How Cognitive Sciences Transform Ideas about Text, Audience, and Meaning

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For the past ten years, I have entertained questions at the intersection of text, audience, and meaning. The cognitive sciences have allowed me to think outside methodological boxes in ways that breath new life into old questions.

In my first semester of graduate school, I began questioning conventional models of textual meaning. We were studying ancient Greek and Roman compositional handbooks (progymnasmata) that emphasized the dynamic relationship between text and receiver. David Berlo’s linear Sender—>Message—>Channel—>Receiver model took on additional dimensions considering the communal, public reading context of ancient Christianity. An ancient lector (a trained reader) had to interpret the text and then communicate that interpretation to a group of listeners, often gathered together. Those listeners would construe meanings (plural) of the narrative-as-read-aloud. For example, someone reading aloud the centurion’s declaration, “Truly this man was God’s son!” (Mark 15:39) would need to decide whether to read those words in a respectful or ironic tone. The immediate and larger context of Mark’s Gospel supports both interpretations. In turn, audience members would hear and construe that line-as-read-aloud in light of the constraints of their own social context and prior knowledge (both literary and non-literary). These include Israel’s scriptures, Greco-Roman literature, popular philosophies and myths, the Roman imperial cult, and Mark’s own prior narrative.

Even then, I felt the need for a non-traditional paradigm for reading ancient narratives—one that took seriously such a reading context. How could I explain the presence of various meanings located in the minds of hearers rather than a single meaning located in the symbols on the page? Attempting to reckon with “meaning” as dynamic co-creation (between writer/lector and hearer) would take me far beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries into a world of interpretive possibilities.

Anyone who has embraced the sciences of mind can point to a time when the conventional tools simply stopped answering the questions we were asking. As is always the case, such transitions and transformations—if they are to stand the test of time—require struggle and unflinching self-reflection driven by an intrinsic curiosity. In what remains, I restrict myself to the differences the cognitive sciences have made in my understandings of the fundamental concepts of text, audience, and meaning, using Mark 12:35–37 as an example.

My first book explored cognitive explanations of the interpretive environment I describe above. Whether the “text” is the written or spoken word, cognitive research strongly suggests that meaning results when text and receiver interact. Consider Jesus’s messianic riddle in Mark 12:35-37:


While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David?  36 David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

‘The Lord said to my Lord,

“Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.”’

37 David himself calls him Lord, so how can he be his son?” And the large crowd was listening to him with delight. (NRSV)


Modern interpreters, working from a traditional text-based model, typically constrain themselves to a single reading of the riddle. Either the Messiah is a Davidic king (“David’s son”) or a divine figure seated next to the Jewish god, who protects the king he installs (“David’s Lord”). A cognitive oriented approach by contrast invites interpretive variety among audience members: Some audience members would have inferred that the Messiah (here an opaque self-referential for Jesus) was more Davidic and less divine, while others would have construed the Messiah as less Davidic and more divine. Of course, there would be a range of implications for “Lord” (Greek, kyrios). Some, no doubt, would infer divinity from the word, while others might stop short of divinity out of reverence for the Jewish god. In other words, we ought to expect—and I believe we ought to attempt to represent—an interpretive spectrum here rather than a binary. Each of these interpretations would be informed and constrained by the prior knowledge and experiences recruited by each audience member’s experience of the text. Moreover, the views predominant in the interpretive community would play a role in meaning production. For example, communities that venerated Jesus as a divine figure would more likely lean heavily into the “David’s Lord” elements of the riddle, while those that framed Jesus in Davidic terms would trend toward “David’s son.” Audience members’ unfolding readings of Mark’s text also offer textual cues that, held in memory, would constrain and guide meaning production. So meaning is produced by—and constrained by—a combination of factors internal and external to both the text and audience members.

At this point, it should be clear that cognitive research has prompted me to part with traditional notions of a monolithic “audience” (singular). Writing about an “implied audience” may simplify the interpretive task; but doing so misses the chaotic beauty of the complex set of factors that impact actual audience members (or readers) and their readings. The infinitely diverse set of experiences that create a person’s identity ensure that each individual in an audience responds “uniquely”, albeit inevitably in keeping with (or at least interacting with) the views of their interpretive community and/or social context. A cognitive approach takes seriously the impact of these facets of identity on the interpretations of diverse reading publics.

As important as ever (and more ephemeral than we may care to admit), the interpretive process is ongoing and always revising/revisiting/re-forming. Just like our minds. Importantly, meaning production is by no means arbitrary in this accounting. Rather, meaning is constrained by textual cues, prior experience, and social setting at every step. While cognitive approaches share with post-modern models a de-emphasis on the physical text as a “meaning container,” they also underscore the role of narrative, social, cultural, and biographical contexts. For some of us, this level of contingency promises thrill, adventure, and authenticity. For others, change is hard and may feel like an abandonment of interpretive safety. Still, I think it is worth the risk. Risk carries with it reward and interpretive possibility, for those willing to take the first step.


Please indulge a father of young children an intertextual conclusion: Embracing a cognitive approach can feel a little like meeting Aslan for the first time:


Mr. Beaver: “Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”

Susan: “Ooh. I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

Mr. Beaver: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’”


Leaning toward the wildness of a cognitive approach may seem daunting, even risky—and indeed doing so may well demand no less than a reconsideration of disciplinary fundamentals. While not “safe,” taking a personal cognitive turn certainly is “good” for the panoply of interpretive possibilities it places in the hands of all who would risk the journey. In a subsequent post, I will recount my own experience attempting to articulate an approach to ancient characters as mental models, which became my second book.

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