In 2014 I published Kafka’s Cognitive Realism. The cognitive realism of the title was my attempt to provide a simple pivot point between scientific findings about the human mind and the structures by which texts engage those human minds.
What is cognitive realism? Why should you care?
I see cognitive realism as helping us to model a dynamical interplay between minds in texts, in the real world, and as conceived of in “folk psychology”, or people’s everyday intuitions about how their minds work:
As such, cognitive realism gives us purchase on one of the central questions for cognitive literary science, which is how texts, minds, and beliefs about minds interact.
The concept of cognitive realism, and the simple framework it opens up for studying relationships between texts and minds, still strikes me as potentially useful to the cog lit field. It provides a straightforward way to apply cognitive-scientific insights within the study of text-mind interactions.
Here’s the definition I give in a 2012 paper on memory in Madame Bovary:
“Cognitive realism” denotes the capacity of a text to tap in directly to some aspect of a reader’s cognitive faculties, by evoking this faculty in a cognitively accurate way. A text that is cognitively realistic corresponds to how we really remember, or see, or feel, and may therefore induce a particularly effortless imaginative response on the reader’s part.
Here’s more from the introduction to the Kafka book:
The concept of “cognitive realism” is intended to provide a framework for asking and beginning to answer such questions in a directed and delimited manner. Cognition is the mediator between the fictional world and the reader on two levels: as it’s evoked in the fictional characters, the narrator, or both, through whom the fictional world is made available to us, and as it operates in the embodied mind of the reader. Investigating how the connections between these two levels are established is therefore likely to tell us a lot about how an effect of reality is created by a text. A text can be cognitively realistic in any area of cognition […] a text may be considered cognitively realistic in its evocation of, for example, visual perception if that evocation corresponds to the ways in which visual perception really operates in human minds and bodies, according to the best understanding available in current cognitive science.
Plus some remarks on individual variation, and on value hierarchies (is “realistic” better than “unrealistic”?):
Literary study structured by the concept of cognitive realism is fully compatible with the notion that both individually and culturally specific aspects of text-processing affect experience and interpretation, but in this book I focus primarily on the commonalities which are likely to underlie those variations. The concept of cognitive realism also doesn’t presuppose or entail any blanket value judgements, such as a belief that it’s better to be cognitively realistic than to be cognitively unrealistic. Classification of texts according to categories such as cognitively realistic and cognitively unrealistic should be a means rather than an end: that is, it should be something that allows us to ask and answer interesting questions that couldn’t otherwise be asked or answered. While classificatory precision is helpful, therefore, the point of applying the concept of cognitive realism to literature is not to create a rigid taxonomy of realistic versus unrealistic, but to make use of a framework for identifying certain features and groups of features which recur in texts. This in turn allows us to ask how these features may create certain connections with the cognitive processes of readers and hence affect the reading experience. This then allows us to make informed predictions, which may serve as the basis for empirical testing, as well as to start drawing systematic comparisons between different texts and groups of texts—and indeed between different readers and groups of readers.
You can read more in the introduction to the book
[download: Kafkas-Cognitive-Realism_front-matter-and-intro_Troscianko-2014] (see especially pp. 1-4)
You can buy the paperback edition of the book for around GBP 40 via Routledge, or for somewhat less via amazon.co.uk. It‘s also on amazon.com.
Where have I used cognitive realism beyond Kafka?
Many of my Kafka papers expand on the concept in directions relating to vision, the visual imagination, and emotion. You can see more details on my Publications page. I’ve used cognitive realism as the methodological foundation for investigating other authors and cognitive faculties, including memory in Flaubert (as above) and Proust:
Troscianko, E.T. (2012). The cognitive realism of memory in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Modern Language Review, 107, 772-795.
Highlights the significance of memory in relation to cognitive dissonance in readers’ engagements with Flaubert’s eponymous heroine.
Troscianko, E.T. (2013). Cognitive realism and memory in Proust’s madeleine episode. Memory Studies, 6, 437-456.
Investigates the divergences and discrepancies between the mechanisms of memory and Proust’s evocation of it to explain the perennial popularity of the madeleine in the popular imagination.
If you’re thinking about using cognitive realism as part of the framework for your research, I’d love to hear from you!