My intention in this article is to introduce a cognitive approach to the
study of foreign languages. This approach allows us to study all phenomena pertaining to the ‘cultural world’ through the analysis of cognitive models situated at the level of conceptualisation and mediating the ground between language and culture. The scope of my argumentation will not be modest: my claim is that instead of allowing themselves to be reduced to utility disciplines, language studies must fight their way back to a central position within the Humanities. There is excellent reason for this: our language-based approach allows us to study cultural conceptualisation on a far more solid ground than non-language-based cultural studies, simply because linguistic categorization provides the most obvious access to semantic, content-dense categories of thought. To shed light on the relationship between language and thought I will discuss the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and its relevance for current studies in cognitive linguistic. Traditional philological studies grew out of the Renaissance project of reconstructing the ancient classical languages and literatures in which the Humanists found a model for all humanity. As such, the Philologies are born out of the hypothesis that the study of language is indispensable to the study of culture and history, which in the Humboldt-oriented university tradition was consolidated through a philological-historical methodological approach to insight into the classical world. The hermeneutichistorical ideal of Geisteswissenschaften remained strong until synchronic studies came to be foregrounded at the expense of diachrony, a process which took place in the second half of the 20th century. In many respects, Modern Language Studies use the same philologicalhistorical methodological approach, even though their ideological perspectives may be different. Where both the Renaissance Humanists and the New Humanists shared the ideal of mankind’s full potential liberation through true disinterested knowledge, Modern Language Studies are constructed in the service of modern nations seeking consolidation through a national discourse. In many modern language departments, the literary canon creates a common point of reference and reflects a nation’s self-conception. Global citizenship and multicultural societies in which local discourses create a hybridity of voices have forced Modern Language Studies to switch from a unitary to a pluralistic approach to the study of cultures. The hypothesis of a tight relationship between language and culture remains a fruitful working paradigm, but the agenda is somewhat altered: since there can be no study of the culture of a nation, we are faced with the need to study the conflicting and intervening conceptions of identity. This necessity is witnessed to by the boom in Cultural Studies conducted with
the help of critical discourse analysis, postcolonial studies and gender studies, together with an emerging host of social constructivist theories. ‘The cultural turn’ has been on the agenda of Modern Language Studies for quite some time, with American language departments marking the furthest outpost of response to the necessity of a multi-cultural society. The pros and cons of a switch from Philology to Cultural Studies in our own national debate are entangled with the fear of extension: what will remain of Philology if we give in to the demands of non-language-based cultural studies and start conducting our research and teaching on the basis of texts in translation? Probably not much. In this article, therefore, I would like to propose a viable approach to Cultural Studies, starting from the hypothesis that language studies hold a privileged position when it comes to analysing the conceptualisations of cultures.