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Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind

by David Herman
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
428 pp., illus. 34 b & w. Trade, $45.00 Short, £31.95
ISBN: 9780262019187.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind is a double book, I mean a book with a double perspective. Since it brings together a number of essays and articles that have been published already in other venues, one can see in it an attempt of the author to offer an overview of more than two decades of seminal research in the field of narratology (more specifically of cognitive narratology, for this is the field in which David Herman has published most widely). It is certainly possible to read the book in this way, and one may use its many discussions with still ongoing discussions as a high-level user's guide to narratology. Yet offering an overview does not mean drawing a line and turning the page: The book has also the ambition to reshape the whole field and to remediate some of its current problems, such as, mainly, the unresolved tensions between various methodological and theoretical approaches of storytelling and, corollarily, the absence of a truly transdisciplinary theory and method. Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind is an important attempt to bridge the gap between several (sub)disciplinary approaches, while avoiding the pitfall of the promotion of one master discipline.

In short, David Herman's position in this book can be described as a plea for a two-sided approach of narratology and cognitive sciences. On the one hand, he defends the idea that narrative can only be understood by taking into account the basic insights and hypotheses of cognitive research, hence his emphasis on the necessary link between reading stories and reading minds, and hence also his challenging remarks on the role of narrative as a way of world-making and sense-production (to use a very traditional terminology). On the other hand, he criticizes the ideas that, first, real cognitive science is neuroscience and that cognitive analysis should be conducted at a kind of infra-personal, strictly biological level, and, second, that narratology has more to learn from cognitive sciences than the other way round. Contrary to these currently quite popular stances, David Herman insists on both the usefulness and the necessity of always linking story and mind as well as narratology and cognitive studies. He defends the inevitable symmetry and intertwining of "worlding the story" (by taking into account cognitive research in the search for a better understanding of how stories tell something about our relationship with the world) and "storying the world" (by emphasizing on the importance of storytelling a sense-making device in the functioning of the brain). This transdisciplinary ideal, by the way, goes much further than other endeavors that presently focus on the interdisciplinary study of story and storytelling from the point of view of intermediality.

Although David Herman makes strong claims in favor of a certain theory and a certain method of understanding narrative from his own transdisciplinary point of view, it should be stressed first of all how broad and open-minded this position always remains. There are definitely some polemical chapters and analyses in this book, such as for instance the debate with the long-standing tradition of anti-intentionalism in narratological studies as well as with the narrative framework that builds upon the twin notions of implied author and implied reader (which Herman considers a way of negotiating between intentionalism and intentionalism without taking clear anti-intentionalist stances). But in general what strikes most in this book is the incredible encyclopedic knowledge of the author and the desire to do justice to all theories and methods that he discusses. In that regard, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind can be used very fruitfully as a short cut to past and current discussions in narratology (and one can be sure that most of them will be still on the agenda in the near future, such as the debate on medium-specific versus non-medium-specific ways of storytelling). On all these topics, David Herman proves an excellent guide, both by the richness of the information he provides and by the clever positions he takes toward them.

Finally, it is a pleasure to highlight also the presence of many fully worked out examples that help the reader get a better grip on the theoretical discussions discussed by Herman. Moreover, these examples are often very rich (they are definitely not just selected to fit the point the author wants to make) and their diversity is a great asset (the examples chosen belong to a wide range of genres, periods, and media).


Last Updated 1 December 2013

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