Public events

Wednesday 19 July

Categorial anomaly, surprise and epiphany

by Professor Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

9:00-10:30am, SRWB Theatrette (Room 2.02), Sir Roland Wilson Building (#130)

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Abstract

In this talk I propose that a universal biological event — surprise — may be elaborated by the person experiencing it in various culturally specific ways. The elaboration turns surprise into experiences called epiphany, mystical experience, awe, the sublime, peak experience, shivers down the spine, and so on. I show that surprise is a core property of all such experiences. Surprise is a response to a perception that does not fit the schemas which the experiencing person brings to their perceptions. It is thus a response to a perception of objects, events and thoughts which are aschematic. The perception might be of something unexpected, or something which does not fit with what we already know. Or something may be be perceived as aschematic because it deviates strongly from the norm, so that very large objects may produce the sublime, or perfect animals or people, which are also aschematic (Sperber), may produce awe.

One of the common characteristics of these experiences is a sudden arousal such as shivers or tears, and the emotions underlying these arousals can be explained as arising from surprise (Huron), either as responses to surprise or when surprise enhances an already existing emotion. Another common characteristic is ineffability, where the experience or its content cannot be expressed in words. This is explained by the non-schematic aspect of the experience — a meaning can be put into words only if it is schematic. Furthermore, the experiences involve a focus on the uniqueness of the moment, and unique events and objects cannot be expressed in language: words can only be part of a language if they can be used more than once.

These aspects of the experience all depend on universal biological aspects of surprise, but surprise is common while these experiences are not. I resolve this by suggesting that surprise is sometimes elaborated by the person who experiences it into something more complex. The experiencing subject assigns what James called a ‘noetic’ quality to the experience (noetic = something important is known), and the subject elaborates the inherent ineffability by exploiting the cultural ‘ineffability topos’. Elaboration involves attribution of the experience to a trigger, explicit interpretation of one’s own experience, naming of the experience, and inserting the experience into the story of the self. These elaborations are all part of the ‘cultural’ component of the experience, operating often at a conscious level, and exploiting the experiencer's historically and culturally specific knowledge of the world.

Biography

Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland). He has a BA in literature (Cambridge), and a PhD in linguistics (MIT). He was editor of the Journal of Linguistics from 1997 to 2014, and is the author of ten books, including a descriptive grammar of the Sudanic language Màdi, and four books on linguistics as applied to literature. The most recent of these also links poetry to the psychology of working memory. He currently has a Leverhulme Fellowship (2014–2017) to study epiphanies from psychological and literary linguistic perspectives.


Thursday 20 July

Translating the heart: worldview, world-perceiving and the human heart as a universal

by Professor James Underhill, Rouen University, France

9:00-10:30am, SRWB Theatrette (Room 2.02), Sir Roland Wilson Building (#130)

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Abstract

Linguistic anthropology, and ethnolinguistic and ethnopoetic approaches, from Wilhelm von Humboldt to Dell Hymes, share a working hypothesis that each culture has its own irreducibly specific worldview. This has been questioned recently. David Naugle criticised the relativistic nature of ‘worldview’ approaches, which he considered hostile to Christianity as a world religion. He felt they missed much of what was fundamental for human experience by reducing heart to ‘mind’ (Geist), and argued for the universal capacity of the human heart to understand, think, and love. I have been concerned to point out the limits of Naugle’s approach, but in my own work on Humboldt and ethnolinguistics, the human heart as an organ of understanding continues to haunt me. If values are central to many of our keywords, then heart is very much at the ‘heart’ of the matter when it comes to discussing, hate, love, fear, angst, anguish, and desire.

I propose to raise questions, outline approaches, and critically examine the strategies that we use when we question how we express our thoughts and feelings.Understanding the heart should help us clarify what we mean when we strive to compare emotions, perception, thinking and feeling across languages. And the difficulties experienced in translation should indicate some key fields for investigating linguistic and cultural difference.

Biography

James W. Underhill was born in Glasgow in 1967. He is Full Professor and lectures on Literature, Poetics, and Translation at Rouen University in Northern France. He has worked as a full-time translator of French and Czech, and published poems in translation from French and German. Underhill's work on worldview and language focuses on both linguistic constraints at a deeper level, and the essential creative impulse by which individuals stimulate the shared language of the community. He is the author of Humboldt, Worldview, and Language (Edinburgh University Press, 2009), Creating Worldviews: Ideology, Metaphor and Language (Edinburgh University Press, 2011), Ethnolinguistics and Cultural Concepts: Truth, Love, Hate and War (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and Voice and Versification in Translating Poems (Ottawa University Press, 2017). 

The Rouen Ethnolinguistics Project (REP) was founded by James W. Underhill at the University of Rouen, in Northern France. REP aims to further investigations into the philosophy of language and explorations of worldviews by organizing conferences and putting videoconferences online. You can find out more about the project at rep.univ-rouen.fr


Thursday 20 July

Why do epiphanies happen on the beach?

by Professor Nigel Fabb, University of Strathclyde, Scotland

6:00-7:30pm, SRWB Theatrette (Room 2.02), Sir Roland Wilson Building (#130)

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Abstract

The beach - or more generally, the boundary between land and water - is a common site for epiphanies (a kind of experience also called the sublime, peak experience, awe, ecstasy, mystical experience, etc.). Laski identifies the beach as 'amongst the most common' of physical circumstances for epiphany. This is true also in fictions, including the terrifying beach epiphanies at the end of Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ or the film Planet of the Apes, Wordsworth’s 'spot of time' when he experiences his lakeside daffodils, or the 'moment of being' when the Ramsays step from boat to land in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In this talk I ask why the boundary between land and water particularly enables epiphany.

I begin by proposing that the psychological basis of epiphany is a surprise, elaborated into a more complexly felt experience. Surprise is triggered by a perception which we cannot fit into what we already know, or expect: it is a response to an uncertainty. What is it about the boundary between land and water which triggers or enables surprise, and allows surprise to be elaborated into the richly felt experience of epiphany? The answer must relate to the generalizable characteristics of land and water, and the boundary between them, which can lead to epiphany. Some part of this may involve the experience of water viewed or heard from a position on land.

I explore some of these generalizable characteristics. The boundary between water and land is a liminal threshold, and thresholds are strongly implicated in epiphanies more generally, perhaps because thresholds offer the possibility of surprise, when we cross them. The tidal beach is a place which does not 'fit': it is both land and sea, and hence inherently uncertain. Water is also inherently uncertain because it lacks the definite features characteristic of land: water is visually featureless, and its sounds are unclear noise, and these uncertainties are enhanced when water is viewed in comparison to land. Further, as Ivan Illich said, 'water has a nearly unlimited ability to carry metaphors': it is one of the most symbolically rich aspects of our environment which opens it up to an uncertain range of possible meanings. Thus it may be that beaches - and other boundaries between land and water - are places of epiphany because they are thresholds across which we can experience uncertainty.

Biography

Nigel Fabb is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland). He has a BA in literature (Cambridge), and a PhD in linguistics (MIT). He was editor of the Journal of Linguistics from 1997 to 2014, and is the author of ten books, including a descriptive grammar of the Sudanic language Màdi, and four books on linguistics as applied to literature. The most recent of these also links poetry to the psychology of working memory. He currently has a Leverhulme Fellowship (2014–2017) to study epiphanies from psychological and literary linguistic perspectives.

  • Australian Government
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