Writing the Mind
Social Cognition in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction
Hannah Walser



Toward a Literary History of Cognition

Who Reads an American Mind?

This book begins at the intersection of two pieces of conventional wisdom.1

The first holds that novels are especially good at—may even have as their telos—helping us imagine other people’s interior worlds. Academics and general readers alike have doubtless seen the psychological studies claiming to demonstrate that reading fiction (and specifically “literary” fiction, at that) improves our ability to reason about other minds or even to empathize with others’ emotions: we can rationalize a novel-reading habit, such research suggests, by pointing to its positive impact on “social acumen” or “leadership.”2 From the perspective of literary scholars, these claims may seem beneath rebuttal: their corpora are too sloppily selected, their concepts too historically and sociologically crude, and their premises too reliant on neoliberal assumptions about what kinds of experiences and activities have value. Yet, as Dorothy Hale has recently argued, naïvely positivistic attempts to assess the cognitive and interpersonal impact of fiction reading have something substantial in common with the “ethics of alterity” that subtends many critical arguments for the aesthetic and political significance of particular novels or the novel as a whole. Novel theorists have tended to pose sophisticated questions about “how best to honor otherness through and as narrative representation,” whereas psychologists have tended to assume that narrative representation automatically and transparently makes the other accessible—but both approaches rest on the assumption that, in Hale’s words, “the novel has a privileged responsibility to the depiction and deployment of otherness.”3

Insofar as representing alterity entails representing other individuals’ thought processes and perceptual experiences, moreover, scholars of literature and cognition, whether trained primarily in literary studies or in the mind sciences, have tended to agree that “Theory of Mind” (henceforth ToM) represents an indispensable component of novel-reading. Also known as “mindreading”—a telling metaphor to which I will return in a moment—ToM labels the capacity to identify mental states in other human beings and, importantly though less famously, in oneself. ToM explains and predicts other people’s behavior by attributing propositional mental states to them: the competent ToM user, canonically assumed to be any neurotypical human above about four years old, understands that other people have mental states different from their own, that those mental states include representations of the world and attitudes about those representations, and that those representations and attitudes have a causal relationship to their bearer’s actions.4 For Lisa Zunshine, ToM is Why We Read Fiction, as it is Why . . . We Care about Literary Characters for Blakey Vermeule: both authors suggest that fictional characters succeed in captivating us because they activate a set of relatively stable cognitive heuristics that we typically use to think about real minds. At its most extreme, this view suggests that, when it comes to ToM, our brains don’t particularly care whether “a passing piece of tantalizing mind stuff” is attached to a human body or a textual creature: “once hailed” by the appropriate stimulus—something that acts with even a hint of intention—our mind “crank[s] up its reasoning powers” in response.5 The poverty of the stimulus, one might say, applies to other minds at least as much as to syntax, and our brains must consequently be prepared to spin a complex mental model out of very thin materials; fiction simply “capitalizes on and stimulates” this preexisting capacity.6

The second commonplace, less widely held than the first but also subjected to less critical scrutiny, is that many familiar characters from nineteenth-century American fiction seem to have no insides. Bartleby and Ahab, Arthur Gordon Pym and Dupin, even Hester Prynne and Miles Coverdale, generations of readers have agreed, repel psychological understanding. In the spatialized metaphors that often structure theories of character, these figures are less “round” or “deep” than we expect, offering little traction for the attribution of complex inner lives; or perhaps they are “deep,” as the mid-twentieth-century Americanist critic Richard Chase suggested, but simultaneously “narrow and predictable,” like the bed of a stream that never deviates from its path.7 Chase’s peers in the 1950s and 1960s agreed that something about nineteenth-century American novels seemed to inhibit our usual inclination to see fictional characters as represented persons. Despite Americans’ constant “praise of the ‘individual,’” Lionel Trilling observed, “we have contrived that our literature should have no individuals in it”; perhaps “character” did not even exist “in nineteenth-century American fiction,” Richard Poirier suggested, at least not “in the unfractured form it usually takes in English fiction of the same period.”8

In the intervening half-century, Americanists have rightly learned to be wary of claims like Poirier’s—broad contrasts that reify national difference by implying that US literature expresses a unique and historically consistent national character. Subsequent generations of scholars have exploded the extraordinarily limited canon of the mid-century critics, identifying in the process a literary tradition much less susceptible to totalizing narratives.9 Perhaps precisely because these mid-century observations about the crudeness or emptiness of American literary characters never quite rose to the level of contestable claims, however, they have never quite been exorcised, either. Jane Tompkins, working to recuperate popular and sentimental fictions of the nineteenth century—in other words, writing with a critical agenda diametrically opposed to that of Trilling, Chase, and Poirier—nonetheless notes in passing that “the already-constituted social world that must exist in order for people to be individuals in a social sense” is missing from James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, meaning that his characters cannot function as “in-depth psychological portraits.”10 Sharon Cameron’s The Corporeal Self, which seemed to an early reviewer to be a “deliberately perverse work” in its rejection of “traditional studies of Hawthorne and Melville,” nonetheless explicitly accepts and extends the mid-century critics’ identification of a “non-mimetic version . . . of ‘character’” in American fiction that troubles “the boundaries between persons” that the British tradition takes for granted.11 We will see in a moment that even in the twenty-first century—when methods imported from cultural studies and book history have bolstered Americanist scholars’ focus on local idiosyncrasies rather than national generalizations—the intuition persists.

Either of these commonplaces—that nineteenth-century American characters often seem to lack inner lives, and that novels stand or fall by their ability to evoke other minds—can of course be debated on its own terms, but Writing the Mind is concerned with the implicit syllogism that concludes the two premises. If the inhabitants of nineteenth-century US novels fail to “hail us” as minds do—to offer fodder for our mindreading abilities—then those books, it would seem, cannot really be novels, or at least cannot be good ones. Texts that so persistently “thwart readerly identification” with their characters, as Jordan Stein acknowledges in a recent essay (adding one more entry to the long list of critics who suspect that something is off about American represented minds), often do not seem like novels at all.12 Few people, including me (and also Stein), would accept this conclusion, which seems to require a remarkably narrow definition of the novel. In a sense, one could use the first premise of this unacceptable syllogism to reject the second: Ahab and Arthur Gordon Pym do not seem to have minds we can access, but we want to say that the texts they inhabit are novels, so the novel must not be all about mindreading. Just as there was a grain of truth in the Americanist’s intuition, though—the experience of thwartedness, friction, or resistance that attends attempts to understand nineteenth-century characters’ behavior in psychological terms—I would like to preserve the novel theorist’s sense that interpersonal cognition constitutes a central preoccupation of the genre. In the pages that follow, I will argue that many key texts of nineteenth-century American literature depart from the normative model of the novel identified by Hale, not by ignoring the problem of other minds or by failing to adequately stimulate our ToM capacities, but by prompting readers to entertain nonpropositional methods of explaining and predicting behavior. By representing minds that are neither transparent to themselves nor legible to others and characters that behave in a way inconsistent with explanations based on beliefs, intentions, or reasons, the texts in this study probe the limits of typical ToM and offer an ad hoc patchwork of alternative paradigms. In other words, Writing the Mind defines these familiar but problematic nineteenth-century American fictions as points in a space of sociocognitive experimentation.

Fictional texts are not simply artifacts in need of explanation, but are themselves repositories of explanatory paradigms. Novels both represent human actions under a certain description and—through formal structures, stylistic decisions, and explicit narratorial commentary—offer guidelines on how to explain, interpret, and predict those actions. The information conveyed, withheld, or hinted at in a novel’s representation of a character’s cognitive processes offers us a kind of negative image of the common-sense psychological knowledge that the reader can be expected to share; it also hints at the idiosyncratic priority and probability that the author assigns to particular mental causes, idiosyncrasies that the reader may over the course of the novel come to share. Fictional narratives, in other words, model ways of answering the question, “why did he/she/they do that?” Every novel is a language game in which some kinds of answers to that question are felicitous and others are not—and the rules of that game may be similar or quite dissimilar to the rules that govern similar exchanges in the reader’s real life. The task of the literary historian of social cognition, this book suggests, is to determine the “when,” the “where,” and the “who” of the many ways of answering “why” questions: to under stand why certain heuristics thrive in some times and places but not others, how certain genres accommodate or exclude certain kinds of psychological models, and what kinds of interdependencies relate the social and political location of a text’s author and characters to the theories of mind that the text puts forward. Writing the Mind represents an attempt to make sense of these interdependencies in one relatively circumscribed literary tradition; it also represents a wager that the best way to understand those interdependencies is to attend closely to the formal features of the fictions that investigate them.


As pivotal as ToM has been in cognitive and (especially) developmental psychology, any overview of the concept is complicated by the fact that its scope and mechanisms remain contested. Before diving more deeply into the nineteenth-century US context, then, it will be helpful to look more closely at ToM—not to offer a comprehensive explanation of ToM as psychologists and philosophers understand it, but rather to highlight the aspects of mindreading that literary reading can help us understand. Precisely because these aspects are best suited to humanistic, historical, and hermeneutic modes of explanation, they have been comparatively neglected in the vast body of mindreading research that the cognitive sciences have produced so far—but I will identify a few kindred approaches from both philosophers and empirical investigators along the way.

One of the virtues (or vices) that a literary scholar brings to the cognitive table is the habit of putting pressure on metaphors. We might begin by asking, then: to what extent does mindreading live up to its name? Since this psychological term rests on a metaphor that specialized use has rendered nearly invisible, unpacking its implicit comparison between interpreting other minds and decoding texts may help restore the complexity of the phenomenon it describes. The cognitive scientist Cecilia Heyes begins this process in her recent book Cognitive Gadgets by pointing out that, although mindreading is often represented as an innate capacity shaped by natural selection and scripted by our genes, reading, in contrast, is not innate but entirely learned. For Heyes, who argues that our inborn cognitive toolkit is considerably more lightweight than many psychologists assume, the analogy helps demonstrate that social learning can account for some behaviors that might otherwise feel as though they could not possibly be culturally acquired. Reading, after all, has specialized neural circuitry and can be disrupted by genetically inherited developmental disorders—features that would probably be taken as evidence for its innateness if historical and anthropological evidence did not make clear that literacy is a fairly recent and far from universal human invention.13 Reading also shares with ToM a feature that psychologists who argue for a mindreading “module” are apt to play up: its automaticity and relative imperviousness to conscious control.14 We mindread “effortlessly, automatically, and mostly unconsciously,” Simon Baron-Cohen observes, comparing our surprise on seeing the mechanisms of ToM exposed to “the apocryphal man who was shocked to discover he had been speaking in prose all his life.”15 Reading tout court represents a similarly opaque learned ability: a typical literate adult not only need not make an effort to read, but finds it difficult or impossible not to read a word placed in front of them. (None of which prevents a Gertrude Stein or a Harryette Mullen from productively interfering with this involuntary process.)

As it happens, recent empirical and theoretical work suggests that this picture collapses two distinct types of social cognition and elides many others. There is good neurological evidence that “explicit mindreading”—directly and often verbally ascribing mental states to other people—operates relatively independently of a much less conscious form of interpreting others’ actions, one that “reads” basic attitudes like attention and desire from bodily movements and postures.16 Even if we define mindreading rather narrowly as the attribution, whether explicit or implicit, of propositional attitudes to other people, this attribution involves multiple cognitive processes—some of them indeed relatively modular and effortless, others requiring conscious verbal reasoning, and many of them embarrassingly faulty.17 Some philosophers, however, have pointed out that explaining and predicting others’ behavior on the basis of propositional attitudes accounts for only a relatively small fraction of our day-to-day social cognition. In practice, we often use “representations of a person’s character traits, their situation, or their social role,” not representations of their beliefs or desires, to understand and anticipate their actions; in social situations with a consistent structure—an interaction between waiter and customer in a restaurant, for instance—we can predict others’ actions perfectly well without knowing or caring about their mental states.18 (Indeed, attempting to take those mental states into account might actually make our predictions less accurate and our own actions less likely to accomplish our goals.) Nor are predicting and explaining the only things we can do with other people’s minds: we use attributions of mental states to persuade, deceive, assign credit or blame, evaluate testimony, gather information about nonmental objects and events, and even to induce other people to behave in more predictable and explainable ways.

The philosopher Kristin Andrews coined the term “pluralistic folk psychology” to contrast her approach with previous work in the philosophy of mind that treated reasoning about propositional attitudes as the paradigmatic case of social cognition.19 Introducing this theoretical paradigm into cognitive literary studies, which has shared the singular focus on ToM characteristic of traditional philosophy of mind, brings (at least) three benefits. The first is an enriched descriptive vocabulary: rather than forcing literary representations of social cognition, and indeed the sociocognitive scenario of reading itself, into the shape of propositional attitudes, pluralistic folk psychology suggests that texts often prompt us to do things with characters’ minds beyond populating them with propositional mental states. Readers might be encouraged, for instance, to taxonomize characters on the basis of personality traits; to notice, absorb, or question the social scripts that produce characters’ behavior; to generalize traits like credibility or intelligence from a represented person to a real individual or group; and, crucially, to take the text’s model of a character’s cognition as an epistemic guide for their understanding and experience of their own thinking.

This last possible use of represented minds points to a second benefit: by exposing the plurality of heuristics and models that individuals use to navigate their interpersonal worlds, pluralistic folk psychology highlights the flexible, ad hoc quality of sociocognitive practices—implying in turn that these practices can be modified, supplemented, or abandoned when necessary. If social cognition is not fixed and uniform but malleable and plural, fictional texts may take a more active role in its development: rather than being parasitic on an inherited capacity for mindreading, fiction can represent social worlds and sociocognitive strategies that differ from those to which a reader is accustomed in day-to-day life—nudging them, for instance, to attribute more actions to consistent personality traits and fewer to social roles (or vice versa) by modeling such explanations as effective and appealing. And because prose fictions in particular are (and have been for at least a couple of centuries) mass-produced and widely circulated, the cumulative effect of such influences can produce something we might recognize as cultural change. Fiction, like pedagogy or parent-child interaction or religious ritual, can be a tool of what Tadeusz Zawidzki terms mindshaping, “making populations more cooperative, homogeneous, and predictable.” “One of the most effective ways of counteracting potential cognitive heterogeneity,” Zawidzki explains, “is through public language.”20

In the process, fiction and other forms of public language may end up making discrete populations more different from each other by nurturing culturally specific models of cognition and norms of social explanation and interpretation. Cultural variability is the last and, I argue, the most important item in Heyes’s survey of similarities between mindreading and reading; the third key benefit of the pluralistic folk psychology framework is a more robust understanding of this variability. Because psychological research has an overwhelming bias toward what have been labeled WEIRD societies—“Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic”21—many empirical studies of mindreading take for granted that the concepts and heuristics structuring those societies’ theories of mind apply always and everywhere. Even when Heyes herself points to evidence that children in different countries acquire cognitive concepts in very different developmental sequences and on different timelines, she assumes that the conceptual ontology of ToM is not only consistent but also, in some basic sense, correct.22 In this respect, Heyes tiptoes toward but ultimately stops short of a more radical conclusion. Does mindreading reflect some basic set of ontological givens, albeit with local variations, or does the composition of the mind actually change over historical time and cultural space?

Considerable evidence hints that the latter assumption may be more fruitful than the former—but because the evidence is dispersed across disciplines, it has proven difficult for even systematic thinkers about social cognition to integrate.23 Psychological anthropologists like Tanya Luhrmann have documented considerable cross-cultural diversity among theories of mind, where “culture” is a fractal term: at a 2011 conference titled “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind,” contributors highlighted cognitive models specific to communities defined by linguistic and/or geographical markers (for instance, speakers of Ewe in West Africa), ethnic background (for instance, Indigenous-heritage families in Guatemala, Mexico, and the United States), and even profession (for instance, “entertainment magicians”).24 Linguists and linguistic anthropologists like Eve Danziger have found that even seeming sociocognitive truisms—for instance, that a lie is only a lie if the speaker intends to mislead—fail to obtain in cultures that do not habitually track intention in everyday conversation—such as, for instance, the Mopan Maya.25 And psychologists like Jill de Villiers have shown through carefully constructed experiments with children that “mental verbs plus sentential complements”—verbs of thought or communication that take a propositional statement as their complement—are integral to the process of learning that other people may have false beliefs.26 In other words, we need sentences like “She thinks the box is full of candy” not simply in order to express the reality of others’ world-divergent mental states, but to grasp the existence of those mental states in the first place.

Each form of evidence described above was collected in accordance with different disciplinary norms and theoretical presuppositions. Yet all of these examples find, significantly, that linguistic constructions—both everyday and extraordinary—form the raw material of our sociocognitive models. Luhrmann in particular recognizes discourse and figurative language as a key means by which local theories of mind adapt, consolidate, and interface with one another: by talking as if minds have certain features, we can not only come to perceive those features in others, but can induce our own phenomenal consciousness to take that form.27 Luhrmann has studied such phenomena in relatively small adult speech communities—psychiatrists at a hospital, evangelical Christians at church—where new members learn particular cognitive models and practices through tacit instruction and conversation; De Villiers and colleagues have shown that, at least among English and German speakers, children develop an understanding of other minds as having specific properties—for instance, sentence-like things called “thoughts” or “beliefs” that can either accord with or depart from perceptual reality—in part by picking up on linguistic cues.

As someone who grew up in a fairly secular, English-speaking, Euro-American community, I am primed to understand the former pedagogical scenario as a case of explicitly magical or metaphoric thinking and the latter as gently guided empirical inference: after all, someone like me may be tempted to say, thoughts really are propositions or something quite like them, whereas they really don’t come from divine intervention. Yet putting these cases in dialogue with one another—the adult learning, for instance, to understand and experience some of their thoughts as coming from God (as Luhrmann’s evangelical informants do); the child learning to understand thoughts as sentences that can be the object of different propositional attitudes—not only reveals similar mechanisms behind the two; it also opens up the possibility of a grander theoretical and methodological perspective. Read in light of an “anthropological theory of mind”—really, the multifarious but patterned theories of mind that anthropological research has discovered—the American child hearing a sentence like “He thought he found his ring, but . . . it was really a bottle cap” is not simply processing a statement of fact, but being trained in an ontology of mind and a method of explaining behavior that are characteristic of their community. 28 Studies like De Villiers’s indicate that something as small-scale and, in ordinary conversation, infrequently noticed as syntax makes a significant difference to the way we understand other minds. The way we talk—and, I am arguing, write—about other minds creates the features that our community understands them to have. When English or American novels represent the mind as an intangible container for propositional mental states that play a causal role in generating behavior, they are not simply reflecting the “Euro-American modern secular theory of mind,”29 they are producing it—and if they stop ascribing those features to minds and start ascribing others, as most of the fictions I discuss in this book do, they loosen the grip of that theory and open up space (however limited and context-specific) for others.

The diversity of cognitive models that this process of mindwriting creates, together with the imbrication of minds and artifacts (verbal or otherwise) that it implies, suggests that in addition to the cognitive sciences, we need something like a history of cognition—not simply an intellectual history of theories of the mind, but a history of minds as they have been made up in different times and places.30 Neither mainstream cognitive science nor cognitive literary studies has taken this possibility on board; if either discipline did, they might realize how profoundly they need each other. It is not simply that literary texts, as historical documents, can illuminate models of mind that are no longer extant—both in their explicit statements about how minds work and in their formal and linguistic choices. (We cannot subject a nineteenth-century American reader to functional magnetic resonance imaging, but we may be able to reconstruct that reader’s assumptions about how the mind works by noticing what about characters’ cognition seems worth mentioning and what goes unsaid.) Nor is it simply that literary fictions can construct social systems designed to challenge and reshape interpersonal cognition in particular: story-worlds in which other minds are accessible only through unfamiliar types of evidence (or not at all), narratives in which characters’ actions defy causal explanation on the basis of mental states. This book argues that fictional texts can in fact do both of these things, but only because of a more fundamental capacity: they, like any other use of language to describe and manipulate the interpersonal world, participate in producing the mental entities and processes they represent. The success or failure of the readings in this book will show what cognitive science and the philosophy of mind can bring to the study of prose fiction, especially when their categories are treated as historically and culturally bounded. But I hope that this overview of the field has shown that literary studies, as a discipline grounded in a body of texts that use language in highly patterned and unusual ways, and as a methodology that specializes in the context-sensitive unpeeling of linguistic possibility, has everything to bring to the study of social cognition.31

Histories of Science, Histories of Minds

The preceding section might inspire two related objections. First, one might reasonably wonder whether the history of scholarly and medical theories of mind—the history of psychiatry, neuroscience, and the protosciences of mind like phrenology and physiognomy that flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—is really so different from what I called the history of minds or the history of cognition. If social cognition is one’s concern, why not start with the explicit theories of the concepts most relevant to it—affection, perhaps, or will, or common sense—that writers of the period would have recognized? And (objection number two) isn’t it presentist not to do so? A construct like “propositional attitude” did not really exist for most of the nineteenth century, even if propositional attitudes themselves did—and if philosophy carves up cognition in significantly different ways now than it did in the time of Charles Brockden Brown or even Henry James, neuroscience and psychology are more distant still from their nineteenth-century ancestors. The history of cognition, as I sketched its premises in the previous section, does not progress: scientists know more about how brains work now than they did in 1800, but the theories of mind that ordinary people use to navigate their interpersonal worlds are not somehow more true or more effective than they were in 1800, in part because their efficacy is linked not to their correspondence with neural processes but to their correspondence with culturally specific and evolving ontologies of mind. If that assertion is true, however, using contemporary—and, sometimes, overtly anachronistic—concepts to understand nineteenth-century representations of social cognition seems to grant the present moment an unearned epistemic authority.

Explaining my selective use of contemporary concepts should help provide a window onto this book’s relationship to the nineteenth-century mind sciences and to the literary historical scholarship that has abundantly addressed them—so it makes sense to begin with the second objection. In a glib mood, I might respond that I am, inevitably, using the terms appropriate to my own place and time in the historical and cultural space of cognitive models: because this book aims to be useful to scholars across several twenty-first-century disciplines, its analysis should be grounded in theoretical paradigms those readers will recognize, even when that means giving entities like “beliefs” and “intentions” a different, more prominent role than they had in most nineteenth-century treatises on the mind. More seriously, the aim of this book is not to explain one period’s cognitive models in terms of another’s—not to redescribe the features of nineteenth-century minds in twenty-first-century terms—but to situate its key literary texts in a continuous tradition of thinking about social cognition that took place outside of the sciences altogether. Much as Joan Richardson has traced an understanding of the aesthetic as “the homeostatic function of the life of the mind” from Emerson through pragmatism to contemporary neuroscience, or as Joshua Gang finds in modernism and in behaviorist psychology alike a skepticism about the epistemic validity of introspection, I argue that nineteenth-century American fictions were tackling with literary tools (character, syntax, narrative structure) a set of problems in social cognition that future scholars would approach with the disciplinary tools of psychology, anthropology, analytic philosophy, and cognitive science.32 By modeling what happens to social cognition when propositional mental states lack epistemic utility and causal efficacy, my central texts map the relationships between suprapersonal realities—legal categories; political hierarchies; power differentials based on race, gender, and wealth; population density or dispersion—and the heuristics for explaining and predicting behavior that are activated in small-scale interpersonal interactions. Rather than symptomatically reflecting, or even skeptically troping on, a historically specific theory of mind, my texts actively theorize the interdependencies between the sociopolitical dynamics that literary scholars often frame as explanatory and the linguistic representations that we frame as in need of explanation. In other words, these texts evince in their narrative form and syntax a critical awareness of cognition as culturally and historically situated—making them more like theoretical interlocutors for the sciences of mind than like objects to be decoded through the sciences of mind, whether historical or contemporary.

Still, one might expect eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical interlocutors to be the most productive ones: why not Benjamin Rush or Silas Weir Mitchell rather than Elizabeth Anscombe or Alison Gopnik? The answer is simple: the major figures in psychiatry, neuroscience, and physiological psychology in the nineteenth century did not address—at least not with any consistency or theoretical explicitness—processes of typical social cognition. This predicament is not unique: they also rarely addressed the typical cognitive mechanisms of memory, attention, language production, and a host of other functions that form the backbone of any contemporary psychology textbook. Before the advent of research psychology in the late nineteenth century, the sciences (or parasciences) of mind had such a profoundly different relationship to nonpathological cognition applied to ordinary tasks and situations that it is, if anything, slightly ahistorical to treat the nineteenth-century physiology of the nervous system as a systematic investigation of the mind. By addressing this disciplinary transformation, I hope not only to explain why contemporary psychology has more in common with nineteenth-century literature than with nineteenth-century protopsychology, but also to identify this book’s points of alignment with and departure from the materialist focus of recent literary historical work on the mind sciences.

For Americanists interested in the impact of the nineteenth-century sciences of mind on literary character and form, theories of the nervous system’s structure and functioning have provided a valuable point of intersection between materialisms old and new. On the one hand, works like Samuel Otter’s now-classic Melville’s Anatomies or Ellen Samuels’s more recent Fantasies of Identification productively frame nineteenth-century scientific attempts to physically localize mental faculties, from Samuel George Morton’s craniological classifications to the Fowler brothers’ phrenology, as the medical arm of biopolitical regimes of racial, ethnic, and class difference. By promoting a vision of interiority as materially legible, these protoforensic technologies not only nurtured state attempts to classify and control populations in the name of hierarchies of race, gender, and ability, but also modeled minds themselves as aggregates of physically manipulable, biologically determined parts. Such readings emphasize the alignment of scientific (or, sometimes, parascientific) methodologies with state power—which, in the nineteenth-century United States, meant white supremacist patriarchy.33 Another strand of Americanist criticism, however, sees subversive potential in nineteenth-century fictions’ appropriation and recontextualization of the mind sciences—not in “anatomies,” with that term’s negative connotations of rigidity, but in physiologies. Perhaps best exemplified by Justine Murison’s work on nervous illness and Matthew Rebhorn’s on embodied minds, this critical approach zeroes in on nineteenth-century neuroscientific phenomena—sympathy, reflex action, mesmerism—that seem to dissolve politically salient differences: between body and mind, between one self and another, between voluntary and involuntary action.34 Through the investigation of the nervous system, the narrative goes, “the autonomous, masculine, bourgeois subject of the nineteenth century” was, consciously or not, “engaged in the diligent pursuit . . . of its own deconstruction.”35 Texts that exploit these dissolutions need not thereby align themselves with revolutionary politics: both Murison and Rebhorn, for instance, have written on Robert Montgomery Bird’s proudly racist Sheppard Lee, which plays with the physiological determinants of phenomenal experience to ultimately reactionary ends.36 Still, the conception of nervous tissue (and, at least in Rebhorn’s and Meredith Farmer’s readings of Melville, other organic and inorganic substances) as a kind of “vibrant matter”—animate, agential, affective, and, as matter, stubbornly resistant to ideology—aligns these readings of nineteenth-century physiology with new materialist ontologies.37

Although these two critical lineages focus on different subfields of medicine and pull toward different (though complementary) political conclusions, both emphasize not the epistemology but the materialist ontology of nineteenth-century minds. This makes sense, since the scientists of the period did the same: physicians and other investigators of the mind were fascinated by the physical basis of mental disorders and the capacity of material substances and forces—electricity, “nervous fluid,” “animal magnetism”—to shape the psychic life of individuals or nations. Nineteenth-century science rarely reckoned, however, with the mind as an interpreter of other minds, whether in medical or experimental contexts, in public lectures and performances like those staged by mesmerists, or in ordinary life—and, as a result, accounts of nineteenth-century literature’s imbrication with the mind sciences have elided this exceedingly common cognitive function as well. Nineteenth-century psychiatrists did not often publicly reflect upon their own epistemes, scrutinizing the sources of their knowledge of patients’ minds and bodies mainly when they found themselves in the tricky territory of what Isaac Ray termed the “medical jurisprudence of insanity.” Making decisions about the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, especially when the patient’s account of their own experiences conflicted with the accounts of family members, representatives of the state, or other doctors, required clinicians to reckon with the possibility of ambiguous or feigned symptoms, raising the question of what we can know about other minds at least implicitly. The archives of this practical reasoning are an important resource in the history of cognition, and I will return to their significance in a moment—but it is important to note that an individual’s ability to understand other minds was not self-consciously used as an indicator of either disease or health.

Social cognition, then, apparently did not strike nineteenth-century clinicians as a kind of reasoning that merited special diagnostic or descriptive attention. A patient’s failure to love his spouse or to provide for his children might serve as evidence of “moral insanity” or a disorder of the will, but would not in itself prompt questions about the patient’s ability to understand the mental states of others. Most of all, the question of how a typical individual makes sense of other minds—what processes and heuristics structure our explanations and predictions of others’ behavior; what clues help us infer another person’s intentions or feelings—was not, in the era of Poe and Melville, a scientific question. Here, too, the mind sciences of two centuries ago diverge from our current disciplinary assumptions. Only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did psychology emerge as a research discipline distinct from psychiatry, with the goal not of treating mentally ill patients but of understanding the typical mind. Around the same time, as Elizabeth Lunbeck and others have documented, psychiatry itself began to conceptualize mental illness as a quantitative exaggeration of typical cognitive and emotional processes rather than as a qualitatively distinct disease entity. Partly out of a desire to expand their profession’s reach and authority, psychiatrists consciously adopted for the first time a program of “producing and compiling knowledge of the everyday,” fiercely differentiating themselves from their materialist predecessors who, in the words of one early twentieth-century practitioner, “sought for exclusive salvation in the urine and faeces.”38

Some theory of the normally functioning mind was of course necessary for any medical understanding of mental pathologies, but the goal of quantifying and, in a sense, standardizing typical sensory and cognitive processes had come into view only with the advent of psychophysics in the 1860s, which accelerated the integration of physiological laboratory work and philosophical introspection. A work like William James’s The Principles of Psychology, which magnificently integrates neuromuscular reflex arcs (physiology), optical illusions (laboratory psychology), hysterical trances (clinical psychiatry) and hypnotic ones (spiritualism), and the phenomenology of forgetting (introspection)—among much else, of course—indicates the rich space of scientific and parascientific theories of mind available to a scholar at century’s end. In the process, though, it also illustrates the effort and erudition needed to synthesize the findings of a Pierre Janet—the psychiatrist whose work with mentally ill women at the Salpêtrière placed him in a lineage extending directly back to Philippe Pinel, the eighteenth-century innovator of the “moral treatment” for mental illness—with those of a Hermann von Helmholtz, pioneer in the significantly newer psychophysical tradition. Reaction times meant as little to Janet, treating his hysterics, as traumatic dissociation meant to Helmholtz in his laboratory; James’s attempt at a unified theory accounts for his status as founder of psychology as we know it.

And yet, even in James’s tome of more than 1,300 pages, minds exist primarily in relation to objects and sensations: socks, shoes, trouser-legs; “a copy of one of the Fra Angelicos in the Florentine Academy”; a horse-car; a hallucinated candle and an imagined horse with wings; and of course, always, the self—both bodily and mental—which gets an entire chapter of its own.39 Things in the world and thoughts in my mind: these, for James, are the stuff of psychology. In his chapter on “Attention,” James offers a partial list of the stimuli that capture humans’ attention instinctively and automatically: “strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things, pretty things, metallic things, words, blows, blood, etc., etc., etc.”40 The list is beautiful but perplexing for what it lacks: other humans. Apart from “words,” which offer an abstracted and materialized register of human intention, we find no indication of the human faces, voices, and bodies that we now know to be among the most salient stimuli for typical humans from birth.41 The point, of course, is not to criticize James for failing to mention a fact that had not yet been confirmed, but to emphasize the basic asociality of Principles and of psychology itself in the nineteenth century. The psychiatric practitioners of the prepsychological era sometimes used an unexamined model of typical social behavior to identify deviance as a symptom of mental illness, but their theories generally focused on the microscale of the solitary mind or the macroscale of what would now be called epidemiology: societal factors, often related to the upsetting of longstanding social hierarchies (the expansion of the franchise, the abolition of slavery, young women’s financial independence), that ostensibly accounted for greater incidence of individual madness.42 Indeed, these two scales often collapsed into one another: mental faculties were imagined as an unruly population in need of management, while the collective mind of the nation seemed susceptible to nervous illness.43 Yet the mesoscale of interpersonal interaction existed neither as an explanatory tool nor as a phenomenon in need of explanation; rather, it tended to appear as an untheorized, tacitly unscientific context for diagnosis and treatment. James’s textbook indicates that, even as experimental psychology claimed the terrain of typical reasoning and perception for its own, it continued to elide typical social cognition.

Of course, the fact that a scientific discipline does not explicitly theorize a particular phenomenon does not mean it has nothing to say about it. One could profitably attempt to describe the model of social cognition implied in, say, what Courtney E. Thompson calls the “language of propensity” that phrenologists used to describe the supposed neurological causes of destructive or antisocial behavior; such a reading might compare “propensities” to the concept of “dispositions” in philosophy of mind, explore the kinds of individual and institutional behavior that the language of propensity licenses or forecloses, and investigate the way that propensity-talk interacts with other kinds of explanatory and predictive frameworks.44 But since such a model is only implicit, it is no more (and possibly less) theoretically reflective than the models of social cognition put forward in other, decidedly nonscientific venues—including works of literature. Precisely because, as Murison has noted, the “disciplinary consolidation” of neuroscience and psychology came relatively late in the nineteenth century,45 prepsychology work relevant to the contemporary sciences and philosophy of mind will be apt to come from unexpected places. While we should expect to find scientific concepts percolating through popular literature and media of the nineteenth century, as Murison, Britt Rusert, and many others have shown that they did, we should also expect to find popular or folk concepts of the mind in domains that we now consider “scientific.”46 Drawing upon the scholarship of the historian of medicine Akihito Suzuki, I am making a case here for, if not “the primacy of the lay over the medical,” at least “the independence” of folk psychological reasoning about the mind “from the psychiatry practiced by doctors.”47

While clinical and scientific texts will occasionally appear in this book, then, it will be primarily as narratives of interpersonal cognition—scenes in which one person has to make sense of what another knows, wants, or intends—that engage ad hoc theories of mind rather than as sources of specifically disciplinary knowledge. In other words, I approach these texts as sites of “folk psychology,” but in an unusually high-stakes context—much as I treat literary texts as sites of folk psychology in an unusually self-conscious context. In the following section, I will briefly elaborate on the underexamined features of nineteenth-century psychiatric archives that do give us a glimpse of real-world social cognition, before turning to the literary examples that make up my primary corpus. Though it may seem like a digression, this dive into the diagnosis and treatment of nineteenth-century mental illness not only functions as a case study in the methodological advantages of reading for social cognition, but also offers a preview and a précis of this book’s unconventional use of historical evidence: rather than looking to historical events and sources to provide context for literary analyses, Writing the Mind aims to reconstruct through literary analysis the history of cognition.


1. The subheading “Who Reads an American Mind?” refers to Sidney Smith’s famous dismissal of American literature in an 1820 issue of the Edinburgh Review, “Who Reads an American Book?” In 1820, the answer to this rhetorical question was indeed “almost no one”—barely even Americans themselves.

2. On cognitive comprehension of others’ mental states, see David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342, no. 6156 (2013): 377–80. On empathy and “social acumen,” see Raymond A. Mar et al., “Bookworms versus Nerds: Exposure to Fiction versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds,” Journal of Research in Personality 40, no. 5 (2006): 694–712. (Curiously, the last author among Mar et al.—by the conventions of psychology articles, the senior author whose lab or department is responsible for the research—is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist now best known for his exceedingly conservative views on gender roles.) Castano himself has suggested, in an article in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, that “Reading Literary Fiction Boosts Leadership Qualities” (146, no. 12 [2020]). Attempts to replicate Kidd and Castano’s study have not succeeded, and although the argument does not stand or fall by this particular study, the rest of this introduction and this book as a whole should make clear that I believe that novel-reading’s impact on social reasoning is unlikely to take the form of a simple up-or-down adjustment. See Maria Eugenia Panero et al., “Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 111, no. 5 (2016): e46–e54.

3. Dorothy J. Hale, The Novel and the New Ethics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020), 9–10.

4. By the “proposition” in “propositional mental states,” I mean something like what Frege called a “thought”: that is, “something for which the question of truth arises” (Gottlob Frege, “The Thought: A Logical Inquiry,” translated by P. T. Geach, Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy 65 [1956]: 289–311, at 292). Another way to define a proposition is by appealing to the concept of “propositional knowledge” or “knowing that”: a proposition is the kind of thing that can follow the statement “I know that . . .” In the broader context of cognition, propositions can also follow statements like “I believe that . . . ,” “I hope that . . . ,” “I fear that . . . ,” and so on; belief, hope, fear, and their ilk are known as propositional attitudes. For more information on “knowing that,” see Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa and Matthias Steup, “The Analysis of Knowledge,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (summer 2018 edition), edited by Edward N. Zalta,

5. Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 48.

6. Lisa Zunshine, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006), 10. The term “poverty of the stimulus” was coined by Noam Chomsky to describe what he believed was a fatal problem in behaviorist accounts of language learning: the speech that infants and young children hear is simply too disorderly, idiosyncratic, and incomplete to allow them to infer grammatical rules without some kind of innate neural machinery. The argument is by no means universally accepted, but it offers a useful parallel to ToM research, which also blossomed during the turn away from behaviorism and toward cognitive psychology in the 1970s and 1980s. For an overview of the “poverty of the stimulus” concept, see Howard Lasnik and Jeffrey L. Lidz, “The Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus,” in The Oxford Handbook of Universal Grammar, edited by Ian Roberts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 221–48.

7. Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 5.

8. Trilling, quoted in Jennifer Fleissner, “Familiar Forms, Unfamiliar Beings,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 1, no. 2 (2013): 455; Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 34.

9. Joseph Csicsila demonstrates that the nineteenth-century American canon was drastically narrowed and revised over the course of a few decades in the twentieth century: from a “bewildering[ly] inclusive” hundred or more writers in anthologies of the 1920s, the roster of important American literary figures rapidly shrank to what literary historian Evelyn Bibb, in 1965, dubbed the “‘classic’ eight”: Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Twain, and James. Joseph Csicsila, Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literary Anthologies (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), 10, 17. As Maurice Lee has recently documented, six of this elite eight can still be found among the top eleven most taught authors on syllabi of courses in antebellum US literature; the only ones missing, Twain and James, fall outside of the historical constraints of the question. The six most taught authors overlap almost perfectly with the six antebellum authors on Bibb’s list; the one exception is Frederick Douglass, who has knocked Poe out of the top five. In other words, the expansion of the canon in the late twentieth century is real, but may have been overstated. Maurice S. Lee, “Introduction: A Survey of Survey Courses,” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists 4, no. 1 (2016): 128.

10. Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 101.

11. Edgar A. Dryden, “Sharon Cameron, The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne [review],” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 37, no. 2 (1982): 223; Sharon Cameron, The Corporeal Self: Allegories of the Body in Melville and Hawthorne (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 55.

12. Jordan Alexander Stein, “Are ‘American Novels’ Novels? Mardi and the Problem of Boring Books,” in The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century American Literature, edited by Russ Castronovo (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 50.

13. Cecelia Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 149–50.

14. Not all psychologists who believe that mindreading capacities are largely innate would describe ToM as a “module.” In the context of cognitive science, the term “module” implies a specific cluster of requirements first articulated by Jerry Fodor; most relevant for my purposes are “domain specificity,” “mandatory operation,” “characteristic . . . breakdown patterns,” and “ontogenetic pace and sequencing.” Jerry A. Fodor, The Modularity of Mind: An Essay on Faculty Psychology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983), 47–101. In other words, cognitive modules operate on a specific type of stimulus; they cannot be turned off at will; and they develop and fail in specific, predictable ways. Although they are often a bit laxer about the criteria for modularity, evolutionary psychologists have been particularly committed to the idea that ToM is a module, as are some developmental psychologists who study its dysfunction. For an example of the former, from two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, see John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, “Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology,” in The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by David M. Buss (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 5–67, at 18–19 (which presents mindreading as an “instinct”); for the most prominent example of the latter, see the work of Alan Leslie, especially Brian Scholl and Alan Leslie, “Modularity, Development, and ‘Theory of Mind,’Mind and Language 14, no. 1 (1999): 131–53.

15. Simon Baron-Cohen, Mindblindness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 3. It is unclear to me whether Baron-Cohen is aware of his own Molière reference, since “apocryphal” is not the same thing as “fictional”—but, either way, the equation of mindreading to prose is certainly suggestive in the context of novel theory.

16. This hypothesis is supported by, among other things, studies of people on the autism spectrum, who can learn to explicitly attribute mental states to others but do not seem to unconsciously and “implicitly” anticipate others’ actions on the basis of presumed beliefs and intentions as neurotypical adults do. See Atsushi Senju et al., “Mindblind Eyes: An Absence of Spontaneous Theory of Mind in Asperger Syndrome,” Science 325, no. 5942 (2009): 883–85.

17. On the less than “effortless” operation of mindreading even in neurotypical adults, see Nicholas Epley’s Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Feel, Believe, and Want (New York: Knopf, 2014), which points out that we regularly ignore or simplify evidence of others’ mental states: “Although it is indeed true that the ability to read the minds of others exists along a spectrum with stable individual differences,” Epley acknowledges, “. . . the more useful knowledge comes from understanding the moment-to-moment, situational differences that can lead even the most social person . . . to treat others as mindless animals or objects” (42).

18. Kristin Andrews, Do Apes Read Minds? Toward a New Folk Psychology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012), 3. I draw this example, and the broader point about the irrelevance of mental states to routine interpersonal interactions like this one, from Heidi Maibom, who argues that we navigate such interactions by means of “social models” (as opposed to scripts, formalized procedures, or psychological models): “Social Systems,” Philosophical Psychology 20, no. 5 (2007): 568–69. One need not accept Maibom’s theory of how we reason on the basis of context-specific social roles, however, to agree that we often do.

19. For an up-to-date introduction to pluralistic folk psychology, see Folk Psychology: Pluralistic Approaches, edited by Kristin Andrews, Shannon Spaulding, and Evan Westra, Synthese (2020). Andrews and Spaulding have both published books that defend a pluralistic understanding of social cognition: Andrews, Do Apes Read Minds? and Spaulding, How We Understand Others (New York: Routledge, 2018). As I hope I make clear, I align myself with the broad theoretical commitments of pluralistic folk psychology; if I refer to the suite of strategies that people use to interpret and influence others’ actions as “social cognition” rather than “pluralistic folk psychology” or something of the sort, it is only because, like Maibom, I suspect that many of those strategies have very little to do with psychology per se (“Social Systems,” 567–68).

20. Tadeusz Wiesław Zawidzki, Mindshaping: A New Framework for Understanding Human Social Cognition (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 20–21, 86.

21. Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, nos. 2–3 (2010): 61.

22. For instance, Heyes cites research on two generations of users of Nicaraguan Sign Language: the earliest users of the language, who learned it when there were relatively few signs for mental states, and later users who inherited a more robust mental state vocabulary. Studies found, in Heyes’s summary, that the first cohort’s “understanding of false belief lagged behind” the second’s (Heyes, Cognitive Gadgets, 152). A similar phenomenon, she suggests, can be found in Samoa, where talking about mental states is socially discouraged, and where children “develop an understanding of false belief . . . four or five years later than children in Europe and North America” (153). In both cases, Heyes’s framing implies that beliefs are observer-independent entities in the world that children who grow up in different contexts may be more or less well equipped to comprehend. It seems just as possible, though, that the false belief test in each of these studies measures not some generalized sociocognitive competence, but one’s familiarity with specifically Euro-American cognitive concepts and heuristics. The latter reading takes inspiration from Lisa Feldman Barrett’s argument that studies purporting to demonstrate the “universality” of emotional expression actually measure the participant’s familiarity with English emotion concepts. Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 47–51.

23. One promising attempt at such integration has been put forward by Jane Suilin Lavelle, who argues that pluralistic folk psychology should take more explicit account of cultural variation when it describes the diversity of mindreading strategies in any given individual’s toolkit: “the methods we use when understanding other people’s behavior vary in accordance with our goals,” Lavelle agrees, but they also vary “depending on background commitments the explainer has: commitments that are shaped by cultural considerations. What in North America may be a strategy for explaining another’s behavior when the outcome does not much matter to you, in East-Asian cultures may be a strategy used for explaining the behavior of close kin.” This last example, insofar as it deals with the culturally and situationally variable fit between types of explanation and types of behavior, resonates with what I label “the pragmatics of behavior” (see chapter 2, below). Jane Suilin Lavelle, “The Impact of Culture on Mindreading,” Synthese (2020): 2,

24. T. M. Luhrmann, ed., “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind,” Suomen Anthropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 4 (2011): 5–69.

25. Eve Danziger, “On Trying and Lying: Cultural Configurations of Grice’s Maxim of Quality,” Intercultural Pragmatics 7, no. 2 (2010): 199–219, especially 204. Some evidence suggests that North Americans are unusual, compared to other large cultural groups, in their obsession with intention, offering psychological explanations for actions and events even when situational explanations are readily available; see Lavelle, “The Impact of Culture on Mindreading,” 12–13.

26. Jill G. De Villiers and Jennie E. Pyers, “Complements to Cognition: A Longitudinal Study of the Relationship between Complex Syntax and False-Belief Understanding,” Cognitive Development 17 (2002): 1056.

27. This sentence is a rather free summary of what I take to be one of the main findings of Luhrmann’s research on US evangelical Christians. Luhrmann notes that “our capacity to distinguish between what we have seen or heard and what we have thought is learned” (When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God [New York: Random House, 2012], 217–18); the “skill of prayer” in these spiritual communities involves training oneself to interpret and, eventually, experience some of one’s thoughts as interventions from God—that is, to “experience part of [one’s] mind as the presence of God” (xxi). Luhrmann describes this process as a kind of “attentional learning,” in which “people learn specific ways of attending to their minds and their emotions . . . and . . . both what they attend to and how they attend changes their experience of their minds” (xxi). I argue that exactly these terms can equally describe the experience of reading or consuming narratives in other media, particularly if many of the narratives one consumes share a similar attentional distribution.

28. I draw this example from De Villiers and Pyers, “Complements to Cognition,” 1043.

29. T. M. Luhrmann, “Overview,” in “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind,” 6.

30. The components of what I am calling a history of cognition would include work on the history of cognitive concepts, like Natalie Phillips’s Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016)—but it would also include analyses of historically specific cognitive practices, as in Emily Ogden’s Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), and of archives and artifacts that register particular cognitive heuristics, as in Alicia Puglionesi’s Common Phantoms: An American History of Psychic Science (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020). That these books were all published within the last five years suggests that the history of cognition may be an idea whose time has come.

31. In this respect, my book answers Jonathan Kramnick’s recent call for a “horizontal relation among the disciplines” that would use the unique disciplinary affordances of literary studies to tackle questions about how the mind works and how humans interact with the natural world. Jonathan Kramnick, Paper Minds: Literature and the Ecology of Consciousness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 18.

32. Joan Richardson, A Natural History of Pragmatism: The Fact of Feeling from Jonathan Edwards to Gertrude Stein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 40; Joshua Gang, Behaviorism, Consciousness, and the Literary Mind (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). I return to Gang’s work in chapter 2.

33. In Otter, Melville’s Anatomies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), see especially chap. 3, “Getting Inside Heads in Moby-Dick,” 101–71. In Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (New York: New York University Press, 2014), see especially chap. 2, “Confidence in the Nineteenth Century,” 50–65.

34. See especially Murison, The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); and Rebhorn, “Billy’s Fist: Neuroscience and Corporeal Reading in Melville’s Billy Budd,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 72, no. 2 (2017): 218–44.

35. Matthew Wilson Smith, The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theater (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 8–9.

36. Murison, “A Bond-Slave to the Mind: Sympathy and Hypochondria in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee,” in The Politics of Anxiety in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, 17–46; Rebhorn, “Ontological Drift: Medical Discourse and Racial Embodiment in Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 61, no. 2 (2015): 262–96.

37. On Melvillean materialism, see Meredith Farmer, “Melville’s Ontology,” PhD diss., University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 2016. For an overview of the “new materialisms,” see Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds., New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010). The term “vibrant matter” belongs to Jane Bennett, whose analyses of “distributive agency” echo both Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “assemblage” and Bruno Latour’s actor network theory. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 21, viii. It is worth noting that the materiality of the mind only seems like a radical proposition in a very specific disciplinary context. Murison contrasts the methods of the “neuroscientific turn” in the humanities with “the predominant psychoanalytic model” that frames the nervous system as “the screen of a ‘deeper’ psyche.” Justine Murison, “‘The Paradise of Non-Experts’: The Neuroscientific Turn of the 1840s United States,” in The Neuroscientific Turn: Transdisciplinary in the Age of the Brain, edited by Melissa M. Littlefield and Jenell M. Johnson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 29. Within the contemporary mind sciences, however, the proposition that mind is (active, dynamic) matter is settled enough, and psychoanalysis obsolete enough, that the comparison feels curiously misplaced.

38. Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Psychiatric Persuasion: Knowledge, Gender, and Power in Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 344n7, 46, 343–44n5. Interestingly, when one does come across a nineteenth-century physician who presents typical and disordered cognition as continuous—for instance, John Conolly, one of the major figures in Victorian psychiatry, who argued that “insanity is often but a mere aggravation of a little weakness . . . which all men now and then experience”—it is in the highly specific context of detecting well-concealed mental illness in normally presenting individuals, often for the purpose of a legal determination of competence. Connolly quoted in Akihito Suzuki, Madness at Home: The Psychiatrist, the Patient, and the Family in England, 1820–1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 75. See below in this chapter for a discussion of these determinations as points of contact between medical and folk theories of mind.

39. William James, The Principles of Psychology (Henry Holt & Co., 1950), I.115, I.658, II.78, II.287, II.289, I.291–401.

40. James, The Principles of Psychology, I.417.

41. See, for instance, Carolyn C. Goren, Merrill Sarty, and Paul Y. K. Wu, “Visual Following and Pattern Discrimination of Face-Like Stimuli by Newborn Infants,” Pediatrics 56, no. 4 (1975): 544–49; the first of many studies to demonstrate that infants preferentially track faces and facelike stimuli mere minutes after birth.

42. Perhaps the most influential statement of this theme is David Rothman’s The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic (New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions, 2009), which argues that physicians and alienists of the 1830s premised their theories about the origins of mental illness on “a critique of Jacksonian society” (109). The common nineteenth-century idea that madness was “the price we pay for civilization,” in the words of medical superintendent Edward Jarvis, seems to have originated around this time (quoted, 112).

43. On the bidirectional metaphor between the state and the nervous system, see especially chap. 5, “Anxiety, Desire, and the Nervous State,” in Christopher Castiglia’s Interior States: Institutional Consciousness and the Inner Life of Democracy in the Antebellum United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008): 168–216.

44. Courtney E. Thompson, An Organ of Murder: Crime, Violence, and Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2021), especially 26–29. To be clear, Thompson’s primary interest is in mapping the intellectual history and popular uptake of phrenological ideas about criminal behavior; these possible readings are my own, although Thompson’s book provides abundant and useful material for such inquiries.

45. Murison, “‘The Paradise of Non-Experts,’” 37–38.

46. The popular uptake of nineteenth-century neuroscientific concepts has been particularly well documented in the context of theatrical performance. Rusert, for instance, reconstructs the culture of popular stage performance around race science in the antebellum United States, and Courtney E. Thompson follows Rusert in tracing phrenology in both satirical and earnest forms on the minstrel stage and in mass material culture. Across the Atlantic, Alison Winter has productively analyzed Victorian mesmeric performances in the context of working-class theater culture, and Matthew Wilson Smith’s The Nervous Stage reads not only melodrama but avant-garde theater of the long European nineteenth century as invested “not principally [in] representation but [in] sensation”—that is, in the manipulation of the audience’s collective nervous system. Brit Rusert, Fugitive Science: Empiricism and Freedom in Early African American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 113–48; Thompson, An Organ of Murder, 100–131; Alison Winter, Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), especially 85–87; Smith, The Nervous Stage, 44.

47. Suzuki, Madness at Home, 93 (original emphasis).