Cognitive alternatives to interiority

Lisa Zunshine

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

3 Scopus citations


What we call the interiority of a fictional character is a cognitive-historical construct. That is, it emerges out of the interaction between our theory of mind – our evolved cognitive adaptation for explaining people’s behavior in terms of their mental states, such as thoughts, desires, feelings, and intentions – and historically contingent ways of describing and interpreting behavior and mental states. At no point can the cognitive be separated from the historical, although various interpretive systems have considered and continue to consider them in isolation. Thus traditional literary analysis has been mostly unaware of the cognitive aspect of fictional interiority, while some overzealous evolutionary literary critics pointedly ignore the role of history in literary endeavor. My goal here is to posit an interpretive model that is grounded in the workings of our cognitive adaptation for reading mental states into behavior and that is sensitive to particular cultural preoccupations of a given historical period. Specifically, I show how the eighteenth century’s uneasy fascination with hypocrisy and madness informed the writers’ intuitive reliance on their readers’ cognitive predispositions as they worked to create an illusion of interiority of their socially troubling and personally troubled characters. The cognitive and the historical As an introductory illustration of the ongoing interplay between the cognitive and historical, consider a conversation that takes place in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), when Walter Shandy, Shandy, Uncle Toby, Yorick, and Corporal Trim gather one evening around the fire in Shandy-hall.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of the English Novel
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781139013796
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (all)


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