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Cognitive Linguistics and Religion

The linguistic analysis presented in this book is primarily associated with Cognitive Linguistics. This approach originally developed as a reaction to the theories of Noam Chomsky. In the late 1950s, Chomsky put forth his radical proposal that the brain contained innate, abstract grammatical knowledge and that this language module was separate from our general cognitive abilities. In a reaction to this, cognitive linguists such as Langacker (1987), Lakoff (1987b),andTalmy (2000) argued that language representations develop through use and are acquired via general cognitive abilities (for a summary of this position, see Beckner et al., 2009).

Cognitive Linguistics can essentially be described as a framework for analysis that sets out to investigate the conceptual foundation of language. Operating on the premise that there is an intimate connection between general cognitive processes operating beneath the level of language and language itself, it investigates the structure of general conceptual frameworks to reveal how the human mind continuously forms categories, focuses attention, and construes situations. This approach, while acknowledging the connection between language and cognition, also emphasizes that language use is shaped by the constraints of interacting with others in purposeful communication. In addition, the approach assumes that language is embodied: people all share a store of common experiences and associations based on physical constraints and affordances they share as human beings carrying out typical tasks for typical human purposes.

Religious cognition is intimately associated with the formation of a global view of the human situation. Our worldviews organize, interpret, strategically filter out or select, and to some extent idealize the infinitely complex and confusing stream of information that constantly bombards us. The formation and maintenance of our worldviews depends on a powerful repertoire of cognitive capacities that underlie our conceptualization of our surroundings. These capacities are intimately connected to the tendency of religious believers to perceive supernatural elements as agents and forces and to describe them using particular kinds of comparison and representation (Atran, 2002; Guthrie, 1993). For cognitive linguistic researchers, these various usage-based cognitive operations, rather than constituting a passing concern, lie at the very center of their approach. This means that the issue of whether a particular divine entity exists or not is never the focus of an analysis. Instead, the analysis focuses exclusively on uncovering and tracking how believers think about and, by extension, talk about a supernatural entity, which of course crucially includes their perception of how the entity is thinking about and acting on them.

This foundational premise that conceptualization is primary also affects how cognitive linguists approach words, phrases, grammar constructions, and discourse patterns. It is not sufficient for a cognitive linguist to, for example, track how often a Christian views the Christian life as a journey, or notice that one discourse participant has appropriated the journey metaphor of another participant in a conversation. Cognitive linguists also want to know precisely how these journey metaphors conceptually connect to a host of other related metaphors that the believer uses, such as references to paths, narrow and broad ways, valleys and summits, steps and strides, losing one’s way, and being found. They want to know precisely what conceptual elements one discourse participant appropriates from another and why certain elements of an interlocutor’s speech are left untouched while others are subtly adapted.They also want to know why the believer describes their religious experience in terms of a physical journey.

These considerations also encapsulate a second key premise: language is currently the most detailed window into the way people think. It matters what people say, how they say it, and how many times they repeat it, or how they repeat a previous pattern in a subtly different way. It especially matters when linguistic patterns reoccur at particular moments in the discourse across multiple conversations and participants. Just as important as the language used is the context in which it appeared and the language that preceded it.

Cognitive Linguistics attempts to describe language use and thought beyond what individuals can report regarding their own mental models and cognitive patterns. People’s access to their own minds is always limited. Consider, as an example, attitudes toward marriage. A cognitive linguist analyzing discourse from interviews in which people talk about their marriage may find many metaphors in which marriage is discussed using the language typically employed to describe financial transactions. For example, the speakers may talk about shopping for a good match, investing time in the relationship, reaping the rewards of developing a good relationship, or they might describe a marriage as emotionally bankrupt. Closer inspection of the metaphorical structure—specifically the elements of financial transactions that are useful for talking about marriage—might reveal that this metaphor is based on a model of marriage in which selecting a mate involves the careful weighing of the merits of each potential match along with the feasibility of the match based on one’s own merits. Marriage itself, in this mental model, is essentially an agreement by free agents who are entering into a reciprocal arrangement to maximize their individual benefits.

While these patterns of thought may be revealed through a cognitive linguistic analysis, they could be completely missed if someone was simply asked what they think of marriage. In that case, the person’s response may have little bearing on their actual linguistic behavior (and even their typical cognition and social interactions). Also, conscious responses can be affected by a tendency toward idealization, self-deception, cognitive dissonance (the person might be uncomfortable acknowledging that they are so calculating when it comes to marriage) or, in some cases, even the desire to conceal.

Cognitive Linguistics thus sets out to uncover how religious believers view the world, how human construals of the world emerge, and how these construals both differ from each other and share common features. As examples, many cultures throughout history have used fire metaphors to refer to the divine and supernatural or have described truth in terms of light. Spiritual progress, on the other hand, is almost universally viewed as progress on a journey. What accounts for these cross-cultural similarities? Cognitive linguistic analyses attempt to explain why disparate cultures tend to converge in much of their religious language.

Just as Cognitive Linguistics holds great promise for revealing aspects of religious thought, the analysis of religious language can also contribute in important ways to development of the field of Cognitive Linguistics itself. Religious language, after all, is unusually rich in elements of key interest in the field, such as metaphor, metonymy, agency, and force-dynamic relationships. It also contains intriguing aspects of human experience that lie at the edge of what can be understood about human cognition. Mystical language, for example, contains many linguistic features that overturn the normal principles of human communication and meaning construction.

Cognitive linguistic studies have already made significant progress in exploring the conceptual dimension of a range of religious texts across a wide variety of religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, among others (see, for example, Charteris-Black, 2004, 2017; Chilton & Kopytowska, 2018; Howe & Green, 2014). These studies have investigated many of the issues discussed so far, such as how concepts are compared, represented, and blended. In addition to providing an introduction to some of this work, this book describes the potential that the cognitive linguistic approach has for further developing its application to the study of contemporary religious language. In doing so, it addresses imbalances in the field, particularly the tendency within many existing studies to focus predominantly on sacred texts while avoiding comparative analyses between texts from different religions, practical applications to contemporary social issues, and analyses of interactions between modern believers.

Finally, cognitive linguistic approaches to religious language should be fundamentally agnostic regarding theological commitments. Research in religious language is not an attempt to compare the validity of different positions and should not be used to try to prove or disprove religious beliefs or doctrines. Although analysts themselves will doubtlessly have their own positions regarding the validity of particular faiths, the aim of Cognitive Linguistics is to explain how and why conceptualization and language is the way it is. Researchers must treat the religious beliefs and practices that they analyze with respect and care, representing beliefs and texts as much as possible in ways that religious believers themselves will recognize as accurate and unbiased. Religious believers themselves may also want to apply cognitive linguistic techniques to better understand the way that their faith has developed and as one of the empirical approaches to describing their faith. However, researchers of religion must be careful to separate empirical descriptions and analysis of religious language from debates over specific truth claims.

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