called begging the question.  But then again, I’ve never been very good with questions.  That’s why I try not to ask them (and really it takes a great deal of *moral* effort).

By on 08/13/06 at 04:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not enough of a metaphysician to make such grand claims, but I think the research (and other cog. sci. studies) does demonstrate the bio-dependency of perception and consciousness: mind has a definite relation to “nature,” to the world of objects, even if our perceptions appear mediated and seemingly subjective (not exactly staggering news to anyone who like attended a biology class). 

One could like do some Hume 101 and say, given competing accounts of mind (non-physicalist and physicalist), the account with the better arguments and more pertinent evidence would be the “true “ or at least more satisfactory account. So what is a better argument for mind, and for so-called religious experience? That a supernatural, undetectable force or forces (which would also have caused World Wars and ICBMs along with that heavenly platonic realm) somehow connect with a physical, bio-chemical object in a measurable section of space/time? (And yet that supernatural sensation can be easily erased with 1000mgs of Thorazine.) Or rather those apparent supernatural/undetectable forces are in fact brought about by, (have a causal relation to--ie. the “triggering” or psych. meds or shot of tequila) the measurable and observable object (the brain) which most would agree has some relation to thinking and consciousness.  Certainly in many if not most ordinary circumstances physicalism can hardly be denied (are there any non-physicalists ready to stop eating?): and one should not overlook the pragmatist sort of criteria as also lending support to physicalism--the “efficaciousness,” as Quine called it, of physicalism and scientific materialism, vs. the inefficaciousness of idealist, theological, and or purely aesthetic accounts of reality.

By on 08/13/06 at 05:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To me it depends on what you want to research:

If you’re looking to advance the interests of science, then you need to assume (as a *regulative* principle) that all of nature is continuous and that there are no explanatory gaps.

If (like me) you are interested in the history of ideas, you need to abstract truth altogether from the system you are studying in order better to understand the relationship of its parts.

The formulation is only preliminary.  Metaphysics, on the other hand, exists only because *science* is one thing, its *meaning* quite another.  Metaphysics doesn’t constitute meaning, but I at least am not ready to admit that meaning spreads full-fledged like Athena from the head of the scientist.  To that extent, at least, I am not a naturalist.

By on 08/13/06 at 05:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I am not some doctrinaire positivist or fan of Big Science ala Quine or Popper, or Carl Sagan etc. But one can hold to a naturalist position and not share say Quine’s apolitical stance; didn’t Thomas Kuhn base much of his thinking on Quine and similar figures? And Kuhn is not so conservative: there are supposedly marxist-types who have made use of his work. So in some sense I am a Kuhnian (viewing science not as the product of a few Great Men but as a long, arduous, non-continuous, political process), though I would agree that science has been and will be used for all sorts of ends and purposes, many of which seem unethical, opportunistic, nefarious (as the genetic/cloning issues reveal). But that doesn’t mean one takes the sort of naive Sartrean or postmod route and claim that, since science, and scientific materialism had a part in various sorts of atrocities or political injustices that the entire ontology should be rejected.

I think much of the postmodernist and leftist attacks on science and analytical philosophy (most of the Russian people and/or ex-soviets I have met are hardly so luddite-like--it is more a American or Euro phenom.) are really sort of naive and generalized: there exists some herd-mind caricature of the scientist (white lab coat, geek glasses, asian, etc), and science establishment, and that is what is attacked. I would suggest that an SJ Gould, or EO Wilson and many other scientists were probably closer to authentic progressive politics than most “philosophers” or Lit. types are.

By on 08/13/06 at 06:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Two things about Rorty:

1. He usually credits Gustav Bergmann with the term “linguistic turn”, which need not refer to ordinary language phil in particular, but analytic philosophy more broadly (e.g. positivists and their critics), and indeed Rorty’s anthology starts with Schlick and Carnap, only getting to o.l.p. in part 3.

2. About his anxiety or lack thereof: one professor told me people call him “Eeyore”—they press him on some characteristically overstated claim and he’ll go “ohh, ohh-kay...” in an Eeyore voice.  And I think he’s even been treated for depression, a while back.  So, yes, hand-waving (as if making the careful distinction were too painful to contemplate).  But there’s also some “this will never do” hand-wringing, w/r/t the continuing Cartesianism of mainstream analytics.

By Dave Maier on 08/14/06 at 11:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I admire Quine a great deal.  I am not convinced politics does any good.  I like the way that post-modernists write, but I’m wary of their metaphysics and ontology: for me, the chief attraction of post-modernism is that, using their rhetoric, I actually *can* write (the outline-draft-revision process has never worked very well for me, and while I won’t say pomo outright rejects this method, at least it allows one to feel right in side-stepping the process—whether the result is gibberish is an entirely different matter, but when it is first and foremost important that you write *something* and only then a question of what...).

My dislike of science, on the other hand, springs from a kind of closet rationalism.  I don’t want to go into the laboratory at all, you see.  I don’t want to do “research”.  My model of enquiry is the Talmud, and perhaps my enquiries will do as much good.

There you have it.

By on 08/14/06 at 01:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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