The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Fuzzy Concepts

Later, Rosch recognized that categories are not mutually exclusive (an object can belong to more than one category to different degrees), i.e. that they are fundamentally ambiguous. This led to the use of fuzzy logic in studying categorization.

For example, the US linguist George Lakoff borrowed ideas from Wittgenstein's family-resemblance theory, Rosch's prototype theory and Lotfi Zadeh's theory of fuzzy quantities for his theory of "cognitive models".

Lakoff started off by demolishing the traditional view of categories: that categories are defined by common features of their members; that thought is the disembodied manipulation of abstract symbols; that concepts are internal representations of external reality; that symbols have meaning by virtue of their correspondence to real objects.

Lakoff showed that categories depend on two more factors: the bodily experience of the “categorizer” and the “imaginative processes” (metaphor, metonymy, mental imagery) of the categorizer.

Lakoff's theory is based on the assumption of "embodiment of mind": there is no green in the world, but green has to do with the relationship between my body (my eye, my retina, my brain) and the world. Meaning cannot be in the world because things are not in the world: they are in the relationship between us and the world.

His close associate, the US philosopher Mark Johnson, had shown that experience is structured in a meaningful way prior to any concepts: some schemas are inherently meaningful to people by virtue of their bodily experience (e.g., the “container” schema, the “part-whole” schema, the “link” schema, the “center-periphery” schema). We “know” these schemas even before we acquire the related concepts because such “kinesthetic” schemas come with a basic logic that is used to directly “understand” them.

Thus Lakoff argued that thought makes use of symbolic structures which are meaningful to begin with (they are directly understood in terms of our physical experience): "basic-level" concepts (which are meaningful because they reflect our sensorimotor life) and kinesthetic image schemas (which are meaningful because they reflect our spatial life). Other meaningful symbolic structures are built up from these elementary ones through imaginative processes such as metaphor.

As a corollary, everything we use in language, even the smallest unit, has meaning. And it has meaning not because it refers to something, but because it is either related to our bodily experience or because it is built on top of other meaning-bearing elements.

Thought is embodiment of concepts via direct and indirect experience. Concepts grow out of bodily experience and are understood in terms of it. The core of our conceptual system is directly grounded in bodily experience. This explains why Rosch’s basic level is what it is: the one that reflects our bodily nature. Meaning is based on experience. With Putnam, “meaning is not in the mind”. But, at the same time, thought is imaginative: those concepts that are not directly grounded in bodily experience are created by imaginative processes such as metaphor.

Knowledge is organized into categories by  what Lakoff calls “idealized cognitive models”. Each model employs four kinds of categorizing processes: “propositional” (which specifies elements, their properties and relations among them in a manner similar to frames); “image-schematic” (which specifies spatial images in a manner similar to Ronald Langacker’s image schemas); “metaphoric” (which maps a propositional or image-schematic model in one domain to a model in another domain); and “metonymic” (which maps an element of a model to another element of the same model).

Some models are classical (in that they yield categories that have rigid boundaries and are defined by necessary and sufficient conditions), some models are scalar (they yield categories whose members have only degrees of membership). All models are embodied, i.e. they are linked with bodily experience.

Models build what the French linguist Gilles Fauconnier calls “mental spaces”, interconnected domains that consist of elements, roles, strategies and relations between them. Mental spaces allow for alternative views of the world. The mind needs to create multiple cognitive spaces in order to engage in creative thought.

Lakoff argues that the conceptual system of a mind, far from being one gigantic theory of the world, is normally not consistent. We have available in our minds many different ways of making sense of situations. We constantly keep alternative conceptualizations of the world.


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