Cognitive Poetics & Conceptual Metaphor: Part 1

My reading and response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice continues with an exploration of metaphor as a literary style and as the basic pattern in the way the human mind works . The topics covered in previous chapters of both books operate in a fundamentally metaphorical way, that is cognitive processes utilize metaphorical mapping to make meaning.

Stockwell outlines various types of metaphorical expressions in Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. He relates the cognitive linguistic model of metaphor to traditional literary criticisms tenor and vehicle. The cognitive model was previously discussed in Chapter 7 with an explanation of the mapping between source and target domain, which correspond to tenor and vehicle respectively.

Conceptual metaphors can be visible metaphors, which stylistically realize both source and target domains in the text, and invisible metaphors, which do not directly express one of the domains. For example, Juliet is the sun  is a visible metaphor but What light through yonder window breaks?  is an invisible metaphor because the target domain (Juliet) is not stylistically realized but is only implied. Stockwell provides a table with eight categories of metaphor that range from the most visible: copula constructions and parallelisms, to the most invisible: allegory. The various stylistic realizations express the same underlying conceptual metaphor but textual variations may map different attributes from each domain.

Different mappings generate metaphors that are either expressive or explanatory, depending on whether the metaphor emphasizes clarity or richness. Poetic metaphors tend to be more expressive. Scientific metaphors are often explanatory. For example, Where Mathematics Comes From by George Lackoff and Rafael Nunez outlines essential metaphors of mathematics: clear, systematic metaphors that build complex mathematics from embodied human experience. The_Faerie_Queene is an example of rich poetic metaphor that is systematic and abstract but not necessarily clear.

Because conceptual metaphor is fundamental to human cognition and a central feature of cognitive poetics, previous chapters have already begun introducing this way of describing how we make meaning. Reference to conceptual metaphor is ubiquitous in research and writing from cognitive poetics. Indeed, I first encountered the term as I was first discovering cognitive poetics by listening to talks and presentations from the Conference of Cognitive Poetics.

I appreciate Peter Crisp’s compare & contrast overview in Cognitive Poetics In Practice. He delineates what conceptual metaphor is and what it is not, first by distinguishing conceptual metaphor from linguistic metaphor. Conceptual metaphors may be expressed non-linguistically, and a variety of linguistic metaphors may express the same conceptual metaphor.

Also, image metaphors are not typically conceptual metaphors. Usually, a conceptual metaphor projects experientially basic categories onto more abstract categories. An image metaphor typically maps experiential categories onto other experiential categories without abstracting.

Crisp also clarifies the distinction between conceptual metaphor and blending theory, as well as how the two are related. Conceptual metaphor posits a mapping between two domains and blending theory can have four or more domains. Conceptual metaphor describes enduring patterns of cognition. Blending theory describes moment-by-moment processing of discourse. Because of the structural and functional differences, conceptual metaphor and blending theory complement rather than contradict one another.

Stockwell explains that much of our everyday speech consists of phrases which instance conceptual structures shared by groups of people. He uses two examples: GOOD IS UP and BAD IS DOWN to show how source domains are usually basic level categories based in human experience, such as the relative positions up and down. In the chapter on prototype analysis, Stockwell described how these basic categories are caused by cognitive models that can be activated by language in context.

The extent to which language mediates human experience, as well as how embodied experience influences language, is suggested by the contextual dependency of these cognitive models and basic categories. In a TED Talk from 2012, Lera Boroditsky presents research findings on the differences between cognitive models of TIME in different language groups. TIME is frequently represented as a conceptual metaphor related to SPACE in almost every language, but the nature of that relationship varies in different languages. For example, time may move around us or we may move through time. Time may move in the relative forward or backward directions: English speakers gesture forward when talking about the future and speakers of Aymore gesture forward to talk about the past.

In Borodistky’s examples, the target domain is the abstract notion TIME and the source-domains are basic level categories of relative position, consistent with Stockwell’s argument for embodied cognition. Borodistky describes another example of conceptual metaphors used by speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre, who do not use relative positions but absolute directions. Instead of using left  or right  to give location, Kuuk Thaayorre speakers use absolute directions, such as northeast  or south south west . Borodistky cites research that has shown these speakers are able to orient by these absolute directions to a remarkable extent, in much the same way English speakers can tell their left from their right. For speakers of Kuuk Thaayorre the cardinal and ordinal directions are a basic level category. This category is not embodied in the way relative position is but, as Boroditsky explains, is based on sun.

Conceptual metaphors certainly shape our understanding of abstract notions by shaping the relationships between basic level categories and target domains. As a writer, the contours of that shaping are where I choose to work. How does my writing reflect shared conceptual metaphors, and how can my writing influence conceptual metaphors? For example, I am aware of the cultural tendency to represent negative target domains with blackness. It is boring to use the same conceptual metaphor over and over, however stylistically diverse the realizations. Instead, I vary the conceptual metaphors for positive and negative qualities in ways that challenge cultural assumptions and elaborate the qualities I’m describing.

Repeated use of linguistic metaphors that reinforce the conceptual metaphor BLACK IS BAD may seem innocuous in everyday speech because metaphorical mapping usually happens in one direction: the source domain is mapped onto the target domain and not the other way around. But this principle of invariance functions differently in literary discourse, as Stockwell explains. In literary discourse, two domains can inter-animate on another. In literary discourse, conceptual metaphors common in everyday speech can be made to dance, revealing contours that may have been unnoticed before.

In the next part of this response to Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction and Cognitive Poetics In Practice, I will continue engaging with conceptual metaphor by relating how this important concept has helped me reexamine some of my previous study of meditation. I will also consider some of the pitfalls and limitations of using conceptual metaphor as a theoretical and analytical tool.

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