On-Campus Linguistics Symposium Takes on Austen, Shakespeare and Comics

The Feb. 24 linguistics symposium on campus grappled with two big questions: How can cognitive science lead to a better appreciation of literature, and how can literature be useful in understanding how the human mind works?

How can cognitive science lead to a better appreciation of literature, and how can literature be useful in understanding how the human mind works? Those are the big questions that were explored in the day-long Literature and Cognition Linguistics Symposium that took place on campus on February 24. The John B. Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, in conjunction with the Distinguished Speakers Fund, sponsored the symposium, which was hosted by Tri-College Assistant Professor of Linguistics Daniel Altshuler.

Daniel Altshuler

In his introduction to the symposium, Altshuler, who is currently teaching a course on “Literature and Cognition,” drew attention to the fact that as native speakers of English, “we feel a very concrete difference” between different forms of the past tense, such as “wrote,” “was writing” and “had written.”  He pointed out that the first encompassed “the preparatory process,” “the culmination point” and “the consequence state,” while the second only covered the preparatory process, and the last focused solely on the consequence state.  He argued that this all spawned from a difference in time duration. He then talked about how such an analysis is actually impossible in other languages, such as Russian, where one phrase can incorporate all three meanings.
The first speaker of the day was Alan Richardson, from Boston College’s English department. He gave a talk, “Literature, Cognitive Science, and the Return of Imagination,” that discussed how most of the scientists thinking about this issue of the imagination have only been doing so since around 2000, when it was discovered via MRIs that people thinking about the past and memories were using the same parts of their brain that were used in “future thinking” or imagination.
According to Richardson, since then, imagination has been “the buzz word” as scientists have discovered that creative thinking about the future is in fact the “human mind’s default.”  As his main research focus is literature in the Romantic Period, Richardson also spoke quite a bit about how imagination has influenced literature, and also how that literature has in turn influenced the study of the mind, referencing works like Jane Austin’s Emma and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman.  The second is the more extreme example; it is a book centered around a sane woman who has been put away in an asylum by her husband and is forced to use her imagination to maintain her wits.
Richardson also spoke on the strong connections between imagination and dreaming, including how various drugs and alcohol can bring on states of being that are similar to REM sleep, when dreams are more strongly influenced by emotions and less so by reason and common sense.  He used a couple of poems, such as John Keat’s The Eve of St. Agnes, to show how dreams and reality can sometimes blend together in literature, especially poetic literature.
Also speaking at the symposium were Georgetown University professor Fathali Moghaddam, who examined how Jane Austin’s insights can guide psychologists;  Swarthmore College Professor of Linguistics Donna Jo Napoli, who gave a talk titled “Censorship: What Children (And Anyone) Should and Shouldn’t Be Reading;” UCLA Assistant Professor of Philosophy Gabriel Greenberg, who argued for the mathematical rules of comic book narratives; and Jerry Hobbs, a fellow at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, who explored  the question “When Will Computers Understand Shakespeare?”  Finally, Hans Kamp came all the way from Germany, where he is the chair of Formal Logic and Philosophy of Language at the University of Stuttgart, to host a discussion session to round out the day.