MLA Discussion Group Petition Text
Cognitive Approaches To Literature
We hereby petition the Modern Languages Association's Executive Council to establish a discussion group entitled "Cognitive Approaches to Literature."
The past five years have seen mounting interest on the part of literary scholars in the major interdisciplinary initiative marking the convergence of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, and the philosophy of mind: the cognitive sciences. This interest has expressed itself in publications in PMLA, Representations, Poetics Today, Philosophy and Literature, MLS, Style, Mosaic, Poetics, and other journals, in discussions generated by the special "Cognition and Literature" sessions at the 1996 and 1997 MLA Annual Conventions, as well as in meetings of the Society for Literature and Science, the American Conference on Romanticism, and other literary societies.
The consensus emerging from these discussions is that cognitive science
can contribute significantly to our engagement with and understanding of
literary texts (and other forms of discourse) in their historical contexts,
though the details of such an understanding remain contentious. Basic cognitive
capacities and potentials of human beings can usefully be addressed in
the context of a host of neuroscientific, computational, and evolutionary
paradigms, thus illuminating from novel angles the locally divergent ways
in which these capacities and potentials have been expressed, cultivated,
and subverted across historical time and from culture to culture. By recognizing
texts as historically-specific records of human minds in action, we can
achieve new insights into both individual texts and the cultural milieus
in which they exist. Knowledge developed by cognitive science about such
subjects as perception, metaphor, concept formation, and categorization
can be recruited to support recognizably literary and historical kinds
of scholarship and criticism: the exegesis of individual texts, studies
of authorial corpuses, examinations of genre, investigations into the structure
and parameters of historical discourses, and so on.
Just as we believe the study of the mind is one of the best avenues to the study of literature, so we hold that the study of literature is one of the best ways to study the mind. The mind sciences work indirectly by investigating human behavior--learning to speak, playing with toys, solving problems--in an effort to cobble together a model of human cognition. Cognitive approaches to literature are providing novel and valuable perspectives on aspect of human cognition not customarily investigated experimentally. Our laboratory is human mental acts of reading and writing. We offer a study of human mental capacities at work in literary texts, and view this as one of the most direct and illuminating methodologies available to cognitive science.
Several programs in English now offer a special emphasis in cognitive
science for their graduate students. A number of award winning web sites,
including Blending and Conceptual Integration, CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural
Studies, and Literature, Cognition & the Brain, have been
serving as virtual forums for this emerging field. As more and more scholars
begin to explore cognitive approaches to literature, we seek for new venues
of organizing and directing these efforts. We sincerely request that the
Modern Language Association, with its openness for intellectual diversity
and its well-established set of procedures for ensuring quality scholarship,
will provide a new forum for this exciting interdisciplinary development.