Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness

Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness

by Jonathan Kramnick

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How do poems and novels create a sense of mind? What does literary criticism say in conversation with other disciplines that addresses problems of consciousness? In Paper Minds, Jonathan Kramnick takes up these vital questions, exploring the relations between mind and environment, the literary forms that uncover such associations, and the various fields of study that work to illuminate them.
          Opening with a discussion of how literary scholarship’s particular methods can both complement and remain in tension with corresponding methods particular to the sciences, Paper Minds then turns to a series of sharply defined case studies. Ranging from eighteenth-century poetry and haptic theories of vision, to fiction and contemporary problems of consciousness, to landscapes in which all matter is sentient, to cognitive science and the rise of the novel, Kramnick’s essays are united by a central thematic authority. This unified approach of these essays shows us what distinctive knowledge that literary texts and literary criticism can contribute to discussions of perceptual consciousness, created and natural environments, and skilled engagements with the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226573298
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/07/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
File size: 928 KB

About the Author

Jonathan Kramnick is the Maynard Mack Professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University. He is the author of Making the English Canon and Actions and Objects from Hobbes to Richardson.

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Are We Being Interdisciplinary Yet?

The desire to overcome boundaries between disciplines of knowledge and to integrate fields of study is nothing new. Specialization has always had its discontents, and programs for interdisciplinary cooperation or the creation of new disciplines out of the synthesis of old ones are a perennial feature of academic life. In recent years, however, the idea of bringing together fields of study has made a turn to an argument against the very existence of disciplines and departments in the first place. Faced with the task of reforming academic institutions and the work that goes on inside them, many advocates for interdisciplinary approaches have come to maintain that a carved-up institution gets in the way of understanding and fails to serve students. I will argue here that this strong version of interdisciplinarity rests on a mistake: namely, that the separate disciplines have a common object to which they can be reduced or oriented. I will further argue that this mistake extends even to the weaker forms of interdisciplinarity with which we have been long familiar and which have independently compelling virtues. Clarifying this mistake would begin with the recognition that a pluralistic array of disciplines matches up with a pluralistic vision of the world: endocrine cells for the biologists, tectonic plates for the geologists, librettos for the musicologists, and so on. Fixing it would begin with the recognition that the best way to be interdisciplinary is to inhabit one's discipline fully.

The present-day quarrel with disciplines has several varieties: from ostensibly scientific reductionism, to the management theory popular in some corporations, to a historicism that overlaps with both. In what follows, I'll describe these movements one at a time, point to their overlapping premises, and provide some account of what I believe to be their origins and goals. What I have to say would apply, in principle, to the full range of study from art history to zoology. And yet no accounting for such things occurs in the abstract. There is a reason literary scholars so often feel that calls for them to be interdisciplinary are attacks on what they do. Arguments that undercut the rationale for separate disciplines of study apply unevenly to those with depleted capital. Departments of English are far more often called to explain the reason for their existence and far more often encouraged to coordinate their work with what's going on elsewhere in the academy or the world than departments of electrical engineering. That this is so is hardly surprising but is worth some thought.

Let me begin with some propositions.

1. A discipline is an academic unit. It is neither a natural kind nor an arbitrary relic of the history of higher learning. Rather, any given discipline is a body of skills, methods, and norms able to sustain internal discussions and do explanatory work in a manner subject to its own consensus acts of judgment.

2. The world does not have a single order that is reducible to biology or physics. Some things are known only at their own level of explanation. These things are equally real. I will call this a principle of ontological pluralism.

3. Following from the first and second propositions, disciplines explain the part of the world to which they are directed and with respect to which they are organized. I will call this a principle of explanatory pluralism.

4. Following from the third proposition, no one discipline should be reducible to another, because such reduction would eliminate the method and norms adequate to any particular level of explanation.

These propositions add up to an apology for the disciplines and to a way of modeling relations among them. Such modeling would be interactive, not reductive, even when relations go very deep. It would take as its premise that each discipline has something to contribute to matters of shared concern in virtue of its own methods and objects. For reasons that will become clear, we might consider this model to propose a horizontal relation among the disciplines. In subsequent essays, my example of such horizontal cross traffic will be the manifold problems of consciousness, ecology, and skilled engagement with built and natural environments. For now it is perhaps enough to say that arguments against disciplines tell us not only about intellectual history and the political economy of the university but also about the nature and organization of what we do.

Reduction and the Unity of Knowledge

A common argument against disciplines opens with the premise that some are closer than others to the fundamental nature of the world. On the more radical end of this view, only the natural sciences get at truths about the world, and other disciplines of study should exist only insofar as they are coordinated with these truths. Interdisciplinarity in this case means reducing the methods, arguments, and norms of one discipline to the supposedly more grounded picture of another. On its own, the reductionist program is not new. The logical positivists notoriously attempted to unify science by defining its practice as the making of clear statements about observable phenomena so that the terms and theories of one science might reduce to those of another. Although the positivists were after a unity of science established on logical and public forms of expression, they were more interested in confirming the work done in each science than in eroding the differences between them, and in the main they had little to say about the humanities. In contrast, present-day reductionism assumes a unity of knowledge across the entire academy and asserts the priority of basic science as the foundation of everything else. There is only the world of nature, on this view, and so every explanation of that world must eventually converge with its fundamental units of life if not its fundamental units of matter. "To say that nature forms a unitary order of causal forces, hierarchically organized," according to a recent expounding of this view, "is to say that all complex phenomena can be reduced to relations among simpler elements." The point of any academic discipline is therefore to perform a reduction that would in some fashion express this underlying unity and order. This new model found its early and decisive articulation in the famed entomologist E. O. Wilson's call for "consilience" among the disciplines of study, a term he retrieved from the nineteenth century to describe a "dream of unified learning ... 'jumping together'" the fields of knowledge "by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation." The idea is that there is ultimately just one object and one method of study: the world of living creatures and the science by which it is explained. We only need some time to get the structure of learning in place so that "sound judgment will flow easily from one discipline to another" and the distance between them will gradually disintegrate (10). Considered in this fashion, the history of the disciplines tells a story of their lamentably fragmented knowledge and, at the same time, their steady convergence into a unity, as the insights of the more foundational fields travel upward, limit, and reshape the explanatory frameworks of the fields they support: to wit, biology transforms psychology and psychology the humanities.

As befits this sort of story, the vision can be at times messianic. "We are approaching a new age of synthesis, when the testing of consilience is the greatest of all intellectual challenges" (12). But the ultimate upshot beyond Wilson was to provide a picture of interdisciplinary inquiry that would amount to taking the claims of the humanistic disciplines to task by testing them against the ostensibly more grounded claims of the sciences, a kind of unity by reprimand. So, for example, in a study that defines consilience as the "vertical integration" of the various disciplines of knowledge, Edward Slingerland argues that "humanists need to start taking seriously discoveries about human cognition being provided by neuroscientists and psychologists" and then adds, "which have a constraining function to play in the formulation of humanistic theories." In what does this constraining relation consist? The answer will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the usual obloquy: "Bringing the humanities and natural sciences together into a single, integrated chain seems to me the only way to clear up the current miasma of endlessly contingent discourses and representations of representations that currently hampers humanistic inquiry." Time to fix the mistakes literature professors or anthropologists or historians make by reminding them of what science already knows. This swipe at the humanities is less interesting for its by now hoary content, however, than for the imaginary relation among disciplines from which it is derived. On the model of vertical integration, the natural sciences would lie beneath and limit the disciplines built on top of them because they are closer to every discipline's common point of reference. Human behavior explained by sociologists, for example, would refer to and be limited by the explanation of the same behavior studied by biologists. Nearer to home, written or performed phenomena studied in literature departments would refer to and be limited by the cognitive or neural explanation of the same, and so on. The more fundamental the part of the world, the more fundamental its discipline of study.

The mistake is to conceive of the disciplines and the relations among them against a common point of reference: the physical or biological world, explained by basic science. Let me be clear about what I consider this mistake to be. Not a word of the present argument would dispute (or have much interest in probing) the idea that the fundamental constituents of the universe are physical and its units of life biological. But each part of the argument presumes that not every part of the world can have a physical or biological explanation. That is why we have disciplines in the first place, as will be the recurring moral of the story. The behavior depicted in novels, say, cannot be explained in the same way as behavior explained by biology because its actors are not biological creatures. The world made present by poetry cannot be explained by physics or botany because it is not exactly physical, or not in the same way. Reading is not the same as seeing, nor writing the same as thinking. All of that sounds obvious, but the intuitive response that it is obvious is itself worth pondering. It tells us something about the foundational norms of our discipline. The reduction of any one of these things to an explanation at some more fundamental level would require it to be separated from its presentation in form (in the case of behavior or worldliness) or its encounter with form (in the case of reading and writing). The literary disciplines exist in part to refute that separation and to insist that such things matter. Much the same kind of argument could be run, one imagines, for any other discipline. The difference would be only in the procedures and norms that are violated.

The vision I will now sketch as an alternative takes as its contrary premise that the world studied by academic disciplines is irreducibly plural: minds and behavior, literature and literary history, cells and organisms, mark out separate kinds of things with different constituents in play and varied techniques for their explanation. This account is just as committed as the reductionist one to a picture of the world and is no less principled in elaborating its stakes. These begin with what the philosopher of biology John Dupré has called "the disunity of the sciences," namely, "the denial that science constitutes, or could ever come to constitute, a unified project" because "the extreme diversity of the contents of the world" calls upon an extreme diversity of aims and methods for its accounting. Within just the purview of biology there are features of nature that cannot be reduced in explanation to lower-level phenomena, such as the behavior of cells vis-à-vis the structure of molecules. This sort of divergence only magnifies once we step out from any particular science to ponder relations among them. Especially germane to my present concerns would be the long resistance in cognitive science to the reduction of experimental psychology to neuroscience. "Suppose the functional correspondence of the nervous system crosscuts its neurological organization (so that quite different neurological structures can subserve identical psychological functions across times or across organisms)," Jerry Fodor asked in his landmark demarcation of the natural and social sciences. "Then," he answered, "the existence of psychology depends not on the fact that neurons are so sadly small, but rather on the fact that neurology does not posit the natural kinds that psychology requires." Psychology should proceed without expecting to be reduced to neuroscience in the long run because it explains something other than the brain. And indeed it has. Statements in the language of the first have not been consistently deduced from statements in the language of the second, although of course links between the two have been far-reaching and significant. The work in cognitive science and philosophy of mind I have found most relevant to literary analysis in the essays that follow, for example, takes as its basic premise that consciousness and perception cannot be reduced to events in the brain. This is so for scholars who take up the famously hard problem of consciousness, but it also lies behind efforts to explain experience with reference to whole bodies and their respective environments. The failure of reduction in these cases is the spur to knowledge, not its disappointment.

The leap from discontinuities within a science or between relatively proximate sciences to those between any one science and the humanities should not be difficult to imagine. If the world described by the sciences fails to exhibit a unity, there is little reason to believe that the world traditionally considered beyond the interests of science wouldn't as well. One important feature of the disunity argument, however, is important to bear in mind before turning to its implications for method. The disunity of science is not a skeptical thesis about how hard it is to know some parts of the world, nor does it make any claims about what humanists sometimes consider to be the social construction of knowledge or facts. The thesis is an ontological, not an epistemological, one, although it will have epistemological entailments, as we will see. The argument from disunity supposes that there are disciplines because of the way that the world is structured. It supposes that one discipline fails to reduce to another because the world explained by the disciplines is plural in kind, containing many varieties of things, from millipedes to minuets. What makes these kinds and not simply chimeras is (again) that their accounting cannot be expressed in simpler terms. They don't dissolve into something else on closer inspection. As Anjan Chakravartty has put it, the "different domains of inquiry ask different questions regarding different entities and processes, and there is no evidence to suggest that facts at 'higher' levels of description are generally and in principle capable of being expressed in terms of facts about entities and processes at 'lower' levels." On this picture, the world studied is ontologically populous as well as plural: "literature" or "literariness" picks out the wide variety of texts or artifacts that combine to make up the domain of literary study, just as "music" and "chemistry" and so on do for theirs. "There are," in Chakravartty's words, "many ways one might carve nature at its innumerable joints."

My intention in drawing all this out is not to criticize the way any discipline performs its work or to change anyone's mind about what disciplines ought to be doing. It is merely to account for some presuppositions upon which academic institutions rest. I am in this respect attempting just to describe the fine structure of what otherwise goes without saying. To this description, I would now add that the tacit pluralism of the disciplines has an important set of consequences for method and rationale. I've called these consequences explanatory pluralism, the idea being that any given discipline has an evolving set of terms, skills, and norms established over time and in relation to its evolving domain of study. For literary studies, these would be the broad and heterogeneous practices of disciplinary reading along with their associated lexicon of form, style, or genre and their associated norms of attention, rigor, historical grounding, and so on. On the understanding of interdisciplinarity I have affirmed here and elsewhere, the goal would be to bring these methods and norms into some relation to those associated with other domains of study, experimental norms of the sciences, for example, or archival and evidentiary norms in the closer field of history. But that goal is possible only with the background recognition that a pluralism of explanation entails a pluralism of methods and norms: each adequate to its subject and none intrinsically better than the other.


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Table of Contents

Preface Paper Minds, an Introduction

Part One: On Method and the Disciplines
1.         Are We Being Interdisciplinary Yet?
2.         Form and Explanation with Anahid Nersessian
Part Two: Poetry and the Perception of the Environment
3.         Presence of Mind
4.         On Beauty and Being at Home

Part Three: Fictions of Mind
5.         Empiricism, Cognitive Science, and the Novel
6.         Around 2005; or, Two Novels and the Problem of Consciousness
7.         Two Kinds of Panpsychism: Margaret Cavendish and Marilynne Robinson


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