The Department of Language and Literature

Agenda and objectives

The Department of Language and Literature investigates the aesthetic perception and evaluation of linguistic utterances. Its overall objective is to arrive at a deeper understanding of the mechanisms, elicitors and functions of aesthetic liking and aesthetic preferences in the domain of language and literature, and to develop an integrative model of aesthetic language processing. Key desiderata include:

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  • refining existing categories and methods and developing new ones to systematically identify the phonological, prosodic, morphological, syntactic and semantic features that influence the aesthetic appreciation of linguistic utterances;
  • identifying the attentional, cognitive, affective and motivational implications of aesthetic language processing, and its neural signature;
  • investigating the subjective experience of beautiful vs. less beautiful, moving vs. less moving, brilliant vs. less brilliant, suspenseful vs. boring, elegant vs. less elegant, succinct vs. less succinct, passionate vs. sober language, etc.;
  • conducting comparative research into musical structures and related linguistic structures (rhythm, meter, melody, tension-resolution patterns);
  • testing the aesthetic effects of particular rhetorical and poetical forms/devices for constancy vs. context-sensitivity and linear vs. non-linear interactive dynamics.

Short history of the agenda and mission of the department

From antiquity to 20th century formalism and structuralism, rhetoric and poetics have provided a wealth of descriptive categories and classification systems, prescriptive rules and detailed analyses, of both single sentences and entire literary genres. Rhetorical and poetic features of linguistic utterances are important object-based factors that affect aesthetic appreciation. However, rhetoric lacks a theory of the underlying cognitive and affective mechanisms that might explain the effects attributed to its techniques.

The tradition of philosophical aesthetics includes important contributions to an aesthetics of literature (Baumgarten, Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin). Over the past decades, however, its interest is strongly biased towards music, the visual arts, and film. Features of poetic and rhetorical language and their role in aesthetic perception receive by far the least attention.

In the relatively small field of empirical aesthetics, the focus is likewise far more on issues of music and visual aesthetics than on poetic and rhetorical language use. Similarly, modern linguistics largely disregards what used to be the agenda of rhetoric and poetics.

Against this backdrop, our department brings together the expertise of traditional rhetoric and poetics with theoretical aesthetics, analytical techniques from literary studies and musicology, linguistic analysis, and methods and theories from psychology and the neurosciences. It does so with the primary goal to arrive at a more profound understanding of poetic and rhetorical language and its processing (area A). Research areas B and C are devoted to studying more general issues of aesthetics, specifically the issue of "aesthetic emotions" and the meaning and use of key evaluative concepts of aesthetics.