As I mentioned earlier, Mark Johnson attributes meaning and thought to ‘our capacity for perception, object manipulation and bodily movement’. Through processes such as conceptual metaphor, the cognitive structures which have evolved to allow for these capacities then become available as means of organising purely imaginary entities; ideas, concepts, and other abstractions, or ‘meaning and thought’ as Johnson puts it. In this section I want to consider one of these capacities, which is that of object manipulation. Or more specifically I want to explore what we understand by this thing called ‘an object’. Through a close analysis of the nature of real objects I hope to be able to identify what aspects of the ontology of these objects are carried over into our understanding of metaphorical objects.
Metaphorical objects might be said to include any entity which is expressed using a noun and indicated by a direct or indirect article, ‘a’ or ‘the’. Examples of these entities might include ‘the mind’, ‘the state’, ‘the university’, ‘a thought’, ‘a feeling’, ‘a desire’, ‘a fact’, or ‘an article of knowledge’. This last example is significant for this project as a closer understanding of how ‘knowledge’ is conceptualised will form a large part of future writing.
Samuel Beckett once stated that ‘We can only talk about nothing as if it were something, in the same way we can only talk about God as if he was a man’. He might have added that we can only talk, or indeed think, about the abstract as if it was concrete. The kind of concrete experience we tend to use to provide analogical structure to the concept of knowledge is revealing. The various metaphors for knowledge used within Knowledge Management have shown that the dominant images are based upon the mapping that suggests that KNOWLEDGE IS STUFF. This stuff includes assets, resources, capital, substances and constructed entities (machines, ships, etc.), but by far the most common subdivision of the overall metaphor is that KNOWLEDGE IS OBJECTS, (Andriessen, 2008). This should not be surprising, given that we routinely assign certain structures of perception and cognition to a category we refer to as ‘objective knowledge’. The unspoken, but nevertheless active metaphor which conceptualises (some) knowledge as akin to an object is clearly at work here. In order to flesh out this understanding it may be worthwhile considering what processes are at work in this assignation.
An object, in the material world of lived experience, typically demonstrates a number of key features. These have some similarities to those of the ‘figure’ as outlined by Peter Stockwell in his book Cognitive Poetics,
(W)e see, hear and move in stereo three dimensions, and so the cognitive capacity for making figure and ground is clearly and literally an embodiment of this human condition…. The part of a visual field or textual field that is most likely to be seen as the figure will have one or more of the following features that make it prominent:
– it will be regarded as a self-contained object or feature in its own right, with well-defined edges separating it from the ground;
– it will be moving in relation to the static ground;
– it will precede the ground in time or space;
– it will be a part of the ground that has broken away, or emerges to become the figure;
– it will be more detailed, better focused, brighter, or more attractive than the rest of the field;
– it will be on top of, or in front of, or above, or larger than the rest of the field that is then the ground. ” (2002, p.14)
In presenting this list, Stockwell is drawing largely on a Gestalt tradition in which objects or figures are distinguished from the ‘ground’ against which they are placed. Whilst these characteristics might indeed be typical of what we intuitively think of as an ‘object’ it is probably more accurate to say that entities which display these characteristics show ‘prototypicality’, this is something I will be coming back to later. In addition to these features which give objects (or figures) their overall status as objects there are a large number of eidetic variables which allow for organised distinction. Objects might vary in shape and size, be of different weights, have interiors and exteriors, be easily decomposed into smaller objects or resist such decomposition, be stable or instable, soft or hard, distinctly bounded or fuzzy, persist over long periods of time or barely break the surface of time at all. All of these qualities offer themselves as potential structuring metaphors for an understanding of abstract entities which draws on our cognitive engagements with objects in lived experience.
Andriessen, D. G. (2008). Stuff or love? How metaphors direct our efforts to manage knowledge in organisations. Knowledge Management Research & Practice 6: 5-12.
Stockwell, P. (2002). Cognitive poetics : an introduction. London, Routledge
Subscribe to comments with RSS.