Metaphor: Unconscious Catalyst of Thought


Well-Known Member
Reaction score
Metaphor: Unconscious Catalyst of Thought

Many years ago while rummaging in a used book store I decided to buy “Human Evolution Coloring Book”, I wanted to learn more about evolution. I learned all about how the hand evolved from the fin—or was it the gills—of fish. I looked in vain for a description of how my reasoning ability evolved from the fish.

“Philosophy in The Flesh” by George Lakoff, linguist, and Mark Johnson, philosopher, that I discovered at my local community college library several months ago finally helped me understand this, which since Darwin must be an obvious connection.

Darwin’s theory declares that human capacity grows out of animal capacity but until I discovered this book PTF no one had given me any idea how this is possible. I studied a little philosophy but it never made much sense to me how pure reason with a dichotomy of mind and body could be inherited from tadpoles.

In the last three decades linguists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and others utilizing the scientific method of empirical study have organized a new cognitive theory that is described in this book. These ‘cognitive scientists’ from many differing domains of knowledge speak of themselves as experimentalists. The theory might properly be called the embodied mind. I think that this theory will one day become the only functional paradigm of a new cognitive science.

We normally think of metaphors as merely linguistic means to associate an unknown with a known. ‘Understand is grasp’ is one common metaphor ‘more is up’ is another. The woods are full of such common metaphors and these metaphors are much more than meet the uninitiated eye.

Metaphor theory claims that almost all cognitive action, more than 95%, takes place unconsciously. Metaphors, as we commonly know them, are conscious phenomena but metaphors are more importantly unconscious happenings in tadpoles and in humans. All creatures with neural capacity categorize, conceptualize, and infer; the principal characteristics of reasoning. Here, in metaphors, we see how human reason is connected to tadpole existence.

A standard technique for checking out new ideas is to create computer models of the idea and subject that model to simulated conditions to determine if the model behaves as does the reality. Such modeling techniques are used constantly in projecting behavior of meteorological parameters.

Neural computer models have shown that the types of operations required to perceive and move in space require the very same type of capability associated with reasoning. That is, neural models capable of doing all of the things that a body must be able to do when perceiving and moving can also perform the same kinds of actions associated with reasoning, i.e. inferring, categorizing, and conceiving.

Throughout our life we constantly make judgments about such abstract matters as difference, importance, difficulty, and morality, and we have subjective experiences such as affection, desire, love, intimacy and achievement. Cognitive science claims that the manner in which we conceptualize and reason about these matters are determined, to one extinct or another, by sensorimotor domains of experience. CS claims that, in many cases, early experiences of normal mundane manipulations of objects become the prototypes from which these later concrete and abstract judgments are made.

“When we conceptualize understanding an idea (subjective experience) in terms of grasping an object (sensorimotor experience) and failing to understand an idea as having it go right by us or over our heads” we are using a sensorimotor experience as the metaphor for the subjective experience. The metaphor ‘understand is grasp’ results from our conflating a sensorimotor happening with a later subjective experience.

Metaphor is a standard means we have of understanding an unknown by association with a known. When we analyze the metaphor ‘bad is stinky’ we will find: we are making a subjective judgment wherein the olfactory sensation becomes the source of the judgment. ‘This movie stinks’ is a subjective judgment and it is made in this manner because a sensorimotor experience is the structure for making this judgment.

Why is the premise “A straight line is the shortest distance between two points” self-evident. It is because this is one of the first things an infant learns and it is verified and reinforced constantly throughout life by our sensorimotor experiences. The metaphor ‘more is up’ is not so pervasive in our experience but its rationale is similar.

If we recognize metaphor as a means to associate something new with something old, something known with something unknown, we can begin to understand what CS is proposing in this revolutionary theory. CS is presenting a theory based upon empirical evidence gathered by the combined effort of linguists, philosophers, and neural physicists that metaphor is a very necessary element of our ability to reason as we do.

We normally think of metaphor as a tool of language whereby one can enlighten another by making an association of an unknown with a known. CS is making a much more radical use of metaphor.

CS is claiming that the neural structure of sensorimotor experience is mapped onto the mental space for another experience that is not sensorimotor but subjective and that this neural mapping, which is unconscious and automatic, serves as part of the “DNA” of the subjective experience. The sensorimotor experience serves the role of an axiom for the subjective experience.