This article seeks to historicize the affinity between narrative fiction and the cognitive function known as theory of mind. The author believes this affinity holds true mostly in modern commercial societies structured by stranger sociality, cosmopolitanism, and social mobility. Elsewhere, both temporally and culturally, theory of mind is certainly present and useful but not always prized in social life and does not animate expressive culture to the same extent. Such societies are structured by kinship sociality that presumes relatively stable identity and valorizes guileless “characters” who effortlessly embody socially shared values. The hierarchical structures of these societies also place a greater premium on theory of mind for subordinates than for the powerful, hence attaching a tinge of opprobrium to its exercise. In literature this translates into the moral ambivalence concerning “crafty” figures. The author presents her arguments with reference primarily to premodern Chinese literary classics. For comparative purposes she also brings into discussion the Sanskrit play Shakuntala and a King Solomon legend. In the coda, she asks if the importance of theory of mind is overstated when in social life we resort to a much wider range of folk psychological heuristics.
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Research Article| June 01 2020
Measuring the Stomach of a Gentleman with the Heart-Mind of a Pipsqueak: On the Ubiquity and Utility of Theory of Mind in Literature, Mostly
Haiyan Lee is professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Stanford University. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900–1950 (2007), which won the 2009 Joseph Levenson Prize (post-1900 China) from the Association for Asian Studies, and The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination (2014).
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Poetics Today (2020) 41 (2): 205–222.
Haiyan Lee; Measuring the Stomach of a Gentleman with the Heart-Mind of a Pipsqueak: On the Ubiquity and Utility of Theory of Mind in Literature, Mostly. Poetics Today 1 June 2020; 41 (2): 205–222. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-8172528
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