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Introduction: Morsels and Modules: On Embodying Cognition in Shakespeare's Plays

From: College Literature
33.1, Winter 2006
pp. 1-13 | 10.1353/lit.2006.0004

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College Literature 33.1 (2006) 1-13

Morsels and Modules: On Embodying Cognition in Shakespeare's Plays

Lalita Pandit

Patrick Colm Hogan

Cognitive science became a visible presence in literary study a little over fifteen years ago, in part due to the publication of George Lakoff's and Mark Turner's path-breaking "field guide to poetic metaphor" (1989). As the importance of cognitive science has grown among literary critics and theorists, metaphor has remained a central concern. In the larger field of cognitive science, metaphor, as commonly understood, is an instance of a broader process, often referred to as "cognitive modeling." Much cognitive science has stressed the importance of modeling, the way we use one object or domain heuristically to understand another. The human mind does not operate like a scientist in a laboratory, at least not like a scientist pursuing "normal science," in Thomas Kuhn's phrase (1970). It does not formulate and test hypotheses using strict empirical evidence and narrowly logical inference. Indeed, Pascal Boyer has argued that "scientific activity is quite 'unnatural' given our cognitive dispositions" (2001, 321). The human mind, rather, works like a poet, drawing on images and metaphors—again, models. This partial confluence of literary inclinations and cognitivist conclusions has helped to foster the extremely productive interaction between literature and neuroscience that we find in so much current work by psychologists, anthropologists, and neurologists—as well as literary critics and theorists.

Of course, this stress on metaphor in cognitive literary study should not be taken to imply that cognitive science is confined to, or even centered on the study of cognitive models. Cognitive neuroscience is a vast field of which cognitive modeling research is only one small part. Moreover, cognitive modeling is by no means the only area of potentially productive interaction between literature and neuroscience. One main purpose of the present collection is to expose some of the diversity that marks cognitive science today, and to explore the implications of this diversity for literary study.

While the recurring stress on metaphor or modeling suggests a perhaps surprising overlap in literary and cognitive attitudes and conclusions, there is another area in which literary theory and cognitive neuroscience seem sharply opposed. This is the area of historical and cultural study. Put simply, literary critics and theorists have tended to stress the historical and cultural embedment of literature. In contrast, the focus of most cognitive work has been on universals—not what differentiates us, but what unites us across cultures and across time periods. Nowhere is this discrepancy more evident than in Shakespeare studies. Shakespeare criticism has been at the forefront of cultural studies. Moreover, Shakespeare scholarship is—to use a common cognitive model—the mother of New Historicism. Put differently, literary study has tended toward particularity, the particularity of the work or the particularity of its historical and cultural milieu. In contrast, cognitivism has tended toward generality, the generality of the human mind. To borrow an image from Shakespeare, literary critics and theorists find their attention drawn to morsels. In contrast, cognitivists find their attention drawn to the mental systems that we use to understand such morsels—modules as they are sometimes called.

In addition to showcasing the breadth of cognitive approaches to understanding the human mind, and the implications of these approaches for literary study, one purpose of the present collection is to explore some of the ways in which cognitivist universalism and literary particularism may be reconciled. Indeed, these two not only may, but must be reconciled. We cannot understand universals without understanding the particulars in which they are instantiated. Conversely, we cannot understand particulars, at least the particulars from another era or culture, without understanding universals. It is universals that provide the common ground against which we define and make sense of differences. Elaborating on the preceding metaphor, we might say that it is no use having a module—say a sensory module for taste—without a morsel; and it is no use having a morsel without a sensory module for taste.

It is worth examining these areas of convergence and divergence in slightly more detail, particularly in relation to cognitive modeling. We may then more fully comprehend the immediate background...

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