Cognitive Criticism: Mark Turner's
Revised November 1996
Mark Turner's Reading
Minds (1991) sets out the project of "the study of English in the
age of Cognitive Science" in an admirable way. "The coming age", he begins,
"will be known and remembered, I believe, as the age in which the human
mind was discovered". To someone not familiar with the work of cognitive
science, this no doubt sounds like a fantastical claim--the human mind,
after all, was investigated by Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius, and every
philosopher you care to name. While cognitive science cannot, in my view,
pretend in any sense to supplant the work on the mind done by human beings
through the centuries, it does in fact provide tools that earlier generations
did not possess. These tools combine a vast amount of theoretical and practical
knowledge relating to computational systems, evolutionary mechnisms, neurology
and physiology, and our ancestral environment (see Evolutionary
Psychology: An Integrative Approach). While these tools cannot claim
to provide a complete and exhaustive description (see my stance on epistemology),
they are extremely powerful in revealing aspects of human cognition that
have so far remained unknown or unintelligible.
Turner seeks to ground the study of literature in the study of language.
"I offer explanations in this book", he writes,
that do not consist of "giving and "arguing for" "readings." In my
view, our profession takes as given exactly what we should be trying to
explain. We have taken for granted our capabilities to invent and interpret,
and devote ourselves to exercising those capacities and publishing the
results. It is the capacities themselves that need explaining. [...] Given
a bit of language, a discourse, or a text, how does a reader understand
it? Given alternative readings, what were the different processes that
led to those alternative understandings? The most amazing phenomenon our
profession confronts, and the one for which we have the least explanation,
is that a reader can make sense of a text, and that there are certain regularities
across the individual senses made of a given text. How do readers do that?
Turner's proposal is that we "investigate the common conceptual and linguistic
apparatus readers bring to texts".
In this book, we are suspicious on principle of what is obvious, and
suspicious most of all of the assumption that what seems obvious to us
will prove to be simple once we begin to analyze it. Unconscious, automatic,
obvious acts of mind and language seem simply only because we do not conduct
them consciously. These unconscious acts constitute virtually the entire
body of our thougth, and provide the dominatn component of conscious thought.
They are too complex and indispensable to be managed by the meagre and
unreliable resources of consciousness.
to the Cognitive Culture Theory page
It will always seem to us that what we remark in consciousness is inherently
that which will be interesting under analysis. How we understand the obvious
is not somehting that we consciously remark. But, as a phenomenon under
analysis, how we understand the obvious is more interesting than how we
understand the remarkable. Understanding the obvious is complex and basic.
Understanding the unusual is simple -- a slight extension of understanding
the obvious. (68)
© 1996 Francis
F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles