Literary Cognitivism: Is Truth in the Proof? (It’s Complicated)

As a teacher I have always found some of the best conversations were based in looking at how things in writing work. And if we don’t understand what dialogue, action, setting, character, motivation, desire – if we don’t have an understanding of those things, writers lose the ability to analyze what they think and believe about their writing. For example, if a writer doesn’t understand conflict in a story, they may not be able to analyze the conflict pitfalls in their writing. Writers then end up writing more drafts, and believing that their is some kind of superstition or creative muse at work because they just don’t know what to work on. That has led me into the concepts of traditional and evolving narratology, (the study of narrative and narrative structure and the ways that these affect our perception). A big portion of that thinking and pedagogy comes from Mieke Bal and his work in understanding how we look at stories. 

Immersion into narratology can be overwhelming, but literary theory, the more time you spend with them, the more it makes sense. As I’ve tried to absorb narratology, I also dove into the concept of literary cognitivisim and what that means. According to Jukka Mikkonen’s Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction, it is a terms “of how literary works convey truth and insights.” Can literature teach us truth and insight into who we are even though it is fiction? My immediate answer was: yes, of course. But it’s complicated. Some even defend the fact that art can generate something like moments of revelation, understanding, and empathy — but is it truth? 


If we do gain insight from reading a novel – what the heck is it that we gain and is it factual, experiential, or something else? In James Harold’s writing he explains how different cognitivts see these theories. Some of these perspectives are epic and some are just confusing. This is one of my favorites — 

“Another strong cognitivist, Peter Kivy (1997), attempts to solve the problem of evidence in somewhat different way. He argues that in some cases, the reader treats the thematic statements in literature as live hypotheses to be tested.While Kivy does not insist that the evidence against which these hypotheses should be tested is found in the text, he does insist that the testing is part of the appropriate experience of a literary work. The extended experience of engaging with literature – including the hours and days spent with the bookmark in place as well as the days and weeks after one has finished – give the reader opportunity to test the claims in the text against her own experiences and the testimony of others. Thus the work of literature makes a claim that is supposed to true, and the experience of the reader’s engagement with the work provides the evidence for the claim. What is distinctive about Kivy’s view is that he thinks that the literary project of reading includes much more than the ordinary conception of the time spent looking at the page.”

The fact that this perspective puts into play the idea that the writer (through the novel poses the hypotheses) and “the experiences of the reader’s engagement with the work — provides the evidence for the claim.” This concept involves the complexity of a writer / reader cycle where an author-based novels, stories, and constructs in novels (ethics, morality, ideas) are handed off to the reader. While this is a complicated idea, it makes sense that the reader is the one to validate whether a story brings fourth a focused ethical truism based on the writer’s vision and the reader’s own experiences applied to the work. 

Immersing into this concept, it seemed offensive that people took up issues with the fact that reading a novel doesn’t transfer truth and empathy — or at least some experiential understanding of the world through literature. In fact, I couldn’t believe anyone would think otherwise. But it isn’t the transfer of something that is in question. Every theorist and conceptual plan agrees something is transferred with the reading of a novel or short story — the problem is defining what exactly is being transferred. 

Clearly this is the edge where conceptual literary analyse and philosophical meanderings circle one another. It is hard to even think about. Yet, it is important to know what we gain (philosophically or practically) when we read a novel. Are we gaining another experience – living another person’s adventure and assimilating it? What have we gained from reading novels? Have we merely sampled the human condition? And how has one reader’s experience varied from other readers and experiences? 

It reminds me of when I was younger, and I posed to my creative writing class that we are creating (in stories and novels) an approximate version of what is in your head. In The Tao of Physics Fritjof Capra describes the distortion of a map based on the round sphere to a flat surface. And how while it represents the same concept, it is distorted because of the transference from a round shape to a flat shape. He shows the example of “drawing a square on a plane and on a sphere” (64). I called this an approximate map (accurate to a point). They are distorted, but they are still maps transferred to different versions. And therefore, what is created in fiction is not the writers vision, but an approximate vision, story, novel, idea. And people will see it based on their lives. Writers know they have to edit and revise their work and make every sentence count. Yet, the subjectivity of those ideas just have to be convincing enough for the reader to believe them and buy into the story based on their willingness to apply it to their own vision of it. And that transfer of the approximate map is exactly what James Harold is explaining above when he says that the writer creates the hypothesis — while the reader solves the equation on their own set of proofs. 




Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and eastern mysticism. Shambhala Publications, 2010.

Harold, James. “Literary Cognitivism.” (2015).

Mikkonen, Jukka. “Truth in Literature: The Problem of Knowledge and Insight Gained from Fiction.” Narrative Factuality: A Handbook (2019): n. pag. Print.

Let’s Talk About The Staff / Chapters: Give Me a Break

Chapters are funny things when you are a writer. During the editing process of writing The Staff, the connections and relationships between chapters was an evolving thought. I started with writing numbers. However, during editing the numbers were so jumbled and disconnected I didn’t even see them there. I progressed to replacing numbers with lines or breaks. It started with a centered line, then a series of asterisk and eventually a mix of different versions. Finally, during the last few revisions, I took out all chapter breaks, lines, and anything that resembled a specific stop. Then I replaced it with a double space and left it. 

And then I read the novel and I really liked the fluid motion that was created. If people wanted to stop, they could stop at any one of those breaks and stop. A few people have asked me about chapter breaks and the fact that I don’t have chapters. My response has been, why would I want you to stop reading? 

Conceptually, chapters and their history is an often overlooked element of writing. There are a variety of approaches for chapters. In spy novels, location changes are highlighted in chapter headings. Sometimes, a writer will add a quote to the beginning of a chapter to add some kind of esoteric quality to what is coming. Sometimes, that is intriguing to me and other times it is a distraction. 

Nicholas Dames wrote an article The Chapter: A History for the New Yorker in 2014. And he outlines that “The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge… who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies.” He goes on to explain that complex religious or philosophical texts required an almost index quality that was created for the purpose finding the location of important passages and areas to refer. 

Later, as novels developed, chapters became manageable nightly moments that were framed for the reader. “Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shady” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know what we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going – an attention paid out rhythmically – would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.” 

It makes sense when Dickens and others were writing their stories in serials that chapters were like short story titles and that when collected together, it makes sense that we are reminded about what is happening as the story unfolds.

In modern novels, chapters have become flexible. In the age of Netflix binge watching, where the credits are not even consumed when a new episode starts, are modern readers looking for a break or time to digest the story — or are they reaching for the next moment of conflict, action, and storytelling. Just keeping reading.



Read more articles about The Staff 

#Rhizo15

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.

On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.

The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.

The Art of Nothing – Existential Horror

Ever think there is someone behind you when you walk up the stairs, and you spin around and there is nothing there? That is what my article The Art of Nothing is all about. Check out the link and visit the creative talents at Western Legends Publishing.

“Existential horror is the subtly of suggestion and innuendo. It is the ability to prove the almost imperceptible.”

This article explains the concept of existential horror with a sampling from modern and classic horror stories. From the modern House of Leaves to the H. P. Lovecraft short The Color Out of Space, this article pushes the concept of fear less than a creature or a series of gruesome scenes, and suggests something closer to the truth of who we are and what we really fear.

“The art of nothing or the “inexpressible horror” is an empty promise: something that is closer to reality than to fiction.”