Language and Enlightenment

We might have grown skeptical about our cultural legacy, but it is quite natural for us to assume that our own cognitive theories are the latest word when compared with those of our predecessors.  Yet in some areas, the questions we are now asking are not too different from those posed some two or three centuries ago, if not earlier.

One of the most topical questions in today’s cognitive science is the precise role of language in the brain and in human perception.  Further disciplines, such as anthropology and evolutionary biology, are concerned with the emergence of language:  How is it that homo sapiens is the only species possessing such a complex syntactic and semantic tool as human language?  What is the relationship between human language and animal communication?  Could there be any bridge between them, or are they of categorically different orders, as seems to be suggested by Noam Chomsky’s views?

Such questions stood at the very centre of a fascinating debate in eighteenth-century Europe.  From Riga to Glasgow and from Berlin down to Naples, Enlightenment authors asked themselves how language could have evolved among initially animal-like human beings.  Some of them suggested some continuities between bestial and human communication, though most thinkers pointed to a strict barrier separating human language from vocal and gestural exchange among animals.  In broad lines, this period witnessed a transition from an earlier theory of language, which saw our words as mirroring self-standing ideas, to the modern notion that signs are precisely what enables us to form our ideas in the first place.  Such signs had, however, to be artificially crafted by human beings themselves; after all, natural sounds and gestures are also used by animals.

According to various eighteenth-century thinkers, this transition from natural communication to artificial or arbitrary signs was the prerequisite for the creation of complex human interrelations and mutual commitments—in short, the basis for the creation of human society as we know it, with its political structures, economic relations, and artistic endeavours.  In this sense, the language debates in eighteenth-century Europe highlighted a crucial problem in Enlightenment thought:  how to think of the transition from a natural form of life (frequently conceptualized as a ‘state of nature’) to an artificial or man-made social condition (usually referred to as ‘civil society’).  Language was a much more significant topic in Enlightenment thought than hitherto suggested.

Furthermore, the idea that all distinctive forms of human life are based on artificial signs has been regarded as a main tenet of the Counter-Enlightenment, a relativistic and largely conservative movement which Isaiah Berlin contrasted to a universalistic French Enlightenment.  By contrast, I argue in my book, Language and Enlightenment:  The Berlin Debates of the Eighteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2012), that awareness of the historicity and linguistic rootedness of life was a mainstream Enlightenment notion.

This last point means that even if the eighteenth-century discussions of language and mind were quite similar to ours, particular nuances and approaches were moulded by contemporary concerns and contexts.  The open and malleable character of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters is found in a wide variety of authors:  Leibniz, Wolff, Condillac, Rousseau, Michaelis, and Herder, among others.  The language debates demonstrate that German theories of culture and language were not merely a rejection of French ideas.  New notions of the genius of language and its role in cognition were constructed through a complex interaction with cross-European currents, especially via the prize contests at the Berlin Academy.

Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

Science Hasn’t Been This Politicized Since 1676

On April 22, a vast cohort of scientists and their allies descended on Washington to take part in the DC March for Science. Researchers and educators, academics and civilians, town and gown, stood together to “express their fealty to reason, data, and, above all, the scientific method,” as a recent New Yorker article put it. Striking back at a Administration that has openly denied scientific consensus on issues such as climate change, even going so far as to purge scientific data from government servers, scientists marched against what seems to many like a sudden and shocking politicization of science. It’s like its 1676 all over again.

“Looking for the Longitude”

“Looking for the Longitude”

Longitude was a hot topic in eighteenth-century Britain. “Looking for the Longitude” brings together a series of images and commentaries to consider how people experienced the longitude debate in eighteenth-century London.

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s <em>Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile</em>

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia). Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney. But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.

Agency and Anxiety: On Marie-Hélène Huet’s The Culture of Disaster

Agency and Anxiety: On Marie-Hélène Huet’s <em>The Culture of Disaster</em>

Disasters permeate the daily news and saturate our consciousness. This, as Marie-Hélène Huet proposes in a new book, is the way of the modern world.

“An Unknown Arc into the Future”: An Interview with Daniel Lewis, Curator of Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World

“An Unknown Arc into the Future”: An Interview with Daniel Lewis, Curator of <em>Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World</em>

Megan Gallagher interviews Daniel Lewis, Curator of the Huntington Library’s exhibit, entitled Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World.

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

Cultivating Philosophy in the Epicurean Garden

The physical garden was to Sir William Temple and other Epicureans a reflection of one’s mental landscape, and in the best of all possible worlds, one would stay in the garden–a position that Voltaire would later and more famously endorse in Candide. Like seventeenth-century definitions of wit, Temple’s philosophy of the garden expresses a balance of judgment and fancy, those gendered faculties of the mind, and an appropriate blend of reason and passion. The act of gardening for Temple was the practice of freeing the self from the disordered passions, unavoidable but capable of being subdued like wild weeds. One needs only a patch of earth, a shovel, and a life of the mind.

“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

In mid-October 1784, two major London newspapers dedicated the poems that were a regular feature on their final page to a set of comic meditations on a unique fashion trend that had developed shortly after the first-ever human flight in England the month before.

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Margaret Koehler’s Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave, 2012) makes a case for the relevance of eighteenth-century models of attention, suggesting that earlier accounts of cognition can be just as extensive, precise, and applicable to diverse realms of human experience as 21st-century theories.

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought there were two equal and opposite impulses at work when a person blushed, a modest retreat and an aggressive advance. In his book on mimicry, Dazzled and Deceived (2009), Peter Forbes has argued that all systems…

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

In his two-part medical treatise, Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, and inventor—anticipates his grandson Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory by making a series of startling suggestions.

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

“This is your brain on Jane Austen…” What role should developments in cognitive science play in humanities research?

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century by Margaret Koehler (Palgrave 2012)

I would like to speak enthusiastically for the affinity of Cognitive Science and Eighteenth-Century Studies, with the stipulation that we acknowledge a reciprocal gain.   The point of a dialogue between these two disciplines is not that contemporary cognitive models can somehow verify what eighteenth-century accounts of cognition primitively conjectured.  The literary and historical texts that serve as “data” for Eighteenth-Century Studies look nothing like a modern laboratory experiment or brain scan.  And yet these earlier accounts of cognition can be just as extensive, precise, and applicable to diverse realms of human experience.  In the case of my own area of interest, attention, historical accounts are especially valuable because contemporary theories often emphasize attention’s involuntary and automatic function and sometimes question whether attention is even a valid concept.

My book, Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (Palgrave, 2012) , makes a case for the relevance of eighteenth-century models of attention.  Because the discipline of Psychology only turned to attention as an area of research in the late nineteenth century, studies have tended to ignore attention’s earlier conceptual history.  My book attempts to fill one part of this gap by tracing debates about attention during a period of intense interest and significant revision of its meaning.  I then look to poetry for documentation of the workings of attention.  Literary texts are rich but surprisingly unexplored sites for tracing—and, for a reader, reenacting—the precise operations and recurring dilemmas of attention.  To overlook the sheer range of attentive scenarios explored by literary texts and the meticulous evidence they record is to miss a unique set of data.

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Mrs. Arabella Hunt (c.1706) by John Smith, 1652-1743, British; After Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1646-1723, German, active in Britain (from 1676). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

I began this project wanting to understand the frequent references to attention in eighteenth-century poems.  I had been particularly struck by a line from a 1692 ode by William Congreve, “On_Mrs. Arabella_Hunt_Singing.”  In this line a listener wills himself to be fully absorbed in the song:  “Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.”  It seemed to me that this plea embodied a wider aspiration in the poetry of this period to experiment with perception—both to portray a poet’s states of awareness and to elicit a vicarious experience in readers.  Eighteenth-century poems again and again stage scenarios of experimental attention.  In addition to a moment of determined focus like Congreve’s, they explore a range of perceptual puzzles:  How is it different to encounter something novel versus something familiar?   How does perception shift when you are on foot, scanning the landscape while in motion, and then you suddenly zero in on some small detail?  How does darkness enhance the other senses?  How can a poet render the cacophony of a busy London street?

I found myself wondering if the framework of attention might finally name a quality of eighteenth-century poetry that I had noticed but struggled to formulate.  My dissertation had focused on the relationship between literal and figurative tendencies in eighteenth-century poetry, particularly on the way that certain images seemed to “fluctuate” (as I put it) between the two states.  But these terms had come to feel inadequate.  What if I could articulate a related phenomenon more accurately as the poet’s—and the reader’s—shifts of attention?  Part of the reason I had first become a fan of eighteenth-century poetry was because it prompted me to notice and appreciate small details in the natural world.  Right around this same time a student in my eighteenth-century literature had made an offhand comment that seemed to capture the challenges of teaching this material:  “I don’t like reading poems where I have to keep stopping to think about every word.  I like it when poems just flow.”  In other words, he was frustrated by the attentive demands and had expected poetry to offer easier, more passive pleasures.  My teaching and research were dovetailing in a rare and exciting way around questions of attention.

My immediate impulse was to turn to contemporary theories of attention for explanation.  Working through recent studies of attention by psychologists, I found myself at first assuming that eighteenth-century accounts offered embryonic accounts of phenomena that contemporary researchers had gone on to explain more fully and correctly.  Then when I returned to the eighteenth-century texts, I was in some sense looking for the twentieth and twenty-first-century models:  attention as selection versus attention as enhancement, attention as a set of distinct processing resources.  I had for example been fascinated by a 1950s lab experiment in “dichotic listening,” (subjects listened to headphones that fed one sound input on the right and another on the left).  Subjects were told to attend deliberately to one particular side, then later had to report on what they recalled from the “unattended ear” (early versions of the study found that they recalled almost nothing; later versions found more).  This notion of the “unattended ear” felt richly applicable to eighteenth-century poetry, which often challenges readers with competing inputs—high and low, vast and minute—and asks them to reconcile the incongruity.  But rigidly applying the processing model to poetry felt both formulaic and inaccurate.  The more useful insight was that eighteenth-century poetry complicates and mocks the very possibility of allocating attention dichotically.

The most exciting discoveries in this project came when eighteenth-century accounts of attention complicated or expanded contemporary perspectives.  Probably the most salient example was the greater emphasis eighteenth-century accounts placed on voluntary attention.  Here I was inspired by the work of art historian Barbara Stafford , who diagnoses a widespread contemporary fascination with “autopoietic” systems—self-assembling systems that operate spontaneously and automatically.[1]  The current model of the human brain, 90% of which is estimated to function automatically, is one such autopoietic system.  Stafford argues that the current understanding of brain/ mind as a largely automatic system reverses eighteenth-century epistemology, which likened cognition to seeing.  Her critique casts the discrepancy explicitly in terms of attention: “What’s left of selective attention?”[2]  She expresses reservations about the view that attention is mostly unconscious:  “what are the macroconsequences of putting attention almost wholly in the service of microcircuits, cerebral localization, processing-perceptual systems, and other inbuilt constancies?”[3]  Stafford does not refute neuroscience’s claim that the brain operates mostly automatically, but she contends that the imbalance exerts “special pressure on…the remaining empirical 10 percent.”[4]  In her remedy for the autopoietic daze and her formula for maximizing the remaining 10 percent, she extols the dividends of deliberate attention:

Creativity may well lie in escaping, not giving in to, our autopoietic machinery and focusing carefully on the world.  This proactive proposition defies a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness…that we can never perceive the real world but only our mental representations.[5]

One way to escape a hyper-Romantic theory of consciousness is to look back to earlier models.  I would argue that this call for a new aesthetic commitment to “outward-directed attentiveness” finds a vital precedent in eighteenth-century poems.[6]

Unlike their successors the Romantics, eighteenth-century poets did not view active, detailed attention as hostile to aesthetic experience.  Possibly the plainest articulation of the eighteenth-century model of attention emerges as it is undone by an early Romantic theorist.  Near the end of the century, Archibald Alison argues that focused attention stifles the imagination and that aesthetic  experience requires the surrender of voluntary attention: 

When we sit down to appreciate the value of a poem or of a painting, and attend minutely to the language or composition of the one or to the coloring or design of the other, we feel no longer the delight which they at first produce.  Our imagination in this employment is restrained, and instead of yielding to its suggestions, we studiously endeavor to resist them by fixing our attention upon minute and partial circumstances of the composition.[7]

While Alison explicitly opposes attention and imagination, eighteenth-century poetry demands their co-existence.  Attending to details of a scene is part of the imaginative response to it.  This aspiration is one of the reasons why eighteenth-century texts can seem difficult and alien to contemporary readers, who have inherited a Romantic aesthetic.  My book repositions eighteenth-century poems as a collective model for assiduous reading and supple, wide-ranging attention.  It identifies a genuine insight that Eighteenth-Century Studies has to offer about cognition:  that active, deliberate, and demanding attention is a crucial component of imagination.


[1] Barbara Maria Stafford, “The Remaining 10 Percent:  The Role of Sensory Knowledge in the Age of the Self-Organizing Brain.”  Chapter 2 in Visual Literacy, ed. James Elkins (New York:  Routledge, 2008), pp. 31-57.

[2] Barbara Maria Stafford, “Neuroscience and the Future of the Art Museum.”  Talk at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA (March 2007).

[3] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 33.

[4] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 42.

[5] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[6] Stafford, Remaining 10 Percent, p. 45.

[7] Alison, Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (Edinburgh:  J.J.G. and G. Robinson,1790), p. 7.

Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for 'Marriage à la Mode' (1743).  William Hogarth

Characters and Caricatures: subscription ticket for ‘Marriage à la Mode’ (1743). William Hogarth. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Gift of Chauncey B. Tinker, B.A. 1899

“This is your brain on Jane Austen…” declared the recent Stanford news description of the work of Natalie M. Phillips on fMRI brain images of graduate students reading Austen both attentively and in a more leisurely mode.  The story of this research collaboration among “neurobiological experts, radiologists and humanities scholars” was featured by news outlets around the world, indicating the broad appeal of research that applies the newer tools of cognitive neuroscience to humanities analysis.

Phillips’ work with cognitive scientists develops that of cognitive humanities scholars such as Alan Richardson, Jonathan Kramnick, Blakey Vermeule, and Lisa Zunshine.  These pioneers in the field of what some call “Cognitive Cultural Studies” ask how the new research on the brain should impact our analyses of cultural production in the eighteenth century.  Phillips augments this work by actually producing some of the new research on the brain.  While this collaboration between literary and scientific scholars seems exciting and new, in some ways it actually returns to the eighteenth-century model of discourse in which poetry and chemistry, music and astronomy mingled interactively (as Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder amply details).

The 18th-Century Common seeks contributions to a Collection on Cognitive Science and 18th-Century studies in which scholars engaged in this work–as well as those who critique it–will give readers tantalized by Natalie Phillips’ research on “your brain on Jane Austen” opportunities to learn more.

Meanwhile, here are some preliminary avenues of exploration: