Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind: Toward a Transdisciplinary Approach

David Herman writes: I feel very fortunate indeed to be joining the Department of English Studies at Durham University, which is chock full of brilliant scholars doing cutting-edge research and teaching. Equally pathbreaking work is being done under the auspices of Durham’s Centre for Medical Humanities, so I am doubly honored to have this opportunity to introduce myself to the blog’s readership. My thought was that the best strategy for self-introduction might be to provide a précis of my new book on Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind, forthcoming from MIT Press in July 2013.

This book explores two key questions: How do stories across media interlock with interpreters’ mental capacities and dispositions, thus giving rise to narrative experiences? And how (to what extent, in what specific ways) does narrative scaffold efforts to make sense of experience itself? At the same time, in investigating the mental states and processes that provide grounds for–or, conversely, are grounded in–narrative experiences, the book outlines a “transdisciplinary” approach to studying stories vis-à-vis the cognitive sciences. My argument is that the mind-narrative relationship cannot be exhaustively characterized by the arts and humanities, by the social sciences, or by the natural sciences taken alone; hence genuine dialogue and exchange across these fields of endeavor, rather than unidirectional borrowing from a particular field that thereby becomes dominant, will be required to come to terms with the nexus of narrative and mind. By recruiting as necessary from a range of descriptive nomenclatures and analytic methods, and by suggesting how traditions of narrative study might be interwoven with narrative-pertinent modes of inquiry associated with social, cognitive, and ecological psychology, linguistics and semiotics, communication theory, ethnography, artificial intelligence and robotics, the philosophy of mind, and other areas that fall under the umbrella field of cognitive science, my goal is to keep the target phenomena at the center of analytic attention, drawing on various disciplinary resources when they became relevant to the issues under discussion. In this way, instead of subordinating humanistic vocabularies and methods to those of the social or natural sciences, or vice versa, in a transdisciplinary approach different investigative frameworks can converge on various dimensions of the problems at hand. New strategies for research can thus emerge in a bottom-up fashion from the interaction of the fields brought to bear on the issues under study, rather than being predetermined and imposed, in a top-down manner, by one or the other disciplines concerned.

Put briefly, then, my argument is that theorists of narrative have something to contribute to as well as learn from debates concerning the nature and scope of intelligent activity. To substantiate this argument, I sketch out an approach to narrative and mind that remains situated at the level of persons and person–environment interactions. Thus, instead of pursuing a reductionist program for research based on the assumption that the concept of person, and person-level phenomena, must yield to some more fundamental level of explanation, such as neuronal activity in the brain, information-processing mechanisms, or other causal factors operating at a subpersonal level, I hold that it is at the personal rather than subpersonal level that narrative scholars are optimally positioned to contribute to–and not just borrow from–frameworks for understanding the mind. Accordingly, in contrast with researchers who have appealed to the neurobiology of the brain to posit mapping relationships between aspects of narrative production or processing, on the one hand, and specific structures and processes in the brain, on the other hand, my approach remains situated at the person level–the level of the medium-sized, human-scale world of everyday experience as theorized by (neo)phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Dan Zahavi, by philosophers of mind such as Lynne Rudder Baker, by ecological psychologists such as J.J. Gibson, and by many other scholars working in a range of disciplines. (Note: I have provided a brief list of references at the end of this post.) Since narratives as well as narrative scholarship have much to say about this world of everyday experience, with stories at once growing out of and facilitating engagements with a wide variety of social and material environments, I focus on the person level as a way of exploring how practices of narrative worldmaking can inform, and not just be informed by, understandings of the mind.

In turn, under the heading of narrative worldmaking I include two major areas of inquiry: on the one hand, how narrative designs prompt the co-construction–enable the exploration–of different sorts of storyworlds (I call this process worlding the story); on the other hand, how acts of worldmaking themselves scaffold a variety of sense-making activities, especially when it comes to interpreting the conduct of persons (I call this process storying the world). Hence I work to develop new perspectives on storytelling and the sciences of mind through a two-sided approach; this approach profiles narrative as both a target of interpretation and a resource for sense making.

The first side of the approach focuses on the way specific discourse patterns enable narrative experiences. Suggesting how ideas from psycholinguistics, discourse analysis, and related areas of research can be integrated with scholarship on stories to characterize processes of narrative understanding, I hypothesize that engaging with stories entails mapping textual patterns onto the WHEN, WHAT, WHERE, WHO, HOW, and WHY dimensions of mentally configured worlds. By using semiotic affordances to specify or “fill out” these dimensions in more or less detail, interpreters can frame provisional answers to questions such as the following–to the extent required by their purposes in engaging with a given narrative:

  1. How does the time frame of events in the storyworld relate to that of the narrational or world-creating act?
  2. Where did/will/might narrated events happen relative to the place of narration–and for that matter relative to the interpreter’s current situation?
  3. How exactly is the domain of narrated events spatially configured, and what sorts of changes take place in the configuration of that domain over time?
  4. During a given moment of the unfolding action, what are the focal (foregrounded) constituents or inhabitants of the narrated domain–as opposed to the peripheral (backgrounded) constituents?
  5. Whose vantage point on situations, objects, and events in the narrated world shapes the presentation of that world at a given moment?
  6. For which elements of the WHAT dimension of the narrative world are questions about WHO, HOW, and WHY also pertinent? In other words, in what domains of the storyworld do actions supervene on behaviors, such that it becomes relevant to ask, not just what cause produced what effect, but also who did (or tried to do) what, through what means, and for what reason?

The interplay among the dimensions at issue–the specific pattern of responses created by the way an interpreter frames answers to these sorts of questions when engaging with a narrative–accounts for the structure as well as the functions and overall impact of the storyworld at issue. And here is where the second side of my approach becomes important–the side concerned with narrative as a resource for sense making rather than a target of interpretation. Whereas the questions just listed concern what kind of world is being evoked by the act of telling, those questions connect up, in turn, with further questions about how a given narrative is situated in its broader discourse environment; at issue is why or with what purposes that act of telling is being performed at all. Narratives do not merely evoke worlds but also intervene in a field of discourses, a range of representational strategies, a constellation of ways of seeing—and sometimes a set of competing narratives, as in a courtroom trial, a political campaign, or a family dispute.

Chapter 5 of the book, titled “Characters, Categorization, and the Concept of Person,” exemplifies the two-sided approach to narrative worldmaking just described. The first part of the chapter, focusing on characters as an aspect of “worlding the story,” examines how understandings of persons arising from social norms, from specific narrative texts, and from embodied interactions with others structure and mediate encounters with characters in stories–indeed, make them recognizable as such. To draw on ideas proposed by the narratologist Ralf Schneider, the term categorization can be used for cases where textual details about characters are amenable to the top-down application of models of persons; in such contexts, the character can be said to be acting true to type–as when Paul Kersey (played by Charles Bronson) in Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974) or Maximus (played by Russell Crowe) in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) fulfills audience expectations associated with characters seeking to avenge the murder of loved ones. Conversely, the term personalization can be used for instances where a character’s membership in a given category is deemphasized, becoming one attribute among others. Personalization occurs when a character, instead of inviting assimilation to available categories or types, requires a more bottom-up mode of engagement, resulting in more or less complete individuation of the character. For instance, Shakespeare’s Hamlet prompts audiences to individuate or personalize its protagonist, who fails to instantiate features (single-mindedness of focus, readiness to capitalize on the first opportunity for revenge, etc.) that typify protagonists in revenge plots.

The second part of the chapter, focusing on character as an aspect of “storying the world,” examines how engagments with characters in narratives might bear in turn on the construction and deployment of person models. Specifically, I discuss how characters in nonfictional as well as fictional narratives sometimes call attention to two aspects of the category of “person” under its profile as a resource for sense making. On the one hand, although my study builds on P.F. Strawson’s account of person as a conceptual primitive that indissolubly combines mental and material predicates, characters in narratives can be used to model what might be termed intrapersonal complexity. Here the issue is that, although persons are recognizable as such by virtue of how they encompass sets of mental and physical properties, persons are also subject to articulation into different arrangements of those properties over time. In other words, though persons are conceptual primitives in Strawson’s sense, and cannot be reduced to anything more basic without a shift from the personal to the subpersonal level (see again the work by Lynne Rudder Baker, as well as Daniel C. Dennett, listed in the references), they are nonsimple entities, subject to processes of internal differentiation–as when a person loses and acquires various properties during the process of aging. Thus, narratives can be used to pose the following question: how much differentiation can be accommodated by the concept of person, before different sets of properties associated with an entity categorized as a person cease to be ascribable to a single entity of that kind–and must instead be distributed across more than one member of the category?

On the other hand, in addition to serving as a means for probing threshold conditions for intrapersonal coherence, characters in narratives can also be used to explore cross-category relationships, modeling the boundary separating persons from nonpersons as clear-cut or gradient, impermeable ?or porous, fixed or variable. For example, Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost? (originally published in 1667), along with other narratives associated with? what A.O. Lovejoy termed the Great Chain of Being, projected the? “horizontal” axis of species differences onto a “vertical” or hierarchical axis ?of ontological status and moral worth, strictly dissociating nonhuman ?animals from traits linked to the category of persons, including the possession of a soul and higher mental faculties (see also René Descartes).? By contrast, by suggesting more or less extensive parallels between members? of the category of persons and beings that have been excluded from that category; by underscoring the phenomenological richness of nonhuman ?experiences, and showing how they too emerge from intelligent agents’ ?interactions with their surrounding environments; or by portraying literally hybridized beings who combine the traits of persons and nonpersons, and thus cross over a boundary that can then be recast as historically as well as culturally variable, narrative affords means for reassessing more or less dominant criteria for personhood–as well as the normative systems with which those criteria are interlinked.

In my current work, I am building on some of the ideas mentioned in my previous paragraph to investigate, in greater detail, narrative engagements with nonhuman animals. Exploring areas of intersection among narratology, cognitive science, and critical animal studies, I am interested in how stories across media can be used to model what it might be like for nonhuman animals to encounter the world–and thereby reshape humans own modes of encounter. I’m testing out a two-pronged approach to these issues; one prong focuses on portrayals of nonhuman experiences in fictional narratives, while the other considers how narratives about nonhuman agents are used in nonfictional (ecological, cognitive-ethological, and other) discourse about animals. Taken together, these two prongs are part of a larger project on “zoonarratology,” or the study of how storytelling practices relate to the nature, experiences, and status of nonhuman animals.

I look forward to continuing to develop this new project at Durham (I’ve listed some articles related to the project in the references below), and in the meantime I will pass along a pre-print of part of the MIT book that the press has graciously agreed to make available to readers of this blog. The pre-print derives from chapter 2–specifically, a section on “Embodied Intersubjectivity and the Scope of Narrative Sense Making.” As a whole, chapter 2 (which is titled “Situating Persons [and Their Reasons] in Storyworlds”) lays groundwork for the book’s discussion of stories as a resource for interpreting the conduct of persons. In this context, and in an effort to avoid hyperextended claims about the power of narrative as an instrument of mind, the section reproduced in the pre-print argues for the need to distinguish sense-making activities to which narrative centrally contributes from those that are more contingently associated with stories, not to mention those that are inimical to being captured in narrative terms at all.

Please click here to download the pre-print.


Baker, Lynne Rudder (2000). Persons and Bodies. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1969). Content and Consciousness. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown.

Descartes, René ([1637] 2000). Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Trans. Desmond M. Clarke. New York: Penguin.

Gibson, James J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Herman, David (2011). “Storyworld/Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives.” SubStance 40.1, 156-81.

——. (2012). “Toward a Zoonarratology: Storytelling and Species Difference in Animal Comics.” M Lehtimäki, L. Karttunen, and M. Mäkelä (eds). Narrative, Interrupted: The Plotless, the Disturbing, and the Trivial in Literature. Berlin: de Gruyter, 93-119.

—–. (Forthcoming). “Modernist Life Writing and Nonhuman Lives: Ecologies of Experience in Virginia Woolf’s Flush.” Modern Fiction Studies 59.3.

Lovejoy, A. O. ([1936] 1964). The Great Chain of Being. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Marcel ([1945] 1962). Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge.

Schneider, Ralf (2001). “Toward a Cognitive Theory of Literary Character: The Dynamics of Mental-model Construction.” Style 35.4, 607-40.

Strawson, P. F. (1959). Individuals. London: Methuen.

Zahavi, Dan (2007). “Expression and Empathy.” D. D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (eds). Folk Psychology Re-Assessed. Berlin: Springer, 25-40.

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