Distributed Cognition and the Phenomenology of Modernist Painting and Poetry (Rilke and Cézanne)

Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

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Contemporary views of consciousness associated with the notion of ‘distributed cognition’ suggest that cognition is not exclusively an internal activity, or reducible to neural system activity alone, but also includes a distribution across motoric and perceptual experience and is in important ways interwoven with the surrounding environment. These theories, indebted to phenomenology, oppose a Cartesian heritage that would segregate the human mind, and rationality, from involvement with the world. In this paper I highlight implications of these views for aesthetics, showing how such an understanding of consciousness is expressed in analogous ways in modern poetry and painting. Rilke’s 'Neue Gedichte' are interpreted according to a poetics of embodied, enactive, and extended cognition, while Cézanne’s painting expresses the embodied and enactive nature of visual cognition. In this chapter, I would like to suggest that our contemporary ideas about distributed cognition are indebted to, and may be engaged to help further develop, phenomenological insights into these modernist works. I will suggest that an embodied cognitive aesthetics can illuminate the common resources in vital human intentionality of artworks across different media. Merleau-Ponty’s claim that philosophy, visual art, and poetry share common aims, and the poetic inspiration Rilke took from Cézanne and other visual artists, can be better understood by considering art and literature from a cognitive standpoint.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Edinburgh History of Distributed Cognition
Subtitle of host publicationDistributed Cognition from Victorian Culture to Modernism
EditorsMiranda Anderson, Peter Garratt, Mark Sprevak
Place of PublicationEdinburgh
PublisherEdinburgh University Press
ISBN (Print)9781474442244
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • Rilke
  • Cézanne
  • Modernism
  • Cognition
  • distributed cognition
  • Distributed Cognition
  • modernism


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