Counter-response to David Hawkes

Michael Booth


     1. David Hawkes wisely takes notice of the problem of "talking past each other" which so often bedevils efforts at communication, and which typically reflects differences in purpose and situation among speakers, or writers. I will try to clarify my own situation and purpose in the discussion. As a professor of English literature, I find value in discussing with students the intellectual and aesthetic qualities of literary works; I have found my efforts to be better supported by certain recent cognitive-theory approaches, which license attention to the experiences of one's "mind," conscious or unconscious, than by more conventional critical theory, which tends to reject the term "mind."

     2. There are costs to embracing theoretical approaches that are perceived to be at odds with the main stream of the profession, with its emphases on historicism and materialism, and its default investment in poststructuralist accounts of language. To differ on such fundamentals is to interest some colleagues but to alarm others -- greatly reducing the likelihood of being the unanimous first-choice candidate of very many hiring committees. The difficulty in these professional situations, I find, is that accepting "mind" as a term useful in literary study is perceived by many colleagues as a conservative ideological act. I consider this a highly unfortunate misapprehension, and changing people's minds about it seems to me a very necessary task; that task is what I mean by "this important work" in the passage that Hawkes quotes from my essay, though I think that my referent is perhaps obscured in his ellipsis.

     3. I was one to whom the word "soul" in Hawkes's initial essay seemed problematic. For me the issue was twofold, and one part was political: In the United States at the present time, both inside and outside the academy, the word "soul" is even more strongly -- much more strongly -- suffused with actually conservative political implications than the word "mind," a fact which makes far more difficult, and I think unnecessarily so, the important work that I mentioned above, if one follows Hawkes in pairing the terms "mind" and "soul" (though the responsibility for this pairing in our discussion is a matter of disagreement and confusion, a point to which I will return). I do not deny that there is a "spiritual left," a progressive and religious politics exemplified by liberation theology, the Catholic Worker Movement, etc. And probably some professors ask students about the effects of literature on their souls without meaning to advance a conservative politics.

     4. I also do not deny that for Aristotle "the soul is in fact the principle of life itself" or that "[A]nimals and plants have souls according to Aristotle." But that is not what Americans now generally mean by the word. What they mean is OED sense II, and especially 7a: "The spiritual or immaterial part of a person considered in relation to God and religious or moral precepts. Usually with explicit or implicit reference to the belief that the state or condition of a person's soul is contingent upon his or her conduct during earthly life, and subject to divine judgment following physical death." Though Hawkes seems surprised that "soul" should be understood as a religious term by his respondents, it seems to me that such an understanding is, today, the predominant one throughout the English-speaking world, and that attempts to express something non-religious by the word are now very much an uphill battle, and not likely to be wholly successful.

     5. So yes, there is a pragmatically political aspect to my desire to differentiate "mind" from "soul" in literary criticism; I do not want to carry all the baggage of the latter into contexts where it is not needed or useful. Hawkes may therefore be right that my essay "offers 'mind' as a more respectably secular alternative," for theoretical discussion. Against what seems the slight reproach in his "respectably" though, I must object to the implication of a single or obvious standard of respectability. In fact, I have long found myself navigating two starkly opposed climates of opinion: one is that of critical theory, which tends to presume a secular epistemology and a stance of political progressivism; the other is that of contemporary American culture as a whole, which presumes neither. It is not clear to me -- and goodness knows I wish it were -- where I might find that happy world where secular cognitive literary study equals respectability: much of the larger culture abhors both secularism and, for that matter, literary study, while much of our academic culture shuns "mind" as an essentialist fallacy or fantasy. One thing that is observable in our larger political culture, and may be relevant here, is that those with and those without an affinity for religious language tend to regard the other group as the hegemonically "respectable" one.

     6. But political considerations are not the primary reason for my preferring "mind" over "soul" as a critical term. It would represent a grave compromise of principle, even a "calm, vile, dishonorable submission" (to quote Shakespeare's Mercutio) if I eschewed "soul" for pragmatic reasons while regarding it, as Hawkes appears to, as a necessary term for adequately addressing the experience of reading and understanding literature. But I do not regard the word "soul" in this way. Yes, it figures very prominently in our collective cultural history, but so does humoral psychology; we are not obligated to use terms and concepts simply because they have been important in the past. This is not to say that I scoff at the concept of "soul"; I have an agnostic and not an atheistic personal attitude towards "the spiritual or immaterial part of a person," and there are contexts in which I might be moved to evoke the soul with wholehearted reverence and solemnity. These contexts, however, do not include my investigating of aspects of literary meaning -- metaphor, ambiguity, paradox, overdetermination, irony, indeterminacy, expectation. "Mind" seems to me a relevant term in these contexts, and "soul" simply does not. Metaphor, ambiguity, etc. may be said with some exactness to occur in the mind, and may be said, intelligibly and poetically, to occur in the "soul" or, why not, the "heart." But since the perceptive or meaning-making faculty of a person is not, in my classes, considered "in relation to God and religious . . . precepts," or with reference to an afterlife, there seems to be little if any intellectual upside to bringing "soul" into the discussion, and there is, as I have mentioned, a significant practical downside.

     7. Hawkes ends the new piece by noting what he considers "cause for serious concern": "the demise of belief, among educated Westerners, in either the soul, or even its secularized surrogates such as the subject or the self." Honestly, it seems to me that the case here is overstated. I do not think that most educated Westerners have ceased to believe in "the self," even if the adherents of postmodernist theory claim to have done so; on the contrary, I think the self remains healthily and demonstrably alive in anyone who successfully pursues an academic career, with all of the self-interest and self-fashioning that the endeavor entails. Nor do I think that most educated Westerners exist in the state of psychic crisis that Hawkes describes when he says that "Today, most educated Western people have arrived at the conviction that they simply have no soul: no essence, no purpose." Hawkes disclaims adherence to "any organized religion," and denies maintaining "some residual, semi-conscious adherence to the dictates of irrational faith," but the crisis-picture that he paints seems more closely to resemble the alarmed view of contemporary society held by many religious believers than it resembles any view likely to be expressed by most of the "educated Western people" that I know, who do not seem to have even a general sense, let alone a conviction, of their own lives' purposelessness. To infer such a state of affairs from the relative disuse of the word "soul" in today's educated discourse looks to me rather like a case of the literalism against which Hawkes elsewhere eloquently protests.

     8. Towards the beginning of his reply-essay, Hawkes says several gracious things about my note, and concludes with the remark that "In the above paragraph, however, I believe [Booth] makes an error. 'Soul' is not a synonym for 'mind'." Even as I write this, I still cannot quite retrace the steps that have led us "past each other" on this particular point, as his judicious reminder to me seems to be exactly what I thought I was saying to him: "'Soul' is not a synonym for 'mind'." Can he have thought that I was arguing for, rather than against, the conflation of these terms? Or is he saying that no such conflation is likely in our culture generally, or in academic discourse, or among readers persuaded by his original essay's argument? A premise of my response piece was that such conflation is very common in the larger culture, but that it is largely counterproductive for the kinds of academic inquiry into "mind" that most interest me; I was, in effect, warning against it. If what Hawkes means is "'Soul' is not, in my [DH's] argument, a synonym for 'mind'," I must take him at his word. And yet I cannot help still perceiving a logical and grammatical paralleling of the terms in the first sentence that I paused over in his essay: "[A]ll of the materialisms currently prominent in literary studies share one fundamental assumption. They all believe that the human subject, mind or soul is an illusion." Nor do I see how I can depart from my original -- and sympathetic -- assessment, which was: "Though I substantially agree with Hawkes's larger point, I feel it is quite important to differentiate the terms 'subject, mind or soul,' whose implications diverge in consequential ways." Perhaps the conflation between the terms "mind" and "soul" -- a conflation which, apparently, neither I nor Hawkes finds well advised -- is to be understood as being performed by the various materialisms that he is describing, and not by his authorial voice. If so, I reaffirm that it is "important to differentiate the terms," and all the more so when one is engaged in paraphrase.

     9. Interestingly enough, it was just this aspect of meaning -- transactions in language -- the problem of "referential opacity" -- which first prompted cognitive linguists to formulate the theory of mental spaces which underlies conceptual blending theory, and which furnishes a more nuanced and adequate account of linguistic meaning than was possible with either Saussurian structuralist or Chomskyan grammar-based theoretical paradigms. Referential opacity is what makes grammatically indeterminate, in the above sentence ("They all believe that the human subject, mind or soul is an illusion") the question of whether "the human subject, mind or soul" is being presented as a single thing by the Hawkesian sentence itself, or by the materialists whose opinion it is reporting, or both. Clearly, upon this question hangs a significant part of what one will take to be the meaning of the sentence and the essay of which it is part. On a cognitive account of linguistic meaning, the conceptual entailments of the sentence's trio of nouns may be configured one way in your mental space representing the materialist view, another way in your mental space representing Hawkes's view, and perhaps another way still in your mental space representing Hawkes's view of the materialist view. These spaces exist simultaneously in a given reader's mind, which rapidly and unconsciously sketches possible links and mappings between them, upon perceiving that they are or may be distinct from each other. Through a sufficiently careful delineation of these spaces and the varying transfer of assumptions across them, some cases of "talking past each other" may occasionally be clarified.

     10. Our perhaps slightly comical wrangling over who actually needs to be reminded that two words are not synonyms depends partly on the untangling of referential opacities; it may also depend on what one means by "synonym," which is a question of considerable interest to conceptual blending theory. Where structuralism and poststructuralism train their attention on "difference" in linguistic meaning, and transformational grammar looks for computational equivalence there, mental-space theory and blend theory consider the realm of similarity, which is where synonyms live. Because synonymity remains under-analyzed in literary study, it is possible for the statement "X and Y are not synonyms" to be taken as meaning either "X and Y are not identical in meaning" or "X and Y have no overlap in meaning," which are two extremely different claims, even before one worries about whose meaning, or interpretation of the words, one is talking about.

     11. The matter of "overlap in meaning" between any two terms -- something always of interest to literature professors and students, people inclined to scrutinize word choices and to assess what is and is not implied in a given case -- takes us, or should take us, into a realm of diverse, complex, compound conceptual-assemblages activated in each of us, idiosyncratically, by particular words. And it should take us pretty far away from the "mutually-definitive binary opposition" which is so central in poststructuralist theory, and to which David Hawkes -- if I have understood him correctly on this point -- seems entirely committed: "We conceptualize things by their relation to what they are not, with reference to their 'other.' Identity is relational, not essential, so that such concepts as 'ideas' and 'matter' must be understood via their relation to each other. The apparent opposites interpenetrate, each side of the polarity bringing the other into conceptual being. One could not exist, in human consciousness, without the other."

     12. Hawkes writes these sentences after one which begins "Dialectics argues that . . . ," so it is possible that the chain of assertions is being merely reported by Hawkes and not in fact endorsed by him at all; if that is the case, though, the fact is not made very clear. The doctrine of constitutive binarisms is, from the perspective of cognitive linguistics, greatly overprized and overextended in contemporary critical discourse, including, apparently, these essays by David Hawkes. Granted, certain adjectives like "hot" and "cold," and certain pronouns like "this" and "that" or "here" and "there," do indeed exist in a relationship of binary opposition with each other as terms. But even these words derive their meaning also from something else, from embodied physical experience, from the recognizable sensations of hot and cold, from the experiential and fundamentally intersubjective predicaments of being here and not there, or of having this and not that. One thing that has never been very clear to me is how words in general, and specifically nouns and verbs, can sensibly be said to be defined by relations of binary opposition. What is the opposite of a bookshelf, or of a kangaroo? Or the opposite of spelunking? Language, on a cognitive view, is not a system of differences; it is a system of prompts for imagining and combining experiential facts and scenarios. The real, cognitive fact of conceptual difference -- whether in our understanding, at a given moment, of exactly whose conceptualization is being discussed, or in our understanding of what is and isn't entailed in the meaning of a given term as used by a particular speaker at a given time -- seems to me a useful and needed direction of new inquiry for both literary-critical and theoretical discussion. And for this reason I remain grateful to David Hawkes -- all semantic differences and perhaps merely apparent disagreements aside -- for his foregrounding of "the undeniable fact that we experience ourselves as having ideas."



Go to this issue's index.



Form copyright © 2012 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2012 Michael Booth.