Cognitive Poetics: Grammar

According to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction, what makes cognitive grammar “cognitive” is that it takes language in its psychological and social circumstances to consider grammatical form in terms of what that form is doing in the mind . Peter Stockwell uses prototype analysis to interrelate concepts in cognitive grammar, prototype analysis being a way of describing how the mind makes categories. He returns to a consideration of clause structure that he introduced in a previous chapter, and he narrows in on the subject position of the clause. The mind conceives the subject in a clause along four dimensions: its semantic role, its level of empathy, its definiteness, and whether its perceived as figure or ground. Each of these dimensions can be measured along a spectrum. For example, empathy ranges from speaker/human/physical object on the strong end to hearer/animal/abstract entity on the weak end. Semantic role ranges from agent to patient in various degrees.

Another concept Stockwell introduces is action chain, a way of modeling a clause that considers each of the participants in the action of the clause. Easter Wings  by George Herbet is modeled as an action chain with participants God (the active agent) at the head and man  at the tail (patient). The concepts wealth and store  are part of the setting, not participants. Using the tools of cognitive grammar allows for a detailed analysis of clause structure that accrues into an analysis of overall structure.

In Cognitive Poetics in Practice, Craig Hamilton uses cognitive grammar to analyze Hospital Barge by Wilfred Owen. Hamilton gives a very close reading of the poem that connects the linguistic level with the conceptual level, but he makes a distinction between a close reading in the tradition of the New Critics and that of cognitive poetics. The distinction being that Hamilton does not merely comment on rhetorical effects of the poem; his analysis is grounded in cognition. He explicates how the rhetorical effect is achieved in the mind, by the mind, and for the pleasure of the mind. 

These chapters exhibit a fine level of grammatical analysis, an analysis of clauses that builds to conclusions about whole texts. A popular past-time, even among writers, is to disparage too strong an interest in grammar. The image is of a narrow-minded and unimaginative pedant who champions a set of rules imposed on language from an external authority. Middle school English teachers seem to be a favored target for this stereotype, an unfortunate caricature that misrepresents the passion language can invoke.

I love language, including its grammar. One of my favorite middle school assignments was to diagram sentences. I was fascinated that what I took to be a single idea (a sentence) was constructed from many different parts, fragments of an idea, fragments that could be rearranged to create new ideas, and I wanted to understand how those fragments related to one another. In the past few years, I’ve been trying to improve my sentence construction by reading grammar books, such as It was the Best of Sentences , and listening to lectures, such as Building Great Sentences. I appreciate a detailed analysis of language construction in the same way that I enjoy icing on chocolate cake or gravy on mashed potatoes: the extra touch isn’t strictly necessary except to make the thing palatable.

According to Hamilton, the goal of cognitive grammar is to provide an account of cognitive processes associated with language, an account rooted in linguistics. Rather than a normative or ethical endeavor, cognitive grammar, because of its origin in linguistics, is descriptive. As an approach to literary study, cognitive grammar is, therefore, applicable to any diction, whether correct  or not. As a creative writer this is like having my cake (with icing) and eating it too.

Stockwell situates the cognitive poetics approach as a union of critical theory and science. The scientific aspect entails any theory or model that arises from cognitive poetics be enthusiastically vulnerable to falsifiability and alternative models. He takes several pages to outline one model of cognitive grammar based primarily on the work of Ronald. W. Langacker. Then at the end of the chapter, as part of the exploration questions, Stockwell introduces an alternative model, systemic-functional linguistics. At issue is not which model is correct, but which is most useful or convincing .

However, the openness to alternative models that characterizes cognitive poetics is not willy-nilly or relativistic. Hamilton argues that our linguistic system is the way it is because our conceptual system is the way it is.  The aspects of Hospital Barge  he investigates using cognitive grammar are little different from aspects of the poem critics have been concerned with for decades. What distinguishes cognitive poetics from other critical approaches to rhetorical aspects of a text is an explicit concern with what the mind does when engaged with the text.

I mentioned that I am trying to improve my writing by studying sentence grammar. Cognitive grammar provides another means to improve my reading and writing. The model Stockwell provides for topicality of the subject opens up many more choices about sentence construction, choices that bring about various connotations, as he demonstrates with the opening lines of Ozymandias .

There have been times when I’ve gotten lost in the labyrinth of a protean sentence. To borrow an image from Oscar Wilde, I could spend all morning and all afternoon trying to find my way around punctuation, not to mention syntax. Cognitive grammar provides a hook to which I can attach the thread of my thoughts, so that I spend less time wandering in circles and more time confronting minotaurs. This is different than having a map, a map would turn the labyrinth into a copy of limited dimensions, or a set of directions, directions would take me through someone else’s maze. Cognitive grammar draws my attention to how a sentence marks some objects as agent and some as patient or how a sentence engenders empathy or defamiliarizes. It is up to me to choose which sentence to write.

The same year Cognitive Poetics was published, the journal Poetics Today put out several special cognitive  issues. In one of those papers, Liza Zunshine investigates the cognitive underpinnings of the catechistic hymns of A. L. Barbauld. Zunshine contends that the ideological coercion of the hymns is effective because Barbauld’s metaphors activate two cognitive domains: natural kinds and artifacts. Perception of natural kinds, she argues, is distinct from and evolutionarily older than perception of artifacts. Natural kinds are perceived as having natures, while artifacts are considered to have functions. The phrase Zunshine focuses on from the hymns is man is made to praise the God who made him . Hans Adler and Sabine Gross point out in a follow-up critique, also in Poetics Today, that Zunshine’s argument hinges on the verb in Barbauld’s metaphor, a verb they contend had different connotations historically than those necessary for Zunshine’s argument.

I found Zunshine’s analysis compelling, and a reading based on the tools of cognitive grammar outlined by Stockwell and Hamilton is in accord with Zunshine’s conclusion about the hierarchy of God and man. Two salient actions are described in Barbauld’s phrase: making and praising. God is the agent and man the patient for the action of making. The roles are reversed for the action of praising. The action of making is repeated twice, twice emphasizing the relationship of God as agent and man as patient. Reading the phrase actualizes both versions of the agent-patient relationship, complicating the meaning and creating tension, while leaving the hierarchy of God over man unchanged.

Zunshine bases her analysis on research by developmental psychologists and cognitive anthropologists that suggests people make a fundamental distinction between categories of natural kind and artifact. Although I think Adler and Gross miss the mark in their criticism of Zunshine’s paper (most of their argument actually supports Zunshine’s main thesis), another critique of her paper does resonate with my own concerns about cognitive poetics. Tony Jackon’s paper, also in Poetics Today, identifies several critical issues with cognitive poetics as an interdisciplinary approach. He questions the necessity of introducing scientific methods into literary studies, especially in cases where a non-science based approach is sufficient, claiming that the humanities and science may produce different kinds of truth . Arguments based on scientific evidence do not necessarily hold significance in a humanities context.
Hamilton’s chapter in Cognitive Poetics in Practice also attempts to situate cognitive poetics in relation to other critical approaches to literature. He writes,

…the saving grace of cognitive poetics is that it is not good old-fashioned hermeneutics at all: it is poetics. 

The central question of hermeneutics is how to read, the central concern of poetics is how to write. I come to cognitive poetics as a writer–a producer of literature. What Hamilton’s statement suggests (but I’m not sure if it has been explored) is the effectual quality of cognitive poetics that I find most compelling.

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