Professor Paul Armstrong

IAS Fellow at St Mary’s College, October – December 2024


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Paul Armstrong is Professor Emeritus of English at Brown University. His work focuses on the relations between neuroscientific research on consciousness and literary theories of reading and narrative. His current project asks how our species’ embodied cognitive equipment allows authors and readers to interact collaboratively across historical distance. While at Durham, Armstrong will contribute to the project “Syntactical Structures and the Evolution of Mind and Culture” led by Professor Robert Barton (Anthropology) and Professor Zanna Clay (Psychology).

His most recent book is Stories and the Brain: the neuroscience of narrative (Johns Hopkins UP, 2020). Drawing on phenomenological theories of reading and scientific studies of embodied cognition, this book analyses the correlations between our lived experience as tellers and followers of stories and the neurobiological processes that enable and constrain these interactions. Professor Armstrong argues that stories help the brain negotiate the never-ending conflict between its need for pattern, synthesis, and constancy and its need for flexibility, adaptability and openness to change. The brain’s ability to play with these competing imperatives is also the topic of his previous book How Literature Plays with the Brain: the neuroscience of reading and art (Johns Hopkins UP, 2013). This book explores how experiences of aesthetic harmony reinforce and refine our sense of the world’s patterns, even as the transgressions and disruptions of aesthetic dissonance unsettle the strictures of habit and enhance our responsiveness to novelty.

Professor Armstrong’s interest in consciousness, narrative, and reading also informed his previous books on modern fiction and the problem of interpretation: The Phenomenology of Henry James (U of North Carolina P, 1983), The Challenge of Bewilderment: understanding and representation in James, Conrad, and Ford (Cornell UP, 1987), Conflicting Readings: variety and validity in interpretation (U of North Carolina P, 1990), and Play and the Politics of Reading: the social uses of modernist form (Cornell UP, 2005). The opening chapter of Conflicting Readings was awarded the William Riley Parker Prize for an Outstanding Article in PMLA. His chapter on Nostromo in The Challenge of Bewilderment won the Twentieth Century Literature Prize in Literary Criticism.

Professor Armstrong has also prepared Norton Critical Editions of E. M. Forster’s novels A Passage to India (2021) and Howards End (1998), as well as two Norton Critical Editions of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (5th edition, 2017; 4th edition, 2006). He has also completed a scholarly edition of Henry James’s posthumously published, unfinished novel The Ivory Tower for the Cambridge University Press series of James’s collected fiction (in press, anticipated publication 2025), and he is currently at work on a scholarly edition of Howards End for the Cambridge University Press edition of Forster’s fiction.

In addition to his scholarly work, Professor Armstrong has held major posts in academic administration. He was Dean of the College at Brown from 2001-06, founding Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at SUNY-Stony Brook (1996-2000), and Humanities Dean at the University of Oregon (1994-96). He has also taught at the University of Virginia and Georgia Tech, where he developed a program on literature and science, and he has been a visiting professor at the University of Copenhagen and the Free

University of Berlin. He is a visiting faculty member of the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA), and he is a faculty affiliate of the Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science at Brown.

Professor Armstrong has held fellowships from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Past president of the Joseph Conrad Society of America, he is a member of the editorial boards of The Henry James Review, Conradiana, and Mfs (Modern Fiction Studies). He recently edited a special issue of Mfs on the topic “Cognitive Modernisms” (vol. 68, no. 4, Winter 2022). Professor Armstrong received a bachelor’s degree in history and literature from Harvard University (summa cum laude) and a Ph.D. in modern thought and literature from Stanford University.