Cognitive Semiotics and On-Line R...
Consciousness, Literature and the Arts ��� Vol. 6 (n.2), August 2005 Cognitive Semiotics and On-Line Reading of Religious Texts A Hermeneutic Model of Sacred Literature and Everyday Revelation Vito Evola Abstract: In this essay I propose a hermeneutic model of the higher level understanding during on-line ritual reading by devotees of their respective sacred literatures, using the in- struments provided by cognitive sciences. The way a devotee reads a sacred text differs from the way he or she would read a common piece of literature or how a lay person might read the same sacred text. After providing an overview of metaphor, anthropomorphism, and the ���religious brain���, I suggest how devotee-readers might make sense of a religious text and why it should be so important for their own personal everyday life. Universals are implicated in this genre of literature and the way it is interpreted. Keywords: religious literature, cognitive linguistics, metaphor, semiotics, limbic system, attention, memory, higher level thinking, consciousness, empathy, rituals, anthropomor- phism, reading, authority, literary universals Almost everybody has a favorite book or poem. Usually the favorites are the ones that, when you get to the last page, you wish it were just the beginning, the ones that make you notice life in a different way. Some people even say their favorite piece of literature has ���changed their life���. Good literature leaves a sense of satisfaction or gives some sort of insight to life and to living. The type of literature I want to evaluate is different from what we traditionally expect. For the most part, the readers of these texts consider them ���sacred���: we are dealing with readers who ritually read sacred texts, and whether revealed through divine means, or supernaturally inspired, there is a difference between reading this sort of literature and reading Shakespeare or Dante for this category of readers. Not only is the text read, but it is sometimes carefully read aloud, chanted, memorized, recited in its entirety to acquire a deeper meaning, or ���chewed and swallowed��� bit by bit (Christian lectio/ruminatio). Even the paper it is written on and the ink of the text are to be considered holy. The readers approach the reading of these texts with solemn behavior (even by means of ablutions prior to reading), knowing that it has a teaching that neither any other book nor any other teacher may impart, expecting it to actually ���change their lives.��� For this reason its interpretation is of vital importance, often considered a matter of (eternal?) life and death - especially for those who misinterpret it. It seems reasonable to deduce that the readers of these sacred literatures, those people that consider them ���authentically sacred,��� not only behaviorally approach the writings in a different manner, but also universally apply a cognitive process of semantic interpretation which differs from the pleasurable reading of a ���worldly��� novel. This type of reading is laden with emotional response from the devotee-reader. After having given an overview of the fundamental relationship between certain religious literatures and the readers of the religious systems that consider them sacred, I will take a look at conceptual integration (explicated in Fauconnier & Turner���s ���Blending Theory���) and how it is used during the devotees��� on-line interpretation of the text.
Metaphors and Our Everyday World: A Cognitive Linguistics��� Perspective Traditionally metaphor has been considered a linguistic device used to make literature more ornate. Aristotle wrote, ���Metaphor is the application to one thing of the name belonging to another��� (Poet. 21, 1457b). This would be to compare (an��logon) Achilles and lion, and the reader is left to search out the common qualities: Achilles is a lion among men such as lion is a warrior among beasts, and both are strong and brave. The trope is simply a decorative and ornamental phenomenon, linking aesthetic pleasure and communication, easily substituted with a literal paraphrase like ���Achilles is strong and brave.��� Thus Shakespeare - many literary critics would say - dared to compare his beloved to a summer���s day and through metaphors we understand how lovely and temperate she really was. From Aristotle to our days, metaphor has been considered a linguistic device to say one thing in terms of another through substitution simply because the two terms are alike. Yet, why should a lion be considered ���brave��� when this is distinctively a human quality? And how can a day be ���lovely���? Aren���t these just further comparisons (���lovely��� after all is an adverb meaning ���like love���)? Recent psycholinguistic and cognitive research on metaphor has strongly proven that metaphor is a conceptual phenomenon, more governed by thought than by language, and has little to do with special cognitive processes of literal interpretation (see, for example, Gibbs, 1994 and Katz et al., 1998). Starting with Metaphors We Live By in 1980, a seminal study of conceptual metaphor, George Lakoff and his colleagues have since then studied and theorized on the fact that metaphors are entrenched in the way we represent ourselves and the world around us. At times they are so entrenched, in fact, that they are considered literal: it is difficult to consider expressions such as, ���Oh! I see!��� ���I���m going to defend my argument,��� or ���The company���s growing��� as manifestations of conceptual metaphors like KNOWING IS SEEING, AN ARGUMENT IS A WAR, A SOCIAL ORGANISM IS A PLANT. Metaphors are classified then by the degree of conventionality, or how much they are entrenched in our daily lives. Many words we tend to consider literal have metaphorical origins (Sweetser, 1991), and it has been shown how difficult it is to find literal meanings of words. Psycholinguistics has shown that metaphorical phrases are understood in the same manner as literal phrases. It would be honest to say that literal and metaphorical are not to be considered contraries a word���s meaning is ���more or less metaphorical.��� Indeed cognitive linguistics has restored the variety of colors to what was classically considered a black and white trope, clearly distinguished from its literal dichotomous counterpart. The cognitive process behind metaphoric comprehension is not an extraordinary feat for the human mind, nor is it, as Locke said, a ���verbal abuse.��� Literal and metaphoric are gradual points on a semiological spectrum, and not diametrically distinct. Metaphor is conceptual, and another great claim of cognitive science is that human reason is for the most part metaphorical. The process which construes metaphor is a basic mental capacity by which people understand themselves and the world around them and thus are to be treated as universals. The ability to combine unrelated ideas to express what would otherwise be inexpressible is part of our socio- communicative abilities, acquired along the ages, dating back some 30,000 years ago, when religion and art were just being invented (Mithen, 1996). The discovery of conceptual integration (see Fauconnier & Turner, 2002) has made it possible to understand how humans create new patterns of thought via mental spaces (conceptual ���packets��� construed on-line) and how human
creativity is essentially a matter of being able to blend partial structure. The emergent structure creatively arises by composing, completing and elaborating the elements and relationships recruited into the blend where new inferences arise. What occurs in conceptual integration, or ���blending,��� is that we combine two concepts to generate a third. This is what happens with metaphors: we use a more common object to talk about a more abstract object, and what we get out of this combination is a new concept not proper to either of the input spaces. So we speak of the mind in terms of container, saying ���I���ve got an idea in the back of my head���, or ���he���s out of his mind,��� although we have never seen a box full of ideas, nor have we ever lost the ideas that flow out of our container-mind. Cognitive linguistics has upheld the fact that our language is strongly embodied, and metaphors are not always based on objective pre-existing similarities. ���The cognitive linguistic view maintains that - in addition to objective, preexisting similarity - conceptual metaphors are based on a variety of human experience, including correlations in experience, various kinds of nonobjective similarity, biological and cultural roots shared by the two concepts, and possibly others,��� (Kovecses, 2002: 69). What we see and feel every day, the experiences we live and how we perceive them will shape much of our language and the way we think about certain ideas, and in this context, we will see how they shape people���s relationship with religion, how this relationship changes their personal view of themselves, and for what reasons we need to treat them as literary universals. Anthopomorphism: God Created in Man���s Image God has been thought of not only in human scale, but using human-like qualities. Divine agency is seen in terms of the most complex object that man knows of, and that is himself, and as anthropologists have noticed, there is little choice (Boyer, 2001: 143). The cognitive system of humans automatically infers many operations to avoid an overload on itself, and it recruits information from all its resources. ���[A] lot happens beneath that Cartesian stage, in a mental basement that we can describe only with the tools of cognitive sciences��� (ibid., 18). People know a lot about themselves, much more than other things in the world, and human beings become the easiest source for information to produce inferences, which is why it seems all so natural to say that a lion is brave. God was created in man���s image, and it is an anthropological universal that supernatural beings are considered to have a mind (ibid., 143-144), placing man much closer to the Divine than to the animal on the Great Chain of Beings. A human-like God is nonetheless, in Justin Barrett���s term, ���theologically correct��� (1999). The devotees of the Eastern or Western religious considered here will say that God has a lot of human-like qualities���and He has even become human, for Christians taking the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth, or for Hindus as an avatar like Krishna���yet he is not quite ���like��� a human. The God presented in the Tanakh or in the Qur���an has a mighty hand, and His eyes see everything, but these are metaphors of His omnipotence and His omniscience. In a way the devotee juggles with two different mental spaces: one is human-God, to which he can relate the other, which builds on the first, is a supernatural-God, far more different than what he can ever imagine. The Muslims are warned that God is beyond anything one might devise by the way of concept or definition: a concept which is half way between the via remotionis and literalists��� anthropomorphism (Bausani, 1980: 16-17). Although God has revealed Himself in and through the Holy Word, the religious reader shifts between