Thursday, January 16, 2014

Human Cognitive Function in Frankenstein's Monster

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein Victor Frankenstein imbues an inanimate, roughly-human form with life. As he states at the outset of this venture, his goal is "the creation of a human being" (Shelley 49). On animating the creature, however, Frankenstein denies its human nature and declares it a demon (Shelley 53). Unlike Frankenstein, cognitive science supports the idea of the monster as a human being in nature. Because the monster has a human brain and experiences thoughts, language, and empathy as a human does, by a cognitive science definition, Frankenstein's monster is a human.
The first assumption being made is that Frankenstein includes a human brain in the exaggerated human frame which he animates. When constructing his monster, Frankenstein describes harvesting the organs for his creation from human remains as he "collected bones from charnel-houses; and disturbed, with profane fingers, the secrets of the human frame" (Shelley 50) including, presumably, a brain. Also, upon waking for the first time, his creation is able to control its movements in a fashion analogous to  a human, and assuming that the monster's physiology work in a fashion consistent with the constituent human parts from which it was created, these movements must be controlled by a human brain (Shelley 54).
The establishment of a human brain is important to deducing the monster's human nature because the brain is seen by modern cognitive scientists as the physical mechanism which provides the function of thought and cognition, colloquially described as "mind" (Guenther 7). Because Frankenstein used a human brain in his monster, a materialist view of cognitive science suggests that the monster would consequently have the consciousness that is a function of brain activity.
More important to the human identity of Frankenstein's monster than the ability to think is the application of its thinking. The monster's ability to use language to communicate with its creator is actually a result of a high level of cognitive functioning (Shelley 106). Linguists have long been unable to explain the "routine creativity" (Guenther 11) which language requires. The ability to create and understand new sentences without previous exposure to the exact phrasing is a function of human cognition that no other creatures can achieve (Guenther 11). As the monster describes its life after being created, it explains how it acquired its language skills by learning which words represented which objects (Shelley 129). The monster even describes its initial trouble learning the language, explaining its process of associating the pronunciation of sounds with the objects and concepts that the speakers reference (Shelley 122). This proves that the mastery of language the monster displays in his confrontation with Frankenstein is the result of a constant creative application of linguistic rules which is a defining human cognitive ability.
Beyond language, Frankenstein's monster shows a great capacity for another cognitively complex ability: empathy. When the monster spends some time watching Agatha, Felix and their father, it remarks that "when they were unhappy, I felt depressed; when they rejoiced, I sympathised in their joys" (Shelley 122). This description is a near-perfect example of the definition of empathy, "the naturally occurring subjective experience of similarity between the feelings expressed by self and others" (Decety 71). This ability to empathize is another hallmark of human cognition, described as the ability which "is considered to set us apart from other primates" (Decety 74). This shows that the monster has, from a cognitive science perspective, a human mind.
Frankenstein's monster cannot be clearly defined as human or inhuman based on the limited amount of material in Frankenstein. However, At a certain point the evidence that is provided can be applied to form a conclusion. Although the monster's cognitive abilities do not rule out the possibility of it truly being inhuman in nature, the presence of a human brain and the cognitive abilities of language and empathy strongly suggest that Frankenstein's monster is human.

Works Cited

Decety, Jean, and Phillip L. Jackson. "The Functional Architecture of Human Empathy." SAGE Journals. University of Washington, n.d. Web.

Guenther, R. Kim. "Human Cognition." Hamline University, n.d. Web.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.


MarkShanoudy said...


First, I like that you chose a specific direction/argument by which to tackle the question of the monster's humanity. I think you provide convincing foundations for your argument to make it valid. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of the evidence which could do with some improving should you choose to revise this entry. In the second paragraph, you mention the quote from page 50 about Victor harvesting organs for his creation (and therefore make the assumption a human brain is included). However, it's never explicitly stated (or really even that strong implied in my opinion) that he pieced together human remains in order to form the monster from this quote or anywhere on that page. Maybe think about picking a different quote to illustrate this idea. In the following paragraph, you mention the idea of the monster having a human "mind". I realize you go on to talk about parts of the human mind (like the ability to think and empathy) but maybe expand on the general idea some more before diving into the specifics. All in all, though, I thought it was well written and it definitely got me thinking about aspects of the monster's mind I hadn't thought of before.

Adam said...

The introduction is focused, although even at this early point I'd like to see something more directly rooted in cognitive science - a citation, most likely.

How do you deduce that Frankenstein harvested a human brain? I think that's Hollywood's nefarious influence speaking, more than anything actually from the text. Reread the paragraphs you cite. It's clear that Frankenstein's *research program* takes him into charnel houses, and also leads him to perform terrible experiments upon animals, but the patchwork of body parts that you're imagining isn't there (although it's not an absurd interpretation either). Continue past the charnel house quote: "My attention was fixed upon every object the most insupportable to the delicacy of the human feelings. I saw how the fine form of man was degraded and wasted; I beheld the corruption of death succeed to the blooming cheek of life; I saw how the worm inherited the wonders of the eye and brain. I paused, examining and analysing all the minutiae of causation, as exemplified in the change from life to death, and death to life, until from the midst of this darkness a sudden light broke in upon me—a light so brilliant and wondrous, yet so simple, that while I became dizzy with the immensity of the prospect which it illustrated, I was surprised that among so many men of genius who had directed their inquiries towards the same science, that I alone should be reserved to discover so astonishing a secret." What Victor is doing here is examining/researching decaying flesh, and through a correct understanding of death he is illuminated with a clearer understanding of the principle of life.

Then you discuss the monster as being human because of his use of language, the way in which he acquires language, and his empathy. This is all good material, but I think you could have benefited by focused more on these issues (or indeed, one of them) rather than the discussion of the human brain. For one thing, I'd like to see you examine ways in which the monster is perhaps *not* ordinary, and then argue that he is human nonetheless. For instance, he acquires language very much more quickly and in much greater isolation than an ordinary human being would - does that make him more or less human?

A revision of this material would ideally be more focused, while making better use of the text and recognizing things in it which problematize his humanity as well as those which easily support it. It's also odd that you want to root yourself in a definition of humanity originating in cognitive science without actually *giving* us such a definition.