Cognitive Approaches

Embodiment & Conceptual structure

Consider a man in a box made of wooden planks.

The box has the structural properties of what we call a bounded landmark: it has enclosed sides, an interior, a boundary and an exterior. As a consequence of these properties, it has the functional property of containment: the man is contained within the box and unable to leave it. Now, this instance of containment is not only a consequence of the properties of the box, but also a consequence of the human body, because humans cannot pass through slits between the planks like air can or crawl through tiny gaps like ants for example. Containment is one of the basic concepts that we develop at a very early stage of our life, before we learn a language, probably even before we are born, since already an embryo experiences containment within it’s mother.

Leonard Talmy termed these basic concepts, as you might remember, image schemas and Lakoff and Johnson assumed, that we use these deeply rooted basic concepts, to create concepts with a more abstract kind of meaning. Sentences such as:

  • He’s in love.
  • I’m slowly getting into shape.
  • He fell into a depression.
  • He entered a state of euphoria.

... become meaningful to us, because we at some point learned to use the basic container-concept as a conceptual metaphor in order to express for example emotional states. Love is a state you might not want to leave, depression is a state you maybe cannot escape: you are contained within.

A couple of days ago I saw a video of a speech by evolutionary biologist and Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, titled: The universe is queerer than we can suppose and in this speech he implicitly talks about embodiment, too, and what he says there is actually very much in line with the position taken by cognitive linguists. “The universe”, he says, “is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” and with this he hints directly at the embodiment thesis: there might be things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp, precisely because we are human and nothing else, these things might be however, not beyond the grasp of some superior intelligence, precisely because it is a superior intelligence. Embodiment refers simply to the fact that our bodies are constructed in a certain way, including the specific structure of our brains, and this means that we will perceive the world in a human-specific way and can therefore come up only with concepts that relate to our humanly perceived reality.

Sciences has taught us many things of course, that go beyond what we can perceive or how we perceive it: rocks for example are, scientifically speaking really almost entirely composed of empty space, given that the nucleus of an atom is in relation as big as a fly in a football stadium. However, rocks look and feel solid and hard and impenetrable to us, simply because our bodies are much bigger than, say a neutrino. Rocks feel hard and impenetrable to our hands precisely because objects like hands and rocks cannot penetrate each other. Now, if a neutrino had a brain, which had evolved in neutrino-sized ancestors, it would state that rocks really do consist of empty space. We on the other hand, have brains that evolved in medium sized ancestors, which couldn’t walk through rocks.

Or think about how humans walk upright, whereas snakes wriggle forward. Given that we walk upright, have a head with eyes, ears and so on at the top of our bodies and feet at the bottom, and given that gravity attracts unsupported objects, the vertical axis of our bodies is functionally asymmetrical. This means, it is characterized by an up-down or top-bottom asymmetry: the top and bottom parts of our bodies are different. If snakes could think, would they have the same conception? Reality in other words, is what our species-individual brains make out of it. A water strider for example doesn’t need a 3-D-software since it lives on the surface of a pond, in a flatland, humans however do. Cognitive semanticists argue, that the asymmetry of our body’s vertical axis is meaningful for us because of the way we interact with our environment. For example, we have to bend down to pick up fallen objects and look in one direction (downwards) for fallen objects and in another (upwards) for rising subjects. In other words, out physiology ensures that our vertical axis, which interacts with gravity, gives rise to meaning as a result of how we interact with our environment.