What is the object of knowledge in literary studies? What is the relation between the academic study of literature and the public sphere? Terence Cave addresses these and other questions about the discipline as a human activity by inserting it into a wider interdisciplinary frame that is at once flexible and respectful of its special character – a cognitive approach to the study of literature. Cave spent five years exploring this approach in a series of intensive workshops and discussion groups that constituted the research project for his 2009 International Balzan Foundation Prize for Literature. In this sixth Annual Balzan Lecture, Cave begins by sketching out a general perspective within which the work of the interdisciplinary Balzan research project ‘Literature as an Object of Knowledge’ (St John’s College Research Centre, Oxford, 2010–13) has taken shape, with considerations on some of the problems encountered, in particular the relation between literary study and cognitive science. He then focuses on literary texts, applying cognitive approaches to offer a new perspective on the material out of which literature is made.