The Lesson of the Master: Learning and Cognition in 'What Maisie Knew'

John Attridge


‘What Maisie Knew’ is often read as a story about epistemology and cognition—Henry James’s investigation of what a child’s mind knows about the world and how that knowledge is acquired. I aim to extend this tradition of criticism by paying particular attention to the relationship between cognition and pedagogy. Both of these subjects were central to the psychological and philosophical writings of Henry’s brother William, the former in ‘The Principles of Psychology’ (1890) and in various essays on cognition in the 1880s and 1890s, and the latter in the 1892 lecture series Talks to Teachers. William’s talks distilled the claims of his psychology into a practical system of pedagogy: just as his writings on cognition reduced the “function of knowing” to the “practical consequences” of knowledge, so his pedagogical lectures emphasized the role of action in a child’s education. Using William’s theoretical and applied psychology as a guide, I argue that whereas the relationship between cognition and learning in ‘What Maisie Knew’ is typically discussed in terms of vision, the novel is at least equally concerned to show that learning must be accompanied by action. James advances this position both by satirizing a number of instances of formal education in the novel, and by dramatizing how Maisie acquires practical knowledge not by seeing but by doing, and by experiencing the affective consequences of her deeds.

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