In this section of the paper, I argue that narrative testimony cues a representational format. Thus, in successful narrative testimonial exchange—that is, where an audience accepts a speaker’s narrative testimony—speaker and hearer become co-ordinated not only with respect to the informational content of the speaker’s testimony, but also with respect to the content’s representational format. Such co-ordination gives rise to perspectival dependence.
Text comprehension is a ‘multilevel’ process (Perrig and Kintsch 1985.)Footnote 19 Put differently, text comprehension comes both in ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ varieties. For successful ‘thin’ discourse comprehension, all that is required is a mental representation of the meaning of a discourse. Where the text is something simple—for example, a single sentence like:
University College is older than Exeter College,
– the mental representation will typically be a sententially structured mental representation with propositional content.
‘Thick’ discourse comprehension, on the other hand, has as its output more than a sententially structured mental representation. Instead, it outputs a mental state in which the information encoded in the text is integrated with an audience’s background knowledge to generate a rich ‘mental model’. Let us call—following standard usage—the output of thick text comprehension a situation model.
So put, the distinction here is not particularly sharp; one way to sharpen it is to identify the different functional profiles of the two outputs. Thin outputs support simple ‘recall’ tasks. For example, someone who has achieved thin comprehension of (2) will be able to correctly answer question (3):
Which is older: University college or Exeter college?
But this ‘thin’ mental representation may not be enough to support more demanding, ‘inference’ tasks. Consider a second question:
Which is younger, University college or Keble college?
Someone with only a ‘thin’ mental representation of (4) may find it difficult to answer this question even if they know perfectly well that Keble College is younger than Exeter college. To readily answer (6), the ability to recall the content ‘directly’ associated with (4) is not enough—this content must also be cognitively integrated with a mental representation of Keble College. Someone with only ‘thin’ comprehension of (4), who has not integrated their mental representation of (4)’s content with their background knowledge of Oxford has only scattered and fragmented mental representations of the city, rather than a single, integrated mental representation. The latter, though, is much better placed to facilitate the inferences an agent must make to answer question (6).Footnote 20 Hence thick and thin comprehension output mental representations that are well-suited to different cognitive tasks.
Situation models may exploit various different representational formats. Suppose you want to represent the layout of a small town. Here are some ways one might do this.
A set of instructions for how to get from one landmark to another.
A map-like representation of the landmarks.
A list of claims specifying the co-ordinates of each landmark.
These different representations will have different functional profiles. In particular, they will support different inference tasks. Compare the following questions:
Is the church north of the station?
Must one turn left if travelling from the station to the church?
As the crow flies, is the church further from the station than it is from Exeter college?
Will it take me longer to walk to the church from the station or from Exeter college?
Someone with a spatial representation will (ceteris paribus) find (7) and (9) easier to answer than (8) and (10); for someone with a procedural representation, this pattern will be reversed.
Moreover, different styles of mental representation will ‘position’ the agent differently with respect to the town. Someone with a procedural representation will, when using their mental model, tend to imaginatively embed themselves within the town, and first-personally rehearse the relevant movements. When working out how to get from the church to the town hall, they will tend to imagine themselves walking down a certain street, taking a certain turning, and so on. In other words their mental representation will support inferences primarily by exploiting extended first-personal, visualisation. By contrast, someone with a spatial or propositional mental representation of the town will not be inclined to work out how to get from the church to the town hall by way of such imaginative first-personal projection. If their inferences require visualisation at all, it will be visualisation from a ‘bird’s eye’ perspective, rather than from an embedded, first-personal perspective.
Back to narrative
Why does this matter for a discussion of narrative testimony? Answer: narrative testimony allows speakers to cue representational formats. This allows speaker and hearer to perspectivally co-ordinate.
Consider, for example, the following two discourses:
The little town of Baldwin is an old frontier town in the Midwest. To get there, drive east along the east-west Highway to the Green River which rushes out of some low hills to your left. Among the hills, before you come to the river, you see the high school which is connected to the highway by a small road. To see the town, continue on the highway to Main Street where you can turn either right or left. Going left on Main after a few blocks you see the Lutheran church on your right. Returning on Main Street to the other end, you come to the general store.
The little town of Baldwin is an old frontier town in the Midwest. It is located where the east-west highway crosses the Green River which rushes out of some low hills north of the highway. Among the hills on the west bank of the river is the high school which is connected to the highway by a small road. The town itself consists of little more than the highway and Main Street which crosses the highway. A few blocks north on Main there is a Lutheran church on its east side. The general store is on the southern end of Main Street.Footnote 21
(11) and (12) communicate roughly the same facts about the geography of Baldwin. But they cue different representational formats: the first, procedural, the second, spatial. This is effected by way of a layered series of cues: in (11), ‘to get there’, ‘you see’, ‘before you come’, ‘going left’, and so on; in (12), ‘north’ ‘a few blocks’, ‘the southern end’, etc. A receptive hearer will pick up on these cues, and respond to them in their choice of representational format.Footnote 22
If I hear and accept the first discourse, and you hear and accept the second, we will, in some rough sense, share a representation of Baldwin. Given that the two discourses communicate the same facts about the town, there is a thin sense in which we are mentally coordinated.Footnote 23 Nonetheless, we differ in important respects: we use different representational formats. In the next section, I explore the connections between representational format and each of the three dispositions that compose a perspective.
First, different representational formats interact in various open-ended ways with attentional dispositions. Consider details like (i) the colour of a building or (ii) the difficulty of walking on the cobblestones between the church and the station. These are far more likely to be salient for someone with a procedural representation than someone with a spatial or a propositional representation of a town.
Second, because the different representations support different inferential tasks, they favour different kinds of inquiry. Opinional convergence in the absence of convergence on representational format is thus likely to be brittle: agents who opinionally converge but whose representational formats differ are likely to expand their opinion sets in different directions, and so become opinionally uncoordinated.
Both interpretive and inquisitive dispositions will be influenced by a second feature of representational format. Compare A, whose inferences are supported only by a sparse, bird’s eye representation of a town, B, whose inferences involve the manipulation of propositions, and C, who routinely relies on vivid, embedded first-personal visualisation of the town when engaged in inference or recall tasks.
An agent whose representational formatting requires the latter engages in what is sometimes called ‘dramatic rehearsal’: when they imaginatively navigate the town, they ‘rehearse’ the experience of actually navigating it, or ‘try on’ (Moran 1994) the point of view of a person actually walking through the town.
Why does this matter? Variously. As Camp notes, dramatic rehearsal has much of the ‘phenomenal immediacy’ of perception; it plausibly triggers robust affective responses (Camp 2017a). The inferential mechanisms that A and B rely on are far ‘cooler’, with a correspondingly muted affective profile.
This connects our discussion with one of the most heavily theorised features of narrative fiction. Reading narratives appears to activate experiential representations: readers ‘process information from the spatio-temporal, cognitive, and emotional point of view of narrative protagonists’ (Camp 2017a). Readers will often empathetically re-enact scenes from the perspectives of the characters within the narrative (Currie 1995).Footnote 24 In other words, the literature on narrative fiction clearly recognises the capacity of narratives to cue a distinctly embedded mode of cognition that relies heavily on simulation.
In my view, though, the capacity of narrative fiction to cue this style of cognition is best conceived as an example of a more general capacity of narrative communication to cue representational formats.Footnote 25 Consider three different formats we might use in our representation of other agents:
We represent the agent by engaging in experientially rich first-personal simulation.
We represent the agent propositionally, paradigmatically by ascribing propositional attitudes.Footnote 26
We represent the agent by way of a set of instructions concerning how to successfully interact with them.
When a narrative—fictional or not—coaxes us into representing its protagonists first-personally, it ‘selects’ a representational format for us. Narratives often, but need not select a simulationist format. Consider the following excerpt from Mailer:
One day, while I was sitting in the tub soaping myself, I noticed that she had forgotten the towels. ‘Ida’, I called, ‘bring me some towels!’ She walked into the bathroom and handed me them. As she stooped over the tub to put the towels on the rack, her bathrobe slid open. I slid to my knees and buried my head in her muff. It happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to rebel or even pretend to rebel. In a moment, I had her in the tub, stockings and all. (Miller 2007).Footnote 27
This is not a narrative which encourages a first personal simulation of Ida.Footnote 28 Multiple cues in the text make it clear that we are not invited to see things from her perspective. Instead, the narrative encourages us to think of her primarily in terms of how to manipulate her: she is encoded primarily as a series of actions that must be undertaken to achieve sexual pleasure. The moral is this: if narratives encourage first-personal of its protagonists—and they often do—that is not because any narrative whatsoever cues such a format; rather, specific details of the text are responsible.
How, though, to relate these remarks to perspectives? My preferred route runs through Strawson’s famous distinction between the reactive and the objective stance (Strawson 2008). The reactive stance is partly constituted by certain inquisitive and interpretive dispositions. Part of what it is for me to take up the reactive stance in relation to you just is for me to be interested in acquiring, and disposed to close inquiry only upon receiving, certain kinds of explanation for your behavior—roughly, those which appeal to what Nagel calls your ‘internal point of view’ (Nagel 1989). If you throw a glass at the wall, and I take up the reactive stance towards you, I am interested in making your throwing intelligible from a first personal perspective, and in interpreting it with respect to its first personal significance. Similarly, part of what it is to take up the objective stance towards a fellow creature is to be uninterested in such explanations and interpretations. (‘He’s just mad’, you might say ‘who cares why he thinks he did it! We just need to move away quietly.’)
Narratives which cue a simulationist representation of a given agent incline us to adopt the reactive stance towards said agent, and so to adopt a certain suite of interpretive and inquisitive dispositions. Conversely, manipulationist representations incline us towards the objective stance, with its attendant suite of dispositions.Footnote 29 Thus representational format influences inquisitive and interpretive dispositions by shaping (i) which kinds of question naturally occur to us concerning an agent, (ii) which sorts of answers close our inquiry, and (iii) which inferences we are inclined to draw when we get new information.
Let us take stock. Narrative testimony cues representational format. This allows speaker and hearer to co-ordinate with respect to representational format. This co-ordination in turn involves co-ordination with respect to the multivalent dispositions constitutive of perspectival co-ordination: attentional, inquisitive, and interpretive. Where the co-ordination is effected as a result of the speaker’s cuing a representational format, we get perspectival dependence.
Narrative versus simple testimony
How much do simple and narrative testimony differ when it comes to such format cuing? Can’t simple testimony also exploit such cues? Yes, but far less powerfully. The two come apart along two important axes: layering and swamping. Let’s take these in turn.
First, narratives allows testifiers to ‘bake into’ their testimony a set of instructions for situation model construction because they allow for a sustained layering of cues. Simple testimony, by contrast, is less amenable to any such layering: a single sentence offers few opportunities for cue-placement.
Second, suppose I offer you some simple testimony about the lay-out of a town—say, ‘The church is north of the library’. Now, consider a question: which representational format—procedural, spatial, or propositional—is most likely to be exploited by the output of your thick comprehension? Presumably, that will depend almost entirely on which representational format is exploited by your pre-existing mental model. If your existing model of the town exploits a procedural format, the output of thick comprehension will probably involve the absorption of my testimonial content into that procedural representation. The cues embedded in the simple testimony will be ‘swamped’ by the demands generated by the formatting of you pre-existing mental representations.
In other words, the process of integrating ‘thin’ representations with background knowledge will often be one of absorbing the testimonially conveyed content into a rich background structure. Given such absorption, there will be little or no meaningful sense in which the resultant product of the ‘thick’ comprehension is as a mental model of the simple testimony. The ‘microworld’ that results from the thick comprehension process will be the product of something like a ‘negotiation’ between speaker and hearer, rather than a more straightforward adoption of the microworld suggested by the speaker’s testimony. But it is the latter which is characteristic of successful narrative exchange.Footnote 30
We can then add to the stock taken above: there is a meaningful asymmetry between the capacity of simple and the capacity of narrative testimony to cue representational format and so to give rise to perspectival dependence.
In the next section, I discuss a second mechanism responsible for perspectival dependence.