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Cognition and the embodiment of geometry in George Lakoff’s metaphors

Cognition and the embodiment of geometry in George Lakoff’s metaphors

George Philip Lakoff, born on May 24, 1941, is an American cognitive linguist and philosopher, renowned for his groundbreaking thesis on the influence of conceptual metaphors on human life. His work, like a compass, guides us through the intricate labyrinth of human cognition, revealing the profound impact of metaphors on our understanding of complex phenomena.

While Lakoff’s research encompasses traditional linguistic questions, such as the viability of certain linguistic constructions, he is most celebrated for his reevaluation of the role of metaphors in human socio-political life. He challenges the conventional Western scientific view of metaphors as mere linguistic constructs, arguing instead that they are primarily conceptual and central to the development of thought.

Lakoff’s seminal work, “Metaphors We Live By,” co-authored with Mark Johnson in 1980, introduced the conceptual metaphor thesis. This thesis, like a seed, has grown and branched out into various academic disciplines, including politics, literature, philosophy, and mathematics. It has led Lakoff into the heart of political science, a territory traditionally reserved for political scientists.

Lakoff’s assertion that the human mind is “embodied” is a radical departure from traditional dualistic views of mind and matter. He argues that human cognition, even at its most abstract, is fundamentally rooted in our sensorimotor system and emotions. This perspective rejects the notion that human reason can be understood without considering the underlying “implementation details.”

Lakoff’s advocacy for embodiment is supported by three distinct lines of argument. He uses evidence from neuroscience and neural network simulations to argue that certain concepts, such as color and spatial relations, can be understood through the examination of perceptual or motor control processes. With the use of cognitive linguistics’ analysis of figurative language, he argues that our reasoning about abstract topics is rooted in our reasoning about mundane topics, such as spatial relationships. Also, he uses research in cognitive psychology and the philosophy of language to argue that human categories are complex and messy, much like our bodies.

George Lakoff’s work has been instrumental in reshaping our understanding of the human mind and its embodied capabilities. His exploration of cognitive geometry, a field that studies the geometric structures underlying cognition, has been particularly influential, mapping out the terrain of the human mind, and revealing the geometric patterns that guide our thoughts and perceptions.

To this effect, Lakoff’s theory of conceptual metaphors is a cornerstone of cognitive geometry. He argues that our understanding of the world is fundamentally shaped by the metaphors we use, which are grounded in our physical experiences. For instance, we often use spatial metaphors to describe abstract concepts, such as time or emotions. This suggests that our cognitive processes are deeply intertwined with our embodied experiences, forming a kind of cognitive geometry that shapes our understanding of the world.

The heart of metaphor is inference. Conceptual metaphor allows inferences in sensory-motor domains (e.g., domains of space and objects) to be used to draw inferences about other domains (e.g., domains of subjective judgment, with concepts like intimacy, emotions, justice, and so on). Because we reason in terms of metaphor, the metaphors we use determine a great deal about how we live our lives.

― George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By

This perspective has profound implications for our understanding of the human mind. It suggests that our cognitive processes are not abstract computations, but are instead deeply rooted in our physical bodies and experiences. This challenges traditional views of the mind as a disembodied entity and instead presents it as an embodied organism, intimately connected to the world it inhabits.

Lakoff’s work has also shed light on the role of metaphor in shaping our cognitive structures. He argues that metaphors are not just linguistic devices, but are fundamental to our thought processes. They provide a kind of cognitive scaffolding, helping us to construct and navigate the complex structures of our thoughts. This insight has transformed our understanding of the role of language in cognition, revealing it to be a powerful tool for shaping our cognitive geometry, in various cognitive processes:

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  1. Spatial Navigation: Lakoff’s work on conceptual metaphors often involves spatial relationships. For instance, the metaphor “Life is a Journey” involves a cognitive map of life’s path. We use this map to navigate through life, making decisions at ‘crossroads,’ overcoming ‘obstacles,’ and moving towards ‘goals.’ Lakoff’s work suggests that our ability to construct these cognitive maps and navigate through them is fundamental to our understanding and experience of complex concepts like life itself.
  2. Object Recognition: Lakoff’s theory of embodied cognition suggests that our understanding of objects is grounded in our physical interactions with them. When we recognize an object, we don’t just see its physical shape and size, but we also understand its purpose and how we can interact with it. This understanding is shaped by our bodily experiences and is reflected in the metaphors we use to describe objects. For example, we might describe a problem as a ‘wall’ we need to ‘climb over,’ reflecting our physical experience with actual walls.
  3. Motor Coordination: According to Lakoff, our bodily movements and the way we interact with the world also shape our cognition. This is evident in the way we use metaphors that involve physical actions. For example, we ‘grasp’ ideas, ‘reach’ conclusions, and ‘move’ through arguments. These metaphors suggest that our cognitive processes are not just abstract computations, but are grounded in our physical experiences and interactions with the world.

In all these processes, Lakoff’s work highlights the geometric structures underlying our cognition. Whether we’re navigating through life, recognizing objects, or coordinating our movements, we rely on geometric representations to understand and interact with the world.

In other words, we are understanding one thing in terms of something else of the same kind. But in conventional metaphor, we are understanding one thing in terms of something else of a different kind. In “Inflation has gone up,” for example, we understand inflation (which is abstract) in terms of a physical substance, and we understand an increase of inflation (which is also abstract) in terms of a physical orientation (up). The only difference is whether our projection involves the same kinds of things or different kinds of things.

George Lakoff, Metaphors We Live By

Lakoff’s work extends even to the realm of mathematics, which he argues is subjective to the human species and its cultures. He contends that there is no way to prove that mathematics is inherent in physical reality, as our understanding of mathematics is constrained by our embodied brains. This perspective, while controversial, offers a fresh lens through which to view the philosophy of mathematics.

Despite criticism from some quarters, particularly regarding mathematical errors in his work, Lakoff’s contributions to cognitive linguistics and philosophy have been significant. His work continues to influence a wide range of academic disciplines, shedding light on the intricate interplay between language, thought, and the embodied human mind.

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