The 'Inward Turn' of Modernism in Samuel Beckett's Work: a Postcognitivist Reassessment

Date: 10 September 2018

Venue: Stadscampus - Hof Van Liere - Willem Elsschotzaal - Prinsstraat 13 - 2000 Antwerpen (route: UAntwerpen, Stadscampus)

Time: 3:00 PM - 5:30 PM

PhD candidate: Olga Beloborodova

Principal investigator: Prof. dr. Dirk Van Hulle

Short description: Phd defence Olga Beloborodova - Faculty of Arts


From the outset, modernist literature has been defined as extremely inward-looking, focusing on mind exploration and leaving the world outside the scope of its enquiry. To a large extent, modernists themselves are to blame for this skewed situation: it was Virginia Woolf who famously urged her colleagues to ‘look within’ and proclaimed that only a detailed study of the human psyche can be considered ‘the proper stuff of fiction’ (1921).

The present dissertation offers a reassessment of the ‘critical commonplace’ (Herman 2011) of the modernist ‘inward turn’ by demonstrating how deeply modernist fictional minds were embedded in (rather than severed from) their storyworlds. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, it relies on a number of postcognitivist theories from philosophy and cognitive science as its theoretical framework. While traditional philosophy of mind and cognitive science are grounded in the Cartesian dualist idea that the mind is brain-bound and separated from the world, postcognitivist theories of extended cognition question this entrenched divide. They propose instead that the mind extends into the world by interacting constitutively and constantly with its environment, arguing for an extended or hybrid model of cognition. 

After an introductory chapter on the origins of cognitivism and postcognitivism in philosophy and cognitive science, as well as similar developments in narratology, the present dissertation zooms in on the works by the late modernist Samuel Beckett – considered by many the most introspective of modernist writers – from the vantage point of extended cognition. Without disputing Beckett’s attention to the mind, the present aims to nuance the canonical trope of the Beckettian ‘scullscape’ by examining how Beckett’s fictional minds continuously and constitutively extend into their environment, however impoverished the latter may be in his later works. As the dualist mind/world boundary progressively unravels and eventually dissolves in the course of his writing career, its artificiality in the discourse on human cognition becomes more and more apparent, and we realise that, to use Beckett’s own word, ‘what are called outside and inside are one and the same’ (1949). Bearing in mind the danger of generalisation, this project’s findings could be used towards a broader reassessment of the way fictional minds are evoked in modernist literature, and the postcognitivist theories of extended cognition provide a suitable methodological framework for such a reassessment. 

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