Culture Magazine

For the Historical Record: Cog Sci and Lit Theory, A Chronology

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Another reprint from The Valve, though slightly revised. I'm bumping this to the top of the queue in view of this interesting post in which Scott Enderle meditates on loose conjunctions between perceptrons, post-structuralist thought, and data mining.
Back in the ancient days of the Theory's Empire event I contributed a comment paralleling the rise of Theory with that of cognitive science. That parallel seems - at least to me - of general interest. So I decided to dig it out from that conversation and present it here, in lightly edited form. The parallel I present does not reflect extensive scholarship on my part, no digging in the historical archives, etc. Rather, it is an off-the-top-of-my-head sketch of the multifaceted intellectual milieu in which I have lived much of my intellectual life.
I take 1957 as a basic reference point. That's when Northrup Frye published his Anatomy and that's when Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures. 1957 is also when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to circle the globe. The Cold War was in full swing at that time and Sputnik triggered off a deep wave of tech anxiety and tech envy in America. One consequence was more federal money going into the university system and a move to get more high school students into college. So we see an expansion of college and university enrollments through the 60s and an expansion of the professorate to accommodate. Cognitive science (especially its AI side) and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Theory rode in on this wave. By the time the federal money began contracting in the early 70s an initial generation of cognitivists and Theorists was becoming tenured in, and others were in the graduate school and junior faculty pipe-line. Of course, the colleges and universities couldn't simply halt the expansion once the money began to dry up. These things have inertia.
We may take cognitive science for granted now, but the fact is that there are precious few cognitive science departments. There are some, but mostly we've got interdisciplinary programs pulling faculty from various departments. These programs grant PhDs by proxy; you get your degree in a traditional department but are entitled to wear a cog sci gold seal on your forehead. As Jerry Fodor remarked somewhere (I forget where) in the last year or three, most cognitive psychologists don't practice cognitive science. They do something else, something that most likely was in place before cognitive science came on the scene.
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Let's look at the 1950s:
1948: Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics
1949: Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Information, Bell System Technical Journal
1953: Double helix model of DNA published in Nature (Watson and Crick)
1956: The Dartmouth Summer Program on Artificial Intelligence (coined the term “artificial intelligence”); The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two (George Miller)
1957: Syntactic Structures (Chomsky), Anatomy of Criticism (Frye), Mythologies (Barthes)
1958: Anthropologie Structurale (Levi-Strauss), The Computer and the Brain (John von Neumann)
1959: Chomsky's review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior
1961: Histoire de la Folie (Foucault)
We can conveniently mark the coming-to-visibility of high theory with the 1966 structuralism conference at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the subsequent publishing of its proceedings (my modest contribution is on pp. 243-244):
Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, eds. (1970). The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.
The following two volumes can serve to mark the unveiling of cognitive science as a specific, if diffuse, interdisciplinary activity:
Marvin Minsky, ed. (1968) Semantic Information Processing, Cambridge, Mass.
Endel Tulving and Wayne Donaldson, eds. (1972) Organization of Memory.
It was about that time, in 1973, that Christopher Longuet-Higgins coined the term "cognitive science".
This is when things, in both arenas, really started to take hold and move out. Note that there was a real, though failed, attempt on the part of literature to hook up with cognitive science through Chomsky (stylistics and Jonathan Culler's early structuralism). Terms such as “competence” and “deep structure” gained some purchase but, for better or worse, the substance of Chomsky's (often obscure) thought remained safely in linguistics. There is also a story grammar literature that developed mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and is beholden to both strands of thinking. For that matter, it strikes me that one Sheldon Kline did a computer simulation of Levi-Strauss's myth theory that, in fact, looked more like Propp. I read a tech report on this sometime in the mid-1970s.
[As for viciousness, the inter-school arguments by and around Chomsky are as bitter as anything in and around Theory. The rancor continues to this day.]
It seems to me that by the late 70s and early 80s the main ideas were on the table in both camps. Consolidation was setting in. The early 80s also saw an attempt to commercialize AI technology, but that went bust by 1985 or so and Roger Schank, among others, began talking about AI winter. Two benchmarks:
Stanley Fish (1980) Is There a Text in this Class?

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) Metaphors We Live By.
Fish is a well-known phenomenon, so I'll leave him alone. But Lakoff deserves a remark or two. He was an early student of Chomsky's who, along with James McCawley, Haj Ross, and others, developed something called generative semantics and thereby precipitated a nasty war within Chomskydom (see The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris). While generative semantics is still mostly syntax, the metaphor book is deep in semantic territory, which had pretty much been forbidden to linguists by Leonard Bloomfield, a ban Chomsky was happy to reinforce. Lakoff and Johnson see Metaphors (and associated work) as marking a second generation cognitive science, one that emphasizes embodied cognition. From my (biased) POV the lit crit manifestation this 2nd generation looks a lot like New Criticism with a new set of tropes and a modest interest in laboratory experimentation.
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Two more reference points: In 1986 J. Hillis Miller was president of the MLA and thus delivered the presidential address. He complained at that time about the decline of interest in deconstruction; the address was published in the May 1987 issue of PMLA.
Meanwhile, the 1984 meeting of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence had a panel discussion on “The Dark Ages of AI.” This appeared in AI Magazine for the fall on 1985. The field was running low on new ideas and the business community was getting stale about AI's commercial promise.
I don't know what Chomsky & Co. were up to at that time.
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As far as I know there really isn't anything in cognitive science that's parallel to Theory's Empire. That is in part because these two intellectual areas are organized along different lines, with different publication habits and pedagogical needs. But I'll list three anthology volumes:
R. Núñez and W. J. Freeman,eds. (1999). Reclaiming Cognition.
Port, R. F. and T. van Gelder, Eds. (1995). Mind as Motion: Explorations in the Dynamics of Cognition.
J. Petitot, F. J. Varela, B. Pachoud and J.-M. Roy, eds. (1999) Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.
These volumes all argue that the “classical” cognitive science has failed and we need a more dynamic approach, one that's more realistic about the nervous system and, incidentally, one that's more friendly with the continental tradition in philosophy. Walter Freeman, in particular, has been pursuing a rapprochement with Derrida.
My quick and dirty reading of this intellectual history is that it has been driven by ideas that began crystallizing during the 1950s. Those ideas have now given up their vitality. There's nothing new to be gained from them. We stand in need of fundamentally new starting points. Just what they might be . . .
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You might want to check out a fascinating article: Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “From Information Theory to French Theory: Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss, and the Cybernetic Apparatus,” Critical Inquiry, Fall 2011. He looks at the period during and immediately after World War II when Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan picked up ideas about information theory and cybernetics from American thinkers at MIT and Bell Labs. You should be able to get a copy from Geoghegan's publications page.

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