Literary Studies in the Age of Cognitive Science
Cognitive Semiotics, Issue 2, Spring 2008, Peter Lang: pp. 6-40
35 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2017
Date Written: 2008
This paper gives an overview of the enterprise of cognitive poetics as an area of research in the intersection between cognitive sci-ence and literary studies, and examines the role of semiotics within this framework, as it pertains to the playful occupation with ex-pressive signs characteristic of literary art, a representational prac-tice employed in all human cultures. As a form of aesthetic pre-tense literary communication engages the reader in a mental shar-ing that, unlike everyday pragmatic communication, does not re-quire joint attention in the sense of attending with mutual aware-ness to the same object at the same time. The act of literary enun-ciation is not framed by the participants as deictically rooted in space and time, as is practically oriented, “situated” communica-tion, and represented contents are not intended as direct proposi-tional depictions of observable states of affairs. In these respects literary language use presents an interesting case for semiotics, and indeed for cognitive science which by virtue of having human cognition as its subject, encompasses the realm of imagination and expressive ingenuity. Conversely, from the viewpoint of literary studies, cognitive science can be seen to provide certain epistemo-logical and methodological advantages which grant literary schol-ars a way of thinking about their objects of study as simultaneous-ly embodying a manifestation of unique choices and particular cir-cumstances of production as well as being indicative of universal processes of meaning construction and interpretation. The paper aims at laying out a foundation for discussing the philosophical underpinnings of the enterprise, and raises some philosophical questions concerning literary meaning as an object of research. These issues in turn make certain methodological considerations relevant which are subsequently discussed, with a view to clarify-ing potential scientific objectives and illuminating existing incon-gruities within cognitive poetics and literary studies as such. The paper does not aspire toward any dogmatic solutions to these mat-ters; rather it seeks to call attention to existing problem areas and to stress the significance of upholding a basic rational attitude – here contrasted with meaning skepticism as a philosophical position, with Rorty’s pragmatism as a prime example – as a minimum req-uisite motivating the various intellectual pursuits that qualify liter-ary studies as a humanistic science. Finally, I propose the view that just as literary studies may advance by integrating insights from cognitive science, so too can cognitive science benefit from be-coming progressively more attuned to aspects of the human intel-lect manifesting our cultural nature, not least aesthetic experiences of literary expressivity.
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