Cognitively Responsible

In a post a while back, I wrote about kinesic intelligence and Guillemette Bolens’s The Style of Gestures, and I credited the phrase (if you look carefully) to Ellen Spolsky’s article ‘Reading Kinesis in Pictures’, Poetics Today, 17 (1996), 157-80. At an we discussed this article, and one sentence is still on my mind:

The foundational assumption of a cognitively responsible theory of interpretation is the assumption of modularity that I mentioned earlier: having many ways of knowing provides the species with a variety of ways of responding to a varied and changing world. (p. 174)

The question is: how to be ‘cognitively responsible’. (I take ‘cognitively’ here at least partly to mean ‘in relation to theories of cognition’.) For Spolsky, this means facing up to the conclusions drawn in Jerry Fodor’s Modularity of Mind (1983), i.e. (in brief) that the things the mind does are best thought of as modular, in that they are discrete in function, evolution, neural architecture, and so on. They interact of course, but sometimes (as in optical illusions) their separateness can cause us interesting problems. For Spolsky, this is part of a larger interdisciplinary theory, in which modularity of mind (and the potential for inconsistencies between the modules’ information) comes together with the importance of indeterminacy in literary theory and the philosophical scepticism that animates .
      Being cognitively responsibly for Spolsky, then, means assessing the available scholarship and any other evidence you can handle, and making a committing decision. In her work this releases a lot of energy. For me, though, being responsible seems to require being prudent (or do I just mean wary or non-committal?). Cognitive science is a changing discipline with many schools and factions arguing their corners. I don’t feel qualified to arbitrate much of the time. Some take modularity to an extreme – the appealingly named ‘’. Others might emphasise interactions between systems that are more than the sum of their parts, with the links in a network being as characteristic and crucial as the nodes.

mindthegapThe role of hindsight is unclear. After another 18 years Spolsky’s commitment may appear to have been a better or worse call, but does that really make it a wise strategy or not? My solution is to engage with emerging ideas but (whenever I remember) to futureproof what I say about cognitive science – to allow for the possibility that the orthodox view may or may not change. In hedging my bets I am trying to be true to the contours of another discipline as they apply now and at other times. But it may make it harder to create the kind of energetic synthesis Spolsky achieves in her essay. After all, I did just attend a conference that was partly inspired – via Guillemette Bolens – by her work.

This was ‘Renaissance Kinesis: Movement in Literature’, organised by Tim Chesters and Kathryn Banks.
As in her books Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993) and Satisfying Skepticism: Embodied Knowledge in the Early Modern World (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001).
See Peter Carruthers, The Architecture of the Mind (2006). At its zenith massive modularity would argue for higher functions – reasoning, planning, etc. – all being modular. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on ‘modularity of mind’ is pretty good, I think. It led me towards an interesting paper that tests some key ideas in relation to one potentially modular feature, mind-reading, and makes reference to literary experience along the way: Gregory Currie and Kim Sterelny, ‘How to Think about the Modularity of Mind-Reading’, Philosophical Quarterly, 50 (2000), 145-60.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

2 thoughts on “Cognitively Responsible

  1. Emily Troscianko

    I enjoyed the post, and guess I’m with Spolsky on this – on responsibility, I mean, not modularity. For two reasons.

    Firstly, to me it seems fairly clear that intellectual progress happens better (quicker, on sounder foundations) if people are prepared to make explicit claims about stuff, which others can then build on, take issue with, disprove. Hedging things about with qualifications preserves us from the ignominy of being wrong – but that’s one of the most worrying things wrong with our discipline, in my view: doesn’t intellectual commitment involve the willingness to be wrong, and to admit it when we are? For me at least, the requirement to make a clear statement also makes me think more clearly, about what precisely I mean by what I say.

    Secondly, I see one of the major roles that the humanities can play in interdisciplinary endeavours with the cognitive sciences as doing precisely this: from an informed but more impartial position than practitioners within, say, experimental psychology can achieve, we can read carefully and as widely as is feasible (and we certainly do have a responsibility to do this, rather than getting all our science pre-digested via the few big names that make it across the divide – there are still too many people in cog lit studies who seem to think this all right), weigh up the evidence, inflect our interpretations of the evidence with all we know about the human mind and human experience from our rather different perspective, and then actually weigh in to the debate, rather than only ever daring to stand on the sidelines and say ‘maybe yes, maybe no’ ( – one of the formative books of my youth). Scepticism is a crucial part of intellectual debate, but so, I think, is the maximally simple statement of what the available evidence leads us, right now, to conclude.

    Perhaps asking yourself why you don’t feel qualified to arbitrate much of the time, and what you could do so as to feel better qualified, would be an interesting exercise…

  2. Raphael Post author

    Emily, thanks for this comment. I think my post ends up striking a more sanctimonious note than I meant, as well as being too defeatist — an attempt at thoughtful humility went awry. Of course we can read psychological articles well, and must not read them badly; and of course we must only approach literature in the light of those that we think are right. I would still defend some version of what I called ‘futureproofing’ against the ‘responsible’ commitment advocated by Spolsky. I think literary criticism moves at a different speed from the sciences, and circulates in different forms. It might take two years for an article by me to come out; it might take several more for a decent number of interested readers to make it mean something to them; I might hope for other people to read it, as we read Spolsky’s, a decade or more after that and beyond. The point is not that literary criticism moves slowly — for any individual or group, changes can be sudden — just that our institutions are built for a certain kind of conversation. Nor are literary critics less likely than psychologists to talk to one another in a continuous and coherent exchange. Nevertheless, in psychology I think things move differently, with journals enabling a certain sort of rapid circulation as technologies and techniques and paradigms change. For this reason there is a risk that later readers of a well-thought-through literary article will feel it is awkwardly invalidated or at least challenged by changes in scientific thinking — as I do, somewhat, with Spolsky’s insistence that one theory of modularity is the only way to think. I don’t think it was necessary to make that insistence so categorical. The best way for us to intervene, and to carry on the discussion on productive terms, is to do our own experiments. I know you’re ahead of me there, but I have hopes to join in.


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