Perspectives: Meaning and the body
FROM birth to death, discovering, creating and communicating meaning is our full-time job as humans. Meaning helps us make sense of both our private world and our public intellectual world. But what do we mean by “meaning”? Can we hope to understand it?
For nearly three decades, George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California, Berkeley, and I have surveyed mountains of evidence showing that most of our cognition and meaning-making goes on well below the level of conscious awareness. This is why we argue that to discover the nature and sources of human meaning we must explore our non-conscious bodily encounters with our world.
This is no easy task. Four centuries after Descartes, we are still having trouble with the concept of mind-body dualism. Growing up in western culture, we inherit dualisms such as the separation of mind from body, reason from emotion, and thought from feeling. These are predicated on some version of the Cartesian view of mind and body as radically different entities with distinctive functions. Body (material) and mind (immaterial, or at least transcendent) act on each other, and are somehow yoked together to form a human.
This division has influenced theories in virtually every discipline. For example, mind-body dualism has been used to explain how universal concepts and universal reason were possible – on the assumption that mind transcends any kind of human embodiment. As late as the 20th century, first-generation cognitive science was still splitting mind and body. This science, which combines artificial intelligence, information-processing psychology, analytic philosophy of mind and language, and Noam Chomsky’s idea of an innate grammar, assumed that nothing about the body as a body shaped our concepts or reason.
However, over the past 25 years, a second-generation cognitive science has recognised mind and cognitive processes as inherently “embodied”. This approach has been enticing even hard-core philosophers of mind and language to pay attention to the non-conscious thought and feeling lying at the heart of our ability to make sense of things.
In , Lakoff and I explained embodied cognition, arguing that meaning emerges (mostly) automatically and without conscious awareness from the way we – as bodily creatures – engage with our surroundings. The fact of being embodied means that we are all subject to biological and physical events that move us, change our body states, and constrain thoughts and actions.
To get a more concrete sense of this, think about the many recurring patterns that structure our daily encounters with our environment. For example, our bodies have a certain size, shape and function, and move under gravity, so we make sense of our perceptions and actions through patterns such as verticality, front-back, right-left, near-far, and so on, and we project these patterns onto people, objects and spaces. If we had very different bodies and environments, we would have evolved very different meaning-making patterns. Lakoff and I have called these bodily patterns “image schemas”, and it is now well accepted in cognitive neuroscience that they are represented neurally.
Languages the world over have terms for coding these body-based schemas. For instance, think about the meaning of the word “in”. We understand this via a container schema, consisting structurally of a boundary, an interior and an exterior. When you hear “Grandpa is in the barn”, you understand “barn” as a three-dimensional container, and “grandpa” as an entity located in the interior of that bounded space. You don’t have to think about what “in” means because it is activated automatically via a schema of containment.
While it makes good sense to say that our spatial or perceptual relationships would be defined via bodily image schemas, what about abstract concepts – will, justice, love, truth and rights? Traditionally, these are thought to require disembodied cognition. Lakoff and I disagree. We think they also borrow from sensory-motor domains.
Consider the sentence: “We have a long way to go before our theory is finished.” Why it is possible to use the phrase “a long way to go”, which is about literal distance in motion through space, to talk about the completion of a mental task, a theory? We say that this conception is based on a conceptual metaphor: a purposeful activity is a journey.
According to our “conceptual metaphor theory”, we argue that abstract thinking also appropriates the meaning and logical inference structure of a sensory-motor source (a journey) to structure our understanding of some abstract notion (a purposeful activity). From an evolutionary perspective, this would mean we have not developed two separate systems (one for bodily experiences, and one for abstract reasoning, or “pure” logic). Instead, the logic of our bodily experience provides all the logic we need to perform every rational inference we can make. [Generalities and Particulars; Ideal and Real, Abstract and Actual, Theory and Practice…]
“The logic of our bodily experience provides all the logic we need”
Cognitive linguistics has given researchers tools to analyse the hundreds of metaphors that derive from being embodied. Many have been studied cross-culturally to see which, if any, appear to be universal, and also how their expressions differ across language groups. Recently, exciting developments in cognitive neuroscience have shed light on the possible neural basis of image schemas and conceptual metaphors. The cross-domain conceptual mappings we argued for may turn out to be actual neural mappings, involving two-way connections between sensory and motor maps, and brain areas responsible for “higher” cognition. For example, the words “John got into trouble” activate the sensory and motor maps (each with their own “logic”) involved in the perception and enactment of movement from outside to inside a contained space. This allows us to make the right inferences about John’s current (psychological) state of being.
More recently still, I have been concerned that our analyses tend to overlook the crucial role of qualities, patterns of feeling and the emotional contours of life. Since our experience is profoundly qualitative, we need to understand how qualities such as redness, sharpness, coolness and roughness are meaningful. We need to know, too, how emotion binds us to the world, helps appraise our experience, and makes action possible.
One of the surprises in studying these deep, pre-reflective, emotion-laden, embodied aspects of meaning, conceptualisation and reason is that these turn out to be the very processes and elements traditionally explored in aesthetics and art theory. Many people will be shocked that the best place to discover the nature of meaning, language and thought (and therefore of science, philosophy and politics) may be in our experience of art.
This is because there is still a pervasive misunderstanding of the arts and aesthetics. When the arts are regarded only as non-practical, subjective matters of taste, their essence as exemplars of human meaning is completely overlooked. This has disastrous consequences: mind is thought to be disembodied (again); thinking regarded as transcending feeling; feelings are taken not to be part of meaning, concepts and knowledge; aesthetics is dismissed as a mere matter of subjective taste; and the arts are seen as luxuries or mere entertainments, rather than as essential to full human development.
Following on from the psychologist Rudolf Arnheim and the philosopher John Dewey, I now think that we should consider aesthetics to pertain to all meaning-making. In 1934, Dewey argued that art matters because it provides heightened, intensified and highly integrated experiences of meaning. As we try to understand meaning, to grasp how thought and language work, I think we should now start with a paradoxically entitled cognitive science of art and aesthetics.
[i] Mark Johnson is Knight Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon, Eugene. This essay is based on themes from his book The Meaning of the Body (University of Chicago Press) This essay is from a Perspectives column titled “Body Meanings” in New Scientist 12 January 2008 pp46-47)