Intuitionist vs. Experimentalist Methods

        The term, "intuitionist," commonly is used by experimental psychologists to describe Freud's and Jung's methods of arriving at conclusions about human mentality by abstracting a theory from a few cases analyzed using the tools of ordinary textual analysis (e.g., looking for themes, etc.).  Its counterpart, a method that derives its conclusions from experiments under controlled conditions and/or from observations of a large number of events using numerical analysis, commonly describes the way much of modern psychology now studies and understands the mind.  In political theory, we might also call "intuitionist" Marx's imaginative recreation of economic history from his imagination of a-historical, pre-social human societies from an idealized medieval communism through their "inevitable" evolution into the nineteenth-century's nation-states struggling to become imperialist powers to dominate the world, a struggle Marx explained by a mythically universal class-warfare that obeyed an "inevitable force of history."  Both Freud and Marx told compelling but ultimately mythic narratives about the human condition, based on what they intuited from their own experience or recent compelling historical events, but their theories have not achieved the explanatory success that typical scientific theories can achieve.  Some of their conclusions have been supported by more careful research, but the elaborate structure of their myths' narratives about "why things are as they are" largely has collapsed for most scholars.  Nevertheless, true-believer disciples of each myth continue to attempt to bring all evidence into conformity with the master-narratives they inherited.  Scholars beware.  Their work is still in JSTOR and the library collection, because it was considered "scholarly" when it was published, but if you are relying on work published prior to the 1970s and '80s, when their theories were re-evaluated, you may be using dangerously weak sources.

        If you like aspects of the psychoanalytic approach, however, all is not lost.  For students who remain deeply interested in the way the mind shapes literary production and literary consumption, cognitive science and experimental psychology, including studies of memory and perception, and modern composition theory, have much to offer without the necessity of accepting Freud's unsupported generalizations about gender and identity, etc..  One useful terminological difference often distinguishes later researchers from those still adhering to Freudian intuitionist study of "the mind."  Cognitive psychologists view "the mind" as an experience produced by "the brain," which is the object of their study.  They resist, on the principle of Occam's Razor, the multiplication of invisible entities like "id" and "penis envy" that the theory requires to explain any observed or reported "mental" events, preferring to look for sharable evidence that others can reproduce on their own using the same methods of study.  Alan Richardson (Boston College, English Department) maintains an extensive web site devoted to Literature, Cognition, and the Brain, including numerous abstracts of articles and full papers from a 2004 MLA Convention session on Literature and Cognition.  One promising sign is the conversion of old-line Freudians, like Norman Holland (The Critical I [1992]; Five Readers Reading, 1975]) to the cognitive science method--see his Spring 2004 University of Florida seminar, "The Brain and the Book." 

        For students who really care about the social conditions in which literature is composed and consumed, economic and social history offer more firmly grounded ways to study the texts, authors, and readers without having to accept Marx's over-simplifications about class struggle, false and revolutionary consciousness, the inevitability of historical processes, etc.  One immediately obvious interpretive strategy social history enables is the establishment of the relative values of things expressed in unfamiliar terms in early literature.  For instance, if Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway tells us that Tom Buchanan gave Daisy, as a wedding present, a pearl necklace "valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars," how much would that necklace be worth today and what does that suggest about Tom's wealth?  Nick rents his East Egg cottage, beside Gatsby's mansion, for "eighty dollars a month," so what does that mean about Nick's and Tom's relative economic status and what might Fitzgerald be trying to tell us about the sheer excess of Tom's lifestyle?, the Economic History Services online web site, offers a calculator which converts the value of goods, services, and coinage into modern American terms.  Scholars in early literature must work harder to recover relative values, but students of Medieval England can make use of this list of relative values (in pounds, shillings and pence, so you'll have to convert).  In addition, New Historicist and Cultural Critics have inventively adapted the work of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and others, to develop historically and economically sensitive methods of literary analysis which build on some of the most durable Marxist intuitive insights without subscribing to their assumptions about "class struggle" and "historical inevitability."