Theoretical intersections cognitive poetics, cultural evolution, and distant reading in literary studies

1. Abstract

Since Franco Moretti coined the widely successful term “distant reading” (Moretti, 2000) quantitative/computational text analysis methods have gained a wide circulation in literary studies. We can even speak of a distant reading school, nowadays. The diffusion of distant reading approaches has raised a lively debate (mostly in the North American context), and has attracted various criticisms, both from “traditional literary scholars” and self-critical adopters that can be subsumed into a threefold typology:

Each of these kinds of criticisms would need a deep discussion and are strictly interconnected. For instance, in the well-known Da’s articles, allegedly oriented presented as a replication failure study, the following excerpts makes apparent that the author has an a priori skepticism about the epistemological possibility of what she calls “computational literary studies:

There is a fundamental mismatch between the statistical tools that are used and the objects to which they are applied. (Da, 2019: 601)

[…] It may be the case that computational textual analysis has a threshold of optimal utility, and literature—in particular, reading literature well—is that cut-off point. (2019: 639)

I think that one of the main reasons underlying these more or less critical positions toward distant reading is the fact that it lacks sound and coherent rationales from the point of view of the theory: in fact, we can say that distant reading is the first methodology in literary studies that does not come with a theory of literature embedded in it, as it was for all of its predecessors. Consequently, all distant reading studies derive their theoretical frameworks and terms from theories in the literary domain that generally relies on the fundamental idea that literary texts can be explained only by the way of interpretation or if we prefer of hermeneutics.

The problem is that any literary interpretation based on quantitative, immanent, and purely formalist approach is subject to the theoretical criticism that was expressed by Stanley Fish in his harsh and seemingly ultimate criticism to stylistics in “What Is Stylistics, and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?” (Fish, 1980). The point for Fish was not to criticize the methods per se, but the possibility to extract meaningful literary interpretations directly from the simple linguistic facts, the idea of an “algorithmic interpretation” (Fish’s words!), since interpretation always starts from a contextual and situated point of view that pre-defines the very objects of its actuation.

Many important scholars active in the field do believe that there is the possibility to reconcile traditional theories (of literature) with computational/quantitative methods. Just to make a couple of examples of these consilience theses, we can cite Andrew Piper (Piper, 2018) and Michael Gavin (Gavin, 2018). Piper proposes a sort of computational hermeneutics, that integrates distant and close, and quantitative and qualitative readings. Michael Gavin argues that “vector semantics share a set of assumptions with literary critic William Empson, who devoted his career to explaining how poets played with words’ many meanings”. What is suspicious in these (and similar but often less intriguing and thought-provoking) calls to the reconciliation of the two poles is that their outcomes are either literary critically unsatisfactory or are self-contradictory, in that the hermeneutical and critical part of the discourse is self-standing, the critical arguments are logically independent from the results of the computational analysis.

On the base of these considerations, I think that distant reading simply cannot be considered a methodological innovation to be applied to our pre-existing theories of literary texts (in all their rhizomatic variants): it is necessary to find a suitable theory or framework where these methods can yield to interesting results. To make a substantial step in this direction we should first of all take seriously the notion of distant reading and abandon the idea of literature as either made of singular special individuals (the great or the small texts, amenable to interpretations by literary critics, or the big or small writers) or reduced to abstract ideal type, under the scrutiny of literary theoreticians with no clue with empirical evidence. This move would import also taking seriously the move from (or renounce to) interpretation to (embrace) explanation as the real aim of the scholarly inquiry.

On what theoretical basis, then, can we construct a notion of literature amenable to distant reading methods?

One possible direction to be explored as some scholars like Ted Underwood suggests (English and Underwood, 2016; Underwood, 2017), is that distant reading should fall inside the tradition of sociology of literature or history of ideas a la Nouvelle Histoire. Although there are many reasons to lean toward a sociological vision of literature as an optimal base for distant reading, I think that an even better theoretical framework is that of the cognitive and bio-evolutionistic approaches to literature and the cultural evolution studies. Cognitive poetics/narratology, and bio/evolutionary literary studies have been two of the most interesting waves of innovation in the literary field of the last 30 years and are now established field of inquiry. With different graduation depending on the authors, they have advocated the introduction of a more scientific methodology in the study of literature, looking for methodological and theoretical insights into cognitive science and evolutionary psychology.

What is more interesting for my thesis is that, not surprisingly, the debate around the legitimacy and acceptability of the cognitive approaches in literary studies has determined a discussion on the problem of literary interpretation that has many similarities with the discourse I have proposed in this paper. Recently, a young and brilliant scholar active in the field, Marco Caracciolo, has re-opened the debate, and in doing this he has explicitly stated that “In order to contribute to cognitive science, literary scholarship has to complement—and in some cases even supplant—interpretation with a different set of goals and methods”. (Caracciolo, 2016: 193).

The other scientific field where literary studies can find a theoretical framework that takes great advantage of distant reading methodology is that of cultural evolution. This field of study that as of now has no application in literary studies, aims at providing a naturalist and empirical explanation of the nature and evolution of culture, adopting widely mathematical/statistical and computational modeling.

One of the theoretical underpinnings of cultural evolution is the adoption of the population thinking framework, taken from evolutionary biology (after Ernest Mayr interpretation of Darwin’s theory) and population genetics, and its application to cultural phenomena as pointed out recently by Dan Sperber and his collaborators (Claidière et al., 2014):

Literature is part of the cultural sphere, so it can be considered a population of individual items (the texts) whose members are defined by a set of measurable features. The description of the population at a given state (synchronic, in our beloved Sausurrian terms) and its evolution (diachronic) is feasible by the way of statistical and data-driven analysis.

To conclude, I think that in order to take full advantage of the most advanced methods and analytical techniques encompassed by the label Distant reading, like text mining and machine learning, in literary and cultural studies, we need to find a proper theoretical framework that gives sense to the hypothesis experiments, data sets and explanations we can generate. The attempt to justify and anchor this approach in the context of the traditional literary theories and methodologies has proven a limitation that undermines the interesting analytical results, and it is easily amenable to the ‘so what’ criticism, or ideological attacks. Maybe it is time to change the framework, and to abandon the classical hermeneutical literary studies environment.


Bode, K. (2018). A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Caracciolo, M. (2016). Cognitive Literary Studies and the Status of Interpretation: An Attempt at Conceptual Mapping. New Literary History, 47(1): 187–207 doi:10.1353/nlh.2016.0003.

Claidière, N., Scott-Phillips, T. C. and Sperber, D. (2014). How Darwinian is cultural evolution?. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 369(1642): 20130368 doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0368.

Da, N. Z. (2019). The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies. Critical Inquiry, 45(3): 601–39 doi:10.1086/702594.

English, J. F. and Underwood, T. (2016). Shifting Scales: Between Literature and Social Science. Modern Language Quarterly, 77(3): 277–95 doi:10.1215/00267929-3570612.

Fish, S. (2012). Mind Your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation. Opinionator, New York Times (accessed 24 January 2012).

Fish, S. E. (1980). What is stylistics and why are they saying such terrible things about it?. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, pp. 68–96.

Gavin, M. (2018). Vector Semantics, William Empson, and the Study of Ambiguity. Critical Inquiry, 44(4): 641–73 doi:10.1086/698174.

Marche, S. (2012). Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities. Los Angeles Review of Books

Moretti, F. (2000). Conjectures on World Literature. The New Left Review

Piper, A. (2018). Enumerations: Data and Literary Study. Chicago?; London: The University of Chicago Press.

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Underwood, T. (2017). A Genealogy of Distant Reading. DHQ, 11(2) (accessed 20 October 2017).

Fabio Ciotti (, Università di Roma Tor Vergata, Italy

Theme: Lux by Bootswatch.