Language, literature and art: The composite organism

Tim Wharton, Patricia Kolaiti

Research output: Book/ReportBook - authoredpeer-review


We begin with two questions. The first is known in psychology, cognitive science, affective science and neuroscience as the question of selectivity. How does the human mind select what inputs to pay attention to and what types of action to engage with amongst the vast number of inputs and alternatives of action available at any one? The second, related, question is the one that provides the central thread of this book. What is it about objects with little or no obvious utilitarian function such as literature, poetry or art that makes them relevant enough to be worth the selective directedness of our mental lives to the point that they have become among the most enduring human cultural representations?

In 1986 Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson’s Relevance: Communication and Cognition offered a theory of human communication and cognition which proposed a set of mechanisms designed to answer the question of selectivity. A fundamental assumption of relevance theory is that human cognition has evolved in the direction of increased efficiency and, as such, tends to be naturally geared towards the maximisation of relevance. This explains why we attend to the particular facts that we do: for a stimulus to merit the attention of the human cognitive system, it must seem relevant enough to be worth attending to. Sperber and Wilson propose that relevance involves a balancing of mental effort and a particular type of positive or worthwhile modifications or effects – known as cognitive effects – which are conceptual and propositional in nature and involve improvements in knowledge.

According to the standard relevance-theoretic view, literature, poetry and artworks achieve selectivity because they yield an adequate number of cognitive effects: in other words, they cause enough improvements in knowledge for an individual organism at a time. Meaning-related effects resulting from the interpretation of literature and art are a conceptual type of effect falling under Sperber and Wilson’s cognitive approach. Humans are cognitive organisms, who selectively interact with inputs in the ecology of their natural, bodily, mental and cultural environment driven by expectations of cognitive effects and cognitive relevance guided principally by the cognitive system as a knowledge acquisition and knowledge management device.

In recent work (Sperber and Wilson 2015, Wilson 2018, and Wilson and Carston 2019) relevance theorists have introduced the notion of non-propositional effects, effects which involve an array of modifications in an array of propositions. The implication is that literature and art lead to the derivation of such effects. Crucially, however, these effects also involve operations upon propositions, which suggests that the authors are in fact talking again about a conceptual, propositional and as such, cognitive type of effects. Such effects, therefore, are not non-propositional at all. The view of humans as cognitive organisms persists.

In this book, we use literature and art as a crucial body of data in order develop new accounts of worthwhile effects and articulate novel hypotheses about relevance and the selectivity of the mind. It ties two strands of work together.

The first of these strands involves recent work by Wharton (Wharton 2015, Wharton and Strey 2019 and de Saussure and Wharton 2020 and Wharton and de Saussure (forthcoming)) on affect. This work focusses on the communication of descriptively ineffable emotional states, states that are too nebulous to be paraphrased in finite propositional terms without loss. What he calls ‘emotional communication’ takes place through a wide range of different vehicles – interjections, facial expressions, gestures, affective tone of voice– and may indeed sometimes lead to either a single, determinate proposition or small set of propositions or contribute to altering the salience of a vast array of propositions. However, his work deviates from the standard weakly propositional view insofar as it takes seriously the idea that this kind of emotional communication may involve genuinely non-propositional, affective effects. Wharton and de Saussure (2020) offers a brief outline of how these might work.

The second strand involves work by Kolaiti (2019, 2020ab), who argues that the robustly cognitive and interpretationalist approach to literature and art currently implicit in relevance theory fails to account for a central intuition in literary theory and aesthetics: that the raison d’être of artistic inputs is not solely to elicit cognitive effects but, rather, to cause a characteristic type of aesthetic response that is fundamentally sensory or perceptual in nature (and not propositional). Kolaiti draws on findings from visual art by Ramachandran and Hirstein (1999) as well as music and dance (e.g. Calvo-Merino et al. 2005, Tervaniemi 2009) and points towards perceptual effects and relevance, which can also be extended to literature and human linguistic and non-linguistic communication.

Our proposed hypothesis, then, draws on the notions of effects and relevance coined in Relevance but at the same time extending the current machinery of relevance theory and adding the terms affective affects, affective relevance, perceptual effects and perceptual relevance to Sperber and Wilson’s current machinery. Humans are composite, rather than merely cognitive, organisms.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages300
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2024

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