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

the deluded emperor: literature, cognitive science, and simon's absolute knowledge

Stefano Velotti


The theory of literary criticism has to do with the ways in which meanings are used to generate texts in natural languages, and the ways in which the perusal of texts evokes meanings. Viewed in this way, criticism can be viewed (imperialistically) simply as a branch of cognitive science (24).

Surely, according to this view, we should add to the branches of cognitive science literature itself, as well as all human discursive practices. The empire of cognitive science as sketched by Simon in his essay has such an extension that it is impossible to examine here all its provinces.

I would like to point out some strange consequences entailed in this supposedly "neutral" view of literature and literary criticism. I will argue that the imperialistic attitude of cognitive science risks transforming that science into a naïve metaphysics (or an uncontrolled theory that pretends to give an account of everything except itself). I have the impression that, in this respect, cognitive science is like a self-deceiving emperor who thinks that it is sufficient to reduce the world to a map in order to conquer it.

Simon rightly wants to reject the notion that novels, for example, are sorts of "Rorschach inkblots"(16) that would prompt the reader to project every kind of personal associations into it. I gather from his paper that Simon would prefer the image of a treasure hunt:

[I]t is the task of the author to write in such a way that a multiplicity of meanings can be teased out by the reader. They are not to be created from whole cloth, but are hidden in the work of art in order that they may be discovered (16).

Where is the treasure to be found? It is to be found in "pre-existing memory structures" of the reader, who, however, would "denigrate art, visual or literary, that evokes pre-existing memory structure in too simplistic a way"(16) (my italics). The treasure hunt must be complex and time consuming, otherwise it is no fun. The reason we read is that we like to have somebody or something recall different combinations of pre-existing meanings from our head. Literature seems to have nothing to do with the unfamiliar and the unknown. Literature is not posing or articulating questions that cannot be answered once and for all. Provided that we understand something while reading, what we understand is already known to us. We have just forgotten it, as in Plato's anamnesis theory. Therefore, if we are not familiar with a word, we will not understand it, unless we update our encyclopedia. In sum, the alternative posed by Simon is between literature as Rorschach test and literature as treasure hunt. The art of "popular culture" is like an easy treasure hunt; but since it becomes boring, the author (the one who hides the treasure) must make things difficult for the seeker (this is "the art of high culture" 17).

However, although Simon's picture of literature resembles a treasure hunt, he unwillingly and ironically ends up sketching a picture of literature as Rorschach test. If every reader interprets the meanings hidden in the text according to his/her encyclopedia (stored in memory), every reader will have his/her own personal view of the book. Only people with similar encyclopedias can share something about their reading impression. There is no other experience to refer to. Either you have the right meanings, or you don't. Beauty is in the memory of the beholder. This conclusion derives from Simon's premises, unless one is charitable enough to take into account the "theory of translation" which, unfortunately, Simon could not "undertake to explore further" in his article. A theory of translation seems necessary not only in order for an American to understand properly a Japanese novel, but also for every reader who does not have exactly the same encyclopedia as the author. Simon assures us that there must be some invariance, some "human absolutes, unchangeable from one culture to another." Are these absolutes to be understood as a special set of (universal) meanings? In this case, we would be able to understand (to translate), once again, only what, being universal, we already know.

Simon's essay raises yet another problem with regard to translation. On the one hand,

to the extent that [the authors] succeed, the meanings of the texts will be the same as the meanings intended by the author. We might even assert that the craftier the author (the greater the mastery of the craft) the closer will be the correspondence between the author's meanings and the meanings that critics or readers can find in the text. (19)

On the other hand, "for the Great Texts-the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, and the others-the ambiguities are inexhaustible, a permanent lode of treasure for scholars"(19). Both convictions are questionable, even if we take them separately. When we take them together, we arrive at two absurdities: either that, say, "Shakespeare was not very crafty," or-and this is Simon's choice-that "we can read the Bible (or Homer, or Chaucer) in the context of the ideas of medieval Europe or 16th century China."(21) Evidently, Simon thinks that we are not situated beings, but disembodied spirits. Even if Simon tries to be a 16th century Chinese man reading Chaucer he will not be a 16th century Chinese man but only Simon who tries to be a 16th century Chinese man reading Chaucer. The emperor would like not only to conquer the present world by sketching a map, but also to colonize the entire domain of history. This last remark, which is not intended ironically, serves to introduce the fundamental point I wish to make.

Just as Simon cannot get around the fact that he is a 20th-century scientist, even if he pretends to be a 16th-century Chinaman, so cognitive science cannot get around the fact that it is a set of theories, even if it pretends to be absolute knowledge. Every science, as long as it is conceived of as a science and not as a metaphysics, must be viewed as in principle incomplete. Its very constitution depends on presuppositions that cannot be assumed as its objects. For in order to construct a theory of our experiences scientifically, we have to have (we have to feel to be immersed in) a meaningful experience in the first place. Yet the sense (a perception, an awareness, a feeling, not a determinate meaning) of being immersed in a human experience cannot be reduced to an object of the theory because it is its very condition of existence. Let us take a concrete example: Simon wishes to give an operational definition of meaning. It may be legitimate to give, for determinate purposes, operational definitions of whatever we want, as long we do not forget that what allows us to give that definition is our experience of meaningfulness in the first place. I can always define singular, determinate meanings for this or that specific purpose. But in order to define them I have to rely on the meaningfulness (on what I have been calling the "sense") of what I say. Then it is not possible to reduce "meaning" in general (meaningfulness or sense) to an (operational) definition, because in order to give a definition whatsoever we have to use what we wanted to define. In other words, the definition would be circular. The same thing does not apply for the determinate objects of a theory, where a satisfactory definition can in principle always be given. The circularity becomes apparent only when a theory wants to become imperialistic and pretends to subjugate its own condition of possibility. In this case a theory becomes a vain metaphysics.

What has all this to do with literature (or with what, starting from the 18th century, has been called "art" in general)? To put it very schematically, literary texts cannot be viewed simply as treasures of meanings. What makes literature literature is the fact that it exhibits or lets emerge-through determinate meanings-the human experience of general meaningfulness (sense, perception, awareness, feeling) that makes theories of meaning possible. All the particular meanings of a text, every image-meaning or emotion-meaning (to repeat Simon's terminology) are at the same time vehicles or, better, exempla of that very condition that cannot be said per se in a particular meaning, but only felt, perceived, questioned. This way of looking at literature is not to be found in the "hundreds of flowers" Simon would like to let bloom.

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