How do we talk about the mind in the arts and humanities?
Interpreting culture often mobilises assumptions about the nature of the human mind and its processes and experiences, yet these may be mostly tacit or based upon common sense. Engaging with cultural artefacts and representations—with verbal and visual media of all kinds and from every historical period—requires certain ways of paying attention, for example. Narrative art such as films and novels depict fictional minds navigating invented worlds. Individual paintings and poems achieve sense within wider systems of meaning and established conventions of a medium, while also originating undeniably in the activity of creative minds.
The AHRC research network Cognitive Futures in the Humanities has brought together a diverse body of academics who are interested in supplementing our existing ways of thinking about the mind—of thinking about thinking, and about feeling—by responding to theories and findings in the sciences of mind and brain. This is not to shift the grounds of cultural criticism onto a scientific footing, nor is it to displace other languages of mental experience such as Freudian psychoanalysis, but rather to engage critically with the cognitive sciences, one of the most important parts of the contemporary intellectual landscape and itself a fast-changing field. In fact, the term ‘cognitive science’ can misleadingly suggest an interest in rational machines and minds as computers, a legacy of the early days of post-War artificial intelligence research. But today, the cognitive sciences draw upon work in a huge range of disciplines: philosophy, neuroscience, robotics, post-Chomskyan linguistics, experimental psychology, biology, anthropology, and more. It extends far beyond abstract logic, and it is interdisciplinary through and through.
It is just this hybridity and dynamism, harnessed to increasingly powerful models and findings, which have helped make the cognitive sciences and cognitive neuroscience such flourishing fields. And new emphases have emerged, a ‘new science of the mind’, as the philosopher Professor Mark Rowlands, University of Miami puts it, that is non-Cartesian, in the sense that it conceives of cognition as embodied, active, and environmentally embedded. Professor Andy Clark , University of Edinburgh has pioneered a view known as ‘extended mind’ which argues that cognition reaches out into a person’s local environment, as when we routinely use mobile phones to store phone numbers for us: the task of remembering these numbers is offloaded from our biological brains onto the external support. The concerns of this ‘new science of the mind’ intersect strikingly with those of arts and humanities research— topics such as embodiment, emotion, other minds, social minds, and the technological augmentation of mind and body, for example, are debated with fervent intricacy. In the last decade, cognitive science has made a notable turn to Continental philosophy, especially to phenomenologists such as Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger. And narrative has been a key area of investigation for some time. ‘Our thinking is organized as stories,’ to quote the cognitive scientist Professor Mark Turner, Case Western Reserve University.
The purpose of this network has been twofold: to stimulate further debate in this area among researchers in the humanities, and to create a new international platform for existing groups and clusters working independently on similar kinds of projects around the world, for instance in Austria, Finland, and Italy, as well as in the UK and North America. Through a number of symposia and major network conferences, the shape of the field has started to become visible and new connections and collaborations have already emerged. The network will continue to exist beyond the initial phase of AHRC funding, with future conferences planned in Oxford and Helsinki. There are related new projects, too, including ‘A History of Distributed Cognition’, funded by a grant from the AHRC (2014-18), which looks at how cultures since the ancient Greeks have understood the mind to surpass the limits of the brain and body. And ‘Brains in the Making’, a workshop at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study in 2015, will bring a ‘cognitive humanities’ perspective to a wider interdisciplinary conversation over models and methods in the brain sciences.
Cognitive science assumes a huge part of our contemporary intellectual history, and there is every reason to ask what its relation to the arts, culture, and theory can be. There is scope to evaluate its reach into culture, to offer a critique of its social meanings and affective force. Like any other formation, it is open to historicization. These are just some of the future directions for cognitive studies in the humanities, as well as new ways to talk about minds.
This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about the Cognitive Futures in the Humanities Research Network is available here.
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