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Why a Mind is Necessary for Classical Studies

William Short

Can scholars of ancient Greece and Rome do without an understanding of the mind and a theory of mental representation? Only, I would argue, if it is possible to view meaning making in language and in literature (or indeed in symbolic activity of whatever sort) as something entirely divorced from any human context. Yet research coming from “second-generation” cognitive sciences and especially from the so-called “embodiment paradigm”[1] has demonstrated just how much human beings’ ability to make sense of – and communicate about – their experience of the world is underwritten by conceptual structures and cognitive processes that depend on the specific kind of brain we possess operating in the kinds of bodies we have in the kinds of environments we typically inhabit (or have historically inhabited).[2] Thus, insofar as classical studies considers itself a hermeneutic discipline that seeks to shed light on the meanings elaborated by members of Greek and Roman society (cf. Martindale 1993; Roller 2006), it seems crucial for classicists not only to have an awareness of cognitive scientific findings but also to integrate these findings into their interpretive strategies.[3]

For this reason, in this paper I lay out the foundations of a method for studying Roman culture that combines theories of cognitive anthropology and cognitive linguistics – in particular, a conception of culture as knowledge; an embodied theory of meaning; and an understanding of metaphor as a mechanism of conceptualization – under an essentially Boasian perspective that privileges an “emic” point of view. This methodology describes the meanings of words in terms of “image schemas” – conceptual structures emerging from recurring perceptual and kinesthetic experience[4] – and of metaphorical interpretations of such schemas, in order to then link patterns of representation in the Latin language to Roman society’s symbolic configurations at large: its institutions, beliefs, values, theories, practices, as well as its material artifacts. Rather than treating authors as minds floating disembodied and disconnected in space, as it were – and explaining commonalities of expression primarily in terms of some ongoing game of literary one-upmanship (cf. esp. Hinds 1998) –  this embodied approach views “texts” (in Geertz’s sense) as built up from symbolic structures that are partially emergent and partially codified, partially situated and partially conventional, partially contextual and partially cultural – and in some cases also partially universal. As I see it, the value of such an approach rests in its providing a way to reconstruct what is shared about Latin speakers’ symbolic representations and to explain how Roman society’s ways of speaking, ways of thinking, and ways of behaving across disparate aspects of life were felt to be unified under a coherent worldview. In this sense, it may actually help realize the project Norman Wentworth DeWitt envisioned already in 1918, when he claimed that the Latin language and Latin literature might be utilized as a direct source for the investigation of Roman society’s “habits of thinking” and “ways of looking at things” (185). DeWitt may have framed this endeavor in terms of “race” rather than of “culture”, but his call for exploring a dimension of meaning not exclusively concerned with what is individual anticipates a “Roman cultural semantics” able both to characterize Latin speakers’ distinctive ways of “having” the world, and to balance current methods of studying Latin literature that stress a highly “local” view of meaning and the open-endedness of interpretation (see. esp. Fowler 2000).

[1] See, e.g., Clark 1997; Ziemke et al. 2007; Calvo and Gomila 2008.

[2] See esp. Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Langacker 1999; and Gibbs 2005.

[3] This is not to imply that cognitive scientists agree at all about the nature and functioning of the brain; in fact, at least three theories characterize current research in the field: the computational approach, the embodied approach, and the enactive approach: see Shapiro

[4] See Talmy 1983; Johnson 1987, 1989; Lakoff 1987; Hampe and Grady 2005.

Session/Panel Title

Cognitive Classics: New Theoretical Models for Approaching the Ancient World

Session/Paper Number


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