The Literary Mind

Reviews | Jacket Description | Preface | Excerpt

From Oxford University Press

The Literary Mind:
The Origins of Thought and Language

Mark Turner

"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

"Certain to set billions of neurons firing"
- Toronto Globe and Mail

"Lucid and engaging" - Discover Magazine

"A pathbreaking work." - Diacritics

"A provocative and stimulating book, a pioneering achievement,
nothing short of revolutionary."
- General Semiotics

"A startling philosophical investigation"
- A Common Reader

"A book which intends to transform our whole outlook not so much on literature, but on how we think. Turner argues his case with brilliance and tenacity. I for one am convinced." - Philosophy and Literature

Named an Outstanding Academic Book of 1997 by Choice.

Orders: 1-800-451-7556. FAX: 919-677-1303
Cloth, ISBN 0195-10411-0, $25.00
Paper, ISBN 0195-12667-X, $17.95

Available from (cloth, paper), A Common Reader, Barnes and Noble, Midnight Special Bookstore, Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and Oxford University Press.

Companion work

The Literary Mind is a companion volume to Turner's 2001 book from Oxford, Cognitive Dimensions of Social Science: The Way We Think About Politics, Economics, Law, and Society


Danish edition

Reviews of The Literary Mind

"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."
- Robert Fulford. The Toronto Globe and Mail. Go to review.

"A lucid and engaging introduction to a complex field nobody can afford to ignore. [Turner's] ideas about parable could well prove useful in the lab as concepts to guide research."
- Mark Caldwell. Discover Magazine. Go to full review.

"Turner provides a deeply thoughtful meditation . . . Among this book's greatest strengths are its detailed discussions of both visual and verbal examples, drawn from Proust and the Thousand and One Nights; news articles; familiar iconology (such as pictures of the Grim Reaper); and of how narrative processes that might be thought merely "literary" are essential to ordinary processes of constructing a sense of location in space and time. Throughout, Turner manages his complex argument in clear, fluent prose entirely accessible to undergraduate as well as more advanced readers."
- Douglas Lane Patey, in Choice. Go to full review.

"Mark Turner's work is one of the most ambitious and original achievements within this constellation [of objective literary studies]. . . Turner concludes by rejecting Noam Chomsky's theory of language. . . Because Chomsky's syntactical machine fails to account for the narrative categories conspicuously displayed by the grammars of all natural languages (case, tense, aspect, person, deixis), Turner's argument is highly persuasive. . . 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. It cogently proves that the same cognitive mechanisms that serve us to make sense of our world also build literary fictions."
- Thomas Pavel. Modern Philology.

"A book which intends to transform our whole outlook not so much on literature, but on how we think. Bringing together so much from literature, folklore, linguistics, philosophy, and even neuroscience, The Literary Mind offers a boldly unified view of thinking. . . . Turner argues his case with brilliance and tenacity. I for one am convinced."
- Denis Dutton, Philosophy and Literature. Go to full review.

"A garden of many delights to be enjoyed by literary and scientific minds? An elegant bridge between two worlds? Other mixed (blended) metaphors apply to this book provided they tell the reader that this is an intelligent text, equally valuable to literary scholars and cognitive scientists."
- Antonio R. Damasio, Professor of Neurology, University of Iowa, and author of Descartes' Error

"Outstanding. This book will be a marvelous way for people to get into cognitive science."
- Suzanne E. Kemmer, Professor of Linguistics, Rice University

"An incredibly rich overview of Turner's newest ideas, offering scholars in both the humanities and cognitive sciences an excellent tutorial on the literary mind."
- Raymond Gibbs, Jr., Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz

"Mark Turner is one of the most imaginative writers in the field of general literary criticism, and one of the most precise. He is a theorist of distinction, whose thinking on large and abstract issues is always firmly grounded in the particularity of texts. In addition, he has a command of technical and scientific concepts and vocabulary which is exceptional among literary scholars, and an elegance of thought and writing style which are exceptional in most areas of academic life. He moves quickly from examples and cases of extreme apparent simplicity to the most probing and sophisticated expositions of cognitive processes and the workings of texts."
- Claude Rawson, Department of English, Yale University

"Turner's forceful book starts by showing how we use storying and conceptual projection to understand everything from pouring a cup of coffee to Proust. It ends with the splendidly bold claim that this storying, literary mind comes first, before all other kinds of thought, even language itself. Adventurous and convincing, Turner's work launches a new understanding, not only of literature, but of what it is to have a human brain. To read it is to think about thinking in a way you never have."
- Norman N. Holland, Marston-Milbauer Professor of English, University of Florida

"A startling philosophical investigation of the central role story plays in human cognition. With resort to the tools of modern linguistics, to the fascinating work of neuroscientists such as Gerald Edelman, to the literary inventions of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Proust, Mark Turner . . . examines how story, projection, and parable 'make everyday life possible.' . . . This is a challenging but rewarding book, filled with seminal concepts that will ramify throughout your understanding of consciousness, thought, literature, and the origin and nature of language."
- James Mustich, Jr., A Common Reader. Go to full review

"Among those few literary scholars conversant with cognitive theory and neuroscience, Mark Turner is preeminent, and his work deserves to be widely known. The Literary Mind is the most recent, and the best, of a series of books in which Turner has not simply brought cognitive models to bear on figurative language and the study of literature, but has made notable contributions to cognitive science in the process. . . . [T]hough fashionably slim, The Literary Mind is anything but slight. Turner makes some very important, and very persuasive, arguments regarding central issues of cognition, language, and literature, writing with an authority earned from his previous work and with more cogency and flair than ever."
- Alan Richardson. Review (published by the University Press of Virginia). Go to full review.

"A very rewarding and tightly argued book. The analyses are ingenious and well-founded. Turner's work must be highly recommended. . . . What Turner has achieved is important to the study of literature. Indeed, on the present North American scene it seems to be one of the most promising approaches."
- Jørgen Dines Johansen. The Semiotic Review of Books. Go to full review.

"A pathbreaking work. . . . The author focuses on three key principles of mind - story, projection, and parable. . . . Turner agitates for a Copernican revolution of his own by speculating that language itself is not the origin but rather the complex product of parable. . . . I believe Turner's model to have important implications for a variety research domains, including cognitive science, linguistics, and literary and narrative theory. . . . The importance of parabolic projection is, as Turner so brilliantly argues, not to be denied. . . . "
- David Herman. Diacritics. 29.1 (Spring 1999): 20-36

From the jacket

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.


If you are browsing this paragraph in a bookstore, glance at the people around you. They are thinking, searching, planning, deciding, watching the clock, walking to the register, buying books, talking to friends, and wondering why you are looking at them. None of this seems literary.

But to do these things, they (and you) are using principles of mind we mistakenly classify as "literary" - story, projection, and parable. We notice these principles so rarely in operation, when a literary style puts them on display, that we think of them as special and separate from everyday life. On the contrary, they make everyday life possible. The literary mind is not a separate kind of mind. It is our mind. The literary mind is the fundamental mind. Although cognitive science is associated with mechanical technologies like robots and computer instruments that seem unliterary, the central issues for cognitive science are in fact the issues of the literary mind.

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 literary creations like Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu.

We interpret every level of our experience by means of parable. 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. In the final chapter, I explore the possibility that language is not the source of parable but instead its complex product.

Parable is the root of the human mind - of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking. But the common view - firmly in place for two and a half millennia - sees the everyday mind as unliterary and the literary mind as optional. This book is an attempt to show how wrong the common view is and to replace it with a view of the mind that is more scientific, more accurate, more inclusive, and more interesting, a view that no longer misrepresents everyday thought and action as divorced from the literary mind.

Excerpt from The Literary Mind
Home Page: Mark Turner