- Ellen SpolskyEllen SpolskyDepartment of English Literature and Linguistics, Bar-Ilan University
Northrup Frye expressed a scholarly impatience with what seemed to him the inconsequentiality of literary study, asking if criticism might provide “a coordinating principle, a central hypothesis, which, like the theory of evolution in biology, will see the phenomena it deals with as parts of a whole" (1957). Cognitive literary theory did not actually answer to Frye’s scientism until almost fifty years later, and when it did, it moved quickly in many directions. But it did not (and still has not) coalesced into a unified theory. The vigor and excitement of the field derive from its openness to many different areas of brain science, the wide reach of its attention to so many varieties of works of imagination—their production, their reception, and their history— and its resistance to a centralizing dogma. In her introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Literary Studies, Lisa Zunshine, scholar in the field and its best historian, describes cognitive literary critics as working “not toward consilience with science but toward a richer engagement with a variety of theoretical paradigms in literary and cultural studies" (2015). Scholars from most traditional humanities fields: philosophers (both analytical and phenomenological and philosophers of mind and of language), cultural, literary, and art historians, literary critics and linguists, for example, and social scientists as well (anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethologists), have found the various fields of brain science to offer new perspectives on some persistent questions. Studies by developmental psychologists have made major contributions. And as brain imaging has become more powerful and widely used, the hypotheses of neurophysiologists and neurobiologists have come into the picture. Evolutionary biology has made perhaps the largest contribution by providing the overriding argument in the field—namely that human potential, individual behavior, and group dynamics can be studied as emerging phenomena. This begins with bodies that have over the millennia grown into worlds in which competition and cooperation have built and continue to build cultural life.