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"

Metaphorical Thought 

The US linguist George Lakoff carried out a cognitive analysis of metaphor during the 1970s and 1980s. He reached two fundamental conclusions: (1) All language is metaphorical and (2) All metaphors are ultimately based on our bodily experience. 

Metaphor shapes our language as well as our thought, and it does so by grounding concepts in our body. It provides an experiential framework in which we can accommodate abstract concepts. Thanks to metaphor, we can reduce (and therefore understand) abstract concepts to our physical experiences and to our relationship with the external world. Metaphor is therefore an intermediary between our conceptual representation of the world and our sensory experience of the world (an approach reminiscent of Immanuel Kant's schema).

Metaphor is not only ubiquitous in our language, it is also organized in conceptual systems: concepts of love are related to concepts of voyage, concepts of argument are related to concepts of war, and so forth. It is not only one word that relates to another word: it is an entire conceptual system that is related to another conceptual system.

This organization of conceptual systems forms a "cognitive map". Metaphor projects the cognitive map of a domain (the “vehicle”) onto another domain (the “tenor”) for the purpose of grounding the latter to sensory experience via the cognitive map of the former.

The entire conceptual castle of our mind relies on this creation of abstractions by metaphor from the foundations of our bodily experience in the world.

Lakoff grew up at a time when there was solid agreement about what metaphors are. Metaphor was merely considered a linguistic expression favored by poets that is not used in the literal sense and expresses a similarity. But he quickly started realizing that we use metaphors all the time, and that we use them in a far more encompassing manner. For example, we express love in terms of a journey (as in "our marriage isn't going anywhere"), or time in terms of money (as in "a waste of time"). Love is not similar to a journey, and time is not similar to money.  Furthermore, abstract concepts (such as "love") are defined by metaphors. If we take the metaphors away all that is left are the roles (e.g., the lovers and the type of relationship). The system of metaphors built around an abstraction (e.g., all the metaphors that we use about love) tells us how to reason about that abstraction.

This led Lakoff to reason that: metaphor is not in the words, it is in the ideas; it is part of ordinary language, not only of poetry; it is used for reasoning.

Once metaphor is defined as the process of experiencing something in terms of something else, metaphor turns out to be pervasive, and not only in language but also in action and thought.  The human conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature, as most concepts are understood in terms of other concepts.  Language comprehension always consists in comprehending something in terms of something else. All our concepts are of metaphorical nature and are based on our physical experience.

Lakoff analyzed numerous domains of human knowledge and invariably detected the underlying metaphors. Theories, for example, are treated as buildings (a theory has "foundations" and is "supported" by data, theories are "fragile" or "solid"). Mathematics itself is a metaphor (trigonometry is a metaphor for talking about angles)

We understand the world through metaphors, and we do so without any effort, automatically and unconsciously. It doesn't require us to think, it just happens and it happens all the time. Most of the time we are thinking metaphorically without even knowing it.

Our mind shares with the other minds a conventional system of metaphor. This is a system of "mappings", of referring one domain of experience to another domain, so that one domain can be understood through another domain which is somehow more basic. Normally, a more abstract domain is explained in terms of a more concrete domain. The more concrete the domain, the more "natural" it is for our minds to operate in it.

Metaphors are used to partially structure daily concepts. They are not random, but rather form a coherent system that allows humans to conceptualize their experience. Again, metaphors create similarities. 

Lakoff defined three types of metaphors: “orientational” (in which we use our experience with spatial orientation), “ontological” (in which we use our experience with physical objects), “structural” (in which natural types are used to define other concepts). Every metaphor can be reduced to a more primitive metaphor. 

Language was probably created to deal only with physical objects, and later extended to non-physical objects by means of metaphors. Conceptual metaphors transport properties from structures of the physical world to non-physical structures.

Reason, in general, is not disembodied; it is shaped by the body.

Our conceptual system is shaped by positive feedback from the environment.  As Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf had already argued before him, language reflects the conceptual system of the speaker. 

Lakoff emphasized that metaphor is not only a matter of words, but also a matter of thought, that metaphor is central to our understanding of the world and the self.

Lakoff showed how a small number of metaphors could define a whole system of thought.

Even ritual was viewed by Lakoff as a crucial process in preserving and propagating cultural metaphors.

The reason that metaphor is so pervasive is that it is biological: our brains are built for metaphorical thought. Our brains evolved with "high-level" cortical areas taking input from "lower level" perceptual and motor areas. As a consequence, spatial and motor concepts are the natural basis for abstract reason. It turns out that "metaphor" refers to a physiological mechanism, to the ability of our brain to employ perceptual and motor inferential processes in creating abstract inferential processes. Metaphorical language is nothing but one aspect of our metaphorical brain.


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