LINGUIST List 15.2453

Fri Sep 3 2004

Review: Lang & Lit/Cognitive Sci: Stockwell (2002)

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  1. Michael Getty, Cognitive Poetics: An introduction

Message 1: Cognitive Poetics: An introduction

Date: Thu, 2 Sep 2004 19:00:00 -0400 (EDT)
From: Michael Getty <>
Subject: Cognitive Poetics: An introduction

AUTHOR: Stockwell, Peter
TITLE: Cognitive Poetics
SUBTITLE: An introduction
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2002
ISBN: 0415258952
Announced at

Michael Getty, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri


'Cognitive Poetics' is an textbook introduction to the application of
cognitive science -- and cognitive linguistics in particular -- to the
study of literature and is designed for graduate or advanced
undergraduate audiences. The term 'Poetics' in the title is used in
the original Greek meaning, equally what we conventionally think of as
poetry as well as prose. The book builds its presentation in the
course of twelve chapters, moving from nuts-and-bolts concepts such as
figures versus grounds, prototypes versus examples, and deixis through
more complex notions such as discourse worlds, conceptual metaphors,
and 'text worlds.' Each chapter is organized around an initial preview
of individual topics, followed by point-by-point exposition of these
topics, which is then rounded out by more detailed discussion, usually
based on examples of a variety of literary texts, from Middle English
allegory to the poetry of Ted Hughes to contemporary science fiction.
At the end of each chapter are discussion questions as well as lists
of further reading and references.


This is a delightful book, impressive both in its skilled presentation
as well as the ease with which Stockwell moves within and between the
two worlds he bridges by applying cognitive science and linguistics to
the study of literature.

The core of the approach outlined in this textbook is that literature
and linguistic structure have a common underlier: the basic parameters
of human cognition. A good example of this is the way human visual
perception is keyed toward contrast and motion: generally, we pay more
attention to discrete objects than we do to their backgrounds, and
objects in motion receive more attention than objects at rest. The
linguistic correlate of this is to be found in the ways many languages
employ syntactic movement or discourse markers to highlight prominent
phrases. The literary correlate is illustrated with a poem by Ted
Hughes depicting the use of an ancient rock in the construction of a
mill, Stockwell points to the way Hughes depicts both motion against a
background and the imparting of human emotions onto an inanimate
object, the latter device adding up to a 'reversal of expectations,'
thereby attracting readers' interest: ''Hill-stone was content / To be
cut, to be carted'' Later in the poem, millworkers are also depicted
in transition against the background provided by the stone, moving
from simile to a transformed identity: ''And inside the mills mankind
/ With bodies that came and went / Stayed in position, fixed like
stones / Trembling in the song of the looms. / And they too became
four- cornered, stony.''

Given this brief example, we can see the allure of this approach,
namely its capacity to take much of the subjective, idiosyncratic
experience of reading literature and express it in terms of cognitive
categories that are universal, concrete, and inherently plausible.

In another chapter, Stockwell extends the semantic notion of deixis,
or 'pointing,' as in the use of personal pronouns and locative adverbs
to refer to people and objects within a given space, introducing the
idea of 'deictic projection' as a way of understanding a reader's
feeling of being immersed in the world of a given text. Central to the
art of storytelling, by this account, is the creation of a deictic
center that is removed from the reader and the reader's
here-and-now. Whether through first-person or third-person narration,
literature creates a set of deictic relations between characters,
objects, and places that create a sense of being situated in the world
of a given text. One of the central artistic tools of literature, in
turn, is the creation and maintenance a dynamic deictic center. By
'shifting' the deictic center -- e.g. through change of location or
perspective, flashbacks, dreams, stories within stories -- authors
pique their readers' interest and increase their sense of being 'swept

The cognitive approach to literature extends the notion of deixis to
what Stockwell refers to as 'conceptual' and 'textual' deixis. Textual
deixis encompasses the use literary devices that draw attention to the
'textuality' of a given piece, e.g. chapter titles, distinctive
paragraph or line breaks, or an author's reference to the text itself
or to the production of the text. Compositional deixis, on the other
hand, refers to the use of literary devises that draw attention to
features of genre, literary tradition, or stylistic choices that
situate a text within a literary tradition (in all cases relying on a
reader's knowledge of these areas). For example, Stockwell refers to
an early 19th-century poem by Shelley: ''My name is Ozymandias, King
of Kings, / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.'' By consciously
using the archaic second-person-plural 'ye,' Shelley creates a
literary connection between his poem and earlier, especially Biblical,
traditions, one that would be unavailable to an uninformed
reader. More complicated still is the notion of 'relational' deixis,
according to which authors can also make deictic references within
social space, i.e. by communicating attitudes or expectations that
characterize relationships between characters or the author/narrator,
e.g. ''King of Kings'' in Shelley's poem pointing towards a social

All of these notions serve to formulate aspects of the literary
experience in concrete terms that most linguistics will find palatable
if not already familiar from areas such as semantics and discourse
studies. Indeed, the bulk of many chapters would not appear out of
place in an introductory textbook in either of these fields. Still,
this textbook approaches its subject matter from a perspective that is
rooted firmly against narrower structuralist approaches that have
characterized earlier work on the literary/linguistic
borderland. Chief among these would be the work of the Russian
formalists of the first half of the twentieth century (see
e.g. Jefferson 1986), which germinated at a time when contemporary
approaches to pragmatics, cognitive linguistics, and discourse studies
were still in their infancy. As Stockwell puts it (p. 91), ''The
'meaning' of a literary work can be found in the minds of readers,
configured there partly from readerly processes and individual
experiences, and only partly from the cues offered by the elements of
the text object. Even if 'meaning' or interpretation is not the
primary area of interest, the craft of the text cannot simply be
understood by formal decontextualized analysis either.''

The meatiest and most difficult chapters of this book are dedicated to
the larger-scale, more complex notions such as ''discourse worlds and
mental spaces'' (Ch. 7), ''conceptual metaphor'' (Ch. 8), ''literature
as parable'' (Ch. 9), and ''text worlds'' (Ch. 10). I discuss the
first two of these as illustration.

In Ch. 7, Stockwell discusses the idea of adapting the 'possible
worlds' theory familiar from formal semantics to yield a notion of
'discourse worlds,' i.e. a set of possible worlds that readers create
using narrative and cognitive building blocks. Chief among these is
the mapping of readers' existing world knowledge into the mental space
they create in the course of reading a text. Someone who reads 'A Tale
of Two Cities,' for instance, creates a mental space corresponding to
a city called ''London,'' which they know to be geographically but not
temporally co-extensive with the present-day city of the same
name. The 'swept away' feeling familiar to readers who enjoy reading
period texts derives from experiencing the ways in which this mental
space and the actual world are not co-extensive, e.g. by reading
Dickens' accounts of the sights and customs of Victorian London. Thus,
discourse worlds constructed by readers amount to complex, blended
affairs, mixing readers' own world knowledge and the propositional
content of a text, along with ancillary domains such as knowledge of
literary or sociocultural traditions.

The construction of discourse worlds can proceed both on a large scale
and on a much finer-grained scale as well. One example that
illustrates both the precision and intricacy of the cognitive approach
involves Winston Churchill's famous exchange with a certain Lady
Astor. When told by Lady Astor that if he were her husband, she would
put poison in his coffee, Churchill replied that if he were Astor's
husband, he would drink it. As Stockwell summarizes this exchange
(p. 98), ''... there is a cross-space mapping involving the partial
mapping of counterparts in two spaces. In this case, the real-space
Churchill and Astor are projected into a new hypothetical
space. Certain properties of the base space are carried over, and
these commonalities form a common 'generic space' containing Churchill
and Astor, and also the real-space traits that they are male and
female ... and hate each other. However, out of this new space an
emergent structure develops that is neither the base space nor the new
projected space, nor is it limited to the few elements of commonality
in the generic space. Instead, we have a fourth, blended space in
which Churchill and Astor, though in one sense the same as their
counterparts in reality, are also married to each other while
simultaneously hating each other.''

In Ch. 8, Stockwell turns to the notion of 'conceptual metaphor,' a
concept that unifies both metaphor ('Love is a flower') and simile
('Love is like a flower') and focuses especially on metaphors that
underlie everyday language ('Good is up,' 'Down is bad,' 'Love is
war,' 'Understanding is seeing'). The characteristic extension here is
to understand conceptual metaphor as the basic mechanism by which
readers construct an understanding of what a text 'is about,' e.g. by
using textual referents as the constitutents of metaphors they
construct when putting together an understanding of a text,
e.g. '''Julius Caesar'' is a story of betrayal' or '''Wuthering
Heights'' is a love story' or '''Wuthering Heights'' is a fable of
property rights.' An idea developed further in Ch. 9, in which
Stockwell discusses larger-scale understanding of literary texts,
centering on the notion that readers construct 'macrostructures' of
textual readings by promoting or demoting individual facts,
propositions, or events. Describing this process as one of 'parabolic
projection' (from the original Greek meaning of 'parabole,' as
something that is constructed alongside something else), Stockwell
points to the centrality of conceptual metaphors (or 'emblems' in a
terminological refinement) in tying characters, images, and events in
texts to a reader's larger-scale understanding, e.g. '''Robinson
Crusoe'' is an emblem of isolation and abandonment' or '''Romeo and
Juliet'' is an emblem of tragic love.'


In the most general sense, this book is an indispensable, all-purpose
guide to any linguist who wants to understand literary reading in a
way that is largely consistent with our own idiom. By the same token,
this book would be essential reading for any literary scholar who
wants to understand how many linguists think and what interests
us. Stockwell's extensive and partially annotated references will be
extremely useful on both counts.

For instructors, this book will obviously be indispensable for anyone
with the responsibility of teaching a course on linguistic or semiotic
approaches to literature, or, say, a linguist asked to be on a
dissertation or examination committee in a literature program. The
ready-made discussion questions included in each chapters will be

For researchers, Stockwell's work will be most useful as a guide to
the admittedly small territory where linguistic and literary inquiry
overlap, e.g. for a semanticist or pragmatist wanting to use data from
literary texts or, say, to build a fuller understanding of general
semantic notions such as deixis.

Many readers (including the reviewer, alas) will be dizzied by the way
Stockwell shifts from small-scale, nuts-and-bolts aspects of literary
reading -- where linguists new to this area will feel most at home --
to large-scale, sweeping questions of interpretation, genre, and
literary tradition. Many notions, such as the blending of text worlds
and readers' world knowledge, can be very difficult to keep clear in
the mind as they are refined and built upon in other parts of the
book, though Stockwell's approach, along with very well-executed
layout, editing, and indexing, make this work easier.


Jefferson, Ann. 1986. ''Russian Formalism'', In 'Modern Literary
Theory: A Comparative Introduction' Ann Jefferson and David Robey,
eds. Batsford Ltd. 1986). pp 24-45.


Michael Getty teaches linguistics at Washington University in
St. Louis and works on historical linguistics and generative
approaches to poetic meter. He is the author of 'The Metre of
"Beowulf": A Constraint-Based Approach' (de Gruyter 2002).
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