Burke, Michael and Emily T Troscianko (eds), Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition

Michael Burke and Emily T Troscianko (eds), Cognitive Literary Science: Dialogues between Literature and Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017) 368pp. £56 Hb. ISBN: 9780190496869

Early work in the field of cognitive science held to the faith of a unified model grounded in a supposed correspondence between the mind and the computer which has been undermined by subsequent research. Andy Clark, reflecting on the progress of cognitive science, describes its present vision of the mind as a ‘constitutively leaky system’, one which ‘resists any single level of analysis’ or ‘any single disciplinary perspective’.1 In their introduction to Cognitive Literary Science, Michael Burke and Emily T Troscianko predict that the 4E models of cognition – the embodied, the embedded, the enactive and the extended – will maintain their current status and ‘grow more differentiated as debates on what strengths of claim can be made about the contributions of context to cognition continue to mature’ (13). Acknowledging the role of context in thought means, as Caroline Pirlet and Andreas Wirag put it, understanding the life of the mind as ‘a continuous blend of mental and physical elements, arising from an individual mind located in a physical body, situated within a real physical environment’ (47). It is a measure of the confidence with which this collection asserts that literary studies have a role to play in this dialogue that the editors and contributors largely forego meta-discussion on the relation between disciplines in favour of focused interventions, but an implicit argument nonetheless emerges concerning the current state of cognitive science. The essays here make the case that reading, as a form of cognitive understanding, can be understood on such terms only by incorporating perspectives from cognitive science and literary studies, placed in dialogue with each other.

The opening essay, Marcus Hartner’s ‘Scientific Concepts in Literary Studies: Towards Criteria for the Meeting of Literature and Science’, provides a rough framework for the work that follows. Hartner summarises the scientific concepts of levels of explanations in the claim that ‘[c]omplex phenomena often require complex methods of analysis’, and that only the combined efforts of a ‘variety of perspectives and methods […] each focusing on a different aspect, can lead to a thorough grasp of the object of study’ (22-23). In the first section of the book, which the editors note ‘would often be thought of as cognitive literary studies proper’, literary scholars ‘draw on some aspect of cognitive science to offer a new viewpoint on literature or literary reading’ (4). Their approach is distinctive in taking a concept relevant to both disciplines – emotion, the sublime, construal, pattern recognition – and giving space to several distinct but complementary levels of explanation. The cognitive level is represented through comprehensive surveys of contemporary research on this concept, supported at the literary level through concise discussions of the relevant issues and close reading.

Burke and Troscianko argue that recent work in this vein is characterised by a spirit of ‘confident give and take’ (1). Where some earlier work flirted with reductionism in attempting to apply cognitive concepts to a literary context, the essays here affirm that ‘the act of applying one thing to another actually makes you rethink the thing (the theory or method) being applied’ (2). In the second section, ‘Cognition Through a Literary Lens’, literary scholars ‘use literary materials or conceptual frameworks to contribute to cognitive-science debates’ (4). The essays in the second section respond to 4E cognition by posing a direct challenge to the computational model from the literary studies perspective. In doing so, they frame literature and literary studies in a particular way. Merja Polvinen argues that fictions are ‘interactive cognitive environments that require from readers a combination of skills that is much more complex and seemingly contradictory than the traditionally computationally cognitive sciences assume’ (148). The essays in the second section situate evidence from the cognitive sciences on examples of these skills – embodied simulation, imagination, predictive probabilistic modelling, heterophenomenology – within the context of literary studies. In literary studies, as defined and practiced here, minor or less obvious aspects of a text, of reader response to it, and of its broader cultural context, can form the basis for an individual reading with implications for a more general understanding of the text. Literary studies, then, can be understood as a model for a cognitive science which seeks to build on focused research into particular forms of cognition without assuming a predetermined disciplinary framework.

In the third section, ‘Literature and Cognition in Cognitive Science’, cognitive scientists ‘engage with literature and literary-critical methods to shed light on questions in their home disciplines and/or those in literary studies’ (4). Given the different perspective, the extent to which these essays complement the others in the volume is striking. Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. echoes the contributors in the second section in noting that reading ‘involves our imaginative, embodied engagement with texts and that this engagement does not just constitute our reactions to literature, but shapes the very process by which linguistic meanings are interpreted’ (221). Gibbs builds on this point through a survey of scientific research into how embodied dynamics affect reading, concluding that the ‘meaning products’ of ‘embodied simulation processes’ differ ‘according to a wide variety of personal and contextual factors’, and that recognition of the fact that ‘similar psychological processes may create different interpretative products […] is critical to closing the gap between the scientific study of literary and the scholarly practice of literary criticism’ (236). The essays here cover a range of topics, but each refers to the fact that fiction and thought are inextricably linked.

As Karin Kukkonen points out in ‘Fantastic Cognition’, one of the ‘earliest and most powerful claims of cognitive approaches to literature is that the human mind works through devices that are commonly considered “literary”’ (165). Her subsequent claim is that ‘the study of literary texts is as important as the cognitive sciences in the endeavour of working out the elements of the ‘literary mind’ because it helps make these more or less automatic features of cognition noticeable and thus subject to “analysis”’ (165). Recognising the significance of narrative within cognition is not a case of supplanting a computational mind with a literary one. 4E cognition challenges not just the computational model, but any single level of explanation. The essays in Cognitive Literary Science respond through a shared approach. Each essay is structured around a central concept, for which cognitive science and literary studies provide contrasting levels of explanation. Each essay ends with a modest but forceful conclusion, supported by evidence, along with reflections on future possibilities. Scholars working in this field will find in this volume a productive framework for a transdisciplinary approach to any aspect of the mind.

Nick Lavery, University of Roehampton


1 Andy Clark, Mindware: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Cognitive Science, 2nd Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 248.