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MACHIAVELLIAN MINDS
A Report from the CCA

by Colin Jager

 

This past year members of the English department had an opportunity to learn how other disciplines think about the human mind. The Center for Cultural Analysis (CCA) sponsored a year-long working group entitled “Mind and Culture” which aimed to bridge the gap between cognitive science and the humanities. The group, directed by Jonathan Kramnick and myself, included faculty and graduate students from the English, clinical psychology, anthropology, philosophy, history, and sociology departments. Recent years have witnessed a boom in thinking about cognition, including a spate of recent books on consciousness, on evolutionary psychology, and on the possible neurological basis of morality. Much of this research is taking place here, in departments such as philosophy and psychology and at the Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science. And yet, for a variety of reasons, the humanities have not been a part of this conversation.

Blakey Vermeule, of Stanford University, is one of the few literary scholars working to integrate literary study with cognitive psychology. Last September, Vermeule visited Rutgers as a keynote speaker for Belief: Faith, Knowledge, and Credulity in the Eighteenth Century, a conference organized by graduate student Saladin Ahmed and sponsored by the Transatlantic Eighteenth Century Studies Group. Professor Vermeule’s lecture inquired into the conditions under which we come to believe that other people possess minds—and thus possess beliefs, feelings, desires, and hopes. She likened certain character traits in eighteenth century fiction to the quality of so-called mindblindness, an idea taken from autism researchers, who propose that people with autism are unable to imagine other people as possessors of minds.

A few days later, in her presentation to our working group, Professor Vermeule offered a complementary interpretation of literary character. She proposed that if certain fictional characters are mindblind, others are so mind-aware that they are Machiavellian—that is, they are always able to anticipate what other people will feel, desire, and hope, and they use that knowledge to their own advantage. Most provocatively, she proposed that such characters—Milton’s Satan, for example—are the most memorable and resonant characters in literature. Her conclusion, then, is that our relationship to literary character, and particularly the pleasure we take in Machiavellian characters, is deeply written into the neurobiology of the brain itself.

If some version of this idea is correct, then a whole range of questions emerges for literary scholars and for humanistic inquiry more generally. Along with visitors to the group, including Alan Leslie and Alvin Goldman from the Rutgers psychology and philosophy departments, we explored these questions. Professors Leslie and Goldman represent the two leading schools of thought concerning how we understand other minds. Leslie believes that young children develop a “theory of mind,” a cognitive mechanism that enables them to understand other people as possessors of minds. Goldman’s idea, by contrast, is that they learn about other minds by “simulating” the people around them. Goldman’s hypothesis is particularly relevant for students of eighteenth century literature, since early versions of simulation theory were proposed by the British empiricist philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith, and arguably influenced the development of narrative fiction in the eighteenth century. Such possibilities, at any rate, suggest avenues we will continue to explore during the second year of the “Mind and Culture” working group.

© 2007 Future Traditions Magazine
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Department of English | Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.