Lakoff and Johnsons Hypothesis of Primary Metaphor

You will recall that Vico wrote (and I quote again), "It is noteworthy that in all languages the greater part of the expressions relating to inanimate things are formed by metaphor from the human body and its parts and from the human senses and passions." Vico knew nearly 250 years ago that metaphors are generated from the sensations, sounds, and feelings arising from and within the human body, which are then projected outward onto inanimate things. This fact has recently been rediscovered by cognitive linguistics. We unconsciously create metaphors from sensory inputs arising within the body. We form fundamental cognitive tools as the result of a metaphoric process that transfers meaning between different sensory domains. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) describe these bodily metaphors as primary.

One such primary metaphor is that of verticality and balance. Maintaining an upright posture is a universal developmental achievement of early childhood. This achievement of verticality is accompanied by a sense of balance. Both verticality and balance are felt to be "good." The kinesthetic sensation of verticality, preserving an up-down posture in space against the pull of gravity, is mapped or projected onto abstract conceptual domains far removed from the original kinesthetic bodily experience. These primary metaphors result in the universal assumption that up means an increase in quantity and down the reverse. Stock markets go both up and down. Some substances are "uppers" and some are "downers," which implies that up is "good" and down is "bad." Feeling good means things are "looking up," and feeling bad means things are "looking down." There is no logical reason why an increase in quantity or the values good and bad should be associated with verticality. As Johnson (1987) observes, this metaphor is so basic to how we organize experience that it seems odd to question it.

Johnson (1987) explained that the transfer of meaning, the process of mapping from bodily experience to abstract concepts, requires the formation of an intermediate image schema. An image schema is not an image but a hypothetical process that produces a product such as a linguistic metaphor. Johnson defines an image schema as "a recurring dynamic pattern of our perceptual interactions and motor programs that give coherence and structure to our experience" (1987, p. xiv). Johnson notes that the key word here is structure—there can be no meaning without some form of structure that establishes relationships.1 So implicit in the metaphors of verticality and balance is an organizing image schema.

The toddler who is able to achieve an upright posture does so because she has developed a sense of balance. To quote Johnson,

The experience of balance is so pervasive and so absolutely basic for our coherent experience of our world, and our survival in it, that we are seldom ever aware of its presence. We almost never reflect on the nature and meaning of balance, and yet without it our physical reality would be nearly chaotic, like the wildly spinning world of a very intoxicated person. The structure of balance is one of the key threads that holds our physical experience together as a relatively coherent and meaningful whole. And balance, metaphorically interpreted also holds together several aspects of our understanding of the world. (1987, p. 74)

We know that the organizing schema of balance is mapped onto diverse and totally unrelated domains, such as the visual arts, music, jurisprudence, intellectual reasoning, mental health, and so forth. We may experience a painting or sculpture as balanced, but the sense of balance resides in ourselves, in our cognitive processes, and not in the painting or sculpture. To believe that balance resides in the object and not in ourselves is an illusion that we construct and an illusion that is very difficult for us to recognize.2 This metaphoric transfer of the balance schema clearly shows that metaphor is an integral part of cognitive processing. As Lakoff and Johnson (1999) demonstrate, this kind of meta-phorization is fundamentally a centrifugal process arising in the body and spreading outwards into the world; the bodily self is projected onto the world.

The body as a container is another primary metaphor that originates from bodily sensations. The sense of bounded-ness is one of the most pervasive features of our bodily experience. Unlike the metaphor of balance, which maps onto a multitude of abstract concepts, including the mind, the container metaphor makes special reference to the mind.

Mark Johnson states, "We are immediately aware of our bodies as three-dimensional containers into which we put certain things (food, water, air) and out which other things emerge (wastes, air, blood, etc.). From the beginning, we experience constant physical containment in our surroundings (those things that envelope us). We move in and out of rooms, clothes, vehicles, and numerous kinds of bounded spaces" (1987, p. 21).

This pervasive kinesthetic experience of our body moving in space provides a containment schema consisting of a boundary, distinguishing an interior from an exterior, and having contents. This kinesthetic body schema of contained substances moving in and out becomes an organizing metaphor for feelings and theories of mind. The mind has contents. Psychoanalysts have long recognized that unspoken words can be metaphorized as concrete objects in the interior of the body, and as such can be equated with bodily contents (Sharpe 1940). Thus a sudden outpouring of speech was (in the Victorian era) linguistically equated with an ejaculation. Feelings can also be metaphorized as concrete substances within a closed container. The heightened intensity of an affective experience is then felt as a pressure within the container. The physiologic effects of emotion, such as the sensations of flushing and bodily heat, embellish the metaphoric schema. Lakoff provides numerous examples:

"His pent-up anger welled up inside him; she got all steamed up; I could barely contain my rage" (1987, p. 384).

Inchoate feelings require organizing metaphors. Intense feelings, whether it be rage or sexual desire, may be felt as a hot pressure within the body seeking escape, seeking to escape from the body as a container. Feelings are the contents of the container, substances under pressure, as if the pressure of the feeling would threaten the container itself with disruption and disintegration. Our language is replete with cliched metaphors derived from this generic schema. For example, one is bursting with desire; if angry, one may be about to blow one's top; and so forth. The fact that intense feelings both erotic and aggressive are intrinsically out of our control, leads to a metaphoric association between uncontrollable feelings (the contents of the mind) and the idea of going crazy. Out of control can map on to the metaphor of a fracture in the container, which is the self. A patient who believed that to love is dangerous because of the pressure of feelings felt as if her love were like a dammed up reservoir—if the floodgates were opened, she would lose control, and her very self would fracture, disintegrate, and be swept away. For the same reason, some patients fear the uncontrolled intense delight of orgasm because the uncontrolled feelings are felt to be dangerous in that they threaten to rupture the container.

We take for granted the primary metaphor that our body/self is a container into which we place "good" substances and expel noxious substances. As our sense of self is fundamentally a bodily self, we are this container, and the "good" that we take in is then unconsciously mapped on to our feelings of self-worth. If one is in a good mood, what is good is inside the self, and what is bad may be placed outside of the self. In this primitive evaluation, the non-me is bad. This bodily metaphor underlies the defense of projection. Or these values can be reversed, for we also know that when one is depressed, the "good" contents of the self can turn worthless and noxious.

Inasmuch as this image schema of the body has two openings—one that takes in what is good and another that expels what is bad—the self can be purified by ridding itself of its noxious contents. For example, a bulimic patient believed that what is vomited out is the disgusting contents of the self and what remains inside is pure, smooth, and clean.

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1972) used the metaphor of the container and the contained to conceptualize the mutual process of affect regulation that occurs in infancy between mother and child. He believed that the mother could process the infant's anxiety and then feed it back to her in a less toxic form. The (healthy) mother's self is a more effective container as compared to the child's immature self. This metaphor of the container and the contained is consistent with the schema of the body as formulated by Johnson, but now we add the important extension that this primary metaphor derives not only from the sensations of a single body, but also from bodies in interaction with each other. This process of mutual affect regulation is frequently referred to as affect containment. This is a further example of how the container metaphor pervades our thinking about the mind.

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