Embodied meaning

The embodied meaning thesis is one important respect in which Middle Way Philosophy intersects with recent developments in Philosophy, Linguistics and Cognitive Science. The key theorists of the embodied meaning thesis are linguist George Lakoff and philosopher Mark Johnson. Their approach was foreshadowed by other earlier thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but the difference is that Lakoff and Johnson also draw on a great deal of evidence from cognitive science. The potential impact of the embodied meaning thesis is revolutionary, overthrowing many traditional ways of thinking about ways that humans interact with the world. It puts the arts back into a central place in meaningful human life, puts religion and science in a much less dualistically opposed position to each other, and pulls the rug from under the feet of metaphysical beliefs by depriving them of their founding assumptions about the meaning of the language they depend upon.

To understand the embodied meaning thesis, and why it is important and different, we need to understand first what people have generally assumed about meaning before that. There have been two recognised senses of ‘meaning’: cognitive meaning, which is what you look up in a dictionary, and emotive meaning, which is what you feel. Cognitive meaning has often been understood as a representation, that is, as a sort of picture in your mind of what is the case beyond your mind. So, for example, the meaning of “The dog is sick” consists of a representation in your mind of a sick dog. The sentence is meaningful to you if you can relate it to a state of affairs that you experience where a dog is sick, so that you would be able to tell whether or not it was the case. Dog_Sleeping_maybe_near_to_death_or_sick_1In this traditional way of thinking about meaning, the way you feel about the dog being sick (it’s emotive meaning) is quite separate from its cognitive meaning. For instance, if you love the specific dog being referred to, you might feel upset that it is sick, so the meaning of the sentence would have strong emotional overtones for you. According to the traditional representationalist view, these feelings play no part in the cognitive meaning of the sentence.

We are so accustomed to thinking about meaning in this kind of way, that it takes an effort to start thinking about it differently. However, this way of thinking bears little relationship to how we actually process meaning. The achievement of Lakoff and Johnson has been to provide a different kind of explanation of meaning which is much more adequate to conditions. It’s more adequate both because it fits the scientific evidence better, and also because it supports the more helpful philosophical models used in Middle Way Philosophy, that can in turn be used to justify and guide practice.

The embodied meaning thesis begins with cognitive and emotive meaning united rather than separated, explaining how both depend on our basic physical experience. Basically, meaning consists of an association between some kind of symbol (such as, but not necessarily, a word) and the active physical experiences we have as we interact with the world. These associations are graven into the neural connections in our brains, and reinforced the more we use them. For example, a young child may learn the meaning of the term ‘in’ through the physical experience of playing with a container and putting, say, a ball in a bucket. She then associates this with other kinds of ‘in’, particularly the basic physical experience of food being in the body. This set of associations is what Lakoff and Johnson call the container schema. The child is then set up to understand the meaning of lots of other words or symbols that are to do with containers: e.g. a field, a set, or a country.

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that these basic schemas by which we understand the world at a physical level are made to give meaning to even the most abstract ideas by metaphorical extension. Metaphor consists in a similarity of pattern that we detect between two different things, and we use our understanding of such patterns to apply the same basic physical sense to increasingly remote or abstracted metaphors. Even in something as abstract as mathematics, the basic idea of a set, depending on the container schema, is essential for us to understand the meaning of any use of that idea. So, it doesn’t matter how complex or abstract the idea is: we understand it with our bodies. That means that the cognitive and emotive aspects of meaning are inseparable: we can never have one without the other.

So what can we make of the representations that we think we have in our minds? They are complex constructions built out of metaphor called cognitive models. There are some ideas that we only understand because of their place in a cognitive model, e.g. ‘Tuesday’ would not make sense unless you understood the idea of a week with 7 days in it. However, these cognitive models still depend on metaphor to be understood. The process of learning offers a good reminder of this. If someone is talking about something dry and abstract that you don’t understand, it means that you don’t yet have access to their cognitive model, so the emotive meaning it needs to have for you is missing. But a helpful teacher or lecturer may use metaphors to bridge the gap. The dry theory may suddenly start to make sense (we have an ‘aha!’ moment perhaps) when the metaphorical basis of it connects with your physical experience.

The embodied meaning thesis has a lot of important implications. One of these is to make the delusiveness of metaphysics even more obvious, because metaphysics depends on the idea that meaning is representational. Another is to undermine the fact-value distinction (see facts and values page). Another implication, which will be explored on another page, is that meaning can be integrated. The rest of this page will just focus on the contribution of the embodied meaning thesis to understanding what is wrong with metaphysics.

Embodied meaning and metaphysics

Metaphysics consists in claims about what is ultimately true or false, with (we assume) a true metaphysical claim being one that corresponds to reality out there, whilst a false one does not. But the embodied meaning thesis shows that we don’t understand anything in that way: the representation that we might think is ‘true’ or ‘false’ is built on a metaphor that is related to our physical experience. Our picture may or may not be true, but the whole way we understand it prevents us from ever finding out.

The difference between metaphysics and other ordinary beliefs depends on their meaning. Ordinary beliefs can be checked out in terms of experience, because  the model we are using includes some connection to experience. So, we can understand the claim that ‘the dog is sick’ in relation to our physical experience of interacting with dogs and our physical experience of sickness, and if those past experiences link up sufficiently with our current ones, we will accept the claim.

However, a metaphysical claim is one that is held forth as true without any such link to our experience. We just have to accept the cognitive model involved so as to go along with those who are offering it to us, or reject it, on self-certifying dogmatic grounds. “Dogs really exist”, “the dog is absolutely free”, “the dog has a soul”, or “the dog has no choice” would all be likely examples of such metaphysical claims. The meaning of claims like these is not rooted in our experience of physical activity related to dogs: patting them, feeding them, throwing them sticks etc. These claims also do not contribute to explaining anything that we specifically experience: for example, you could make ‘the dog has a soul’ compatible with any possible behaviour of the dog. Rather we might accept them only because of a wish to fit in with a group that believes such things, as a badge of loyalty.


Picture: ‘Dog sleeping maybe near to death or sick’ by Sonia Sevilla (Wikimedia Commons). Picture (only) can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons licence.

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