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This review appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Literature as Science

by Marcel Danesi

Writing Joyce: A Semiotics of the Joyce System. By Lorraine Weir Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. 135 pp. ISBN 0253-36432-9.

Only for most of the twentieth century has the systematic study of mind been relegated to the exclusive domain of the cognitive sciences, in particular psychology. In this century it has, in fact, often been forgotten that the first probes into the mind's structure and its capacities emerged from the Ancient Greeks' philosophical ruminations on the nature of knowledge. What is it? Where does it come from? How is it represented and utilized by the mind?

The Greeks' intense interest in knowledge and in the nature of cognition in general found its first meaningful crystallization in the philosophical scenarios that they were want to sketch and debate ad infinitum. Aristotle's version of mind in particular became the point of reference for many of their their theoretical disputations. And, of course, it was his version that was adopted and adapted by the Middle Ages when discussions of the mind became the particular purview of theologians and clerics. The reemergence of the nonreligious philosophical imagination and of its particular mode of inquiry during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment reassigned the study of mind to the domain of philosophy. But at that time it was forced to share its fundamental interest in cognition with the emerging empirical sciences. Indeed, philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Kant and Vico made frequent references to the world of science in their attempts to portray the workings of mentation. It is only toward the end of the last century that psychology severed its connection with philosophy as it declared its autonomy through the development and institutionalization of what it claimed to be a rigorous empirical approach to the study of mind. As Flanagan (1984: xi) has aptly remarked, the perception was forged at the time that metaphysics and epistemology were to be viewed as no more than "harmless amusements of fundamentally unrealistic minds," while scientific psychology, on the other hand, was seen as getting "on with studying the real thing." Only in the last few decades has philosophy become allied once again with psychology and with the other so called cognitive sciences, primarily because, as Gardner (1985: 42) has perceptively pointed out, these sciences have finally come to the realization that they have been pursuing answers for nearly a century to what are essentially the classical problems of philosophy: "The debates of the Greek philosophers, as well as of their successors in the Enlightenment, stand out in many pages of cognitive scientific writing."

If the artificial dichotomization of philosophy and psychology into separate realms of inquiry now seems to have been a rather unfortunate hiatus in the history of civilization's attempt to understand the mind, then an equally unfortunate lacuna can be seen in the fact that a partnership between literary criticism and the cognitive sciences in conducting co-operative forays into the landscape of cognition has been contemplated only in recent times although a little reflection will show that the first great fictional dramas of our civilization -- those of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides-reveal as much, if not more, about the origins and the workings of the mind as do any of the philosophical ponderings of Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, in their mimetic representations of human thinking and action, these first fictional approaches to the mind have probably told us more about ourselves than have their highly abstract counterparts in philosophy. With the exception of Freud, Jung and of psychoanalysts generally, cognitive scientists have tended to maintain an artificial distance between themselves and literature. It is, therefore, rather intriguing to find some recent attempts by cognitive scientists to do what psychoanalysts and semioticians have always attempted to do, namely to utilize the imaginative products of the mind as "windows" of insight into its most mysterious operation. Jerry Hobbs (1990: 34), for one, has cogently argued in favour of an amalgamation of literary criticism and aesthetics into the domain of cognitive science for the simple reason that "imagining, fiction, and narrative" provide us with a valuable template for viewing how "communicating cognitive agents" have become "embedded in a world."

One of the best recent examples of a literary criticism approach to the study of mind is Lorraine Weir's Writing Joyce. Her examination of James Joyce's imaginative dissection of memory into recurrent repertoires that emanate from the deepest layers of cognition shows how Joyce probed the inaccessible corners of the human mental system in a highly structured way, akin to that of, say, dream psychology or clinical psychoanalysis. Weir's main argument is that in reading Joyce we are projected indirectly into the "Joycean system" of writing itself, whence we become "written" by it.

It should be stated from the outset that nowhere does Weir state or imply that she considers her analysis to be reflective of what I have called a literary criticism approach to the study of mind. In her overall method she remains well within the recognizable perimeter of literary semiotics. But in probing the human mind so thoroughly through the Joycean system of writing, she has ipso facto provided us with a remarkable example of how literary criticism or semiotics can be used as powerful tools for doing what cognitive scientists attempt with human subjects or artificial intelligence programs. Weir's "subjects" are the images and topics that undergird the Joycean system; and her "programs" are the discourse frames which generate them. As such, therefore, Writing Joyce constitutes both a brilliant critique of postmodernist approaches to the literary text and a blueprint for probing the mind through literature.

It is interesting to note at this point that no less a psychologist than Jerome Bruner (e.g. 1990) has, for at least a decade, been suggesting that the present-day preoccupation with computers as analogs of cognition has produced technical findings that are essentially trivial. The fixation on mind as an information-processing device has led psychology and philosophy astray-away from a deeper objective understanding of the mind as a creator of meanings. The computational metaphor in cognitive science has unnecessarily taken the study of mind "out of the body," so as to be better able to study it "in a machine." The result has been a focus on representation in itself, rather than on the underlying mental features that generate it. In his recent writings, Bruner has eloquently expressed the view that the most appropriate route to the mind is the one that can be charted with the more imaginative narrative productions of the mind itself. Literature, as a crystallization of culturally-shaped narrative thinking, puts on display our conception of ourselves and of the world which we inhabit. It is the form of thinking that, over and above any other form, gives pattern and continuity to human experience. It is, in other words, the most effective mediator between mind and culture.

Weir's analysis of the Joycean narrative system would fall well within the framework of the scientific modus operandi envisaged by Bruner. My aim here, in fact, is not to discuss Weir's deconstruction model, nor her complex semiotic analysis of Joyce's writing system, but rather to extract from her discussion those notions and techniques that would be germane to Brunerian approach to the mind and which could thus be used to lay the theoretical foundations for a literary-semiotic approach to the investigation of mentation, which for the sake of convenience I will henceforward designate as "cognosemiotics".

In the opening chapter ("Configuring the System," pp. 1-12), Weir identifies and defines the elemental components of the Joycean system which, for the purpose at hand, provides cogno-semiotics with its basic conceptual tools. The cornerstone of the Joycean system is language, which both generates and configures the components of the system into "Networks of interbranching systems" (p. 2). The source of Its generative capacity, however, is not some kind of "Chomskyan" computational device, but rather inventio, or the innate faculty that allows us both to invent our semiotic codes and then to perform them. It is this faculty that allows us to understand and become competent in "Joycean grammar" and, ultimately "to be written" by it:

To the extent that we acquire such competence, we are inside the system and free to rearrange ourselves In Its cognitive architecture (in the sense in which computer designers speak of the machine s architecture or modes of configuration of data), in terms of which we learn to configure the system by achieving facility in its manoeuvres. We are, to use another computer cliche, formatted by the system as we process it, and we therefore become capable of knowing or experiencing it (p. 6).

ln the next three chapters ("Barthes' Loyola / Joyce's Portrait: Taxonomy and Paradigm," pp. 13-28; "From Catechism to Catachresis: Ulysses as Gothic Pedagogy," pp. 2g53; and "Performing the Dreamwork: Finnegans Wake as Vichian Morphogenesis," pp. 5s81) Weir fleshes out the three primary features of narrative cognition-classification, imagery content and imaginative creativity -- as they manifest themselves respectively in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ullysses, and Finnegans Wake. The mind's ability to classify experience is, needless to say a fact well documented in cognitive science. What Weir adds to the storehouse of knowledge on this mental phenomenon is the observation that classification is grounded in a more rudimentary form of thinking in which imagistic processes are tied inextricably to linguistic ones. So, we find in Joyce's Portrait such instantiations of this iconicity language nexus as: a "topographical allocation of water and word" which "expands to include word and world" (p. 22); a "roseate recapitulation" of a "birdlike girl Image transformed into a memory locus" (p. 22); and a "methodical mortification of the senses" which "coexists with the newly conscious awareness of topography" (pp. 25-26).

While classification becomes a stable mental Gestalt through "the Ignatian strategies of repetition, recapitulation, and the weaving of mediation" (p. 20), it can only become semiotically meaningful when it takes on a more spatial and metaphorical configuration. This further iconic transformation and spatial organization of thought is the main conceptual ingredient in Ulysses:

Spatial form appears, then, to be the kernel of a dramatistic theory which encodes the relationship between form and act at both textual and metatextual levels and which, in focusing on the dialogic structure of the interchange between text and programmed reader, seeks to articulate the ekphrastic leap beyond the restrictions of sequential time which characterizes modernist discourse (p. 33).

The grounding of thought on a metaphorical platform is, needless to say, quintessentially Vichian. Thus, it comes as no surprise to find that Weir turns to Vico's New Science (Sergin and Fisch 1984) to develop her theory of narrative cognition and imaginative creativity. Without going into the details of Weir's Vichian analysis of Finnegans Wake, suffice it to say here that she is absolutely correct in pointing out that the greatness of the book lies in offering "us the possibility of a radical restructuring of our still-Cartesian world" (pp. 80-81). And as Weir argues in her final chapter ("Mousike/Memory: Sound/Sign: From Joyce to Zukofsky," pp. 82-104), when we strip the mind of its three elemental components, as exemplified by Joyce's trilogy, then we are left with sound, i.e. with a primitive form of perception and memory based on audio-oral osmosis.

The Vico-Joyce connection is a well-known one. Joyce discovered the New Science when he was living in Trieste and immediately became fascinated by Vico's views on myth, metaphor and language" (e.g. Burke 1985: 7-8). What Weir shows in her penetrating analysis of-the Joycean system is that the concrete modes of thought and perception that shaped primitive mentation continue to reverberate in the corners of our mind. As Verene (1981: 123) has observed, the primordial mind thinks by association. Thunder, for instance, is a special kind of noise that is "sounded" over and over in the deepest layers of our minds, and this led Joyce to associate Finnegan's fall to the sound of thunder on the first page of his book. This is why Weir ends her cogno-semiotic analysis on the topic of sound as a kind of precursor to iconic and verbal cognition.

Weir's argument that narrative language and metaphor form the basic structures of cognition is, needless to say, the conceptual notion that shapes the entire New Science. Indeed, as cognitive scientists fix their investigative microscopes more and more on the relations that inhere among metaphor, affect, imagery, and narrative discourse, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the discoveries they are making today were foreshadowed over two centuries ago by Vico and incorporated by Joyce into the fabric of what Weir has called his "writing system."

In fact, the cogno-semiotic approach inherent in Weir's analysis can be seen to be no more than a more specific incorporation of Vico's verum-factum principle; i.e., it applies to the domain of literary semiotics what Vico posited for all forms of human symbolic behaviour, verbal and nonverbal. For Vico "reality" was to be accessed through "the modifications of our own human mind" (New Science, par. 331). And much of modern science is slowly coming to accept Vico's idea that "objective reality" is as much a fabrication of the human mind as is any cultural artifact. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly apparent from current research in the cognitive and social sciences that what a specific culture considers to be "common sense" -- which Vico defines as "judgment without reflection, shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation or the entire human race" (par. 142) -- is really no more than "communal sense." The Sapirean Whorfian notion that language and cognition are interdependent, for instance, can be seen to be no more than a twentieth-century conceptualization and articulation of Vico's verum-factum principle in the realm of language.

High on the agenda of cogno-semiotic research one would find the view that metaphorical locution is cognitively more basic than literal discourse. For Vico the appearance of the metaphorical capacity on the evolutionary timetable of humanity made possible the passage of thought from its rudimentary iconic stage, where images floated around randomly in mental space, to a more abstract and organized form of thinking that helped to guide the mind's primordial efforts to transform the world of sensorial inputs into cognitively-usable models of experience. Metaphorical thinking constituted the protoform of signification, allowing humans to encode in a more stable mnemonic form the units of iconic consciousness that the imagination had previously made available to the human mind. Calling it a type of "logic," Vico viewed metaphor as the primary means for representing memorable experience. He saw the formation of concepts as no more than the end result of the metaphorizing capacity. It is only at a later stage -- phylogenetic and ontogenetic -- that concepts lose their metaphorical content and take on an abstract quality. As Haskell (1987: 30) has observed, for Vico metaphor 4is a primary psycho-somato-sensory process of cognition generating the entire edifice of language and thought." Metaphor transforms iconic cognition into a symbolic form of thought by converting its imagery-content into audio-oral codifications. The verbal categories forged in this way gradually develop an abstract-quality through constant usage. As this process of abstraction becomes progressively more removed from its sensorial origins, it generates our concepts which then become dominant in common thought processes. This Vichian model of conceptualization, therefore, would account for the fact that cognition and language commonly manifest themselves in individual and cultural behaviour as interdependent modalities. Both are tied to a deeper metaphorical, or analogical, capacity which, as Vico scholars know, is encompassed by the human imagination.

A cogno-semiotic approach to the mind would seek out literary texts as the basic tools for carving out the properties of human symbol systems as the primary constituents of the conceptual models people continually invent in order to rationalize their culturally constructed activities. The documentation and analysis of the narrative productions of a culture's writers allow us to seek out the morphogenesis of cultural models of cognition in the symbolic meanings of their narrative discourse. This is why Vico made philology the basis for the study of myths and rituals. His search for the origins of a specific culture was based on the proposition that the first thoughts of that culture could be reconstructed from the concrete meaning of the words, symbols and myths used to express them. Myths were of particular value to his method because "fables in their beginnings were all true and severe and worthy of the founders of nations" (par. 81). Cultural myths emerged to allow humans to make sense of the world, and their narrative structure can be seen to betray the actual metaphorical structure of cognition. Our constant need for stories in factual and fictional form, and the cognitive requirement children continually exhibit to have new concepts explained to them in story-like fashion, are crystallizations of the metaphorical structure of thought.

The idea that myths and the culture-specific symbol systems they spawn underlie cognitive structures and processes is, of course, characteristic of the work of Cassirer (1953) and Lévi-Strauss (1962) in this century. Cassirer pointed out that cultural mythologies spring from an unconscious grammar of experience whose categories are those of the imagination. Lévi-Strauss showed how the semantic constituents of cultural symbolic codes are derived from sensorial experience. For Lévi-Strauss these are to be viewed for coming to grips with the more-abstract concerns with which human cultures must grapple.

In a cogno-semiotic paradigm, therefore, it would be possible to draft a specific plan for investigating the symbolic basis of culture on the example of the philological method delineated in the New Science. Such a plan would, of course, include a study of word origins and of the myths upon which a culture was founded, but it would also include an approach to great literature such as the one illustrated by Weir. There probably is no better way to unravel the underlying structures of the mind.

Indeed, for cognitive science, the main persuasive strength of Weir's book lies in having shown how to unite the so-called "sciences" with the "arts" in the common goal of investigating how we understand, organize and communicate experience. This interdisciplinary assemblage of literature, art, myth, and ritual with the more "scientific" techniques of linguistics, anthropology, and psychology is what Vico, Sapir and Whorf hoped would emerge for the study of the language, thought and culture nexus. But it is really only recently that some movement in the direction of interdisciplinarity and humanism has surfaced in the work of mainstream cognitive scientists.

Such scientists would learn a very instructive lesson from both Vico and Weir. The overall orientation of the New Science and of Writing Joyce is interdisciplinary and eclectic. Vico rejected the idea that the mind's activities can be understood best in terms of some specific model of rational thought. For Vico rational thought was not a point of departure, but one of arrival. To study the origins of this form of thinking one must first search out the etiology of mentality in the domain of concrete sensoriality: "the human mind is naturally inclined to see itself externally in the body, and only with great difficulty does it come to understand itself by means of reflection" (par. 236). To unravel this sensorially shaped "deep structure" of rational thought, the scientist of the mind must, clearly, enlist the research methods of all those disciplines that deal with its products -- images, metaphors, myths, etc. In the cogno-semiotic paradigm that I have been discussing here, interdisciplinarity and methodological eclecticism would form the epistemological and methodological platform on which to construct a truly meaningful science of the mind. In this paradigm, meaning would be viewed as ensuing from the network of relations that hold between narrative language structures and our understanding of the world in terms of metaphorically transformed units of sensorial perception.

In conclusion, Weir's virtuosic display of insight into Joyce's system of writing as an access route to the study of mentation can easily be used to draft a conceptual and methodological blueprint for what I have called cogno-semiotics. Using literary semiotics as its epistemological antecedent, cogno-semiotics would allow cognitive science the possibility of studying human ideas, concepts, feelings, and characteristic social behaviourist through the lens of one of the mind's most remarkable achievements -- narrative art. As Vico suggested, and as Bruner has recently argued, this might constitute the most direct route to the mind. The cogno-semiotic approach exemplified in Writing Joyce shows that it is not only possible, but highly desirable to bring together literature and cognitive science to investigate the workings of the mind.


Bergin, T.G. and Fisch, M.H. (1984). The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Burke, P. (1985). Vico. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cassirer, E. (1953). Language and Myth. New York: Dover.

Flanagan, O.J. (1984). The Science of the Mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gardner, H. (1985). The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution. New York: Basic Books.

Haskell, R.E. "Giambattista Vico and the Discovery of Metaphoric Cognition," in Cognition and Symbolic Structures. The Psychology of Metaphoric Transformation, ed. R.E. Haskell (Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex, 1987), pp. 27-40.

Hodds, J . Literature and Cognition. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1962). La pensée sauvage. Paris: Plon.

Marcel Danesi is Professor of applied linguistics and of ltalian linguistics at the University of Toronto. He is author of Applied Psycholinguistics (1985), Cervello, Linguaggio, e Educazione (1988), Neurolinguistica e glottodidattica (1988), Robert A. Hall and American Structuralism (1989), and of numerous works on linguistic, educational, and semiotic topics.

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