Art Graesser

Is Siegfried Schmidt's Constructivism Alive and Well Today?


Constructivism has had a tremendous impact on both cognitive science and the field of discourse processing throughout the last 25 years. What do I mean by constructivism? It means that the human mind actively constructs meanings rather than merely translates explicit text. It means that cognitive mechanisms dynamically interact with stimulus input during comprehension, and collaboratively produce cognitive representations (Graesser, Singer, & Trabasso, 1994; Kintsch, 1998). So meaning does not reside in the text, nor does it reside in the mind, but rather it resides in a dynamic dance between the two. Because of these cognitive complexities, any enterprise that dissects the linguistic and semantic properties of the text alone is not a psychologically plausible model of comprehension and appreciation. Any text-analysis enterprise is also fundamentally limited as a formal theory because it will never go the distance in offering a complete explanation of the composition of the explicit text.

Constructivism has deep roots in cognitive science and discourse processing. But it was Siegfried Schmidt who did what he could to sell the foundation to colleagues in literature, literary criticism, media studies, and empirical studies of literature. His 1982 book was the cornerstone contribution that launched his position (Schmidt, 1982). As far as I can tell, his impact literature and literary criticism has not produced the revolutionary change that Siegfried Schmidt and many of us had hoped. Literature has a much different scholarly agenda, and those in literary criticism have always been stubborn. In contrast, those of us in empirical studies of literature have been profoundly influenced by Siegfried's ideas. Indeed, his ideas created a whole new society (IGEL) and journal (SPIEL), in addition to substantially influencing the journal Poetics during the last 20 years. Siegfried is the founder and intellectual Godfather of empirical studies of literature.

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