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SEHR, volume 4, issue 1: Bridging the Gap
Updated 8 April 1995

not in our brains

John Dupré and Regenia Gagnier


First we would like to thank Professor Simon for the overture to dialogue between cognitive science and the humanities. Certainly cognitive meaning is a large part, although, as we shall specify at the end of this commentary, not the only part, of the study of literary criticism. And it is worthwhile stating, as Simon does, that much of the internecine struggle in the discipline does concern what are in fact different aspects of meaning. Yet literary critics do often elevate themselves above the fray sufficiently to distinguish the different aspects of meaning pursued in their practical endeavors: traditional new critics seek for meaning in the formal perfection of the literary work; interpretive historians seek for the changing meanings of a text through time; scholars of reception consider either abstract constructions of "the reader" or particular situated audiences (gendered, raced, classed, etc.) and the meanings they receive; new historicists consider discourse or institutional meaning broadly in its evolving power relations; deconstructionists, poststructuralists, and semioticians consider the making of meaning through culturally-charged oppositions, often emphasizing culture's ability to exclude and control through signifying systems. And there are no doubt other approaches to meaning in literary and cultural studies that have or will have their day in a field as tolerant and inclusive as that represented currently in literature departments.

Simon is quite right to point out that many literary critics often fail to clarify the sense in which they pursue meaning and that this can lead to spurious rancor and intellectual sloppiness. Yet many critics are and have been careful about the specificity of meaning. Marxist critics, for example, in the tradition of historical materialism, typically seek to know 1) the particular intentions of an historical author, 2) the meanings in circulation in the author's larger culture (including conventions of genre), 3) the self-conscious perspective of the critic, and 4) the meanings in circulation in the critic's larger culture. That is, meaning, to an historical materialist, is a four-way relation between author, history, critic, and present concerns. Since many literary critics have (despite the fray) continued patiently to explicate and enumerate very complex meanings with significant results for our understanding of culture, we might wonder what specifically Simon thinks cognitive science has to offer us other than occasional conciliatory interventions.

But although Simon sometimes appears to embrace a broad conception of meaning compatible with such pluralistic approaches to literary criticism, we fear that this appearance is deceptive. Simon asserts that he finds it "impossible to interpret the 'meaning of the text' in any other sense than 'the meaning of the text to X'"(19). This is perhaps inevitable given that he is committed to the view that meanings reside in individual brains and that he identifies the meanings of words with "the information that has been stored in association with them"(5). But this individualistic conception of meaning excludes much of the meaning that is important to literary criticism and, for that matter, includes much that has only incidental connections with meaning at all.

Perhaps the greatest deficiency in this account is that it wholly ignores the extent to which meaning is a normative concept. It is conceivable that I might come to have all kinds of canine conceptions and images associated in my mind with the word "cat." But we shouldn't just conclude that "cat" means dogs to me and cats to you, and that's the end of it. It so happens that you're right and I'm wrong. Meanings involve rules, or conventions, and whether my particular associations lead me to the right meanings depends on their conformity with such rules. Of more interest to recent literary criticism are cases in which conventional meaning is contested as, for example, when a woman is a "colleague" in her own mind but a "girl" to her colleagues. The fact that meaning is a normative concept is central to understanding how texts, broadly construed, have power-something of central importance to literary criticism.

Simon's account of meaning is also too inclusive. It is true that associated images or emotional responses can be important to a rich account of meaning. Thus the word "black" may have extremely complex resonances between the simple name of a color, historical dualisms of good and evil, histories of race and racism, and the strong emotional overtones that these concepts carrry with them. But these are complex facts about the (conventional) meaning of the word. In contrast, the fact that I cannot even hear the word "apple" without experiencing feelings of nausea has no connection whatever with the meaning of the word. Even if I, as author, inform the reader of my association with the word "apple," I reveal a fact about my psychology, not a hitherto unappreciated fact about the meaning of the word "apple." In short, Simon has offered us an account of the psychology of producing and hearing language. And while that is no doubt of considerable interest to literary criticism, the latter also requires an account of meaning. As philosophers as varied as Wittgenstein, Putnam, and Foucault have shown, meanings, unlike brains, aren't just in the head.

Simon alludes to a distinction between literary and scientific texts and offers his work as a bridge between the two cultures. But it seems to us that Simon overstates the depth of the chasm to be bridged. We doubt whether he would so readily agree that the meaning of "partial derivative" or "electron" was nothing but the meaning to a particular person or computer. Only because he is dealing with literature can he suppose that meaning is the product of individual psychology. But what has come to be known as "the death of the author," the refusal to see the author as a privileged source of meaning, reflects the realization by literary and cultural critics that meaning is a fundamentally social phenomenon. This has led, in turn, to a tendency to deprivilege literature within a broader study of meaning in culture. Combined with the simultaneous recognition by many scholars of the necessity of situating science in a social, political, and cultural context, we suggest that the "two cultures" present not so much a chasm to be bridged as a borderland to be explored. Certainly we do not think that the sharp distinction between the two suggested by Simon's account can be sustained.

Finally, Simon does state at the end of his article that his approach may be "unaesthetic." It is unaesthetic, and this is a problem not only for critics of literature (traditionally within the domain of aesthetics) but also in general for any claims he makes about how humans make meaning. In the modern division of knowledge (roughly since the eighteenth century), aesthetics has taken as its particular province that of sense, or feeling, or emotion. The continuity of the tradition may be seen today in the prominence in literary or cultural studies of notions of "material culture" or "body" studies, in which the sensory experience of modern life, including the effects of technology on human experience, are central. A number of philosophers have argued that computers will not be able to model human intelligence until they are embodied in human frames that experience the sort of pleasures and pains that human bodies experience. We suspect that the sweating body of the grandmaster in the material space of the chess tournament after three days (in the climate of the cold war), or the body that responds viscerally to iambic pentameter (which imitates, some say, the beating of the human heart), adds a non- or extra-cognitive factor to meaning that computers cannot model. The failure to address the specifically aesthetic aspect of meaning is a limitation of Simon's nonetheless welcome overture.

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