The CogLit Project

Literature and Art as a Cognitive Object

What makes a certain object an artwork?


Portrait of Dr Patricia Kolaiti

I am Dr Patricia Kolaiti. I hold a PhD from UCL.

I am a poet, performance artist and scientific philosopher of literature and art.

For the next two years (2018-2020), I will be leading

The CogLit Project

an interdisciplinary research project

based in the School of Humanities, University of Brighton

and funded by a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, European Commission.


Dr Patricia Kolaiti and Dr Tim Wharton

This guy next to me is my colleague and friend, Dr Tim Wharton, who will work with me during the two years of CogLit.


Dr Patricia Kolaiti and Dr Tim Wharton

Together we will grapple with a tricky and persistent theoretical question:

What makes a certain object an artwork?

The CogLit Project explores a radically new answer to this question

During the two of years of CogLit,

I will further develop a theoretical hypothesis I have been working on for nearly a decade

that develops a radically new theoretical model of literature and art


a cognitive object.


Literature/art is not a body of objects out there in the world.

It is a unique and distinct human action.



Here is the background of my hypothesis in very simple words … 

These are my poetry books

Portrait of Dr Patricia Kolaiti seated on floor with poetry books

What makes my poems literary texts rather than mere stretches of ordinary language?

What makes literature and art the kind of object it is?

In literary theory and philosophy of art this question has come to be known as the question of

literariness or essence of art


the question about the property (or properties) that make a certain object an artwork.


Literature/art is not an unstable object. The same product can be perceived as literature/art in one period, social framework or art-world context and as non-literature in another, but this does not mean that literature/art is unstable as an object.


You must have noticed that I am using the word ‘object’ quite often.

Well, when I speak of ‘object’ here, I use the term in a broad construal as an entity out there in the world that might not, however, necessarily be a concrete object so to speak.

In this broad construal, a performance is as much an object as, say, a literary book.

The puzzle from ‘ready-mades’

For nearly three centuries, literary theorists and philosophers of art have tried to answer the question of the essence of art by moving back and forth between the two ends of a continuum: from the artwork itself to its reception by the receiver (reader, spectator, audience) and back to the artwork and back to the receiver and so on and so forth

Artwork     _____________________________      Reception

This continuum has led literary theorists and philosophers of art to various theoretical dead ends.

The puzzle from ‘ready-mades’ is one such dead end.

Let me explain…

A ‘ready-made’ is an artwork that has not been fabricated by the artist, it is rather a pre-existing or ‘found’ object as we call it.

Let’s create a thought experiment where Andy Warhol exhibits a Campbell’s Soup tin as a ‘ready-made’ in a gallery.

Tim Wharton with Campbell's soup can

Tim Wharton posing as Andy!

Intuition suggests that this Campbell’s Soup tin is an artwork.

And this is exactly where the puzzle begins…

This Campbell’s Soup tin has the exact same formal and structural properties as any other Campbell’s Soup tin found in the isles of the supermarket.

The artwork Campbell’s Soup tin and the mere thing Campbell’s Soup tin are perceptually and structurally indiscernible objects. They have indiscernible formal and structural properties, yet the one is an artwork and the other a mere thing.

How can this be?

Dr Patricia Kolaiti and Dr Time Wharton

The tricky bit of the puzzle

The fact that ‘ready-mades’ have mere thing equivalents led theorists to the false assumption that there is no essence of art. That anything is art so to speak.

This conclusion invigorated a cluster of theories in the 20thcentury that I would call ‘institutional’ or ‘reception-oriented’ or ‘recognition-based’ theories all of which share the common assumption that there is no essence of art and that an object becomes an artwork so long it is recognized, perceived or accredited as ART by an individual, a group, or a set of institutional, cultural and historical practices.

But is this what really follows from the ‘ready-mades’ puzzle?

Well, definitely not.

The fact that ‘ready-mades’ have perceptually indiscernible mere thing equivalents does not entail that there is no essence of art, it only entails that if there is an essence of art, it is not down to an artwork’s form and structure. The fact that we cannot defend the distinctness of literature and art at a structural level does not entail that literature/ art is not distinct as an object at some other level or some other interesting sense.

At the beginning of the 21st century the question of the essence of literature and art is still an open one.

The correct question we should therefore be asking is in what sense and at what level is literature and art essentially distinct.

CogLit tackles this question in a new way and makes the following

theoretical innovations:

CogLit focuses on literature and art as an action.

Art is not a body or category of objects out there in the world. This is what artworks are. The equation between ART and ARTWORK is an arbitrary and reductionist equation.

ART is an action or more precisely, action-process, a distinct and unique action-process that brings artworks into being.

In this sense, the account I am developing is an action-based account.

CogLit puts the creative agent, the producer, the artist at the center of theoretical attention.

In this sense, it is a producer-oriented account.

CogLit focuses on the mind-internal activitiesthat bring about artistic behavior.

In this sense it is a mentalistic or psychologistic or internalist account of art.

And suggests that

a certain action-process is literature/art and the resulting ‘object’ an artwork if it stands in a causal relation to a specialized, art-specific type of creative mental state or process that I have termed an artistic thought stateor artistic thought process.

Campbell's Soup tin with Dr Tim Wharton in background

Imagine this causal relation as a ‘thread’.

This ‘thread’ causally connects the artwork with an artistic thought state in the creator’s mind.

In very sketchy terms an artistic thought state /process (in its minimal sense) looks like this:

Diagram of process


An artistic thought state is a state where a creative agent has a spontaneous aesthetic response to her being intuitively aware of the non-trivialness of a novel creative mental representation of a certain kind that spontaneously occurs in their mind.

Artistic thought states and processes are metaphysically- and psychologically-real entities.

Investigating them may help provide answers to persistent ontological questions in literary and art theory and delineate new and exciting potential for interdisciplinary interaction between the study of literature and art  on the one hand and the empirical and cognitive sciences on the other by enabling us shift the focus from the artifactual properties of artworks as objects out there in the world to their complex retroactive relationship with the micro-mechanisms of the mind that creates them.

Dr Tim Wharton connected by a thread to a Campbell's Soup tin

So, what is it that makes these two perceptually indiscernible objects essentially distinct?

The problem is puzzling but not hard to solve.

These two objects are essentially distinct because they have distinct cognitive histories.

Between the two, only the one stands in a causal relation to an artistic thought state by virtue of having been seen by an artist in a particular creative way-, and thus, only this one has the specific causal/ relational history or cognitive history of a work of art.

Literature and art is a causal/ relational concept

and more specifically,


cognitive concept.

During CogLit I will refine and systematize these suggestions and write a fascinating book under the title Literature and Art as a cognitive Object that will develop this novel theoretical model of literature and art as a cognitive object and build two-way interactions between literary and art study, linguistics, philosophy and the cognitive sciences.



[Photography by Artsophy ]




Print Friendly, PDF & Email