This paper argues that the cognitive sciences need to incorporate aesthetic study of the arts into their methodologies to fully understand the nature of human cognitive processes, because the arts reflect insights into human experience that are unobtainable by the methodologies of the natural sciences. These insights differ from those acquired by scientific exploration, because they arise not from the conceptual logic of reason but from the precategorial intuition of imagination. Aesthetics provides a methodology whereby we are able to understand how art enables us to experience emotions caused by sense impressions. This methodology lies at the heart of Giambattista Vico’s Principi di scienza nuova (1725–44), which attempts to account for the way we live and participate in cultural, social, and civic communities. Vico’s theory challenges certain Western philosophical presuppositions that still inform much of cognitive science, such as the relation of language to our experience of the natural world, the nature of subjective and objective representations, and the role of the arts in the evolutionary development of the human mind. In basing my approach to literature on Vico’s, Susanne K. Langer’s (1953, 1967), and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (1962 [1945], 1968) theories, I argue that the language of literature is distinguished from conventional language use by its imaginative use of aesthetic patterns that make manifest the inherent character of the external world as we experience it. By introducing the concepts of minding, metaphor, and icon as structures of the imagination, I show how the language of poetic expression in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” enables us to apprehend the ways we intuitively participate in the reality that underlies our conscious experience. Such participation occurs because sensory impressions of the world we experience cause modifications in the human mind that result in affective responses. Current research in the cognitive sciences increasingly indicates that such modification occurs; aesthetic study of the arts provides a means whereby we can know what it is like to experience such modifications.

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