Fiction and Other Minds: Searching for Authenticity with the Beats, Beckett, and the Embodied Phenomenological Mind

This term’s Fiction and Other Minds seminar welcomed Prof Michael Wheeler from the University of Stirling, who presented on the topic of Seeing the Real You at Last: Searching for Authenticity with the Beats, Beckett, and the Embodied Phenomenological Mind

A person is standardly said to achieve authenticity when they act ‘in accordance with desires, motives, ideals or beliefs that are not only [theirs] (as opposed to someone else’s), but that also express who [they] really [are]’ (Varga and Guignon, ‘Authenticity’). This talk endeavours to further our understanding of the phenomenon of authenticity, but it is also offered as an example of an investigative and explanatory methodology in which literature, philosophy and cognitive science combine as equal partners. Following some programmatic remarks outlining the key features of this methodology, Wheeler will draw on a recent treatment by George Mouratidis (‘”Into the Heart of Things’”) in order to deliver a provisional analysis of the Beat Generation writers, and more specifically of Jack Kerouac’s road novels, as engaged in a sustained search for authenticity – a search that fails. Wheeler's interim conclusion will be that the failure in question may be traced to the fact that the model of authenticity assumed by Kerouac and the other Beats is unattainable.

In response to the Beats’ unsuccessful search, Wheeler brings into view an alternative model of authenticity, one that (roughly speaking) shifts us from an individualistic register to a deeply socially embedded one. Here he will build on (i) Heidegger’s influential phenomenological analysis of authenticity (Being and Time), (ii) the notion of relational authenticity proposed by Gallagher, Morgan and Rokotnitz (‘Relational Authenticity’), and (iii) some ideas about the mechanisms of skilled intentionality that hail from recent embodied cognitive science. The resulting picture promises to deliver an account of authenticity with which the Beats might have lived, but any sense of victory here is short-lived, because, in the end, there exists a more fundamental problem regarding the notion of authenticity – one faced by both our models. This problem comes into stark view once we adopt, adapt and reapply some very recent work on Samuel Beckett by Marco Bernini (Beckett and the Cognitive Method). By developing a key aspect of Bernini’s cognitive literary studies approach to Beckett (an aspect which is continuous with the idea of the embodied phenomenological mind at work in (i)-(iii) above), we come to view certain of Beckett’s works as delivering a series of psychological lesion experiments in dramatic or literary form. These experiments reveal the deep structure of what we call 'the self’ and, in so doing, they put pressure on the very idea of authenticity.  


The seminar is convened by Professor Ben Morgan ( Dr Naomi Rokotnitz (
As always, the talk will be followed by drinks for all attendees.


About the Seminar: The Fiction and Other Minds seminar series, convened by Ben Morgan and Naomi Rokotnitz, has been running since 2013, hosting a range of speakers working at the interface between literary studies, cognitive science and phenomenology. The seminar explores the field that opens when features investigated by the cognitive sciences are tested and expanded across different cultural contexts. In particular, we are interested in the ways by which literary texts often challenge and differentiate theoretical insights especially through their attention to the culturally situated aspects of cognition, and how cognitively informed approaches to literature can deepen our understanding of the embodied and affective processes that underpin meaning-making, including literary reading.