CONCEPTUAL METAPHORS AND MYTHS

Human beings desperately need explanations for inexplicable situations in life. After all, the only two ineluctable facts that we are aware of about life are (1) that we are born and (2) that we die. It is impossible for us to have any memory of the former event, and we have no idea of when the latter event will overtake us. Life is thus an enigma, something that we know we have or are in, but do not know why. To conceptualise “life”, we have no option but to revert to what we know about ourselves, such as fundamental bodily experiences at a very early stage in life, experiences from which we construct and store image and action schemata, action frames and event scripts in cognition. However, we cannot reasonably conceptualise “life” until we have the capacity of human language. Once the conceptualisation of abstract concepts becomes possible through the acquisition of human language, we can begin to construct our own life stories. To do this we need to revert to conceptual metaphors.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Mark Turner, Zoltan Kovecses, Rafael Nhnez and others, constitutes an early version of the cognitive approach to language. This approach provides a viable alternative to ratio- nalist/essentialist accounts of cognition. It has given rise to a new philosophical perspective on knowledge and understanding which argues that the ways in which we conceptualise abstract concepts can be traced in the metaphors we continually and unconsciously use in our language.

We can understand what a conceptual metaphor is by referring to a somewhat later approach to cognitive linguistics known as Cognitive Blending Theory (CBT) (Fauconnier 1994; Fauconnier & Turner 2002), so I will digress just a little to outline what CBT is. The crucial concept in CBT is that of “mental space”, which Fauconnier and Turner (2002: 40) define as follows:

Mental spaces are small conceptual packets constructed as we think and talk, for

purposes of local understanding and action____[They] are connected to long-term

schematic knowledge called “frames”____Mental spaces are very partial. They

contain elements and are typically structured by frames. They are interconnected, and can be modified as thought and discourse unfold. Mental spaces can be used generally to model dynamic mappings in thought and language.

Most mental spaces are constructed and used on the fly “as we think and talk” and then erased when they are no longer needed—that is, once they have served their purpose in emergent social practice. But a certain number of mental spaces are transferred to long-term memory and may be blended with other information stored in cognition, and this may lead to the reorganisation of frames and scripts. While we may be marginally conscious of online mental spaces (i.e. mental spaces that are constructed and used in ongoing interaction), the vast majority of our cognitive concepts, our frames and scripts of experience and our action schemata remain below the level of consciousness. During online interaction, mental spaces are combined with other mental spaces to form “cognitive blends” that generally create new emergent structures which can then be run in instances of emergent social practice by the participants. Sometimes these blends may seep down and become embedded in cognition.

We understand abstract concepts that have no direct connection to those bodily experiences that we have with our environment by accessing the frames, scripts and action schemata that have already been constructed. A blend is created between aspects of previously stored concepts, or previously stored blends to provide a cognitive concept for the lexeme to prompt for when it is used in the mental space of an utterance. Aspects of the previously stored cognitive concept (or cognitively embedded blend) are projected into a mental space to become the referent of the lexeme. The empty mental space is the target concept that needs to be understood, and the result is yet another cognitive blend. For example, the abstract cognitive concept of TIME in an utterance (as with all cognitive concepts, represented in the text in small caps) can be conceptualised by projecting aspects from fundamental schemata of physical movement (i.e. experiences of movement that have been stored as image schemata in cognition from our most fundamental bodily experiences). So when the lexeme time is used[1] in an utterance to create an emergent mental space, we are prompted, in that fleeting mental space, to access a conceptual metaphor stored in a cognitively embedded blend. We can represent this schematically as shown in figure 1.1. The conceptual metaphor is thus the blend of an empty mental space and a projection from a set of bodily experiences stored in image schematic form in an already existent cognitive frame related to bodily movement. The cognitive frame containing the image schemata is referred to as the “source domain” of the metaphor, and the empty mental space, the blend between zero information and the projection from the source domain(s), is referred to as the “target domain”.

We need to bear in mind that the metaphor itself is a part of cognition, not an utterance. For this reason cognitive metaphors are represented by printing them in small caps in this text (see above). In any conceptual meta-

Representation of a conceptual metaphor in terms of Cognitive Blending Theory

figure 1.1. Representation of a conceptual metaphor in terms of Cognitive Blending Theory

phor the is does not represent an ontological equivalence between the lexeme time and the image schemata, but rather those mental processes that are necessary to construct the metaphor. The assumption in CMT and CBT is that such metaphorical cognitive spaces are ubiquitous in cognition, are learned through social interaction with others and are necessarily universal to the human race, although specific to those cultures in which the metaphors are cognitively significant.

Often there is more than one conceptual metaphor that can be used as a reference point from a lexeme or grammatical construction. For example, another way of conceptualising time is to project from an already blended space containing the cognitive concept of MONEY into the empty mental space to form the conceptual metaphor Time is money. This then accounts for utterances such as the following:

  • (1) I’m afraid I can’t spend much time on that problem.
  • (2) There’s not much time left.
  • (3) We’re running out of time.
  • (4) Could you spare me a moment of your time, sir?

To return to our initial problem, then, how do we conceptualise the cognitive concept life? I suggest that the following might be acceptable conceptual metaphors:

Life is a journey Life is a prelude to paradise/hell

Life is a gamble Life is a struggle

Life is a burden Life is an adventure

From a sociocognitive perspective, if myths are communally shared stories that function in attempts at “explaining, justifying and ratifying present behaviour by the narrated events of the past” (Watts 2000: 33), they must ultimately be grounded in conceptual metaphors. Life, after all, is not a journey, it is not a gamble and it is not an adventure. However, we may perceive it to be so close to these other (often abstract) concepts that we choose to metaphorise it in this way in order to be able to understand it. But constructing stories which do not fit the matter-of-fact details can lead to the mythologisation of a discursive orthodoxa which may need to be deconstructed. i conclude this section by hypothesising that commonly used conceptual metaphors that lie deeply embedded within our cognition feed into and form the basis of the myths we discover. Neither the myths nor the metaphors are in any sense “rationally true”, but because they are so deeply embedded in cognition, they need to be taken seriously.

  • [1] Or any other lexeme or construction that is perceived to be within the semantic frame of the concepttime—for example, week, three hours, the lesson.
 
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