‘Cognitive Science and Literary Criticism: Reflections on First Principles’

In May, IASH hosted a Susan Manning Workshop with the aim of bringing together colleagues from across the humanities and sciences to discuss cognitive approaches to literature. Dr Michael Carroll, current IASH Postdoctoral Fellow, reflects on his motivation for leading this workshop.

Work at the intersection of cognitive science and literary studies has become markedly more prominent in recent years. For many advocates of this strand of research, cognitive science holds out the prospect of putting the study of literature on a more empirically secure foundation. A worry frequently raised by mainstream literary critics, however, is that this is yet another case where the reductive and universalising models of science are being carried over to a sphere where a very different type of account is called for; the suspicion, evidently, is that the use of cognitive science is simply yet another fad, a way of restating in fancy terminology what we already basically know about literary texts.


This question – of whether models from cognitive science can do justice to the specificity of meaning in works of literature and perhaps even open up exciting new readings – was what my IASH/Susan Manning Workshop set out to confront (additional support was generously provided by the Institute of Classical Studies). The workshop took place on Friday 5 May 2017, and though the issue was never going to be resolved in a single afternoon, the aim was to become clearer about the parameters of the debate.


Six distinguished proponents of the value of cognitive approaches to literature kindly agreed to give a short paper: Guillemette Bolens (Department of English Language and Literature, Geneva); Felix Budelmann (Faculty of Classics, Oxford); Elspeth Jajdelska (Department of English, Strathclyde); Peter Stockwell (School of English, Nottingham); Emily Troscianko (Faculty of Medieval and Modern languages, Oxford); and Max van Duijn (Institute of Advanced Computer Science, Leiden). Miranda Anderson and Douglas Cairns – who are centrally involved in the History of Distributed Cognition project based at Edinburgh – chaired two of the sessions, while art, Classics, English, French, Italian, philosophy and psychology were among the subject areas represented by the other participants.


Many scholars within cognitive literary studies have argued that cognitive approaches are more a matter of poetics – of studying the means by which works of literature communicate – than of hermeneutics, while others (and I include myself among them) think that this stance underestimates the hermeneutic power of the tools and insights of cognitive science. In the course of the afternoon many of the participants came to accept that, to some extent, the debate rests on differences of terminology and background framework, but it also became clear that on certain issues there remains scope for genuine disagreement. An example is the question of whether a response to a work of literature that is not reflective or expressed in verbal form can productively be considered an interpretation. But as well as raising a number of very difficult general issues for us to ponder, the speakers also treated us to some wonderful close readings of texts as diverse as The Canterbury Tales, Lolita, and The Railway Children. While much work remains to be done on the workshop’s central question, the afternoon offered a reminder of why cognitive literary studies is currently one of the most exciting (as well as one of the most controversial) areas of research in the humanities.