Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Metaphorically thinking

  1. Oct 19, 2007 #1
    Metaphorically thinking

    We commonly think of metaphor as something like analogy. We are trying to explain something to someone and we say this something new is very much like this other something you are familiar with.

    This is one form of metaphor but there is another metaphor that is automatic and unconscious. The child playing with objects has an experience of collecting objects in a pile. This experience results in a neurological network that we might identify as grouping. This neurological structure that contains some sort of logic related to this activity serves as a primary metaphor.

    The child has various experiences resulting from playing with objects. These experiences result in mental spaces with neural structures that contain the logic resulting from the experience. When the child then begins to count perhaps on her fingers these mental spaces containing the experiences automatically map to a new mental space and become the logic and inference patterns to make it possible for the child to count because counting contains similar operations.

    Primary metaphors are the contents of mental spaces developed in experience and the contents then pass to another mental space to become the bases for a new concept. The contents of space A is mapped to space B to then be the foundation for the new concept at space B. This mapping is automatic and unconscious.

    Many years ago, before ‘self-service’, it was common to pull into a gas station and when the attendant came to the car the motorist would say “Fillerup”.

    “More is up” is a common metaphor. I think of it every time I pour milk into a measuring cup when baking cornbread. The subjective judgment is quantity, the sensorimotor domain is vertical orientation, and the primary experience is the rise and fall of vertical levels as fluid is added or subtracted and objects are piled on top of or removed from a collection.

    We can see (know is see) by this mechanism that we equate vertical motion in the spatial domain with quantity; we use the vertical domain to reason about quantity. We have a vast experience in vertical space domain reasoning and thus we derive this great experience to help us in reasoning about quantity; no doubt a very useful thing when first learning arithmetic. Teachers of mathematics, I suspect, depend upon this storehouse of knowledge to make abstract mathematical reasoning for children more comprehensible.

    In a metaphor the source domain, ‘up’, is mapped onto the target domain ‘more’. The neural structure of the sensorimotor domain, the primary metaphor, is mapped onto the subjective domain ‘more’. Reasoning about the vertical motion in the spatial domain is mapped onto reasoning about the quantity domain. This is a one-way movement; reasoning about quantity is not mapped onto spatial domain reasoning. The direction of inference indicates which the source is and which the target domain is.

    Physical experiences of all kinds lead to conceptual metaphors from which perhaps hundreds of ‘primary metaphors’, which are neural structures resulting from sensorimotor experiences, are created. These primary metaphors provide the ‘seed bed’ for the judgments and subjective experiences in life. “Conceptual metaphor is pervasive in both thought and language. It is hard to think of a common subjective experience that is not conventionally conceptualized in terms of metaphor.”

    Cognitive science informs us that “Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical”. Can you think of an abstract concept that can be described without metaphor?

    Quotes from “Philosophy in the Flesh”—Lakoff and Johnson
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 19, 2007 #2
    Not to be pedantic, but your common understanding seems to be mixing up distinct concepts.

    An analogy, compares two things where supposed similarity exists.
    A simile, compares two things where no similarity exits.
    A metaphor superimposes dissimilar things without making an explicit comparison.
    A symbol can be arbitrary, a place holder, which represents something else.
    Last edited: Oct 19, 2007
  4. Oct 19, 2007 #3

    You make a good point Joe. But what is important here is the nature of the conceptual metaphor.

    Many years ago while rummaging in a used book store I decided to buy “Human Evolution Coloring Book”, I wanted to learn more about evolution. I learned all about how the hand evolved from the fin—or was it the gills—of fish. I looked in vain for a description of how my reasoning ability evolved from the fish.

    “Philosophy in The Flesh” by George Lakoff, linguist, and Mark Johnson, philosopher, that I discovered at my local community college library several months ago finally helped me understand this, which since Darwin must be an obvious connection.

    Darwin’s theory declares that human capacity grows out of animal capacity but until I discovered this book PTF no one had given me any idea how this is possible. I studied a little philosophy but it never made much sense to me how pure reason with a dichotomy of mind and body could be inherited from tadpoles.

    In the last three decades linguists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and others utilizing the scientific method of empirical study have organized a new cognitive theory that is described in this book. I shall call this Metaphor Theory even though no one in this book gives the theory a name. These ‘cognitive scientists’ from many differing domains of knowledge speak of themselves as experimentalists. And the theory goes unnamed. I call the theory metaphor theory and I think that this theory will one day become the first paradigm of a new cognitive science.

    We normally think of metaphors as merely linguistic means to associate an unknown with a known. ‘Understand is grasp’ is one common metaphor ‘more is up’ is another. The woods are full of such common metaphors and these metaphors are much more than meet the uninitiated eye.

    Metaphor theory claims that almost all cognitive action takes place unconsciously. Metaphors, as we commonly know them, are conscious phenomena but metaphors are more importantly unconscious happenings in tadpoles and in humans. All creatures with neural capacity categorize, conceptualize, and infer; the principal characteristics of reasoning. Here in metaphors we see how human reason is connected to tadpole existence.

    A standard technique for checking out new ideas is to create computer models of the idea and subject that model to simulated conditions to determine if the model behaves as does the reality. Such modeling techniques are used constantly in projecting behavior of meteorological parameters.

    Neural computer models have shown that the types of operations required to perceive and move in space require the very same type of capability associated with reasoning. That is, neural models capable of doing all of the things that a body must be able to do when perceiving and moving can also perform the same kinds of actions associated with reasoning, i.e. inferring, categorizing, and conceiving.

    Throughout our life we constantly make judgments about such abstract matters as difference, importance, difficulty, and morality, and we have subjective experiences such as affection, desire, love, intimacy and achievement. Cognitive science claims that the manner in which we conceptualize and reason about these matters are determined, to one extinct or another, by sensorimotor domains of experience. CS claims that, in many cases, early experiences of normal mundane manipulations of objects become the prototypes from which these later concrete and abstract judgments are made.

    “When we conceptualize understanding an idea (subjective experience) in terms of grasping an object (sensorimotor experience) and failing to understand an idea as having it go right by us or over our heads” we are using a sensorimotor experience as the metaphor for the subjective experience. The metaphor ‘understand is grasp’ results from our conflating a sensorimotor happening with a later subjective experience.

    Metaphor is a standard means we have of understanding an unknown by association with a known. When we analyze the metaphor ‘bad is stinky’ we will find: we are making a subjective judgment wherein the olfactory sensation becomes the source of the judgment. ‘This movie stinks’ is a subjective judgment and it is made in this manner because a sensorimotor experience is the structure for making this judgment.

    Why is the premise “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points” self-evident. It is because this is one of the first things an infant learns and it is verified and reinforced constantly throughout life by our sensorimotor experiences. The metaphor ‘more is up’ is not so pervasive in our experience but its rationale is similar.

    If we recognize metaphor as a means to associate something new with something old, something known with something unknown, we can begin to understand what CS is proposing in this revolutionary theory. CS is presenting a theory based upon empirical evidence gathered by the combined effort of linguists, philosophers, and neural physicists that metaphor is a very necessary element of our ability to reason as we do.

    We normally think of metaphor as a tool of language whereby one can enlighten another by making an association of an unknown with a known. CS is making a much more radical use of metaphor.

    CS is claiming that the neural structure of sensorimotor experience is mapped onto the mental space for another experience that is not sensorimotor but subjective and that this neural mapping, which is unconscious and automatic, serves as part of the “DNA” of the subjective experience. The sensorimotor experience serves the role of an axiom for the subjective experience.
  5. Oct 21, 2007 #4
    The new paradigm for cognitive science that is described in the book “Philosophy in the Flesh” is called ‘conceptual metaphor’. This theory stipulates that as I have an experience I create mental structures that allow me to draw inferences regarding that experience. These mental structures consist of neuron structures that we call concepts. This is all done unconsciously and automatically.

    The infant when first held by the mother feels warmth and security. In the infant’s brain a structure develops regarding this experience. Likewise each time it happens this structure is strengthened.

    At some time in the future the infant constructs another concept that is strictly subjective, i.e. not based on a literal experience, and we shall call this concept affection.

    Automatically and unconsciously the mental structure of the warmth and security experience is copied onto that mental space we have called affection. From that time on the concept ‘affection’ contains the experienced structure of warmth and security and that is why we feel affection to be warm and secure.

    We might think of this process as going to a file cabinet in which all of our concepts are contained and automatically the file containing the warmth and security experience is copied and then added to the file containing a new subjective concept called affection.
  6. Oct 29, 2007 #5
    On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins.
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook

Have something to add?