If inanimate objects such as novels or poems have no mental properties of their own, then why do we talk about them as if they do? Why do we perceive the minds of characters, narrators, and speakers as if they were comparable to our own?
In Behaviorism, Consciousness, and the Literary Mind (Hopkins Studies in Modernism,
Johns Hopkins UP 2021), Joshua Gang offers a radical new approach to these questions,
which are among the most challenging philosophical problems faced by literary study
today. Recent cognitive criticism has tried to answer these questions by looking for
similarities and analogies between literary form and the processes of the brain. In
contrast, Gang turns to one of the twentieth century's most infamous schools of thought:
behaviorism. Beginning in 1913, a range of psychologists and philosophers—including
John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Gilbert Ryle—argued that many of the things we talk
about as mental phenomena aren't at all interior but rather misunderstood behaviors
and physiological processes. Today, behaviorism has relatively little scientific value, but
Gang argues for its enormous critical value for thinking about why language is so good at
creating illusions of mental life.
Turning to behaviorism's own literary history, Gang offers the first sustained examination
of the outmoded science's place in twentieth-century literature and criticism. Through
innovative readings of figures such as I. A. Richards, the American New Critics, Samuel
Beckett, Harold Pinter, and J. M. Coetzee, Behaviorism, Consciousness, and the Literary
Mind reveals important convergences between modernist writers, experimental psychology,
and analytic philosophy of mind—while also giving readers a new framework for thinking
about some of literature's most fundamental and exciting questions.
Reviews of Behaviorism, Consciousness, and the Literary Mind:
"In Behaviorism, Consciousness, and the Literary Mind, Joshua Gang shows how the internally
fraught tradition of behaviorism threaded its way, largely unacknowledged, through unsuspecting critical
arguments and displayed its unflagging vitality in modernist novels. The argument of this book is all the more
remarkable for the tensions it exposes between the major philosophers of consciousness and proponents of the
language theory that surfaced alongside literary modernism."
—Nancy Armstrong, Duke University, author of How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719–1900
"Gang's ambitious, erudite work tackles a subject both historical and conceptual: how mind/body dualism
was treated in prominent philosophical debates of the last century relates to literature. Behaviorism, Consciousness,
and the Literary Mind will be of interest to a wide swath of readers."
—Joshua Kates, Indiana University, author of A New Philosophy of Discourse: Language Unbound
Joshua Gang is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. His interests include 20th-century British and Irish literature, literature and philosophy (particularly philosophy of mind and moral philosophy), the history of critical and reading practices, aesthetics and the sciences of mind, and, on occasion, queer literature, criticism, and film. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, journals such as Critical Inquiry, ELH, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, and PMLA. You can find him tweeting, poorly and irregularly, @categorymistake.