Thursday, November 21, 2019

Literary Cognitivism: Is Truth in the Proof? (It's Complicated)

As a teacher I have always found some of the best conversations were based in looking at how things in writing work. And if we don't understand what dialogue, action, setting, character, motivation, desire - if we don't have an understanding of those things, writers lose the ability to analyze what they think and believe about their writing. For example, if a writer doesn't understand conflict in a story, they may not be able to analyze the conflict pitfalls in their writing. Writers then end up writing more drafts, and believing that their is some kind of superstition or creative muse at work because they just don't know what to work on. That has led me into the concepts of traditional and evolving narratology, (the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception). A big portion of that thinking and pedagogy comes from Mieke Bal and his work in understanding how we look at stories. 

Immersion into narratology can be overwhelming, but literary theory, the more time you spend with them, the more it makes sense. As I've tried to absorb narratology, I also dove into the concept of literary cognitivisim and what that means. According to Jukka Mikkonen's Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction, it is a terms "of how literary works convey truth and insights." Can literature teach us truth and insight into who we are even though it is fiction? My immediate answer was: yes, of course. But it's complicated. Some even defend the fact that art can generate something like moments of revelation, understanding, and empathy -- but is it truth? 


If we do gain insight from reading a novel - what the heck is it that we gain and is it factual, experiential, or something else? In James Harold's writing he explains how different cognitivts see these theories. Some of these perspectives are epic and some are just confusing. This is one of my favorites -- 


"Another strong cognitivist, Peter Kivy (1997), attempts to solve the problem of evidence in somewhat different way. He argues that in some cases, the reader treats the thematic statements in literature as live hypotheses to be tested.While Kivy does not insist that the evidence against which these hypotheses should be tested is found in the text, he does insist that the testing is part of the appropriate experience of a literary work. The extended experience of engaging with literature – including the hours and days spent with the bookmark in place as well as the days and weeks after one has finished – give the reader opportunity to test the claims in the text against her own experiences and the testimony of others. Thus the work of literature makes a claim that is supposed to true, and the experience of the reader’s engagement with the work provides the evidence for the claim. What is distinctive about Kivy’s view is that he thinks that the literary project of reading includes much more than the ordinary conception of the time spent looking at the page."

The fact that this perspective puts into play the idea that the writer (through the novel poses the hypotheses) and "the experiences of the reader's engagement with the work -- provides the evidence for the claim." This concept involves the complexity of a writer / reader cycle where an author-based novels, stories, and constructs in novels (ethics, morality, ideas) are handed off to the reader. While this is a complicated idea, it makes sense that the reader is the one to validate whether a story brings fourth a focused ethical truism based on the writer's vision and the reader's own experiences applied to the work. 

Immersing into this concept, it seemed offensive that people took up issues with the fact that reading a novel doesn't transfer truth and empathy -- or at least some experiential understanding of the world through literature. In fact, I couldn't believe anyone would think otherwise. But it isn't the transfer of something that is in question. Every theorist and conceptual plan agrees something is transferred with the reading of a novel or short story -- the problem is defining what exactly is being transferred. 

Clearly this is the edge where conceptual literary analyse and philosophical meanderings circle one another. It is hard to even think about. Yet, it is important to know what we gain (philosophically or practically) when we read a novel. Are we gaining another experience - living another person's adventure and assimilating it? What have we gained from reading novels? Have we merely sampled the human condition? And how has one reader's experience varied from other readers and experiences? 

It reminds me of when I was younger, and I posed to my creative writing class that we are creating (in stories and novels) an approximate version of what is in your head. In The Tao of Physics Fritjof Capra describes the distortion of a map based on the round sphere to a flat surface. And how while it represents the same concept, it is distorted because of the transference from a round shape to a flat shape. He shows the example of "drawing a square on a plane and on a sphere" (64). I called this an approximate map (accurate to a point). They are distorted, but they are still maps transferred to different versions. And therefore, what is created in fiction is not the writers vision, but an approximate vision, story, novel, idea. And people will see it based on their lives. Writers know they have to edit and revise their work and make every sentence count. Yet, the subjectivity of those ideas just have to be convincing enough for the reader to believe them and buy into the story based on their willingness to apply it to their own vision of it. And that transfer of the approximate map is exactly what James Harold is explaining above when he says that the writer creates the hypothesis -- while the reader solves the equation on their own set of proofs. 






Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. Shambhala Publications, 2010.

Harold, James. "Literary Cognitivism." (2015).

Mikkonen, Jukka. “Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction.” Narrative Factuality: A Handbook (2019): n. pag. Print.