George Lakoff

The Theory of Cognitive Models
(last updated April 26, 1997)

Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is a treasure trove of linguistic examples and a carefully developed model of cognition argued on the basis of semantics. His experientialism places the human act of cognition in the center; his brilliantly presented result is that cognition is vitally dependent on metaphor, which he defines as a mapping of conceptual structures from one domain onto another--a result of particular relevance to literature.

On the Relativity of Knowledge and Truth

     "Knowledge, like truth, is relative to understanding. Our folk view of knowledge as being absolute comes from the same source as our folk view that truth is absolute, which is the folk theory that there is only one way to understand a situation. When that folk theory fails, and we have multiple ways of understanding, or 'framing,' a situation, then knowledge, like truth, becomes relative to that understanding. Likewise, when our knowledge is stable and secure, knowledge based on that understanding is stable and secure.
     Is such knowledge 'real knowledge'? Well, it's as real as our knowledge ever gets--real enough for all but the most seasoned skeptics." (300)

On the different kinds of cognitive frames

Lakoff argues that experience is made possible and structured by preconceptual structures-- "directly meaningful concepts" roughly the same for all human beings that thus provide "certain fixed points in the objective evaluation of situations". He divides them into basic-level structures and image-schema structures, and acknowledges there may be other kinds. Basic-level structures arise "as a result of our capacities for gestalt perception, mental imagery, and motor movement" and manifest as basic-level categories such as hunger and pain, water, wood, and stone, people and cats, and (perhaps more surprisingly) tables and houses (302). Image schemas are spatial mappings such as source-path-goal, center-periphery, and container. It is out of these basic cognitive tools that more complex cognitive models of reality are constructed:

On literal and metaphorical meaning

The literal provides the building blocks of thought. "Cognitive models derive their fundamental meaningfulness directly from their ability to match up with preconceptual structure. Such direct matchings provide a basis for an account of truth and knowledge" (303). Since the matching is internal--from one concept or cognitive process to another--we do not run into the later Wittgenstein's problem of matching word to thing.
     The literal, however, cannot capture the order of all domains. "In domains where there is no clearly discernible preconceptual structure to our experience, we import such structure via metaphor. Metaphor provides us with a means of comprehending domains of experience that do not have a preconceptual structure of their own". Preconceptual structures are thus mapped from source domains onto target domains. This is a particularly elegant result, and fits loosely with faculty theory--although it is not clear that Lakoff himself would wish to make such an extension.

Some examples of metaphors

What is striking when one examines Lakoff's painstaking lists of metaphors is how completely immersed we are in them, and how our thinking is enabled by them. It is perhaps impossible to say many things literally: there are simply no appropriate conceptual primitives. How, for instance, do you speak of the high points in your life literally? The very narrative assumes the metaphorical mapping.

A critique and appreciation

     Lakoff's approach of developing a general model of cognition on the basis of semantics has certain inherent weaknesses, in spite of its spectacular results. It cannot be taken for granted that semantic categories accurately represent cognitive domains--language may have access only to the output of other cognitive modules, and their domain-specificity may be partly elided by linguistic categories. For this reason, evidence for cognitive domains must be sought and demonstrated independently of language. However, semantics can be utilized as a way of generating hypotheses about domain-specificity, which can then be independently verified.
    The presence of cognitive domains also raises the question of how these came about. Lakoff assumes they flow out of our physical constitution and the nature of the world; a more precise way of speaking about this is evolutionary psychology. A consideration of the environment in which humans evolved would permit us to map the source domain onto a proper domain, and thus generate a more detailed list of properties and entailments. Such historical considerations would also allow us to provide principled answers to which domains do not have their own preconceptual structure: namely, domains that either did not exist in the ancestral environment (agriculture, most forms of technology, civilization) or domains that were not available or significant to survival (microbiology, quantum physics, chemistry).
     Moreover, Lakoff's notion of metaphor as a mapping from one cognitive domain to another as "one of the great imaginative triumphs of the human mind" has been echoed by the British paleo- anthropologist Steven Mithen (1996), who has suggested that the transition from Neanderthal man to Cro Magnon is marked precisely by the ability to "switch cognitive frames": the paleolithic blossoming in art may be correlated with the ability to think metaphorically.
     Lakoff's proposal on metaphor is a particularly pregnant one for literary studies-- not because ordinary speech is mainly literal (it clearly is not), but because literature is a deliberate forefronting of linguistic devices, a cultivation of special effects. Clarifying what is the source and proper domains of a metaphor promises to throw light on the way meaning is constructed in reading. As for cultural studies, Lakoff's work opens up for the possibility of tracing political and social patterns back to an underlying set of metaphors (see Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Brown (1988), and Boyer (1988)).
     It should also be noted that Leonard Talmy, whose early work clearly belonged to the Lakovian paradigm (see the next link), more recently has developed this approach explicitly in the direction of evolved cognitive structures (see Talmy (1995)).

Talmy on the semantics of force dynamics
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© 1997 Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California, Los Angeles