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The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language [Paperback]

Mark Turner
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 17, 1998 019512667X 978-0195126679 Reprint
We usually consider literary thinking to be peripheral and dispensable, an activity for specialists: poets, prophets, lunatics, and babysitters. Certainly we do not think it is the basis of the mind. We think of stories and parables from Aesop's Fables or The Thousand and One Nights, for example, as exotic tales set in strange lands, with spectacular images, talking animals, and fantastic plots--wonderful entertainments, often insightful, but well removed from logic and science, and entirely foreign to the world of everyday thought. But Mark Turner argues that this common wisdom is wrong. The literary mind--the mind of stories and parables--is not peripheral but basic to thought. Story is the central principle of our experience and knowledge. Parable--the projection of story to give meaning to new encounters--is the indispensable tool of everyday reason. Literary thought makes everyday thought possible. This book makes the revolutionary claim that the basic issue for cognitive science is the nature of literary thinking.

In The Literary Mind, Turner ranges from the tools of modern linguistics, to the recent work of neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman, to literary masterpieces by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Proust, as he explains how story and projection--and their powerful combination in parable--are fundamental to everyday thought. In simple and traditional English, he reveals how we use parable to understand space and time, to grasp what it means to be located in space and time, and to conceive of ourselves, other selves, other lives, and other viewpoints. He explains the role of parable in reasoning, in categorizing, and in solving problems. He develops a powerful model of conceptual construction and, in a far-reaching final chapter, extends it to a new conception of the origin of language that contradicts proposals by such thinkers as Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker. Turner argues that story, projection, and parable precede grammar, that language follows from these mental capacities as a consequence. Language, he concludes, is the child of the literary mind.

Offering major revisions to our understanding of thought, conceptual activity, and the origin and nature of language, The Literary Mind presents a unified theory of central problems in cognitive science, linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy. It gives new and unexpected answers to classic questions about knowledge, creativity, understanding, reason, and invention.

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Turner, a professor of English with a passion for cognitive studies, proposes new and intriguing interpretations of the workings of the mind and the evolution of language and grammar. "The literary mind is the fundamental mind," he states, then launches into a complex explanation of how thoughts take the form of stories, or parables, and how parables are the vehicle for comprehension and organization of experiences. Turner illustrates his definition of the parable--stories with an associative purpose--as the most basic habit of mind in discussions of the tales of Shahrazad and the novels of Proust, but he also dissects such subtle properties of parable as its illumination of space and time. He concludes by rejecting the notion of grammar's being inherent in the genetic code, as theorized by Noam Chomsky, and declares, instead, that parable is the wellspring of grammar. Recommended where literary theory has an audience. Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"Written in a crystal-clear style, Turner's book is a triumph of objective literary studies and an example of intelligence, open-mindedness, and intellectual courage." -- Modern Philology.

"A lucid and engaging introduction to a complex field nobody can afford to ignore. Turner's ideas . . . could well prove useful in the lab as concepts to guide research." - Discover Magazine.

"Turner provides a deeply thoughtful meditation . . . Throughout, Turner manages his complex argument in clear, fluent prose entirely accessible to undergraduate as well as more advanced readers." - Choice

"By blending neuroscience and literary history in The Literary Mind, Turner has created a story of his own, certain to set billions of neurons firing....[An] audacious and remarkable book. "--Toronto Globe and Mail

"Turner argues his case with brilliance and tenacity. I for one am convinced."--Philosophy and Literature

Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 17, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019512667X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195126679
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 5.3 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #186,514 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Turner ( is Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University. He is the founding director of the Cognitive Science Network and co-director of the Red Hen Lab. Many of his papers are available on his author page on the Cognitive Science Network. His most recent book publications are _Ten Lectures on Mind and Language_ (2011. Eminent Linguists Lecture Series. Beijing: FLTR Press) and two edited volumes, _The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity_, from Oxford University Press, and _Meaning, Form, & Body_, edited with Fey Parrill and Vera Tobin, published by the Center for the Study of Language and Information. His other books and articles include _Cognitive Dimensions of Social Science: The Way We Think about Politics, Economics, Law, and Society_ (Oxford), _The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language_ (Oxford), _Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science_ (Princeton), and _Death is the Mother of Beauty_ (Chicago). He has been a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the National Humanities Center, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Advanced Study of Durham University, and the Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. He is a fellow of the Institute for the Science of Origins, external research professor at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study in Cognitive Neuroscience, distinguished fellow at the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Psychology, and Extraordinary Member of the Humanwissenschaftsliches Zentrum. In 1996, the Académie française awarded him the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises.

Customer Reviews

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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A startling and fresh view of cogntion June 26, 2001
I'm giving this book a 5 star rating because of the first 3 chapters. You really don't have to read any more. After that, the author gradually seems to lose his direction and punch, but it really doesn't matter.
The book attempts a very difficult project, investigating the cognitive aspects of story telling. It seems simple enough on the surface, but quickly gets enmeshed in stories about stories. It gets very confusing.
Turner holds that stories are based on the combination of cognitive elements called 'schemas' and a cognitive process called 'projection'. An image schema might be a 'ball flying through the air' or 'a boy talking to his mother.' Schemas have their own intrisic value and emotional content. Via 'projection', schemas transfer their 'content' and 'emotion' onto entirely different schemas such as 'a baby horse talking to its mother.'
Turner's examples are excellent, particularly his parables. For a somewhat more complete study of cognitive aspects, look at Lakoff and Johnson's 'Philosophy in the Flesh'. Lakoff and Johnson avoid the technical term 'image schema' and use the more familiar term 'metaphor.'
Here is a quote from the introduction that gives a good outline of the book's project: "Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. The mental scope of story is magnified by projection - one story helps us make sense of another. The projection of one story onto another is parable, a basic cognitive principle that shows up everywhere, from simple actions like telling time to complex literaray creations like Proust's 'A la recherche du temps perdu.'...
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35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Documentary mind. April 29, 2000
Eight pages before the close of his story Mr. Turner grants that his thesis is "trivially true" and characterizes his work as "a gesture toward documenting it." One wonders if he means to document its truth or its triviality. Nevertheless, this book is worth a read. I suggest you borrow a copy from the library, read the first two chapters and the last, and then decide if you want to own it. Once you get his idea of the small story projected through parable, you don't really need his 100 pages of examples, entertaining though they may be.
It's a shame, because I think he sells himself short. I think he has a plausible thesis that is potentially very significant; not at all trivial. But he plays to his own strength and glosses over the difficult. His theory of language origins is fascinating, but it needs further support and clarification. His anti-Chomskyan argument is quite likely correct, but he spends pages disposing of a Darwinian gradualism that is rapidly being displaced by complexity theory, with which he seems unfamiliar, or at least chooses not to address.
Can he really believe his own theory trivial? His exposition on tense belies the possibility. His book raises important questions; promises new understandings. His modesty does not serve. This modest contribution could have been much more.
Five stars for originality and potential significance of his ideas, minus two for the awkward and bulky attempt at induction and for what is left out.
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34 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars O Occam - where is thy razor? March 17, 2003
By Karl
As previous reviewers have observed, though this book is eight chapters long you really don't need to read the whole book to get the message - because however radical some readers may think it, the basic idea really doesn't amount to much.
To summarise the whole business:
1. Chomsky says that we can only explain grammar by assuming the existence of a mental organ which no-one has identified or located and wich, according to Chomsky, sprang into existence without the benefit of precursor or the influence of natural selection, just "appeared".
2. Pinker and Bloom have modified the gross unlikelihood of any such event by invoking natural selection as the "father" of grammar.
3. Both views of both incredibly unlikely (though not impossible), says Turner, and "trades Occam's razor for God's magic hat".
4. The mythical grammar organ is not needed because understanding how parable works can explain the rise of both language and grammar.
The rest of the book rambles on, and on, AND ON, about not much more than the idea that we can understand why parables are comprehensible by understanding that meaning does not transfer directly from the source (the parable) to the target ("real" life) but goes through an intermediate "blending" process.
This conflicts, somewhat, with the sweeping claims in the Preface:
"In this book, I investigate the mechanisms of parable. I explore technical details of the brain sciences and the mind sciences that cast light on our use of parable as we think, invent, plan, decide, reason, imagine and persuade. I analyze the activity of parable, inquire into its origin, speculate about its biological and developmental bases, and demonstrate its range.
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