B6: "Rhetorical Minds: Exploring Human Cognition, Communication, and Action" (Todd Oakley)

Mon 9.15-10.45, Tue 11.15-12.45, Wed 14.15-15.45, Thu 16.15-17.45
Room: 1.01


Cognitive approaches to linguistic analysis extend their reach into areas of study traditionally considered orthogonal to linguistic study proper. Currently, much work in cognitive linguistics takes as central to their enterprise multimodal aspects of utterances, such as gesture, eye gaze, proxemics, media studies and other related semiotic phenomena, that have been traditionally regarded mere epiphenomena. This course explores the outer bounds of cognition and culture, which, ironically perhaps, goes by one of the most traditional categories in academics: rhetoric.

We all know what rhetoric is, don’t we? It’s vernacular for all those attempts to persuade us to buy some product, or to vote for some candidate or ballot initiative. We are far more likely to use the term as a pejorative: candidate X’s speech was nothing but “empty rhetoric.” We like to think of ourselves as good at sniffing out mere ‘rhetoric’ from the ‘substance.’

The art of rhetoric, however, has been an ongoing course of study for 2500 years in the West, with a reputation that has risen and fallen more often than any other academic subject. But for most of that history, rhetoric (Greek for oratory) is seen as a general art of “discovering in any particular case, the available means of persuasion,” so says Aristotle. Thus, rhetoric formed a basic part of any educated person’s training.

This course goes farther and tests the proposition that, at base, much of what linguists (particularly those of functional-cognitive orientation) are interested in has deep affiliation with the arts of persuasion, and that much of what makes homo sapiens unique among biological organisms is our propensity to engage in symbolic action--not intermittently, not often, not frequently, but regularly and habitually, such that acts of persuasion are constitutive of what it means to be human.

The proposition that the species Homo sapiens is, in fact, Homo rhetoricus elicits several basic questions of interest to linguists. How did our capacity for language become species-wide, yet appears only in flickers with no sustained ignition source among even our closest living relatives? What is distinct about human cognitive development that makes these symbolic capacities a routine outcome? If symbolic action rests on our ability to represent past, present, future, possible, and impossible states of affairs, what are the precise representational capacities that underlie them, and where are they located? Motivations to act of distant prospects requires a degree of emotional and affective attachment or detachment. How are emotions lexicalized and grammaticalized for deployment in human thought and action? Finally, given human beings truck, barter, trade, and otherwise interact with complete strangers, what is the nature of such social structures that provide the "rules of the road" for these complex human interactions, and what role does symbolization play in that process?

This course will explore these questions as they relate to human evolution; social cognitive development; the nature of representation; language structure and usage (as it relates to multiple channels of expression); emotion and affect; and the ontology of institutions in contexts for communication and action.

The time spent in class will be focused on three types of interaction: lectures, example analyses (which the instructor will use to illustrate both concepts and method), and in-class student-driven analysis and discussion of rhetorical examples provided. Occasionally, students will be asked to attempt analyses outside of class, to facilitate and focus the in-class discussions. In a few instances, students will be asked to read a scholarly article available online, in preparation for the work in class.

Graduates of this course will be exposed to a view of human nature as it relates to the idea that thought and action arise from a suite of general cognitive capacities for constructing the world in which we live.

Lecturer: Todd Oakley, Case Western Reserve University

This course replaces the course "Cognitve Poetics" by Barbara Dancygier, which, unfortunately, had to be cancelled.