Cognitive Idealism:
A Response to David Hawkes's "Against Materialism in Literary Theory"

Michael Booth


     1. David Hawkes offers a very useful history of philosophical materialism in its various manifestations, and a compelling case for reconsidering, indeed for reducing, its grip on the imagination of literary critics. Most important is his affirmation of "the undeniable fact that we experience ourselves as having ideas" (27), a fact that Hawkes correctly indicates has been devalued for a good while now in literary study: "[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" (21). 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. "Subject" is an overdetermined term in literary study, which encompasses its meaning in the above trio (i.e. some sort of experiential human interiority) as well as something else: an abstractly conceived instance of "subjection," or a position within a social structure. This ambiguity or equivocation is one upon which a great deal of critical hermeneutics has rested in the past half century, much of it instructive. "Soul," meanwhile, is inseparable from religious discourses, and though I admired Hawkes's essay, I felt it taking an ill-advised swerve toward morasses of religious disputation in ending its second section with the question "Is it true that human beings have no soul?" (21). Isn't the question of whether human beings have a mind a sufficiently pressing one in its own right? There is crucial work to be done in arguing the case (and Hawkes's essay, admirably, does some of it) that theorizing about the human mind is not a conservative project, as it is sometimes presumed to be, and that it is on the contrary a progressive one both intellectually and politically. This important work is not best served by casual semantic slippage between "mind" and "soul."

     2. The term "mind" is the one in the above trio that I believe holds the most promise for new work and new insight in literary studies. This fact would place my critical interest within the "cognitive" domain, though not exactly as Hawkes describes it. My aim in this response will therefore be to identify a mode of cognitive criticism that does not suffer from the ills that Hawkes finds pervasive in most varieties of current critical discourse. In a fair critique of some recent cognitivist literary criticism, he says that it "shares materialism's skeptical attitude toward autonomous consciousness and subjectivity" (20). He adds that cognitive theorists "are committed to the reduction of subjectivity to the functions of the brain" (20), and that they "consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon produced by patterns of information" (21) [both my italics]. What his account omits is any "cognitive" critical work that is not skeptical about the existence or significance of autonomous consciousness, is not reductive in its treatment of consciousness or subjective experience, and considers these as something more than passive patterns of information. Is there any such critical or theoretical work? I would adduce here the theory of "conceptual blending" articulated by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner.1 In fairness to Hawkes, the "blending" paradigm is not yet as common in criticism as the approaches that he is surveying and in general soundly critiquing. But I believe that it should be, and perhaps it soon will be.

     3. Hawkes usefully observes that both Platonic idealism and materialism can "reduce the relation between ideas and matter to one of its poles, assuming that only one side of the dichotomy is authentic, and claiming to explain how it creates the illusion of the other" (6). Conceptual-blending theory does not do that; it assumes both that humans are materially embodied, and that they experience a varied and incessant stream of ideas; it is this experience, rather than whatever may physiologically underlie it, that is principally of interest to the expositors of blend theory. The theory concerns the dynamics of conceptual synthesis and analysis, and posits a common process of mental construction at work in recognition (involuntary) and in invention (voluntary).

     4. Do we have control over what we think? Surely a yes-or-no answer to this question cannot suffice; it is apparent that powerfully determinative "thoughts" can come unbidden and can remain unarticulated, and it is equally apparent that thoughts can be carefully articulated, elaborated, compared, modified, combined, separated. "I am trying to think . . ." is not a nonsensical way to begin a sentence, and there are many meaningful continuations of it. For any expository prose writer -- anyone who not only writes but edits his or her own writing -- to acknowledge this activity but to deny the role of intention in thought seems, at the least, to create an apparent inconsistency deserving further explanation. Such denial is more common than such explanation in literary criticism at present, and Hawkes is right to challenge the point.

     5. Conceptual-blending theory posits that our mental life is a constant process of alternately reconciling and distinguishing frames of reference, a process that involves myriad unconscious, intuitive judgments about resemblance and about relevance. This process is rooted in embodied physical experience, which gives it a richer variety of experiential relations to employ (e.g. similarity, causality, part/whole relations, changes in time or place or scale) than the "difference" considered by structuralism and poststructuralism in their conviction that meaning is made of language, and that language reduces to linguistic binarisms. I should clarify an ambiguity in the word "reconcile," above, which can mean either the establishing of unity between things previously considered different, or the establishing of a relationship between things still considered different. Things need not be absolutely different; they can be, or seem, more or less different, more reconciled or less so. Scholars committed to a notion of critical praxis as confrontation may mistrust the term "reconcile," as seeming to import the erasure of difference or the elimination of tension and conflict. Such erasure is not what I mean when I say that blend-theory concerns the reconciling of frames of reference; in fact what I mean is precisely that it offers a nuanced framework for describing dynamics of tension and conflict in human thought.

     6. In probing the dichotomy between Platonic idealism and what he calls "eliminative" materialism, Hawkes evidently seeks a subtler consideration of "the relation between ideas and matter" (6) and is himself performing some of what a theoretically rigorous criticism is expected to do. His practice is evidently indebted to the notion of "interpenetration of opposites" that he describes in Hegelian and Marxist dialectics (10), and such questioning of distinctions is rightly valued in modern critical thought. Blend-theory, more properly called the theory of conceptual integration, encourages such judiciousness by offering a coherent account of it. In that regard, it is as useful an approach as deconstruction, and in so far as it neither brackets human agency nor refers all meaning to linguistic antitheses, it is more useful.

     7. As a concession to materialist criticism, Hawkes remarks that it "can enhance our understanding of why particular forms, themes and effects come into being and pass out of common usage" (23), though he then proposes that it is really the historicist rather than the materialist aspect of such criticism to which credit is principally due. I would agree that much work in the cultural-materialist mode makes a valuable contribution by identifying "forms, themes and effects" and tracking them as they come into being and pass out of common usage, but it seems to me that "our understanding of why" is very much what materialism avoids. In fact none of these terms ("why," "our," "understanding") is finally assimilable to strictly materialist accounts. Such words and phrases nevertheless persist in these accounts as stubborn witnesses that "we experience ourselves as having ideas." Blend-theory, by contrast, is very well suited to addressing how and why phenomena arise and ebb in culture, because the conceptual dynamics it describes -- the association, conflation, synthesis or dissociation of particular conceptions -- very often occur en masse as people communicate with one another, whether at a given historical moment or over a longer period of time. This approach thus has implications for the phenomena that Dawkins calls "memes," but without the teleological and anthropomorphic imagining of them as self-interested agents.

     8. Though he will conclude with a compelling rejection of the commonly implied association between materialism and progressive politics, Hawkes says, in another concessive moment, "The contention that there is no fixed human nature or natural mode of social organization is best advanced by locating the objects of study within their contingent historical circumstances. . ." (23). As with "subject, mind or soul" above, it seems to me that a crucial distinction is lost here through grammatical parallelism. I think there is a world of difference between inquiring into a human nature entailing such things as memory, imagination and learning, and on the other hand espousing a "natural mode of social organization." To shun consideration of the former for fear of a slippery slope to the latter seems a grave mistake for humanistic scholarship, if it aims to enhance our understanding of artistic creation, of culture, of ideas, or of how we experience ourselves.

     9. Hawkes includes in his larger argument against materialism a critique of literary-critical projects that base themselves on cognitive neuroscience, an approach which he considers tantamount to phrenology. He notes that "This kind of materialism has moved away from historicism, since it declines to take account of culture or society as formative influences on the personality" (18). It seems likely to me that some of those literary critics who have turned their attention to cognitive approaches have done so partly out of a dissatisfaction with the predominant cultural-materialist/historicist mode and perhaps especially with its "skeptical attitude toward autonomous consciousness and subjectivity" (20). If so, many have ended up losing sight of the cultural, historical and subjective when, if Hawkes is right, what they really should have left behind is their materialist epistemology; the difficulty of doing so, whether it be more a conceptual or a political difficulty, offers a case study in the way that conceptions (such as "criticism") tend to be composed of elements (such as historicism and materialism) which can become so firmly fused together, so culturally entrenched as a conceptual unity, that the possibility of separating them occurs seldom if ever, and the work of sorting them, either in contemplation or in communication, is real work. The same might be said about "cognitive theory" (which, to many, implies neuroscience, but to others means simply a consideration of some notion of "mind" in approaching questions of interpretation and meaning-construction). The same again could be said of "idealist," which Hawkes means in contrast with "materialist," but which can also mean a view that "treats a subject more imaginatively than realistically" (OED, sense 2) or that "entertains visionary or unpractical notions" (OED, sense 3). Such composite, overdetermined conceptions as these demonstrate that a focus on the "blending" of conceptions is in part a focus on polysemy and ambiguity. Their embeddedness within a history of recent literary criticism demonstrates that "blend theory" is also a potentially useful kind of historicism, or of historicizing.2

     10. Blend-theory, as one manifestation of the "cognitive" in literary interpretation, seems to me largely to correspond with what Hawkes means by an "idealist" as opposed to a materialist approach; both affirm the notion of subjective autonomy, however imperfect, and both depart from the mechanistic or deterministic tendency of "phrenological" neuroscience and normative cultural materialism. Like the relative "idealism" that Hawkes is endorsing, blend-theory accommodates materialist insights. It is simply a pragmatic rather than programmatic materialism, declining to assume "that only one side of the dichotomy is authentic" (6).

     11. Hawkes notes that "In the first half of the twentieth century, literary studies was still dominated by post-Romantic individualists, who luxuriated in the subjective affect and emotions generated by the text, but the materialists have long routed such feeble opposition" (14). How he feels about the rout and the feeble opposition is not entirely clear to me in this sentence, though the force of the article as a whole would seem to be towards questioning assumptions that drove the rout. Is the opposition implied to have been feeble and wrong, or feeble but right?

     12. It seems to me a particular virtue of "cognitive linguistic" or "cognitive poetic" approaches that they do not attempt to purge affect and emotion from reading, nor to redirect them or reform them. They invite a reader to consider his or her own reading of a literary text as evidence about the kinds of mental experience that the text offers, on the assumption that it has been devised at least partly to bring about some such experience in the reader. The differing testimonies of readers are very much to the purpose of any such discussion. Reading may reasonably be called "literary" when it involves moments of realization, especially if these are multiple and interrelated. Analyzing such realizations seems to me a basic aim of literary study. Conceptual-blending theory offers a way of analyzing them -- as arising, like sparks, from the clashes and resolutions among the varied frames of reference evoked in or by a text at a given moment. The notion of authorial intention can be meaningfully considered in such contexts, but need not be privileged. Understanding all such frames as being always-already "blended" or composite seems to me as basically sound an epistemological proceeding as one is likely to find, and one which has the strengths of postructuralist thought without the limitations.

     13. Hawkes is surely right that a stringent anti-idealist rhetorical commitment can serve capitalist at least as well as anti-capitalist ends, coercive as well as liberating ones. I am increasingly inclined to adopt, as critical reader, writer and teacher, a form of cognitive inquiry which, unlike those Hawkes mentions, is more idealist than materialist in his senses of those terms, which finds value in a relative philosophical idealism in these days of longstanding materialist consensus.

     14. Hawkes ends his essay with some fighting words: "I think that if they can be convinced of this connection, they are likely to reconsider their commitment to materialism, which I believe is now largely sentimental and rhetorical in any case." Precisely because I value this essay's contribution to the professional conversation, I must remonstrate over this remark, which will close more ears than it opens. The commitment of scholars to materialist epistemology is sincere, principled, and generally woven into a lifetime's worth of difficult work and thought, developed in dialogue with serious colleagues. The only problem with it, from my point of view, is that I am more interested in looking at things in another way and it turns out that there is considerable professional pressure against doing so. This situation is largely due to an assumption that non-materialist thought must end up serving politically conservative ends.

     15. Historically, Hawkes says, "conservatives often took refuge in idealism, identifying their own power with the state of nature, and appealing to invariant human nature as a bulwark against progress" (23). Given this history, it is understandably difficult to disentangle the established conceptual unity between philosophical idealism and conservatism. My hope is that, increasingly, my colleagues will be able to. Consider the nexus of things that "conservative" signifies in the United States in 2011, which varies but most typically involves a hostility to secularism and pluralism, as well as a frequent hostility to science. The term implies, even to many who would apply it to themselves, an inclination to dismiss and deride the liberal values of flexibility in interpretation and curiosity about alternate perspectives. Then consider how far from this, indeed how diametrically opposite to it, is a speculative interest in the dynamics of thought or the experience of thinking, especially as manifested in literary expression and in the other arts. If our profession cannot distinguish one from the other, or is convinced of a slippery slope between them, then it is quite hard to see the profession as offering any significant or effectual response to the power of actual conservatism of the kind that legally redefines money as speech and corporations as people, that uses a rhetoric of fiscal rectitude to rob the poor and pay the rich; that is bent on defeating labor unions and defunding public education, public services, and public health care. It seems to me that the disempowered or less empowered in our society are, in this political environment, best served by an intellectual culture that affirms the reality of minds and the value of ideas, and are especially well served by critical and interpretive strategies geared toward parsing the differing conceptualizations that can lie behind both the deliberate and the inadvertent equivocations of language.



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     1 For expositions of blend-theory, see Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (New York, 2002), pp. 269-78; Seana Coulson, Semantic Leaps: Frame-Shifting and Conceptual Blending in Meaning Construction (Cambridge, 2006); On blend-theory and Elizabethan culture, see Eve Sweetser, "'The suburbs of your good pleasure': Cognition, Culture and the Bases of Metaphoric Structure," in G. Bradshaw, T. Bishop and M. Turner (eds), The Shakespearean International Yearbook, vol. 4: Shakespeare Studies Today (Aldershot, 2004), pp. 24-55; For cognitive approaches to early-modern and literary studies generally, see F. E. Hart, "Matter, System and Early Modern Studies: Outlines for a Materialist Linguistics," Configurations, 6 (1998): pp. 311-43, and "The Epistemology of Cognitive Literary Study," Philosophy and Literature, 25 (2001): pp. 314-34.

     2 For an exemplary use of blend-theory as a mode of historicist inquiry, specifically in the context of early-modern literary studies, see Nicholas R. Moschovakis, "Topicality and Conceptual Blending: Titus Andronicus and the Case of William Hacket," College Literature 33.1 (Winter 2006).



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