(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
In this historical landmark of a book,
Lakoff starts 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. Through a number of experiments, Lakoff first proves that categories depend on two more factors: the bodily experience of the categorizer and what Lakoff calls the "imaginative processes" (metaphor, metonymy, mental imagery) of the categorizer.
His close associate, Mark Johnson, has shown that experience is structured in a meaningful way prior to any concepts: some schemata 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 schemata even before we acquire the related concepts because such "kinesthetic" schemata come with a basic logic that is used to directly "understand" them. Thus Lakoff argues 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. 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.
Categorization is the main way that humans make sense of their world. The traditional view that categories are defined by common properties of their members is being replaced by Rosch's theory of prototypes. Lakoff's "experientialism" assumes that thought is embodied (grows out of bodily experience), is imaginative (capable of employing metaphor, metonymy and imagery to go beyond the literal representation of reality), is holistic (i.e., is not atomistic), has an ecological structure (is more than just symbol manipulation).
Lakoff reviews studies on categories (Wittgenstein, Berlin, Barsalou, Kay, Rosch, Tversky) and summarizes the state of the art: categories are organized in a taxonomic hierarchy and categories in the middle are the most basic. Knowledge is mainly organized at the basic level and is organized around part-whole divisions. Lakoff claims that linguistic categories are of the same type as other categories.
In order to deal with categories, one needs cognitive models of four kinds: propositional models (which specify elements, their properties and relations among them); image-schematic models (which specify schematic images); metaphoric models (which map from a model in one domain to a model in another domain); and metonymic models (which map an element of a model to another). The structure of thought is characterized by such cognitive models. Categories have properties that are determined by the bodily nature of the categorizer and that may be the result of imaginative processes (metaphor, metonymy, imagery). Thought makes use of symbolic structures which are meaningful to begin with. Language is characterized by symbolic models that pair linguistic information with models in the conceptual system.
Categorization is implemented by "idealized cognitive models" that provide the general principles on how to organize knowledge.
From his web site: "We conceptualize the world using metaphor, so commonly, automatically, and unconsciously that we're not aware of it. As a result, we think metaphorically a large part of the time, and act in our everyday lives on the basis of the metaphors through which we understand the world. Over the past fifteen years, its been discovered that we share a fixed, conventional system of conceptual metaphor--a system of thousands of "metaphorical mappings," each permitting us to understand one domain of experience in terms of another, typically more concrete, domain."
"Our brains are built for metaphorical thought. Since we've evolved with "high-level" cortical areas taking input from "lower level" perceptual and motor areas, it should be no surprise that spatial and motor concepts should form the basis of abstract reason. Metaphor is the name we give to our capacity to use perceptual and motor inferential mechanisms as the basis for abstract inferential mechanisms. Metaphorical language is simply a consequence of this capacity for metaphorical thinking."