Cognitive Philosophy, Reality and Literature With Carleton’s Donald Beecher

Donald Beecher made it all the way from sunny California to Carleton University’s English department. Here on campus, Beecher is a professor for graduate and undergraduate students, as well as a writer, editor and translator, and philosophical thinker. As an experienced editor and translator of early literary texts, Beecher has published a variety of works both on his own and in collaboration with colleagues, through such publishing houses as McGill-Queen’s UP, University of Toronto Press, and Broadview. Beecher also created a publication series for early music through which he has published numerous performance editions of compositions created between 1500 and 1760.  Recently, Beecher has been working with fellow English professor at Carleton, Grant Williams, on annotated critical editions of the surviving works of the Elizabethan author, Henry Chettle, including his powerful revenge tragedy Hoffman. A parallel endeavour concerns the problem of freedom of will in relation to John Milton’s famous Paradise Lost (1667).

Beecher’s adventurous work involving philosophical approaches to literature is entitled Adapted Brains and Imaginary Worlds: Cognitive Science and the Literature of the Renaissance. He began the journey of writing this striking text with the goal to explore the relationship between cognition and the emotions and imaginative narratives. This book is an accumulation of research presenting twelve “autonomous but interrelated” chapters. (Beecher) Since this book reached bookstores like Chapters in 2016, Beecher has continued to philosophize and study the cognitive processes involved in storytelling.

For Beecher, Philosophy and English Literature have always been connected. The teaching of literature at the university level depends on the philosophical understanding that is subsumed in the many dimensions of literary theory. He discovered an particular passion for literature and the study of cognitive philosophy in the early 2000’s, by glancing at a book his daughter was reading in university. The book was called Consciousness Explained (1991) by Daniel Dennett, who has subsequently become one of Beecher’s favourite cognitive philosophers. This textintroduced Beecher to first-wave cognitive science. At the time, the bridge between literary and cognitive studies was yet to be built, and the arts and sciences were two schools of thought that were understood to be very unrelated or isolated from each other.

Beecher’s philosophical research illustrates the strong connection and correspondence between cognitive sciences and literature. Simply put, there is an important relationship between studies in consciousness and the processes of understanding storytelling, and both fields offer necessary information about the other. Why do we get emotional when we read – when a favourite character dies? How is it that we are so emotionally invested in what we read while still distinguishing the story from our reality? How do we understand characters as human enough for a kind of emotional response, while acknowledging their merely fictional existence? On a daily basis, we as readers encounter and accept these curiosities in our cognition, these adapted features of mind through which we process our unique values of reality. Memory is, likewise, an important part of this relationship between storytelling and consciousness (Beecher). For Beecher, the brain is an “instrument of storytelling,” which holds the cognitive ability to remember and retell parts of stories in particular ways. For example, one person might remember an event completely differently than another person who witnessed the same event, and so those two people might give completely different accounts of the event. The same applies to our cognitive function as a literary audience to fictional stories; there are cognitive reasons why some people remember certain parts of a book or movie more than other parts, or why we might make distinctive connections or associations with particular elements of literature. This theory of audience perception in relation to memory, and in relation to cognition more generally, raises many questions about the philosophy of art. Sartre’s philosophy of human imagination and creativity, presented in The Psychology of the Imagination (1940) theorizes levels of imagination that might play a major role in understanding the cognition behind storytelling and audience memory.

Following these ideas, what level of imagination do fictional characters sit at? One can conclude that fictional characters are productions of the idiosyncratic features of human imagination and memory as narratives travel from writer to reader through storytelling. Some people can admit that we might read a particular book over and over again just to spend time encountering our favourite fictional characters. Further, some fictional characters develop a kind of more-than-human image; some characters become children’s heroes, or a source of inspiration in the daily lives of their admirers in spaces blending fictional and personal realities. How do we understand fictional characters as human in ways that make them matter to us so much in the felt qualities of our experience?

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