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Wendy Wheeler

This essay argues that recent developments in evolutionary biology require us to reformulate the Darwinian Synthesis which has dominated evolutionary understandings from the 1930s to Neo-Darwinism and Evolutionary Psychology in the present. Introducing the new interdiscipline of biosemiotics, which understands all living things – from cells to organisms to ecosystems – as communicative makers of meanings, the essay argues that we can understand cultural and aesthetic life both as emergent from natural biosemiotic life and also as rearticulating nature’s patterns at a new symbolic level in humans. Drawing on the semiotic philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce and on Michael Polanyi’s understanding of tacit embodied knowledge, the essay suggests that the power of literature lies in its capacity to remind us of the generative power and creative evolution of semiosis, both in nature and in culture.

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Anna Barton

Tennyson’s poetic response to the evolutionary science of his day in In Memoriam is a familiar topic, but discussion has rarely focussed on the implications of evolution for Tennyson’s poetic voice. Using Kristevan theories of gendered language, this essay offers the unborn and newly born children of poetic and scientific texts by Tennyson and Chambers as sites that both motivate and disrupt a paternal desire for meaning that will silence poetry, and argues that the way this desire is articulated, achieved or avoided might usefully contribute to a discussion of literature as constitutive of its own evolutionary progress.

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David Amigoni

Variation, inheritance, and parenting were complex aspects of Darwin’s theory in that they entangled the biological and cultural-intellectual domains. The celebration of Darwin’s centenary in 1909 was actually an occasion that questioned Darwin’s theories of inheritance and variation. The Mendelian William Bateson was one of those who questioned, and in doing this he styled Darwin as a ‘poet,’ and cited, for support, Samuel Butler, an earlier ‘maverick’ critic of Darwin. The essay explores the aesthetic legacy of Butler, and offers a reading from his novel, The Way of All Flesh, that both supports Bateson’s critique of Darwinian inheritance while moving beyond it.

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David Midgley

In L’évolution créatrice (1907), Bergson reviewed the thinking of the biologists of his day about evolutionary and organic processes, and drew some distinctive conclusions about the nature of human understanding, notably privileging intuition over intellect when it comes to grasping the nature of life and evolution. This chapter examines the character of Bergson’s arguments, the circumstances in which his text came to be translated into German in 1912, and the range of responses that the work elicited from German intellectuals of the time. It identifies some senses in which Bergson’s arguments were assimilated to expectations moulded by German philosophical traditions, and considers what the reception of Bergson’s text reveals about the conflicts at work in German literary and intellectual culture in the decade before the First World War.

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Alistair Brown

Whilst Daniel Dennett argues that evolution offers a universal acid that underpins human culture, this essay contends that the algorithm offers a better explanandum that can be applied across disciplines. By comparing literature against two self-evidently algorithmic narratives, those of Richard Dawkins’s ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ program and the computer game, The Sims, it concludes that literature and certain computer games cannot be said to operate through comparable algorithmic processes, even though both share narrative traits. This therefore undermines the assumption that evolutionary theory can be applied with universal efficacy to all products of human culture.

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Katja Mellmann

There has been a great deal of uproar about Darwinian approaches in literary scholarship. Statements range from enthusiastic prophecies of a new paradigm for literary studies to acrimonious scoldings of reductionism. Believing that the major challenge is first to find good questions to which evolutionary psychology might provide us with good answers, I outline and critically assess different veins of argumentation as revealed in recent contributions to the field. As an alternative to some simplistic mimeticism in present Literary Darwinism, I put forward the idea of evolutionary psychology as a heuristic theory that serves to resolve defined problems in interpretation and literary theory.

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David Platten

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Joseph Emonds

Several properties unique to human language arguably derive from ‘Duality’: two superimposed combinatorial systems, phonology and syntax. However, the discreteness in both systems is generally overlooked. Syntax, a human language ‘trademark,’ is strangely based on exactly those discrete categories plausibly present in primate vision, possibly primate cognition’s only discrete categories. A first evolutionary step projected these discrete categories out of the ‘here and now’ into a computational screen. A second step dissociated the phonology atoms from meaning, leading to large lexicons and referential displacement.