The Body in the Mind
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The Body in the Mind

The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason

Mark Johnson

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The Body in the Mind

The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason

Mark Johnson

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"There are books—few and far between—which carefully, delightfully, and genuinely turn your head inside out. This is one of them. It ranges over some central issues in Western philosophy and begins the long overdue job of giving us a radically new account of meaning, rationality, and objectivity."—Yaakov Garb, San Francisco Chronicle

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1
The Need for a Richer Account of Meaning and Reason
An Embodied, Nonpropositional Dimension of Meaning
The vast majority of books on linguistics and the philosophy of language assume that meaning is, first and foremost, something sentences have. It is held, quite reasonably, that the meaning of words or phrases depends on their roles in sentences. For the most part, I see nothing wrong with this general orientation in and of itself. However, this exclusive focus on sentential structure has unfortunately contributed to the widely held view that an account of meaning as propositional is all that is required for semantics.
Much of this book is a nontraditional inquiry into the nature of meaning. I want to probe beneath the level of propositional content, as it is usually defined, to ask how propositional structure is possible. Such an inquiry, I shall argue, leads us back down into image-schematic structures by which we are able to have coherent experiences that we can comprehend. These structures are nonpropositional (in the traditional sense, to be explained below), preconceptual factors intimately tied up with the meanings we employ.
In the context of my inquiry into the emergence of meaning and rationality in human experience, one of my chief concerns is to examine the question, How can anything (an event, object, person, word, sentence, theory, narrative) be meaningful to a person? And I want to treat “linguistic meaning” as a subcase of meaning in this broader sense. The standard strategy in the philosophy of language and in linguistics today is to take linguistic meaning (regarded chiefly as propositional in nature) as primary and to treat other uses of the term “meaning” as either parasitic upon linguistic meaning, or else as falling outside the study of semantics altogether.
My strategy is to question the assumption that only words and sentences have meanings and that all of these meanings must be propositional in the traditional sense. There can be no doubt that linguistic meaning gives rise to elaborations of human intentionality that would not be possible without the complex structure of propositions and speech acts; it does not follow from this, however, that all meaning is merely propositional in nature.
In describing my project I have repeatedly stressed my intention to explore “nonpropositional” structures of meaning. This key notion is elaborated progressively in the following chapters. As an introduction to my analysis, I want to offer a preliminary statement of what I mean by image schemata that are nonpropositional. I will be arguing later that image schemata are abstract patterns in our experience and understanding that are not propositional in any of the standard senses of that term, and yet they are central to meaning and to the inferences we make.
Let me explain this claim in a very crude, tentative fashion that will be refined and completed in the next few chapters (especially Chapter 2). Consider, first, an image schema, which is a dynamic pattern that functions somewhat like the abstract structure of an image, and thereby connects up a vast range of different experiences that manifest this same recurring structure. One such schema, which I describe in more detail in Chapter 3, is the COMPULSIVE FORCE schema. Its basic structure can be represented visually as shown below (see fig. 1). An actual COMPULSION schema exists as a continuous, analog pattern of, or in, a particular experience or cognition that I have of compulsion. It is present in my perception of a jet airplane being forced down the runway, or in my understanding of forces acting on continental plates, or (metaphorically) in my felt sense of being forced by peer pressure to join the PTA. The schema proper is not a concrete rich image or mental picture; rather, it is a more abstract pattern that can be manifested in rich images, perceptions, and events.
I will argue for each of these claims as we proceed; but, for now, let us ask whether such image-schematic structures are propositional. My answer will be that, of the six definitions of “proposition” that follow, only the last one applies to image schemata, and it is not a sense that appears in the dominant theories. The six accounts of “proposition” are:
image
FIGURE 1. COMPULSION
1. Something proposed—a statement. This is the most general sense, and perhaps the oldest. It is interpreted by philosophers as involving the notion of truth values, that is, a proposition must assert something and thereby be the kind of entity that can be either true or false.
2. A representation using finitary predicate symbols (functions) and a number of argument symbols. Typically, the argument symbols refer to entities, and the predicate symbols represent the properties and relations of those entities.
3. A state of affairs in the world, usually one holding between an entity and its predicates (e.g., properties) or among a number of entities.
4. From model theory: (a) a function from possible worlds to truth values, (b) a function from possible situations to facts (where a “fact” is a property or relation paired with the entities that it holds of).
5. A finitary representation using elements and relational links among those elements. This formulation is offered by Pylyshyn in his argument that images can be propositionally represented.1 He suggests that any image could be broken into elements or segments whose relations could be completely described in a propositional fashion.
These first five definitions all insist on the finitary character of propositions. Now, I grant that propositional representations of this sort will capture some of the important structural features of any given image schema. But such finitary representations will not capture their analog nature and the crucial role they play in image-schematic transformations. By “transformation” I mean such cognitive operations as scanning an image, tracing out the probable trajectory of a force vector, superimposing one schema upon another, and taking a multiplex cluster of entities and contracting it into a homogeneous mass (see Chapter 2). In other words, propositions defined in the senses above will not represent the natural cognitive operations of image schemata.
However, there is a further sense we can give to “proposition” that does properly apply to image schemata and makes sense of their crucial role in meaning and reasoning, namely,
6. A proposition exists as a continuous, analog pattern of experience or understanding, with sufficient internal structure to permit inferences.
I will argue that, because image schemata and their metaphorical extensions are propositional in this special sense, they constitute much of what we call meaning structure and inferential patterns, although they are not finitary. We will see, for instance, that the COMPULSION schema (fig. 1) has internal structure consisting of a force vector (with a certain magnitude and direction), an entity acted upon by the force, and a potential trajectory the entity will traverse. And this structure constrains the way the schema organizes meaning and influences the drawing of inferences in domains of understanding concerned with forces of a certain kind. The main point is that the internal structure of the image schema exists in a continuous, analog fashion within our understanding, which permits it to enter into transformations and other cognitive operations.
Henceforth, therefore, when I repeatedly describe image schemata as “nonpropositional,” I mean this only as that term is understood in Objectivist semantics; and I mean only that Objectivist propositions—in any of senses (1)–(5) above— cannot be the whole story about the workings of image schemata and their metaphorical extensions (even though it will often be part of the story).
At this point, I also want to anticipate the standard objection that, since we are bound to talk about preconceptual and nonpropositional aspects of experience always in propositional terms, it must follow that they are themselves propositional in nature. This simply doesn’t follow. What does follow is that, because of the limitations of our propositional modes of representation, we have a hard time trying to express the full meaning of our experiences. To cite a simple example, my present sense of being balanced upright in space at this moment is surely a nonpropositional awareness that I have, even though all my efforts to communicate its reality to you will involve propositional structures. So, while we must use propositional language to describe these dimensions of experience and understanding, we must not mistake our mode of description for the things described.
Non-Objectivist Metaphorical Meaning and Inference Patterns
With this preliminary definition and its attendant caveat, I want now to introduce the notion of nonpropositional meaning. I shall ease into this notion and avoid any mention of an image schema until the next chapter, where it becomes the central focus. Here I speak of nonpropositional meaning and metaphorical structures in only the most general introductory fashion. The first stage in my project is to show the need for an account that centers on the very aspects of understanding that are ignored by Objectivist programs. In the Introduction I noted that Objectivism treats all meaning as conceptually and propositionally expressible in literal terms that can correspond to objective aspects of reality. In the present chapter I want to indicate why this cannot be the whole picture, for two reasons: (1) meaning in natural language begins in figurative, multivalent patterns that cannot typically be reduced to a set of literal concepts and propositions; and (2) the patterns and their connections are embodied and cannot be reduced to a set of literal concepts and propositions. In other words, meaning typically involves nonliteral (figurative) cognitive structures that are irreducibly tied up with the conceptual or propositional contents attended to exclusively in Objectivist semantics.
To sum up my contention: I am perfectly happy with talk of the conceptual/propositional content of an utterance, but only insofar as we are aware that this propositional content is possible only by virtue of a complex web of nonpropositional schematic structures that emerge from our bodily experience. Once meaning is understood in this broader, enriched manner, it will become evident that the structure of rationality is much richer than any set of abstract logical patterns completely independent of the patterns of our physical interactions in and with our environment. Any account of the “logic” of a chain of reasoning thus would have to make reference to such schematic structures and to figurative extensions of them. The inferential structure of our abstract reason is a high refinement upon orderings in our bodily experience, a refinement that ignores much of what goes into our reasoning.
Let us turn, then, to a brief analysis of an actual segment of discourse to suggest some of the dimensions of meaning and rationality not countenanced by Objectivist programs. The Objectivist would try to give the meaning and underlying rationale of the passage solely in terms of literal concepts and propositions, plus the necessary speech act structure (usually regarded as part of pragmatics). I shall argue that this approach neglects the very features that make meaning possible in the first place. I shall show that it is not possible to grasp the logic of the speaker’s argument without understanding the basic, irreducible metaphorical structure that holds it together.
The passage to be analyzed is taken from Tim Beneke’s Men on Rape, a remarkable set of interviews with doctors, lawyers, a rapist, prosecuting attorneys, husbands and lovers of rape victims, and men from other occupations concerning their views of rape. The speaker is a law clerk in the financial district of San Francisco.
Let’s say I see a woman and she looks really pretty, and really clean and sexy, and she’s giving off very feminine, sexy vibes. I think “Wow, I would love to make love to her,” but I know she’s not really interested. It’s a tease. A lot of times a woman knows that she’s looking really good and she’ll use that and flaunt it, and it makes me feel like she’s laughing at me and I feel degraded. I also feel dehumanized, because when I’m being teased I just turn off. I cease to be human. Because if I go with my human emotions I’m going to want to put my arms around her and kiss her, and to do that would be unacceptable. I don’t like the feeling that I’m supposed to stand there and take it, and not be able to hug her or kiss her; so I just turn off my emotions. It’s a feeling of humiliation, because the woman has forced me to turn off my feelings and react in a way that I really don’t want to. If I were actually desperate enough to rape somebody, it would be from wanting the person, but also it would be a very spiteful thing, just being able to say, “I have power over you and I can do anything I want with you”; because really I feel that they have power over me just by their presence. Just the fact that they can come up to me and just melt me and make me feel like a dummy makes me want revenge. They have power over me so I want power over them.2
This interview fragment provides a clear and forceful statement of one individual’s view of possible motives for an imagined but unrealized rape. The passage is fairly straightforward as explanations go, so it is relatively easy to understand what the speaker is trying to express. On an Objectivist account, the meaning of what he is asserting can, in principle, be spelled out in a series of literal concepts and propositions. Setting aside attitudes or moods or emotions expressed by the clerk, there is thought to be a core of publicly accessible meaning reducible to those literal concepts and propositions, together with various functions or speech acts performed on those propositions. Whatever else might play a role in our understanding of this text is ignored as not included in the meaning of what he says.
But this view completely thwarts our understanding of the real meaning of the discourse. I want to give a reenactment of the logic involved in the clerk’s explanation of his view of rape, in order to exhibit the increase in our understanding that becomes possible by going beyond standard accounts of meaning.3 Let us explore some of the connections we must make, or presuppose, in order to grasp this passage as a meaningful whole, that is, to understand what the speaker means. These connections consist partly in our understanding of shared metaphorical projections, partly in “folk” models our culture provides f...

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