Cognitive Science and the Comparative Arts:
Implications for Theory and Pedagogy.
Stephen Pierson

    Over the last fifty years the cognitive sciences have presented innovative ways of thinking about human consciousness, cognition, language, and agency.  Consciousness as a flow of sensations, the computational brain, the modular mind, the embodied mind, theory of mind, situated cognition, the innate hypothesis of language, relevance theory, integrational linguisitics, categorization theory, the created self—these are some of the more important notions from cognitive science that have postulated the biological, psychological, and contextual dimensions of human understanding, language, and behavior.  In this paper I briefly describe what cognitive science is and then suggest what it has to offer a comparative arts pedagogy.  Here I focus on a comparative pedagogy that deals with visual and verbal texts.

     Cognitive science is now a broad of interdisciplinary river whose principal tributaries are neuroscience, artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, philosophy of mind, and cognitive linguistics.  Its object of study is the nature of the human brain: what it contains, how it works, how it developed, how it produces consciousness and mind, how it regulates perception, and, above all, how it governs learning and behavior.

    Modern cognitive science dates from the 1950s.  Not surprisingly, the first model of the brain was computational: data in, data out; the faster the chip, the faster the processing.  This model still figures prominently in the work of Jerry Fodor, Ray Jackendoff, and Steven Pinker.  During the 1980s, however, some strong artificial intelligence proponents abandoned the prospect of creating a machine that could ever match contextual awareness, real world knowledge, and biological fluidity of human beings.  But even from the beginning, the computational model received a serious challenge from Noam Chomsky’s theory of language.  Chomsky’s incisive review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior of 1959 did not explicitly address the strong AI conception of human cognition.  It addressed the inability of Skinner’s stimulus-and-response model of behavior to explain (1) the rapid speed at which normal children—of all cultures, races, and experiences—acquire language between infancy and age four and (2) the ability of those same children to use language creatively in ways that are neither imitative nor habitual.   With this review and Syntactic Structures of 1957, Chomsky laid the foundation for a cognitive linguistics in which human language was considered a biological endowment which has profound ramifications for psychology.  Thus, indirectly,  Chomsky’s critique of behaviorism implicitly challenged the strong AI model of the brain.  Like Skinner’s behaviorism, the computational model of the brain was based on the assumption that the human brain at birth is a white sheet of paper, and that all subsequent mental operations and ideas are first derived from sensory input. Chomsky’s innate hypothesis of language suggests otherwise, as does his universal grammar theory, which accounts for the way human being’s tacitly exercise linguistic competence.  Chomsky calls this language faculty everyone’s I-language or inner language, in contrast to Saussure’s E-language or external language (e.g. the formal structure of Swahili, Dutch or Chinese, which Chomsky rejects as an abstraction.  Almost all modern linguists, regardless of their specific area, ground their work in Chomsky, not Saussure.

    Chomsky’s theory of language rooted linguistics in biology and psychology.
At the same time, however, the syntactic component of the theory was incorporated into the computational model of the brain.  Even today, the strong AI model continues to  explain human thought by postulating, in Fodor’s words, "a language of thought" governed by specific content and rules.

     In  the 1980s, however, certain cognitivists developed a new conception of human cognition: they reminded all concerned that the human brain exists in a human body and cannot be clearly understood outside of that greater biological context.   In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson showed through metaphor analysis just how deeply human understanding is connected to the brain’s embodiment.  Mark Johnson’s subsequent book, The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason  (1987) spelled out the importance of that embodiment, arguing that "propositional content and structure" in the brain is possible" because of the cognitive "’structures of imagination and understanding that emerge from our embodied experience’ (p. xiv).  These structures combine with various transformational operations to provide a bodily basis for meaning and rationality" (p. x).

    All linguistic meanings, Johnson argues, can be understood as cognitive schemata that are "recurring, dynamic patterns of our perceptual interactions and motor programs." In other words, human thinking is structured by its experience of being in a human body.  Johnson  dubbed his project cognitive semantics, and further studies in embodiment, such as those by Andy Clark, Francisco Valera and Diane Gillespie have further diminished the validity of the computational model of the brain.  As Johnson and others have pointed out, the strong AI model of intelligence, with its algorithmic logic, cannot account for vital cognitive phenomena, such as feeling, intuition, categorization and the nature of concepts, metaphor, polysemy, diachronic semantic change, non-Western conceptual systems, and the growth of knowledge" (pp. vi-ix).  And neither, I might add, can it explain the way the way the brain constructs a three-dimensional image out of two-dimensional retinal image, or how the brain facilitates the recognition of faces or visual word recognition.

    Studies in the embodied brain, moreover, correspond to a number of studies in cognitive linguistics.   These studies take note of the context outside of the embodied brain, the real-world context of human life and human discourse.  Pragmatic and contextual, cognitive linguistics—and modern linguistics generally—has little to do Saussure’s arbitrary division of language into langue and parole.  Its founder, Roy Harris writes,

Signs seen  from this [integrational] perspective, are not pairings of form and meaning, already set  up in some pre-established code.  They arise from actual  events and circumstances in which the participants are involved.  Thus in a particular situation, any object, action, etc. can acquire a semiological value.  Furthermore, it is not essential that all the participants should agree on what that value is, or even agree on which  particular features of a given communication a situation have such a value (67).
    Anthropologists Dan Sperber and Deidre Wilson say much the same thing in their relevance theory, which posits that communication presupposes an intention to  make something relevant to someone.  Art, Sperber and Wilson suggest, afford its beholders opportunities to make sense of it, including its intentions, in specific contexts.

     Just as cognitive linguistics established the connectedness  of mind, body,  and environment, evolutionary psychologists have shown that this interrelationship has an enormous history.   Postmodern human cognition, in other words, not only must negotiate the demands put on it by postmodern society and culture, it must negotiate the demands imposed on it by a brain that, until recently, has been roughly the same for a hundred thousand years, when certain environmental pressures and the appropriate anatomy selected language.  In addition, evolutionary psychology takes into its account of mental activities the much longer period of  human history, the foraging phase, in which the dominant mode of  cognition was not language at all, but perception.  This non-linguistice and therefore non-semiotic or non-discursive mode of understanding is still a large part of  every human being’s cognitive faculties.

    Since what I have just sketched out has a lot do with what we know about human consciousness, cognition, language and agency, it naturally has implications for the arts and how we teach them.  For the arts and the teaching of them are nothing if they are not cognitive and communicative acts.  Until recently, however, the humanities has not had much dialogue with the cognitive revolution.  This has certainly been the case in English and film studies as well as in comparative literature, which has only survived as a discipline by posing as a cross-cultural studies program with a translation component.   I understand the comparative arts has also had little commerce with cognitive science, judging by what W. J. T.  Mitchell wrote in the 1991 MLA volume Teaching Literature and Other Arts.  There Mitchell, surveying the variety of interart  courses syllabi available to comparatists, could only say, "So what?"  A Marxist scholar, Mitchell seems to sum up what folks in theory and cultural studies think of any approach to the humanities that doesn’t suit their own epistemology.  Yet when we look at the psychology of people and art that underlies much—but by no means all—of post-structural theory and cultural studies, it is their epistemology that doesn’t have a leg to stand on—at least not judging by the standards of cognitive science.  All we have to do is remember that much of post-structuralism is based on the materialism of Marx, the behaviorism of Skinner, and the semiology of Saussure or Peirce—and we can see, to put the matter politely, just how old-fashioned this theory is.  This is especially true of the debilitated model of the self on offer from the psychosemiotic theories of the French school.  In their conception, human consciousness is a mask, a human being’s cognition and identity commences only with the acquisition of language and is thereafter commensurate with the cultural inscriptions and discursive practices it has passively absorbed throughout its life.  These cultural formations, moreover, are irristible, for the subject has agency only insofar as it feels free enough to follow its hidden desires.  In deconstruction, for example, we are told that there is nothing outside the text; that the text is a productively that produces a meaning that is always deferred.  Obviously, there are no real flesh-and-blood readers in Derrida’s texts.  Nor are there in semiotic models of reading nor in reception models of Wolfgang Iser or Hans Robert Jauss.  In Iser and Jauss, the reader is always some idealized reader: he is the right or the implied reader if—and only if—he realizes the design of the text—note well, not the design of the author or a design of the reader’s own, but the design of the text. To say the text controls the reader in certain post-structural accounts is an understatement.  From this vantage point the text becomes a productivity, there is no difference between reading and writing, and the text—instead of human beings--somehow comes to possess agency.

    Consider the following sentences from a recently published book on Deleuze:

     ". . . the cinema recapitulates . . . philosophy." ( Flaxman 4)
     ". . . postwar European cinema discovers a cinema of inaction" (6).
     ". . . the cinema itself begins to suffer from self-consciousness, begins to come into
     consciousness of its own production of clichés" (6).
    ". . . the cinema confesses its own ‘internal conspiracy’ . . . to industrial capitalism" (6)
     ". . . the cinema consummates" the "’intercession’ [of image and philosophy]" (10).

   The cinema can pour your coffee in morning—okay, there  I’m joking, but the joke points out this: the cinema, or any book or painting, cannot do any of the things just described.  In fact, the cinema, like books and paintings and music do nothing by themselves, though they do affect people to the degree that people attempt to actively understand them.

     How differently people and art look through the interdisciplinary lens of cognitive science.  First, instead of the debilitated subject of Freud, Lacan or Skinner (for which there is little evidence), cognitive science has revealed that human beings are biologically in possession of language, agency, volition, creativity, and cognition. This conception of the self alone provides a theoretical basis for re-introducing the author and reader to the hermeneutic circle.  Human beings, after all, not only have minds, but a theory of mind: they have, that is, the ability to understand that other people also have mental states such as thoughts, desires and beliefs about the world.  Theory of mind, therefore, allows the author’s or painter’s or composer’s intentionality to serve as a starting point for coming to terms with the potential meanings of the artwork in question.  Thus cognitive science supports the return of rhetoric to interpretation. It also supports the efforts of feminists and proponents of reader-response to return real human readers to the act of reading. This would be a bona fide improvement over semiotic or reception theories of reading, for such theories always locate meaning primarily in the text, not in the reader.

    Second, instead of a concept of language that is an abstract, telepathic and systematic structure that can be used but not changed through individual use, cognitive linguistics shows that language is the biological gift of every human being, and a cognitive tool humankind has actively shaped to master its environment.   In this conception of language there is ample evidence to suggest that certain literary uses of language are cognitive functions—that is, that narrative and metaphor reveal the modus operandi of the linguistic mind.

    Third, with respect to specific pedagogy, such as one involving visual and verbal texts (e.g. novels and movies), cognitive science provides something much more foundational—and certain—than anything W. J. T. Mitchell could have hoped for, namely the overarching distinction between reading a literary text and watching a movie.

    As Howard Mancing has pointed out, because semiology has convinced too many in our  profession that the world is one big  sign system, we have come to abuse the word reading itself.   We say we read a play or opera or movie, but in fact, we do  no such thing.  We watch a movie, and we read a book: the modes of cognition in each are distinct.  When watching a movie, the mode of cognition is largely perceptual, so much more powerful is the visual percept—the moving image—over the one heard—the human voice.  When reading a book or poem, the mode of cognition is largely symbolic: we actively construct and imagine the scene and background and voices through an imaginative act involving symbols. We may, after reading the book and watching the movie, present a reading or interpretation through our active understanding of the text, but that is a different matter altogether than the actual experience of understanding the novel or movie.   Although the visual may contain aspects of the verbal, and vice verse, the literary text, as it is read, is cognitively something largely different than our experience of watching an opera, movie, or play.  In this regard, Mancing has proposed a cognitive continuum of  aesthetic experience that looks like this.

    As you can see, there is a clear break between the literary text, which involves the cognition of symbols, and other artistic media where the pictorial or imagistic is dominant. If you want a cognitive foundation for interart pedagogy involving visual and  verbal texts, this is as good a place as any to begin with.  It reminds us that all the arts are not semiological variants of a greater text we call the world.  In addition, this cognitive foundation would also be a good place to begin talking about the way symbolic cognition has come to dominate the perceptual, despite the long evolutionary heritage of perception.  To demonstrate this point, just turn off the sound on all but the most generic movies—and watch the perplexed faces of your students grasping for meaning.

(Draft of a paper delivered in April of 2001 at Indiana University at Bloomington on the occasion of an annual conference on the comparative arts: Comparative Arts: What Was. . .What Is. . .What’s Next?)

Works Cited

Harris, Roy.  Rethinking Writing. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 2000.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson.  Relevance: Communication and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1986.

Mancing, Howard.  "See the Play, Read the Text."

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