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Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science.

Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. x + 298 pp. $29.95--Turner argues that our most original and impressive literary achievements depend on the same conceptual and linguistic capacities that underlie our most mundane and unoriginal uses of language. He therefore proposes a "cognitive rhetoric" that would ground all studies of language and literature on what the cognitive sciences have revealed about how the mind works. Turner's guiding thesis is that human cognition is fundamentally embodied and imaginative, because "a human being has a human brain in a human body in a physical environment that it must make intelligible if it is to survive" (p. 1).

The way we conceptualize things, reason about them, and communicate our thoughts are all dependent upon the nature of our embodiment. Turner thus examines empirical evidence that shows how our language and literary creations are shaped by various kinds of embodied, imaginative structures, such as images, image schemas, prototypes, metaphors, and metonymies. After showing that some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of mind, concepts, meaning, language, and literature are incompatible with what we are learning about cognition, Turner sets out (chapters 3-6) the basic empirical results that reveal the fundamentally imaginative character of human understanding. He shows that our conceptual system is grounded in, and structured by, "image-schematic" patterns of our bodily interactions with our environment, for example, image schemas for source-path-goal, compulsive force, balance, containment, linking, and so forth. Many of our abstract concepts are then understood via metaphorical extensions of such image schemas, as, for example, when we conceive of argument as constrained movement along an abstract path from a starting point (premise) to an end point (conclusion).

The building up of concepts by such metaphorical cross-domain mappings is imaginative, although highly constrained, and therefore (contra deconstructionism) anything but arbitrary. Turner's most brilliant chapter shows how the symmetry of our bodies provides imaginative structure that is the basis for metaphorical mappings onto all forms of abstract symmetry, including various types of imagistic and conceptual symmetry in poetry and in argument structure. He then appropriates this analysis as part of his treatment of the basic image schemas that underlie our conceptions of argument.

The next three chapters investigate some of the ways in which these commonplace embodied and imaginative structures are turned to more impressive and spectacular effects in poetry. A key part of Turner's argument is that there are empirically derived and testable hypotheses about the kinds of constraints on the imaginative activity that underlies language.

The penultimate chapter, in which Turner traces out the implications of cognitive rhetoric for our conception of the humanities, is alone sufficient justification for reading this book. Arguing that humanistic studies must be grounded in our best knowledge of how the mind operates, he shows why Hirsch cannot be right when he defines cultural literacy as mastery of a list of great ideas. Instead, what is required is a deep understanding of how the human mind makes sense of these ideas via imaginative devices.

Reading Minds is not only for literary theorists, critics, writers, and students of literature. It is a philosophically sophisticated work that goes a long way toward an empirically responsible account of the bodily and imaginative bases of concepts, meaning, reasoning, and language.
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Author:Johnson, Mark L.
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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