Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind 
Proverb collections 
Catching a Serpent with Another's Hand:
The Tropical Landscapes of Proverbia
A Presentation by Paul Hernadi and Francis Steen
Respondent Bert O. States
February 27, 1998 at 3:30pm
South Hall 2635
(revised 2-21-98)
Virtually all cultures appear to possess a repertoire of proverbs and similar formulations of putative wisdom. Through illustrations from a dozen or so proverb traditions, our paper outlines the chief concerns of a longer article in progress with five working hypotheses in mind:

(1) Proverbs originate in, and still carry important marks of, oral traditions even though they continue to flourish in literate, typographic, and postliterate (i.e., computerized and televisionary) cultures.

(2) The study of proverbs needs to address their dual location in individual minds and social circulation.

(3) The initial verbal formulation, long-term mental storage, and frequent public retrieval of proverbs are facilitated by such phonemic, gramatical, and lexical features of memorability as alliteration and rhyme, repetitive syntax, and transgressive troping across different cognitive domains.

(4) Proverbs are compact, largely invariant, and rhetorically effective means of transmitting accumulated experience. By guiding our dispositions, they help reduce situational uncertainty. They can lend communal or even supernatural legitimation to individual choice, thus enabling us to make decisions, and make us feel that our decisions were justified, without exposing ourselves to intolerable levels of anxiety, guilt, or shame.

(5) Such enhancement of both pre-decision and post-decision self-confidence can provide psychological and social benefits because it mitigates our often disturbing sense of individual responsibilty for choosing among alternative courses of action. Recourse to a shared repertoire of proverbs may have been especially beneficial when grammatical language and imaginative "off-line" thinking had just begun to afford early modern humans new capacities for publicly and mentally deliberating about behaviors that were neither automatically triggered by perception nor adequately regulated by instinct.
Paul Hernadi has been Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCSB since 1984. Born in Budapest, he studied at the University of Vienna (Ph.D. in history of the theater) and Yale (Ph.D. in Comparative Literature). His books include Beyond Genre: New Directions In Literary Classification, Interpreting Events: Tragicomedies Of History On The Modern Stage, and Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society.

Francis Steen is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English. His dissertation, Negotiating the Natural Mind, returns to the "first cognitive revolution" of the eighteenth century to negotiate the significance of opening up literary and cultural studies to the cognitive sciences. His first article, "The Time of Unremberable Being: Wordsworth's Autobiography of the Imagination," will be published in Autobiography Studies this spring.
Bert O. States has written five books of literary criticism and three on dreaming, the most recent being Seeing in the Dark  (Yale UP, 1996).


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Hernadi, Paul. Cultural Transactions: Nature, Self, Society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1995.

Honeck, Richard P. A Proverb in Mind. The Cognitive Science of Proverbial Wit and Wisdom. Mahway, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.

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Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Sperber, Dan. Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwells, 1996.

Taylor, Archer. The Proverb. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1931. Reprinted with "An Index to the Proverb," Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1962.

Turner, Mark and Gilles Fauconnier. "Conceptual Integration and Formal Expression." Journal of Metaphor and Symbolic Activity. 1995: 183-204.


Further resources on proverbs


Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind 
Proverb collections