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The Reuven Tsur Colloquium on Cognitive Poetics and Iconicity

June 14-17, 2009


Vincent M. Colapietro, Department of Philosophy, Pennsylvania State University

Elizabeth Hart, Department of English, University of Connecticut, Storrs

Thomas Kealy, Chair, Humanities Dept., Colby-Sawyer College

Christina Ljungberg, University of Zurich

Costantino Maeder, Centro di studi italiani, Catholic University of Louvain

David S. Miall, Department of English & Film Studies, University of Alberta

Evelina Simanonyte, Colby-Sawyer College

Reuven Tsur, The Cognitive Poetics Project, The Katz Research Institute for Hebrew Literature, Tel Aviv University

Cognitive Poetics and Iconicity?

How do we relate cognitive poetics and iconicity? Does semiosis, the emergence of signs and sign systems, explain cognition or does cognition explain semiosis? These were the core issues discussed at the second Myrifield symposium which was named The Reuven Tsur Colloquium on Cognitive Poetics and Iconicity, in honour of Reuven's Israel award and seminal work in cognitive poetics. Following the seventh international symposium on iconicity in language and literature held at the University of Toronto, Canada, June 9-14, that included a workshop on cognitive poetics, the colloquium was designed to explore the connection between these two areas of research.

The cognitive sciences have been long interested in the role of the iconic in concept formation and in communication, an interest that which has only increased with the current development in complex multimedia techniques and sophisticated methods of visualization of scientific processes. For quite some time, researchers have focused on the importance of mental images in cognitive processes, not only for the way we orient ourselves in the physical world we live in but also for how we outline problems by "mapping them," describe processes or make decisions by using maps, schemata, and diagrams. Cognition involves iconicity because mental images are icons, which is what is at play in metaphors, one of the focus areas within cognitive poetics.

In his opening address, Reuven considered the problem of systematically accounting for impressionistic descriptions of poetry. He suggested that the role of the cognitive critic is to explain the underlying processes of the mind that involve the writer's creation of emotional traces in a poem and the reader's emotional responses to them. The subsequent discussions focused on what the experience of the text actually is and what experiential as well as experimental questions arise in this process, such as the importance of spatial literacy. Space perception is different from any other kind of perception, and spatial literacy seems to be a precondition for any other form of literacy as it involves writing in the code of our body and producing speech sounds in an innate motor activity that is not learned. Most of the colloquium participants had already developed an embodied theory of mind. However, what seems important is to articulate a more detailed robust sense of the embodiment of mind, even a fully embodied social concept of mind, including the understanding of embodied social processes. We also debated why certain metaphors survive and others are quickly forgotten: one explanation for the longevity of some metaphors would be the way they operate with similarity and difference to create cognitive shortcutting. Further questions raised were, for instance, whether literary experience exists on a continuum with the experience of cognitive experience in general; more generally, how do we analyze "literariness" and how can we understand the aesthetic experience? Since functionally, form is never dissociable from content, iconicity would seem to offer a rich framework providing a resource for cognitive poetics as well as cognitive linguistics as it overlaps with much research in these areas.

The colloquium ended with a revival of the Heath Lyceum lectures, the nineteenth century lyceum movement which brought educational opportunities to communities throughout Massachusetts. Christina Ljungberg (University of Zurich) and Vincent Colapietro (Pennsylvania State University) presented examples of mapping the body (PDF) in an actual seventeenth-century emotional map, La Carte du Tendre in Madeleine de Scudéry's novel Clélie, and two poems, "Courage," by Anne Sexton, and "Mending Wall," by Robert Frost.

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