‘Dim-conceived glories of the brain’: On Ambiguity in Literature and Science

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    This article explores theoretical issues raised by empirical aesthetics and cognitive literary theory – new fields which attempt to bridge the divide between the humanities and the sciences. The discussion focuses on the concept of ambiguity, which has a rich history in literary studies and has recently attracted attention in neurological and cognitive approaches to literature and art. A shift is proposed from a conception of ambiguity in terms of a relatively passive process of aesthesis to one in which ambiguity plays a role in an active, generative process of poesis. Tracing the influence of ideas of aesthetic autonomy on the historical polarization of science and art, the article draws attention to the role of Romantic aesthetics and the ideologies of modernism in constructing a binary between ambiguous, subjective literary language and rational, objective scientific analysis. It considers how such ideas play out in the literary theory of William Empson and I.A. Richards, the empirical aesthetics of Samir Zeki and Reuven Tsur’s cognitive literary theory. Keats’s famous idea of ‘negative capability’ is deployed, in combination with Andrew Bowie’s distinction between analytic and hermeneutic conceptions of truth, to lead into a discussion of ‘cognitive blending’, conceived by Mark Turner and Gilles Fauconnier as an evolutionary adaptation in the human brain allowing the conceptual integration of huge amounts of information. This theory supports a positive valorization of ambiguity as integral to creative thought in both science and art.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)37-55
    Number of pages19
    JournalCulture, Theory and Critique
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


    • Literature and science
    • Ambiguity
    • Cognitive literary theory
    • Aesthetics


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