Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticism and the Cognitive Science of Imagination

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticism and the Cognitive Science of Imagination

Article excerpt

I. Introduction: The Theoretical Return(s) of Romanticism

ROMANTICISTS READING IN CONTEMPORARY COGNITIVE SCIENCE WILL frequently experience a strong and gratifying sense of deja-vu. For a reigning topic of the day is imagination, the evolving theory of which looms large in virtually all the disciplines, from the most physical of sciences to the most metaphysical of humanities, that contribute to the ever-burgeoning interdiscipline of cognitive science. The philosopher Mark Johnson has thus asserted, with no exaggeration whatsoever, that

   an adequate account of meaning and rationality (as well as of
   understanding and communication) awaits a comprehensive theory of
   imagination. Such a theory would complement and influence our
   present theories of conceptualization, propositional control, and
   speech acts. In its broadest sense, it would give an account of
   structure in human [cognitive] experience. (1)

A promising first approximation of a comprehensive theory of imagination has been proposed by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, who fully agree with Johnson: "The next step in the study of the mind," they roundly proclaim, "is the scientific study of the nature and mechanisms of the imagination." (2) To that end, they have developed a theory of conceptual blending, which subsumes Johnson's work (developed with George Lakoff) on image schemas and metaphoric projection in a broader and more powerful framework that gives a preliminary and unified, if not yet adequate, account of many signature aspects of human cognition, from inference-making, planning and predicting, language use, and ethical deliberation, to artistic and technological creativity, cultural and ritual symbolism, and (neither last nor least) scientific hypothesizing and scholarly interpretation. The theory of conceptual blending is ambitious and likely of considerable importance, at least in the short term (and in the sciences this is no small service), but it is also, like much else in the field, more than faintly redolent of some of the finer intellectual fruits of romanticism. It broaches anew many issues about human consciousness that exercised romantic theorists and artists, and often arrives at comparable, though in important ways non-identical, conclusions.

One could say that, when it comes to the imagination, cognitive science picks up where thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Samuel Taylor Coleridge left off (the two romantic-era figures, by the way, especially the first, to whom current analysts of imagination most commonly advert). But that would be too strong a claim. More accurate to assert that cognitive science picks up from where the romantics started, on the groundwork laid out by eighteenth-century empirical psychology, in order to (re)define the object of study and (re)formulate a theory about it in, as far as is possible, wholly scientific terms. (3) However, this is as yet more the ambition than the achievement, the returns so far being chiefly speculative or, more scientifically, hypothetical, and still awaiting experimental verification. (4) Moreover, the new "scientific" definitions and hypotheses are often not immediately distinguishable from the old "natural-philosophical" ones, even terminologically. In the book from which I've already quoted, The Body in the Mind, Johnson defines imagination in terms of three basic and presumptively correlated cognitive capacities: namely, our abilities to "form unified images" of objects, to "order sense impressions" in terms of spatiotemporal and other relations, and "to reorder [such] representations ... to generate novel structures" (xxxvi). This triad of imaginative functions differs from Kant's analysis of imaginative schemata, transcendental categories, and disinterested aesthetic play, or Coleridge's theory of primary and secondary imagination and memorial fancy, only in that it lacks the fine-grained differentiations of these functions introduced by the earlier writers. …

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