Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Martha Nussbaum and the Judicious Spectator

Philosophy has typically been thought of as rather different from literature. The separation started at least as far back as Plato, who wanted to eject the poets from his Republic. Indeed the idea that philosophy could learn from literature seems as strange as the idea that psychology might do so.

It is striking, then, that one of America's most distinguished philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, has built her career, in part, from her analyses of works of fiction. The first book by which she became widely known was The fragility of goodness (1986) in which she argued that for Plato the route to goodness was a life of contemplation, insulated from the shocks of the external world. By contrast, she argues, real life is full of accidents, which make goodness more fragile. So where do we find analyses of life as affected by accidents? In literary fiction. Nussbaum points us towards Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and says: "Greek tragedy shows good people being ruined because of things that just happen to them, things they do not control ... Tragedy also, however, shows something more deeply disturbing: it shows good people doing bad things, things otherwise repugnant to their ethical character and commitments, because of circumstances whose origin does not lie within them" (p. 25).

Plato’s descendants are the natural sciences, in which we strive towards ideal truths that transcend individual human cognition. No informed person would wish to argue against inferences drawn validly from empirical science, including science done in the domain of psychology. But complementary to such inferences, as Nussbaum argues, are understandings from literary fiction, whose truths are relative to the reader, and point to vulnerability rather than Platonic self-sufficiency as the centre of our humanity.

In 1995, Nussbaum published Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. She starts the book with Adam Smith’s idea of the “judicious spectator” who can mentally enter the plight of another person. She argues that this ability, of identifying with others by means of empathy or compassion, is developed by the reading of fiction. It is this kind of development for which Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz & Peterson (2006) have offered empirical evidence (see our academic papers, accessible by clicking here). Without being able to imagine one's self into the minds of others, in their often fragile circumstances, as one does in fiction, such issues as justice and fairness in public life would be impossible. You can access a review of Poetic justice by clicking here.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Research Bulletin: Learning about Emotions

With this post, we introduce our research bulletins, in which empirical studies both current and past, which are relevant to the psychology of fiction, are briefly described. Jeanne Tsai, along with Jennifer Louie, Eva Chen and Yukiko Uchida recently published a fascinating paper that examined culture, children’s storybooks, and ideal emotions, in three separate studies. Ideal emotions are emotional states that are viewed as optimal. The researchers found that European American preschoolers—as compared with Taiwanese preschoolers—viewed excited states as preferable to, and happier than, calm states (Study 1). This difference was also reflected in the popular storybooks for each country. In America, the pictures in storybooks were more likely to depict an excited state (in both expressions and activities), than were the pictures in storybooks popular in Taiwan (Study 2). Lastly, exposing children from either culture to either exciting or calm stories, altered preference and evaluations of either excited or calm states. That is: no matter what the culture, children who were read an exciting story (as opposed to a calm story) were more likely to view excited states as preferable to calm states, and also to see these excited states as happier (Study 3). This research provides important insight into how exposure to children’s storybooks can influence emotional preferences, and also provides a good model of how a complicated research question can be approached by multiple different methodological perspectives. For more details, please read:

Tsai, J. L., Louie, J. Y., Chen, E. E., & Uchida, Y. (2007). Learning what feelings to desire: Socialization of ideal affect through children’s storybooks. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 17–30.

If you have any difficulty obtaining this paper, please contact Raymond Mar.

This post was written by Raymond Mar, and is made on his behalf while he is temporarily away.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts

A symposium was held on Literary Reading and Emotion on the 13th and 14th of July 2008, at the recently founded Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts, in Heath, Massachusetts. The aim of the Institute is to sponsor and promote research in cognitive science and the arts. It was founded by Don Freeman, Margaret Freeman, and Mark Turner, and those attending the symposium, with Don and Margaret Freeman (who hosted it), were, in alphabetical order: Jan Auracher, Sally Banes, Nöel Carroll, Ellen Dissanayake, David Miall, Keith Oatley, Evelina Simanonyte, Reuven Tsur, and Willie van Peer.

This first symposium at the Institute, in the form of a think-tank conceived by David Miall and Willie van Peer, was devoted largely to understanding the role of emotions in literature, where emotions of the author, of the reader, and in the text itself, were considered. In poetry and some prose works, metrical and phonetic properties of a text enable foregrounding, and can also themselves have emotional effects. One formulation we reached was that literariness involves not only a recognition of something special by means of the language of a literary text, but that metrical and phonetic attributes are able to set up a frame that can act in counterpoint to the semantics of what is read. This kind of counterpoint can contribute to the destabilization of habitual expectations followed by a reformulation—a sequence that has the form of an emotion—which thus can add to the freshness and emotional qualities of what is read.

The group is working on a manifesto that expresses dissatisfaction with traditional, single-disciplinary, approaches to studying the arts, and proposing an interdisciplinary approach that includes empirical research, philosophy, and evolutionary considerations. In this new approach, the focus moves from interpretation of works of art to the experience of them. When the manifesto is produced we will post a link to it on this site.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In a Bomb-Blasted World: The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje's Booker Prize-winning The English patient (1992) is a post-modernist, post-colonialist, novel that has been widely read, and it has been made into a successful film.

Ondaatje is a lyrical writer who works by juxtaposing vividly imagined scenes in ways that resonate beyond the usual time-sequences of linear narrative. The English patient is set largely in a bombed Renaissance villa as the Allies advance through Italy in the second World War. Four characters—the English patient (burned beyond recognition), Hana (a Canadian nurse who looks after him), Caravaggio (a Canadian career thief and spy), and Kip (a Sikh bomb-disposal expert)—gather at the villa. Can they, together, repair or at least compensate for the individual damage each has suffered? The broader subject of the novel is European violence and its implications for the larger world.

The more I think about this book, the more I think it is really good: and the best post-modernist novel I have read. I wrote a review of it for the members of a graduate class I taught on the psychology of narrative literature. The review explores the novel's themes, puzzles, and structure. You can access it by clicking here.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Psychological Fiction of Jane Austen

When people ask about our finding that readers of fiction had better empathy and other social skills than readers of non-fiction (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz & Peterson, 2006, accessible in our archive of academic papers by clicking here) they sometimes say: "So, what's a good novel to read?" I feel tempted to reply: "Anything by Jane Austen."

Jane Austen is very psychological, though I am not sure whether this explains her current popularity. She seems to be one of those about whom Maja Djikic wrote in her post of 29 May 2008 on Romanticism. Austen transmuted her suffering into art. A case for this was made in 1940 by D.W. Harding in F.R. Leavis's literary magazine, Scrutiny. His essay was entitled: “Regulated hatred: An aspect of the work of Jane Austen.” (Harding lived virtually a double life, as a professor of psychology and a respected literary critic; his essay is reprinted in David Lodge, Ed., 1972, Twentieth Century literary criticism: A reader, pp. 262-274, London: Longman). Harding argued that far from being a calmly reassuring writer, Austen offers uncomfortable insights into society, and that her novels enabled her to attain “some mode of existence for her critical attitudes.”

From the point of view of our research findings, all Austen's novels involve theory of mind. Readers need to attune to what characters may be feeling and thinking, even when clues are sparse. More especially, it seems to me that one of Austen's pieces of deep originality was her invention of the novel of social explanation. (We have made an argument for this in a recent paper: Keith Oatley & Maja Djikic, 2008, Writing as thinking, Review of General Psychology, 12, 9-27).

Think of it like this. It is generally said that the detective story entered literature with Edgar Allan Poe's short-story "The murders in the rue Morgue" (1841) and in its longer form with Wilkie Collins's novel The moonstone (1868). Both are based on the urge to discover and on explanation; and of course stories of this kind have remained immensely popular. But Austen was ahead of Poe and Collins with a story of gradual discovery and explanation: Pride and prejudice (1813). Austen's novel is a story not of forensic but of social explanation: why was the very eligble Mr Darcy rude to Elizabeth Bennet at a ball? There are, of course, innumerable puzzles in literature, for instance the question of how Oedipus could know who his mother was, or indeed how Tom Jones could know who his mother was. But I submit that these puzzles are different, and that it was Austen who conceived the novel based on social explanation. If she had predecessors in this, I would be pleased to hear of them.

Explanatory hypotheses for Darcy's rude behaviour begin immediately after the ball. Did it occur because, as Mrs Bennet says, Darcy is "a most disagreeable, horrid man?" To find out, one must read on, and as one passes, Alice-like, into the world of the novel, one also finds oneself in the kind of simulation of selves in interaction that can enable one to sharpen one's social acumen.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Psychology of Theatre Conference

An upcoming conference on Theatre and Cognitive Science may be of interest to those curious about the psychology of fiction. The details are below, for those who might want to attend or present:

Call for Papers
SYMPOSIUM ON THEATRE AND COGNITIVE STUDIES

University of Pittsburgh
February 27th and 28th, 2009

Plenary Speaker:
Mark Johnson, Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon
"Cognition and the Arts"

The University of Pittsburgh's Symposium on Theatre and Cognitive Studies will feature new work at the intersection of theatre/performance studies and the studies of the mind and brain. We encourage paper proposals from theatre and performance scholars working in the fields of acting, spectatorship, directing, design, playwriting, and theatricality. We also encourage proposals from cognitive literary critics with an interest in drama, including script analysis and dramaturgy.

Topics presented may include (but are not limited to) conceptual integration ("blending"), Theory of Mind, empathy studies, affordances, emotions, memory, and cognition as these relate to the history, theory, and practice of the theatre. Final papers should be twenty minutes long.

Mark Johnson is the Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. He is the author of The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason (Chicago, 1987) and The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago, 2007). With George Lakoff, Johnson has co-authored the highly influential Metaphors We Live By (Chicago, 1980) and Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999). In keeping with recent emphases on "cognitive embodiment," Johnson researches the ways in which meaning and cognition are intimately tied to embodied epistemology and to what he calls "the pervasive aesthetic characteristics of all experience."

Symposium Organizers: Bruce McConachie, University of Pittsburgh; Rhonda Blair, Southern Methodist University; F. Elizabeth Hart, University of Connecticut; Pil Hansen, University of Toronto; John Lutterbie, SUNY Stony Brook; and Amy Cook, Indiana University.

Send 200-300 word proposals to Pil Hansen and John Lutterbie by emails only: Hansen.pil@gmail.com and John.Lutterbie@gmail.com.

Deadline for all proposals: October 1, 2008
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