Monday, December 27, 2004

Lakoff - III: Embodied concepts

[Preamble: This is one of a series of posts about the relevance of the work of George Lakoff for public health. First a disclaimer. My aim here is not an explication of all of Lakoff, or where he stands in cognitive science versus analytic philosophy, or whether there is a "there, there" as Gertrude Stein once wondered about Oakland (where Lakoff is now situated at UC Berkeley). It is rather to take some elements of Lakoff's writings (and I think genuine insights), and see how they might illuminate a central problem in public health, having a Central Problem. Posts will be relatively short, as befits the medium. PF is Lakoff's book, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). MP is Moral Politics (2002)]

There is still more to say about Lakoff's contention that the mind is inherently "embodied" because it lies at the foundation of all that comes later. The embodiment is a consequence of our biological existence. Both we and lower animals react to their surroundings by altering our behavior and changing our environment to optimize our chances of survival as a species. Individuals may be more or less successful, but it is the population that survives, not the individual. In the course of evolution neural mechanisms arose in multicellular organisms to accomplish many important tasks. These mechanisms perform computations or inferences. For example, when temperature nerve endings in the fingers are stimulated an action is initiated to pull your hand away from a hot stove. Configurations that contributed to population success propagated.

For Lakoff, "embodied concepts" are neural structures that make use of the sensorimotor mechanisms of our body. An essential element is the use of these structures to categorize elements in our surroundings: "hot stove" becomes not just a particular object but a class or category of objects which we need to distinguish efficiently if we are to survive. Categorizing is largely subconscious. It is difficult to imagine functioning in the world without it. Our bodies not only determine that we categorize, but also largely determine the categories we use. For many important subconscious concepts this is not an "add on" but a built-in function, controlling and constraining the possibilities (which usually depends to some extent on our environment). The result is certain basic level concepts, for Lakoff, the highest levels for which a single mental image can represent the entire category. His example (PF Ch. 3) is a "car." The concept of a car is more general than the concept of a particular Chevrolet but can still be conceived of as a single mental image. It is not as encompassing as a "generalized vehicle," which we have a great deal of forming a mental image of. These basic concepts are categories that allow us to function in the world and they exist for Lakoff as neural structures. Similarly, spatial-temporal relations exist as basic concepts (for example, "in front of," "after," etc.) because they enable reactions ("inferences") necessary for survival.

Spatial and sensorimotor experiences and inferences in turn can become associated with other experiences, like being nurtured, being threatened or being happy. These give rise to "primary metaphors," metaphorical inferences that associate experiences like being nurtured, fed or frightened with spatial-temporal or sensorimotor concepts. Examples Lakoff gives: More is Up ("prices are high"); Intimacy is Closeness ("We've been close for years but now we are drifting apart"); Affection is Warmth ("He greeted me warmly, but she was cold to me"); etc. [PF, ch. 4]. Theories as to how these primary metaphors arise might be that during infancy, when being held by your mother, you associate the sensorimotor concept "warmth" with the affective concept of being nurtured or loved. As biological beings we all carry an enormous number of these primary metaphors around with us. While not all are universal, there are hundreds that are the same in many cultures. We will be particularly interested in those that are widespread in our own culture.

The next step is to bundle the primary metaphors into complex metaphors. This is where "reframing" will enter the picture.

First post here. Previous post here. Next post here.