The Poetics of Thought


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on January 13, 2010

Moving up the hierarchy to information, the way this is conceived metaphorically shows significant overlap with  data.  It is similarly conceptualised as being ‘corpuscular’ and ‘discreet’ with each item of information being imaginable as distinct from every other.  There is also a shared sense of its being ‘out there’, pre-existing our efforts to acquire it.  Also, with both data and information, when the volume of either is large, we begin to think of this in terms not of a collection of discreet particulate objects but as a kind of liquid.  We might talk of the ‘flow’ of information, or of ‘drowning’ in an excess of it.  In this sense it retains some of the properties of the corpuscular but also, like sand through an hour glass, can pass like a liquid.

This metaphor of substance that varies between solidity and liquidity may have its origins in the affordances that different substances present to the body, and a reading of the metaphor in terms of affordances also starts to allow a distinction to be identified between data and information.

Affordance is the term that Gibson (1977, 1979)  gives to the properties of (physical) entities that we perceive and to which we respond in an embodied way.  So for example, the handle of a tool presents itself to the body in such a way that its ‘handleability’ is experienced as a part of the perception of that object, in fact the primary perception. As part of a metaphor of information then, if we are looking for a substance metaphor which embodies this sense of there being something that might be ‘grasped’ as well as the possibility of there being ‘too much for us to grasp’, then substance metaphors are appropriate.  Small manageable amounts of information are conceptualized as hard particles of solid material whilst an excess of information is understood as being ‘impossible to get a handle on’, ‘hard to grasp’, or ‘slippery’, and we run the risk of ‘drowning’ in it.  In this latter regard, such a metaphorical substance acquires the properties of a liquid.

It might be intuited from this use of the language of affordance that there is, in the distinguishing of information from data, the beginnings of an implied human agent figuring in the ground of the epistemology.  Even though we have conceived of data in substantive terms, the presence of the body as the provider of an affordance to that substance is minimal.  As we begin to consider the organisation of information however there is a tacit understanding that such substance is under the approach of an intentional agent; the provider of significant form.  There is the feeling that what was previously inert data is beginning to lean in our direction and organise itself into structures of information which at least have the possibility of purchase, even if our grasp is inadequate and the structure too frail.

Jonathan Hey, in the essay ‘The Data Information Knowledge Chain’ (2004), draws out this epistemological distinction in the metaphor, suggesting that the point at which information parts company with data is in the sense of what Hey calls ‘attributes’.   He draws our attention to the idea that information can be ‘sensitive’ or ‘pertinent’.  It can be more or less ‘salient’ or ‘valuable’ in a way that ‘raw’ data cannot.  These attributes, which are awarded to the information in such a way that they seem to be part of its ontology, are actually derived from the relationship established between such potential information and the origin of this potential, which is the purposive human user.

GIBSON, J. J. (1977) The Theory of Affordances. IN SHAW, R. E. & BRANSFORD, J. (Eds.) Perceiving, acting and knowing: toward an ecological psychology. Hillsdale, Erlbaum; New York; London: Distributed by Wiley.

GIBSON, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception, Dallas; London, Houghton Mifflin.

HEY, J. (2004) The Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom Chain: The Metaphorical link.

Metaphors of Subjective and Objective Knowledge

Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on November 12, 2009

What I would like to argue in upcoming posts is that there are a set of fairly coherent metaphors which articulate the different forms of thought that we refer to as ‘knowledge’.  In order to open these metaphors out I want to use the familiar (although problematic) distinction between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ knowledge as an axis around which other understandings might turn.  The dominant metaphors that I want to lay out across this axis are as follows:

Proximity/Distance – I will suggest that objectivity is characterised using metaphors of distance, such that the object of this knowledge (what I will refer to as the ‘knowledge entity’) is placed at some remove from the body, detached from physical contact.  Conversely, those knowledge entities which might be understood as ‘subjective’ are conceived of as being proximal to the body with no sense of detachment.  This proximity of the subjective might be such that close contact is extended into a sense of interiorisation.

Sensory Modality – Correlating with the proximity/distance metaphorical schema, the play of sensory modality metaphors understands different locations on the subjective/objective axis as falling within range of the different senses.  Objective ‘distant’ knowledge entities are predominantly conceptualised using metaphors of sight, appropriate for objects at some remove.  Subjectively proximal or interior knowledge entities on the other hand are metaphorically accessed through the poetics of taste, smell, and touch.  Other entailments of sensory modality are implied in this construction; so, for example, the objective detachment which projects knowledge entities into the realm of the metaphorically visual also suggests the presence of light which makes that vision possible.

Materiality – This third set of metaphors is applied to the knowledge entity itself and draws upon the variables which mark out the distinctions between objects within lived experience.  Knowledge entities which approach the condition of the objective  tend to be figured as materially solid, well-bounded, resiliant, opaque, and possessing mass and weight.  Conversely, those up-close and personal entities of subjective knowledge usually present themselves with opposite characteristics; they tend toward the  evanescant, vaporous, transparent, fragile, fuzzy, motile, and often weightless and ephemeral.


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on October 14, 2009

It may be useful to remind ourselves here that when I am referring to the organization of knowledge I am not talking about taxonomies, indexes, cladistic disciplinary structures, or allocations of library shelf space.  The topic of that knowing; its content; what programme of study it might form part of or what occupation it might prepare one for is not relevant at this point.  What is important is that there are apparent differences in the forms that this knowing takes, with corresponding differences in perceived value, application, and transferability.  The organization I am talking about here is that which arranges knowledge into the various types I indicated at the top of this writing; ‘objective’, ‘subjective’, ‘tacit’, ‘implicit’, ‘carnal’, ‘occult’, etc.

When we use conceptual metaphors (of perception, object manipulation and bodily movement) to organise these types of knowledge spatially or geographically we seem to use one of two possible maps corresponding to very different metaphorical spaces.  Sometimes we use a cartographic projection which is oriented on ourselves, placing our own experience at the centre of epistemological organization; elsewhere I referred to this as ‘Subjective Space’.  At other times and in other contexts we use a different map and a different space, one more akin to the intersubjective space that gives us the ‘view from nowhere’ that Thomas Nagel refers to.  What I want to outline initially is the experience of knowing that emerges from the first of these spaces, that of subjectivity.

This type of mapping is the most literal and (probably) the most intuitively obvious.  After all, our phenomenology is configured such that we experience our bodies as existing at the axis of a circle of vision, with the significance of objects being largely determined by the degree to which they loom in our presence.  A glance around the room or the view over the landscape tells us that those objects which are closest to us are also the largest and most imposing, (with the grandest being our own body; the hand held up against the sky that blots out the sun). Also, the nature of our situated embodiment as figures in that landscape allows the more remote objects around us not only to diminish in size but also to suffer occlusion.  Our singular viewpoint geometricises the space around us and the objects in that space are prey to the logic of that geometry.  The close obscures the distant and the man walking his dog some way up the path ahead is rendered invisible and irrelevant by the rapidly approaching cyclist who has overtaken him and is now not only blocking him and his dog from view, but also has a dangerous salience that  commands solid attention.  Our embodied experience constantly reminds us that proximity is a measure of this salience, and those objects, entities, and events which appear closest to us are the most actual in terms of their (possibly literal) impact on our lives.

Not only is the stuff which is closest to us larger and uppermost in our perception, but it is also that which is most likely to hurt us, kill us, feed us, have sex with us, or otherwise affect our well-being, and we would be well advised to give particular attention to those approximations.  We hold such entities, important as they are, in the light of necessary constant awareness, since neglecting their presence is likely to be costly.  They do not seep in and out of consciousness the way that more remote phenomena do; the shops and houses that flow past the vision of the driver whose firm focus is on the child who looks like they might step out into the road just up ahead; the church tower and the mobile phone mast on the horizon, tiny and vaporous and partially obscured, if noticed at all, are barely remembered.  Within the ongoing cartographic imagination such peripheral entities barely exist at all.  They are intangible, ineffable, at the edge of sight and almost out of mind.  They have the impermanence of wind, blown by cherubs at the periphery of old maps. The conferring of salience upon those objects which loom and snuggle, on the other hand, gives them a permanence and definition which is absent from these more distal visions.  They are assertively, undeniably solid, and you’d better believe it.

So the subjective arrangement of objects in space around a phenomenal centre brings with it a corresponding set of relationships to do with size, visibility, contact, affordance, substance etc. and such arrangements also correspond with personal salience.  This arrangement then forms the basis for the metaphorical schema which organises knowledge around our subjectivity, and these relationships carry over as entailments of the metaphor.  Objects of knowledge which we consider to be close to our personal centre of being have priority over those which are less intimate and pressing, regardless of any ‘objective’ status such knowledge might have.  A critical word from a loved one, which might have little relevance or status outside the confines of our own small area of knowing and being, may be experienced as huge and imposing, dominating the conceptual landscape and hiding any prior compliments in its shadow; as solid and factual as a slap to the face or a punch to the gut.  The converse of this is the apparent irrelevancy and evanescent vagueness that more apparently ‘distant’ knowledge displays.  Our newspapers carry facts about climate change, diminishing resources, over-population, and the rest, but there is little impact.  These are the church towers and the mobile phone masts that we drive past unaware.  The man walking his dog is obscured by the approach of the cyclist.

This arrangement of epistemology according to the logic of the spatially located being may be the default setting for how knowledge is evaluated and awarded substantial status, at least to the extent that it seems explicable in terms of evolutionary history and current embodiment.  And  given this natural propensity that we have to orient experience around our own phenomenal centre of existential gravity, a tendency built into the fabric of our embodiment and hence into the architecture of our understanding, it is pretty remarkable that we are not entirely locked into this solipsistic viewpoint (at least those of us who are not teenagers).   We do not habitually adopt only an epistemological position on reality which parallels the geographical position we uniquely occupy.  Whilst we are undoubtedly objects apparently located in three-dimensional space; and whilst we have organs of sense and organs for processing that sense which mediate that space in specific ways, and whilst we are (made) subject to the defining logic of this condition with its concomitant features; horizons, perspectives, occlusions, movements toward and away from, front/back distinctions, etc; we also seem to be able to adopt other conceptualizing positions.

Most of us would be uncomfortable with the idea that the status of any particular article of knowledge was entirely dependent upon its perceived salience or metaphorical proximity to any one individual, including ourselves.  We recognize that, whilst some knowledge is appropriately located using this phenomenological map, (insults and compliments for example), it would not be right to follow such idiosyncratic organization for all elements of knowing.  We like there to be such things as ‘objective facts’; knowledge objects which don’t go away when you stop looking at them and which have a permanence and solidity which is not dependent upon their transitory appearance within the phenomenology of any one individual.


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.