Author: Herman, David
Date published: July 1, 2011
Like all of his work, Alan Palmer's target essay on "Social Minds" is remarkable for its clarity, scope, and suggestiveness. Indeed, in reading this essay I was reminded of the time I first encountered, some eight years ago, Palmer's groundbreaking article on "The Construction of Fictional Minds." Offering an impressive synthesis and critique of previous research on the minds of fictional characters, and written in a lucid, accessible style that in no way over-simplifies the issues involved, the essay outlined an entire program for research - an interdisciplinary, field-extending approach to fictional minds that brings the study of literary narrative into closer dialogue with fields ranging from cognitive and social psychology to philosophy and discourse analysis. Now, in his target essay for this special issue, Palmer further refines that research program by separating out from his initial concern with the construction of fictional minds in general the sub-problem of how narrative texts present - and readers engage with - social minds in particular, defined here as joint or collective minds that are constituted by dyads as well as larger groups. Narrowing Palmer's earlier focus on how readers use textual cues to ascribe beliefs, intentions, motivations, and emotions to all sorts of fictional characters, the target essay, like the book-length study from which it derives, hones in on what Palmer terms intermental thought, or mental processes that span more than one person and that can be contrasted with intramental or "private, individual thought." (cite?) To explore how intermental processes play out in novels, especially the nineteenthcentury British novel, Palmer once again draws productively on work from a range of disciplines. In doing so, he not only develops new models for narrative study but also attends to phenomena neglected by previous scholars of story, such as the use of passive constructions and of presupposition to signal the views of collective intelligences like "the Middlemarch mind." (cite?)
In short, by underscoring the relevance of the minds of groups, Palmer's target essay also foregrounds issues that are foundational for the study of (fictional) narratives. In the present response, I seek to map out some additional routes for exploring these foundational issues. Specifically, in order to re-examine the concept of "social minds" as it is deployed in Palmer's essay, I focus on what Palmer describes as "the complex and fascinating" relationship "between intra- and intermental activity, between social minds and individual minds, between the internalist and externalist perspectives." (cite?) To suggest why it is important to disentangle these distinctions and sort out the issues bound up with them, I concentrate on just a couple of moments in Palmer's rich discussion: one in which he draws on the idea of "theory of mind," and another in which he contrasts Henry Fielding's and James Joyce's techniques for representing consciousness. I wish to stress up front, however, that I offer these remarks not in a spirit of nitpicking but rather in an attempt to further the larger project to which Palmer's essay contributes so invaluably: investigating the nexus of narrative and mind.
As I see it, the three distinctions at issue - social/individual, intermental/ intramental, externalist/internalist - are cross-cutting rather than coordinate or parallel, meaning that one could develop an externalist account of single minds or conversely an internalist account of processes of social cognition, for example. Thus, work by Andy Clark, whom Palmer mentions in his essay, can be used to buttress an externalist approach to (aspects of) particular minds, as when Clark discusses how physical artifacts such as iPhones, cultural technologies such as written language, and other external resources support basic cognitive processes in individuals as well as groups. By the same token, one could follow Vygotsky in studying the social basis of intramental processes, investigating the way skills and dispositions learned via guided participation in activities supervised by more expert peers are internalized by children over the course of their ontogenetic development. In this account, the individual and the intramental are the direct result of forms of apprenticeship that are by definition social and intermental.
Meanwhile, the converse case - an internalist approach to the social and intermental- is represented by the research on "theory of mind" on which Palmer draws in his essay. Palmer writes: "We are able to make attributions of states of mind to others because we have a theory of mind.... Fictional mind-reading tends to involve characters, often in moments of crisis, who are self-consciously using complex theory of mind to try to interpret the opaque intentions and motives of another." As work by analysts such as Jerome Bruner and Peter Hobson suggests, however, the theory of mind concept can be traced back to an internalist perspective on processes of social interaction, in a way that arguably militates against Palmer's overall emphasis on embodied, situated cognition. From this vantage point, the idea of theory of mind grows out of a Cartesian dualism that gets mapped onto an internalexternal polarity, according to which the mind "in here" is separate from-indeed, dichotomously opposed to - the world "out there," in which other persons (and other, equally internalized minds) reside. "Theory of mind" then becomes a means of traversing the distance between these inner and outer poles, whether through the theoretical (re)cons traction of another's mind or through simulation routines by means of which one models someone else's mind after one's own. To put the same point another way, both theory and simulation theory assume a polarization between inner and outer worlds - a polarization that, as Palmer himself notes, other traditions of research on the mind call into question.
I have just sketched arguments for the view that theory of mind accounts are Cartesian in their origins and internalist - or at least based on a problematic polarization of the internal and the external - in their details. But another tradition of research can be brought to bear on the issues at hand. This other tradition, developed by RF Strawson, Hobson, Lynne Rudder Baker, and others, also suggests ways to reframe the three sets of distinctions that constitute the main topic of my response.
In contrast with models assuming that interaction with others foregrounds issues of epistemology - questions concerning how I come to know, or can have reliable knowledge of, what another is thinking (see Searle 49-50) - the tradition I am referring to focuses on the idea of "person" as part of human beings' equipment for living, a basic element of the conceptual scheme they use to negotiate the world. Here the fundamental contrast is between, not self and other, but rather persons and things, or personal and non-personal entities. Thus RF Strawson argued that the notion of person is a conceptual primitive, indissolubly combining mental or personal predicates ("intends to take a walk" "doesn't feel well") with material predicates having to do with persons' bodies and those bodies' situation in space and time ("is currently seated on the couch," "is lying down with a flushed appearance"). As Strawson put it, "the concept of a person is to be understood as the concept of a type of entity such that both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics [specific to human bodies], a physical situation etc. are equally applicable to an individual entity of that type" (104). Further, in addition to establishing membership criteria for the category of "person," the practice of ascribing mental as well as material predicates to one and the same entity - an ascriptional practice made possible by observed behaviors in the case of others but not in one's own case - reframes the question of other minds. Other minds are not a problem to be solved but instead built into the very concept of a person (see Hobson 243-52; NoŽ 29-35). The idea of person entails that mental predicates will be self-ascribable in one's own case and other-ascribable in the case of others.
On this view, narrators make sense of characters' minds, characters make sense of one another's minds, and readers make sense of both narrators' and characters' minds insofar as they situate those individuals in the domain of persons. At issue is a process not of theoretical reconstruction or simulation but rather of categorization. When I categorize a being as a person, I ipso facto assume that he or she instantiates a constellation of mental and material predicates - predicates that are linked together in patterns specified by models of persons circulating in my culture or subculture. In turn, characters in novels can be viewed as model persons; these fictional individuals are at once shaped by and have the power to re-shape broader models of what a person is and typically does. Along the same lines, because narrative texts result from actions performed by that subclass of persons known as authors, it is arguably built into the experience of narrative to engage in (defeasible) ascriptions of mental predicates to story creators - that is, to other-ascribe to authors reasons for their textual performances.1
Note that, in its emphasis on the dialectical interplay between what I have termed models of persons and model persons, the account just outlined cuts across the distinction between social and individual minds. Further, it suggests that the intramental/intermental distinction may need to be recontextualized, insofar as the concept or category of person entails processes of self- as well as other-ascription-manifesting a doubleness that likewise resists being fully aligned with either an internalist or an externalist perspective.
Indeed, it seems to me crucial to avoid reproducing, in the heuristic schemes developed to study fictional minds, any hint of the inner-outer polarity set up by Cartesian dualism. Consider, in this connection, Palmer's comparison of Fielding with Joyce:
To say that the reader can only follow the actions of the characters in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones by following the thought processes behind those actions is certainly not to say that it is the same sort of novel as James Joyce's Ulysses. Of course the two are different. Fielding gives us much less of the workings of characters' minds than does Joyce, and so events are more central to the plot of the former's novel and thoughts more central to the plot of the latter's. (cite?)
Here, despite asserting that "there is no unbridgeable dichotomy between events/ actions and thoughts/feelings," Palmer in his comparison between Tom Jones and Ulysses in effect drives a wedge between "the workings of characters' minds" and "events." In other words, I find here a tension between Palmer's stated position and the way he seeks to substantiate that position at the level of local textual details - in this case, details associated with techniques of consciousness representation. Furthermore, my sense is that the tension at issue arises from an implicit polarization of the inner and outer that also connects up with the individual/ social, intramental/intermental, and internalist/externalist distinctions I have been focusing on throughout this response. As was the case in my previous discussion of the theory of mind concept, the question is what other traditions of research might be mobilized to flesh out, at a local level, the embodied, situated approach to fictional minds that Palmer calls for in general. In another study ("Re-minding Modernism"), I suggest how "enactivist" accounts of the mind might help narrative analysts avoid the polarization of the mind in here and the world out there when it comes to studying Modernist methods of consciousness representation. I will conclude my response by summarizing the main argument of that other study, since it affords an alternative way to characterize the contrast between Fielding's and Joyce's texts.
Alva NoŽ provides details about the enactivist perspective; in essence, enactivism is a biological approach to consciousness according to which the mind arises from modes of sensorimotor coupling between an organism and its surrounding environment. In turn, this holistic approach to conscious experience as a situated and embodied achievement or skill, rather than a state that happens inside the head (NoŽ 7), suggests grounds for re-evaluating what has become something of a critical commonplace about modernist narratives like Ulysses: namely, that they participate in an inward turn, innovating on previous narratives by developing new means to probe psychological depths. As this last formulation suggests, a continuum or scale has organized prior research on Modernist techniques for representing consciousness; the scale at issue stretches from the private, immaterial mind to the sociomaterial world at large. In critiquing the Cartesian premises of this scale, I do not dispute the assumption that the sorts of techniques associated with writers like Joyce (the use of reflectors or centers of consciousness to narrate events, extended representations of characters' thought patterns, and so forth) appear in higher concentrations in modernist texts like Ulysses than in earlier narratives like Tom Jones. Rather, I propose a different way of contextualizing those techniques and interpreting their functions.
Specifically, I seek to replace the internal-external scale with a continuum stretching between, at one pole, a tight coupling between an intelligent agent and that agent's surrounding environment, and, at the other pole, a looser coupling between agent and environment. From this perspective, rather than being interpreted as signs of an inward turn or a probing of psychological depths segregated off from the material world, Modernist techniques for representing consciousness can be seen as an attempt to highlight how minds interlock with larger experiential environments, via the particular affordances or opportunities for action that those environments provide. Narratives like Ulysses, in other words, stage the momentby-moment construction of worlds-as-experienced through an interplay between agent and environment-whereas authorial narration like Fielding's represents agent-environment interactions at a grosser scale or more global level of detail. Accordingly, the task for narrative analysts is to situate particular techniques for mind representation along a distinctly post-Cartesian continuum. The new scale stretches between, not inner and outer worlds, but rather relatively fine-grained and relatively coarse-grained representations of the way intelligent agents negotiate opportunities for action and interaction.
In these concluding paragraphs, I have been able to offer only a thumbnail sketch of a much larger framework for inquiry. Nonetheless, I hope to have provided a sense of how, by bringing enactivist insights together with narratological models, scholars of liturature can contribute to, and not just borrow from, post-Cartesian understandings of the mind. In doing so, they can also work toward accomplishing a goal that complements Palmer' s aim of studying fictional minds by using "parallel discourses on real minds." This complementary goal - positioning research on fictional and other narratives such that it can inform as well as be informed by the sciences of mind - will require establishing genuine dialogue between literary scholarship and fields that include linguistics, psychology, philosophy, and others. Alan Palmer is to be commended for all of his efforts to initiate just this sort of dialogue.
1 I develop a fuller account of the ideas sketched in this paragraph in my contributions to Herman, Phelan, Rabinowitz, Richardson, and Warhol.
Baker, Lynne Rudder. Persons and Bodies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.
Clark, Andy. Super sizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
Herman, David. "1880-1945: Re-minding Modernism." In The Emergence of Mind: Representations of Consciousness in Narrative Discourse in English, David Herman. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2011. PAGES? Print.
____, James Phelan, Peter Rabinowitz, Brian Richardson, and Robyn Warhol. Practicing Narrative Theory: Four Perspectives in Conversation. Underreview.
Hobson, Peter. The Cradle of Thought. London: Macmillan, 2002. Print.
NoŽ, Alva. Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009. Print.
Palmer, Alan. "The Construction of Fictional Minds." Narrative 10.1 (2002): 28-46. Print.
Searle, John R. "Animal Minds." Etica and Animali 9 (1998): 37-50. Print.
Strawson, PF Individuals. London: Methuen, 1959. Print.
Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Ed. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.
Ohio State University
David Herman (email@example.com), who serves as the editor of the Frontiers of Narrative book series and the journal Storyworlds, teaches in the English department at Ohio State University. He has published widely in the areas of interdisciplinary narrative theory and storytelling across media. Recent projects include an edited volume titled The Emergence of Mind: Representations of Consciousness in Narrative Discourse in English (U of Nebraska P, 2011) and a 2011 special issue of the journal Substance devoted to "Graphic Narratives and Narrative Theory," co-guest edited with Jared Gardner.