Cognitive Historicism

As a subfield of cognitive cultural studies, cognitive historicism has so far built on a variety of paradigms from cognitive science, including, but not limited to, studies in modularity (Ellen Spolsky), analogical thinking (Mary Thomas Crane), theory of mind (Lisa Zunshine), cognitive neuroscience (Alan Richardson), and cognitive linguistics and anthropology (Bruce McConachie). Cognitive literary critics have been grappling with the concept of historicity for almost a decade now (see Crane’s Shakespeare’s Brain, Richardson’s British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind, Spolsky’s Satisfying Skepticism and “Cognitive Literary Historicism" (pdf) and Zunshine, Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible); it is significant that a 1998 MLA forum, convened as a prequel to inaugurating, in 1999, the MLA discussion group on cognitive approaches to literature, was entitled “Historicizing Cognition.” Indeed an interest in articulating the meaning of the “weasely”1  term “historical” in the context of cognitive evolutionary epistemology is quickly becoming a central theoretical commitment of the field of cognitive cultural studies.

In defining cognitive historicism one may consider its practical implementation and its theoretical assumptions. In respect to the former, “cognitive historicism retains the emphasis on specific sociocultural environments” while recruiting and selectively adapting “theories, methods, and findings from the sciences of mind and brain.”2 As to its theoretical assumptions, cognitive historicism views culture as an ongoing interplay—simultaneously a give-and-take and a tug-of-war—between human cognitive architecture and specific historical circumstances. Hence, according to Spolsky,

The addition of biological, evolutionary, and cognitive hypotheses to the discussion of [cultural] change . . . offers literary historical and cultural studies a way to consider the universals of human cognitive processing as they function in their several contexts. These universals are themselves counted as aspects of the context, and thus, the enormous creative potential of the evolved human mind itself is folded into the investigation of the processes of cultural construction, complicating but also enriching the discussion.3

In counting human cognitive architecture as a crucial factor contributing to cultural change, cognitive literary critics subscribe cautiously to a view of this architecture as flexible—cautiously, because the architecture itself does not change (having remained constant across the species for at least the last ten thousand years), but the ways in which it expresses itself in specific environments certainly do. To use a well-known example, consider a child born into a culture built around reading. Her brain has to undergo a particular mutually-contingent adjustment of several cognitive systems not required of the brain of a child born into a non-reading culture. Moreover, having learned to read will eventually enable her to affect the world around her in a variety of ways—e.g., by publishing a poem, starting a new blog, or inventing a new computer game—which will, in turn, create a slightly different cognitive environment for other entering readers.

Exciting news for students interested in cognitive approaches to literature and also committed to historicist analysis is that, just as other subfields within cognitive cultural studies, cognitive historicism is still taking shape and hence is wide-open to ambitious newcomers. There is no predicting what forms it will take in the next ten years because it will depend largely on the interests of its newest practitioners.


Selected Publications

L. Zunshine. “Cognitive Alternatives to Interiority.” Cambridge History of the English Novel. Ed. Robert L. Caserio and Clement C. Hawes. Cambridge University Press, 2011. 147-162 (pdf)

L. Zunshine. “Rhetoric, Cognition, and Ideology in Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s 1781 Hymns in Prose for Children,” Poetics Today, 23.1 (2001): 231- 259 (pdf)


1. Ellen Sposky, "Cognitive Literary Historicism," 162.
2. Alan Richardson, “Facial Expression Theory from Romanticism to the Present" (in Zunshine, ed., Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, Johns Hopkins UP, 2010), 67.
3. Spolsky, "Cognitive Literary Historicism," 168.