The Poetics of Thought

Bodily Movement

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 26, 2009

“Walking return the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do those tools that augment the body.  The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it.  Thus the waling body can be traced in the places it has made, paths, parks, and sidewalks are traces of the acting out of imagination and desire; walking sticks, shoes, maps, canteens, and backpacks are further material results of that desire. Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world” (Solnit. 2001: p.29).

The last part of the Mark Johnson quotation that I have been drawing upon for this section of the writing cites ‘bodily movement’ as one of the capacities within which meaning and thought emerge.  By this I take him to mean that moving is a coherent, organised activity involving a set of eidetic invariants which give the act of moving a schematic structure.   The structured cognition that represents the act of moving is then available for repurposing such that other kinds of conceptual content can be organised using this structure.  Later in this writing I will indicate some examples of how this might work.

Some of the particular structures that moving provides emerge from the way perception changes as the body moves through space.  A walk through a forest or through a city causes the sights before one’s eyes to change from a single static viewpoint to a seeing that is set in motion;  trees come into new alignments as one passes them and the pebble on the path up ahead grows in size as the body moves toward it.  The sounds of those birds on the fence to your left becomes the sounds of birds behind you, growing quieter and quieter as you proceed until their song is lost among the approaching sound of cars on the road up ahead.


SOLNIT, R. (2001). Wanderlust: a history of walking. London, Verso.



Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 21, 2009

As has already been argued, perception is a function of the sensorimotor systems, and the different modalities in which that sensorimotor system operates, the different physical senses of touch, taste, sight etc,  gives structure to that perception.   If Mark Johnson is correct in claiming that perception is one of the capacities from which meaning and thought emerge then the structure of meaning and thought, the organised and coherent relationships between ideas, must in turn emerge in part from structures within perception.  In other words, our ability to think in organised and meaningful ways is reflective of our ability to perceive the world in organised ways.

The organisation of perception comes from the regular and consistent ways in which the physical senses operate.  To take the visual sense as an example, different wavelengths of light appear to the visual system as different colours, but these differences are not random or disorganised.  The colours of the spectrum always follow one another in regular and predictable ways and this regularity (as well as the range) provides an organising template for meaning and thought to base themselves upon.  Similarly, there is a consistant relationship in the apparent visual size of an object and its distance from us; objects that are further away seem smaller than those close up.  This also is a feature of visual experience which has structure and regularity that can be adopted by conceptual cognitive functions.  Other sensory modalities, hearing, touch, taste, olfaction, proprioception, have their own set of organised variables which enlarge the number of  possible structures  that might be utilised as frameworks for meaning and thought, and the relationships between the modalities provides additional complexity.  Some sense perceptions echo one another closely; the shape of an object tends to be similarly perceived both by the hands and the eyes; whereas other senses complement one another through their difference; the colour and the sound of a musical instrument overlap one another only at the margins.

In ‘The senses considered as perceptual systems’ J.J Gibson writes that “the senses can obtain information about objects in the world without the intervention of an intellectual process” (1966:1).  It may be more accurate to say that it is not that the senses work without the intervention of intellectual processes, but rather that their operation is constructive of intellectual processes.  Furthermore, the structured differences that the senses detect in the world and which we experience as perceptions give structure to the meaning and thought that make up these intellectual processes.


Gibson, J. J. (1966).  The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 17, 2009

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


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 10, 2009

“Meaning and thought emerge from our capacities for perception, object manipulation and bodily movement.” – Mark Johnson.

In ‘The Meaning of the Body’ Mark Johnson claims that ‘Meaning and thought emerge from our capacities for perception, object manipulation, and bodily movement’. This means that the embodied, embedded, experiential engagement we have with the world provides the template for our organisation of knowledge in all its forms. Covert within Johnson’s statement is the implied existence of a ‘capacity’ from which (or within which) such thought and meaning emerge. Following the logic of the schema, this capacity corresponds to the phenomenal presence of space that both contains and provides a context for thought and meaning.

I haven’t got time to write this up right now.  I’ll probably get to it in the morning.

Cognitive Metaphors

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on September 9, 2009

The particular form that the human mind takes is the result of the parsimony of evolution and its demand for contingent solutions to immediate problems, and the immediate problems which shaped our bodies and minds for all those millenia whilst we were growing up in Africa were of survival and reproduction.   Our adaptive history has not prepared us for conceptual engagement with quarks, neutron stars, or the further reaches of quantum mechanics.  Nor are we constitutionally prepared or sensorially equipped to confront the abstractions of philosophy, religion, and the social sciences.  The mystery therefore is that, despite these evident limitations, we do indeed engage with such abstractions to a remarkable degree, and with an equally remarkable degree of success.

The question is therefore, as Stephen Pinker puts it in ‘The Stuff of Thought’, “How does a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies think about love and physics and democracy?” (2005: front flap)

According to Cognitive Metaphor Theory (or sometimes Conceptual Metaphor Theory) the dominant strategy for this apprehension of abstract concepts is through the widespread and largely unconscious application of metaphor, such that we understand abstract concepts in terms of more concrete concepts.  As I hope to show, metaphor usage is ubiquitous in everyday speech, present in most sentences we utter, and yet for the most part goes unnoticed.  An expression is only apprehended consciously as a metaphor when it is particularly ‘flowery’, the so-called ‘literary’ metaphor.  It is important to keep in mind though, that in the emerging field of Cognitive Metaphor Theory, and cognate domains of knowledge including Experiential Realism, Cognitive Linguistics etc, metaphors are not additional to plain language, used only to clothe and communicate difficult ideas, but rather are the substance of ideas and thought itself.  As Tim Rohrer puts it; “(M)etaphors are a matter of cognition and conceptual structure rather than a matter of mere language” (2005: 32).

Developments in embodied cognition, grounded ultimately in evolutionary psychology, have demonstrated that our ability to conceptualise abstract concepts, including the concept of knowledge, requires the extensive, and largely unconscious, use of metaphor and related figurative devices. Moreover, the notion of metaphor as primarily a linguistic phenomenon is replaced with an understanding that considers it as present in all forms of expression; signs, gestures, behaviour etc.

Stephen Pinker traces the origins of metaphor use to an adaptation of existing cognitive mechanisms originally designed to allow the body to sense and negotiate its environment. As Pinker describes it, the structures of cognition which in early humans, as in other animals, originally evolved to deal with the problems of moving through a physical spatial environment; sensing objects and movements, experiencing force and resistance, at some point were copied into other parts of the brain such that they became “scaffolding whose slots are filled with symbols for more abstract concerns like states, possessions, ideas, and desires” (Pinker, 1997: 355).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson identify a second mechanism by which the cognitive ‘scaffolding’ proposed by Pinker becomes populated with metaphorical associations.  They claim that in early childhood terms from the concrete ‘source’ domain of lived experience are fused with terms from the abstract ‘target’ domain through their repeated coincident occurrence.  So, for example, the experience of seeing the level of liquid in a container go up as more liquid is added to it leads to the association of MORE with UP (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999).

This association then becomes available as a metaphor to express the sense that some otherwise abstract concept is increasing or decreasing.  Lakoff  cites expressions such as “prices rose; his income went down; unemployment is up; exports are down; the number of homeless people is very high” (Lakoff in Ortony, 1979: 240);  to demonstrate this process. Working with the same metaphor, Zoltan Kovecses  (2001: 214) cites the example of sound intensity which is often identified as being ‘high’ in volume, and this can be reduced by turning the sound ‘down’.   Allied to this use of UP as a metaphor for MORE is an elaboration in which UP to GOOD this is beyond the reach of this posting but I will be coming back to this association later.

An important example of this ‘conflation’ is that which is argued as linking the concrete experience of seeing with the abstract concept of knowing, (as in when we say ‘I see what you mean’ when we mean ‘I know what you mean’). This metaphorical link is developed by Christopher Johnson  (1999), Joseph Grady (1997), and Lakoff and Johnson  (1981), and is claimed to be forged through the recurrent experience in which one ‘comes to see’ (something) at the same time as one ‘comes to know’ (that thing).  This example of a metaphorical association is significant to this  project  and I will be  discussing it in more detail later.

The conclusion of these various theories and developments is an understanding of the key role that metaphor plays in language and cognition. This is summed up by Lakoff and Johnson as follows:

“Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish–a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act is fundamentally metaphorical in nature…. But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of”  (Lakoff and Johnson, 1981: 6).


GRADY, J. (1997) Foundations of Meaning: Primary Metaphors and Primary Scenes. Berkeley, University of California.

JOHNSON, C. (1999) Metaphor vs. conflation in the acquisition of polysemy: the case of see. IN HIRAGA, M. K., SINHA, C. & WILCOX, S. (Eds.) Cultural, psychological and typological issues in Cognitive Linguistics: selected papers of the bi-annual ICLA meeting in Albuquerque July 1995. Amsterdam, John Benjamins.

KOVECSES, Z. (2001) Metaphor: a practical introduction, New York; Oxford, Oxford University Press.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M. (1981) Metaphors we live by, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

LAKOFF, G. & JOHNSON, M. (1999) Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought, New York, Basic Books.

ORTONY, A. (1979) Metaphor and thought, Cambridge (etc.), Cambridge University Press 1979.

PINKER, S. (1997) How the mind works, New York, Norton.

PINKER, S. (2007) The stuff of thought: language as a window into human nature, London, Allen Lane.

ROHRER, T. C. (2005) Embodiment and Experientialism, Chapter 2 in The Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, GEERAERTS, D. and CUYCKENS, H. eds., Oxford University Press.