Unreal Nature

February 21, 2012

Fundamental Metaphors

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:06 am

… Most conceptual metaphors are part of the cognitive unconscious, and are learned and used automatically without awareness.

… We commonly take our conceptual metaphors as defining reality, and live according to them.

… The system will tend to make experiences and facts consistent with it noticeable and important, and experiences and facts inconsistent with it  invisible.

This is from an essay, ‘The Neural Theory of Metaphor’ by George Lakoff in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought edited by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. (2008):

… Just living an everyday life gives you the experience and suitable brain activations to give rise to a huge system of the same primary metaphorical mappings that are learned around the world without any awareness.

By best fit, different cultural frames will combine with those primary metaphors and give rise to different metaphor systems. The Love Is a Journey metaphor is a good example. the primary metaphors that ground the Love Is a Journey metaphor are

  • Purposes are Destinations: Every day there is a correlation between achieving a purpose and reaching a destination, as when you have to go to the refrigerator to get a piece of fruit or a cold beer.
  • Difficulties are Impediments to Motion: A difficulty is something that inhibits your achievement of some purpose, which is metaphorically reaching a destination. Hence, difficulties are conceptualized metaphorically as impediments to motion to a destination.
  • A Relationship is a Container (a Bounded Region of Space): People who are closely related tend to live, work, or otherwise spend time in the same enclosed space — your family in your home, your co-workers at the office, and so on.
  • Intimacy is Closeness: The people you are most intimate with are typically the people you have spent time physically close to: your family, spouse, lover, and so on.

In each case, a correlation in experience is realized in the brain as the co-activation of distinct neural areas, which leads to the formation of circuits linking those areas.

[ … ]

… In Philosophy in the Flesh, Mark Johnson and I argue that philosophical systems of thought rest on a relatively small number of metaphors treated as ultimate truths and used constantly in reasoning. The neural theory of metaphor allows us to understand more about such systems and people who think in terms of them most of every day.

Because the fundamental metaphors are used constantly, the synaptic strength in the metaphors become very strong and resistant to change. Second, spreading activation and best-fit properties (including maximization of binding) make such systems highly integrated, tightly connected, with many inferences. As a result, such a system will dominate your thought, your understanding of the world, and your actions.

One will tend to see the world through the system; one will tend to construct neural simulations to fit the system; one will tend to plan the future using the system; and one will define common sense through the system. The system will tend to make experiences and facts consistent with it noticeable and important, and experiences and facts inconsistent with it  invisible.

This is especially true in politics, where progressive and conservative thought are each defined by a central metaphor and a system of thought that fits it (see my Moral Politics).

By far the most detailed study of the role of metaphor in a system of thought is Rafael Núñez’s and my book, Where Mathematics Comes From, which shows in great detail how many branches of higher mathematics are built up via layers of metaphor from embodied concepts.

… Consider a poetic metaphor like Dylan Thomas’s line, Do not go gently into that good night. The line does not overtly mention death as the subject matter, but the line contains three words that each evoke a source domain frame in a metaphor for death: go as in Death is Departure; gently as in Life is a Struggle, and night as in A Lifetime is a Day and Death is Night. This is natural from a neural perspective. Each word activates a frame element in a frame, go, gently, night.

Geez — “each word activates a frame element” — he sure kills that poem dead as a doornail!

In case you’re not familiar with Lakoff’s work, from earlier in the essay, this is his bulleted list of his founding theories:

    • Metaphors are conceptual mappings; they are part of the conceptual system and not mere linguistic expressions.
    • There is a huge system of fixed, conventional metaphorical mappings.
    • The system exists physically in our brains.
    • Certain metaphors are grounded via correlations in embodied experience (e.g., More is Up is grounded via the correlation between quantity and verticality — you pour more water in the glass and the level goes up).
    • Metaphorical mappings are typically across conceptual domains (as in Affection is Warmth).
    • Mappings (as in a A Competition Is a Race) may also be from a specific case (a race) to a more general case (a competition).
    • Mappings operate on source domain frame and image-schema structure.
    • Via metaphorical mappings, source domain structures (image-schema and frame structures) are used for reasoning about the target domain. Indeed, much of our reasoning makes use of conceptual metaphors.
    • Metaphorical mappings are partial.
    • Metaphorical language makes use of conceptual metaphors.
    • Many different linguistic expressions can express some aspect of the same metaphor.
    • A conceptual metaphor may be used in understanding a word, even if that word is not realized in the source domain of the metaphor.
    • Most conceptual metaphors are part of the cognitive unconscious, and are learned and used automatically without awareness.
    • Novel metaphorical language makes use of the existing system of conventional metaphors.
    • We commonly take our conceptual metaphors as defining reality, and live according to them.
    • Target domain entities and target domain predictions can result from metaphors.
    • Two of the relevant sources of data are generalizations over inference patterns (in the source and target domains) and generalizations over lexical items (that can be used of both source and target domains).

-Julie

http://www.unrealnature.com/

1 Comment

  1. Good, thought provoking stuff — as always, but particularly so in this case.

    Comment by Felix — February 21, 2012 @ 8:56 am


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