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Conceptual Metaphor as Constructive for Students in First Year Composition Classrooms

Updated on March 14, 2016
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Andrea loves to write on the zodiac, Myers Briggs, and texting. She is an expert on romance and relationships. She also has two cats.

What are Cognitive Metaphors?

A host of ideas exists at every turn in the universe and with our ceaseless desire to understand and explore, we navigate through oceans of possibility to discover thought, vocabulary, solutions to problems, and methods to express our deepest quandaries such as life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. Metaphoric expression in thought is currently a particular area of interest in the field of cognition, partly because it may be a key in further understanding what is thought making. According to cognitive scientist Steve Pinker, “So much of our verbiage about abstract events is based on concrete metaphor [...] allowing a species that evolved to deal with rocks and tools and animals, to conceptualize mathematics, physics, law and other abstract domains” (Pinker). Applying the idea of conceptual metaphor -- the practice of understanding an idea or conceptual domain by means of another idea, such as understanding time as money (you’re wasting my time) -- may hold a valid place in teaching rhetoric in first year composition classrooms. For instance, focusing on abstract conceptualizations may help students to reframe their minds to develop more creative of contexts, stimulate imaginative curiosity, and catalyst critical thinking all to motivate writing skills. The following research will cover in depth the idea of conceptual metaphor and how it may enlighten composition pedagogy so as to encourage instructors to pull on the thought processes of students to overall help develop their academic voices.

In Jeanne Fahenstock’s research, she brings up the question of, “Why should rhetoricians, and especially historians of rhetoric, be interested in cognitive science? Cognitive scientists certainly are not and have not been interested in rhetoric -- these two enterprises inhabit opposite sides of the humanities / science dichotomy” (Fahenstock 160). As with cognitive science, it is a branch of psychology which primarily studies how information is processed such as language, perception, memory, and reasoning. The contention from the sciences with rhetoric may lie in the subjective nature of rhetorical thinking; however, this seems odd considering it is a large part of constructed language, in fact, powerful language that can change whole bodies of people. It seems natural that through studying the brain, scientists will come to conclusions about language and how it operates within the mind. Discovering how our brains process information may bring keys to how we produce words and writing, in particular, persuasive speech: “If cognitivists and neuroscientists ever reach agreement on a model of the brain and mental processes, and particularly of how people produce and use language [...] that model should be compatible and even continuous with human communication available in the rhetorical tradition” (Fahenstock 160). One of the large overlapping areas for both cognitive scientists and rhetoricians is obviously language, how it manifests, and its interpretations; these two fields of study should work well together to come to develop a higher awareness on human experience.

Frequency of Cognitive Metaphors

Until recently, with the works of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in large the traditional sense of the metaphor states that the word associations are merely a secondary linguistic construction based off previous made literal constructions and are not primary constructions of their own. Across the board, most cognitives would heavily disagree with the traditional opinion, for instance Raymond Gibbs purports that “The traditional view of mind is mistaken, because human cognition is fundamentally shaped by various poetic or figurative processes. Metaphor, metonymy, irony, and other tropes are not linguistic distortions of literal mental thought but constitute basic schemes by which people conceptualize their experience” (Gibbs 1). The perception of metaphor as secondary has been perpetuated since recorded history; Plato himself believed that “To think or speak poetically is to adopt a distorted stance toward the ordinary world” (Gibbs 1). For the most part, Gibbs perceives metaphor as primarily ordinary; essentially, metaphor is not just for the poet or creative, but is a natural occurring phenomena within everyday experience. To place metaphor in its entirety only within the minds of the artisans is to completely miss how frequently metaphor is used throughout normal every day life.

By overlooking metaphor in the classroom, students are not being directed to come up with well-developed and advanced forms of metaphor, which perhaps ends up leaving figurative language in a sedentary state whereby vast improvements in this area could crescendo student writing. Gibbs asserts that “People conceptualize their experiences in figurative terms via metaphor, metonymy, irony, oxymoron, and so on, and these principles underlie the way we think, reason, and imagine” (Gibbs, 5). Common human experiences such as need, hunger, kindness, anger, and sleep are often described within metaphorical language to both our enjoyment and frustration; in large, the less tangible, or less easily understood experiences, are generally more relatable through abstract forms of expression. As an example, to say that a primarily metaphorical concept such as love is left only to the creative minded would be a tad preposterous; keeping metaphor on a pedestal would in part deny that love exists for those who cannot comprehend metaphor. It would then seem that Gibbs’ assertions of the meta are sound: “Conceptual metaphors arise when we try to understand difficult, complex, abstract, or less delineated concepts” (5-6). These concepts are not merely embodied in the mind of the creatives, but rather that metaphor, creativity, and abstraction exists in all of humanity, and on a frequent basis. Perhaps this recognition could help build the confidence of students who assert a lack of creativity; divergent thinking in a classroom setting is meant to encourage students to become better problem solvers, and so it seems vital to help foster a means of creativity within the scope of writing assignments.

Since our minds themselves seek for overall meaning, understanding why we rely on metaphors throughout our daily lives should help us to solve two problems (1) what methods of reasoning in metaphors develop strong persuasive arguments and (2) how does the experience of metaphor influence our cognitive abilities while also informing and enriching our minds? Alan Richardson finds that cognitive theory helps to develop our understandings of social constructs while also informing us on how these constructs influence the individual self: “To construct culture, human beings intimately rely on immensely complex bodies, nervous systems, and sensory systems; these structures have a history that is neither identical to nor separate from the culture they make possible” (Richardson 3). The correlation of how our minds work and the products we produce has been the subject of much debate on human experience and why in fact we as a species have mindsets that are radically different and more complex than other known species. It would seem that in studying our own cognitive processes we may find solutions on how we work and progress in creative processes, such as writing. With that being said, Richardson goes on to say why cognitive theory may help connect the dots on human history and understanding ancestors and their foundations, and how this culminates in how our society today functions: “Cognitive flexibility is crucial to understanding the evolutionary significance of the universal mental structures that make cultural change and literary historical innovation inevitable” (Richardson 4). As English study departments develop, one of the key ingredients is to understand various critical theories and how they come into popularity, shape understanding, and add context to perhaps difficult to interpret texts. Cultural criticism allows for scholars to have awareness of how other cultures view the world and perhaps the reasons behind why they see the world as they do. With cognitive theory and a particular emphasis on conceptual metaphor teachings, it adds another lens to cultural criticism which allows for scholars to discover how the context of said cultures may influence the type of thinking behind the cultural groups and the reasons behind their conclusions: “Spolsky views cognitive literary theory as providing at once a warrant and a corrective for post-structuralist theories of meaning: It proposes a provocative ‘neurologically authentic’ and evolutionary grounding to deconstructionist claims regarding the instability of meaning” (Richardson 4). With further understanding of the claims made throughout history and their complex development, theorists are able to trace thought through historical documents and anthropological artifacts to discover how and why we have developed the rhetoric we have: the end point of all of this is to derive at meaning and to understand how we process and apply meaning. All this so we can enlighten students on being conscious of their writing.

Perceiving Colors and Mental Blindspots

Where might students benefit from exploring the avenues of cognition and rhetoric? One of the focuses being defamiliarized in cognition studies is the idea that we focalize on certain points in our reality so as to make some amount of meaning out of the vast amount of patterns given in experience. For instance, humans see a wide spectrum of color, which is only within a portion of visible light on the entire spectrum of color, and within what we can see we pick out certain colors that appear clear to us so as to code our understanding of the experience. At a young age, children are trained to notice the differences in red, blue, yellow, green, and so forth; between all these colors and their relative shades are fuzzy, less understood colors to our minds but close enough to what we see as primary that said colors end up categorized with the more concrete colors. Lakoff focuses heavily on this idea constituting that, “Color categorization makes use of human biology, but color categories are more than merely a consequence of the nature of the world plus human biology. Color categories result from the world plus human biology plus a cognitive mechanism that has some of the characteristics of fuzzy” (Lakoff 29). He goes on to further state that colors can also be culture specific depending on what range the human eye is trained to perceive. Furthermore, due to color blindness, some are unable to translate certain or even all colors; the colors of course still exist and most who are color blind recognize this, but this does offer a plethora of questions on information that the mind is inherently unable to translate due to blind spots within our own minds.

Coming to these types of conclusions and exploring the world in perhaps more metaphorical terms should help students to open their minds to develop a broader understanding of the world. This way students can both be enriched and humbled as writers and thinkers. As with the color theory, not only is there a wide spectrum of visible colors, but within different collective groups (whether ethnic, regional, or with a blind handicap) color is clearly viewed with different sets of principles: “Color cognition is by no means all the same across cultures. Nor is it by any means arbitrarily different across cultures. The possible color ranges depend upon limited parameters within the cognitive mechanism” (Lakoff, 31). For instance, the Sami, an indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, have hundreds of words for snow, some of which breaks down into exact shades of white. However, the Sami should not be confused with Siberian eskimos which have mistakenly been stated to have hundreds of words for snow, when in actuality according to linguistic specialists, such as Benjamin Lee Whorf, this is a misappropriation.

The eskimo sense of language has more to do with polysynthetic constructions, meaning it is composed highly of morphemes, particularly prefixes and suffixes. This means that the eskimo language roughly has about the same number of English words for snow but with more prefixes. This resonates with one of Whorf’s key theories, the principle of linguistic relativity, which holds that “the structure of a language affects the ways in which its speakers are able to conceptualize their world” (Whorf 27). The overall point in examining color, culture, and our misconceptions of culture would be that in breaking down known patterns we use to translate our human experience, we begin to discover fuzzy areas which are often overlooked due to our minds intuitively filling in gaps -- whether in viewing color or in making conclusions about how different cultures perceive words. Focusing on these areas allows our minds to recognize that there are gray areas -- perhaps for students in composition this could show with rhetorical analysis that there is more range in argument besides opposite poles of thought, as well in slowing down our mental processes to discover how we think lets students recognize how our minds tend to gravitate toward certain focal points in thought, which may need to be reconsidered so as to find enlightenment while navigating through various fields of discourse (and in this case, all at once).

Metaphors for Non Native Speakers

In going in line with social construction, due to the complexity of function in figurative language, metaphor and other poetic devices are difficult for non-native speakers to grasp in new or foreign languages. This shows that across the languages, the ways in which we perceive ideas is different based on the structure of language and that through understanding language construction we can understand the way in which people think and to more effectively communicate with those who may speak a different mother tongue than ourselves. One of the leading scholars on conceptual metaphor, George Lakoff views metaphor in a fairly broad sense: “Metaphorical mappings vary in universality; some seem to be universal, others are widespread, and some seem to be culture specific” (Lakoff, 40). Our utterances give clues into the ways in which we process information, and in teaching rhetorical analysis, these utterances should reveal glimpses of students’ social constructions and origins. This may intuitively help them understand some of the thought making in their own minds which is connected to metaphorical language and how it is “in constant use” and “automatically below the level of consciousness” (Lakoff, 40). My interpretation of what Lakoff may mean by below consciousness is that metaphor is not always inherently understood, but rather delves further back into the subconscious, perhaps in memory, where people call upon and reflect on previous knowledge to decode metaphors.

Often in today’s society objective interpretations are viewed with more esteem than subjective ones, partly since a great number of people would rather deal with concrete facts rather than unpredictable, biased, or unreliable information, but a great deal of life is processed through our own interpretations and what we determine as significant from those interpretations which helps us to make sense of reality. According to cognitive theorist Joseph Carroll, “We locate our sense of ourselves and our actions within imaginative structures that derive from our myths and artistic traditions, from the stories we tell, the songs we sing, and the visual images that animate our minds [...] We do not have the option of living outside our own imaginative constructs” (Carroll 123). By intentionally developing imagination and being more self aware of its functions may help students to seek new methods on how to be creative to overall successfully arrive at various composition goals such as: connecting a number of ideas together to create a powerful whole, having a more developed understanding of what may exist within a range of arguments, brainstorming for new insights into various concepts and problems, and in developing an awareness and appreciation for multitudes of perspectives. How does imagination apply to metaphor and creating stronger prose? According to Richardson, consciousness connects back to an enriched understanding of others: “Self-awareness is a necessary element of moral consciousness, and it is the precondition for self-esteem, embarrassment, shame, and guilt. In its other-directed aspect, the ‘Theory of Mind’ is the capacity for envisioning the inner mental state of other humans, their beliefs, desires, feelings, thoughts, and perceptions” (Richardson 24). Intentionality in consciousness not only helps to broaden our understandings of metaphor, but also in what Richardson theorizes, consciousness is key to understanding perspectives outside the self.

In dealing with the consciousness of metaphors and perhaps their benefit to first year composition classrooms, memory functions play into the understanding of how we derive meaning from metaphor. To understand metaphor our minds often trek through past experiences, phrases, and visuals to make the figurative ideas understood. “We automatically and unconsciously compute every time we produce or utter a sentence, that governs our use of language [...] It seems to be based on a fixed set of concepts, which govern dozens of constructions and thousands of verbs -- not only in English, but in all other languages” (Pinker). Our minds contain a great deal of information and to reach conclusions about metaphors shows a great deal of cognitive aptitude as well as revealing information about one’s language, social circles, and origin. In a world where memory is not as pursued due to a reliance on instantaneous answers through search engines and technology, there is a chance that our memorization skills have waned which, more than likely, paralyzes society’s metaphorical thinking. Without an understanding of critical moments in history, verses of text, and so forth we may be easily persuaded to believe false histories or even made up ones that are tentatively published online. Memory is one of the most powerful tools humans have in their minds, and also without proper usage of it consistently throughout life, there are indications that said processes will deteriorate at faster rates than those who do consistently use it. This could easily lead to dementia.

Plato expressed the same type of concern for the loss of memorization skills in his work Phaedrus, a dialogue between Plato’s protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus, and interlocutor where they have several discussions revolving around the art of rhetoric. Socrates recites a legend on the gift of writing from the Egyptian god Theuth to King Thamus. Theuth believes this gift will allow for a bettering of memory in the citizens, but Thamus sees this from another angle: “The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them [...] for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners‘ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust external written characters and not remember of themselves” (Plato 37). With invention, it appears that it may account for distortions in our capacity to remember and that Socrates insists for rhetors to commit to “recollection of the truth from within the soul by way of question-and-answer” (Plato 38) rather than rely on the performance of a tool that is intended to merely remind, rather than the crucial difference to enter our own primary memory reservoirs to recall information.

The Body and the Mind

With an enriched understanding of memory through cognitive theory, students should be able to do research more swiftly and call upon what they need to correlate certain ideas together to produce a persuasive argument. Writers can enhance their memory by reflecting on their research or personal experiences so as to process what they have and come to conclusions about what is significant before writing their papers (Raymond 1). Through the process of inputting information into one’s brain and processing it allows for output; we output much less than we input so it is important to spend enough time in research to collect a bank worth considering. Raymond supports the idea of strong processing methods: “Since every mental construct reflects an adaptation of the mind to the world, the language that expresses these constructs attests to the continuous process of poetic thinking” (Raymond 1). This does not just extend to the collective production of the student paper’s identity, but in part is a sample of how we develop a sense of our own self overtime: “Individual persons are bodies wrapped in skin with nervous systems sending signals to brains that are soaked in blood and encased in bone. Each individual human brain contains a continuous sequence of thoughts, feelings, and memories constituting a distinct personal identity” (Carroll 118). To deny the body that’s connected to the mind is like denying time from space; the two work together to make context, when separated we lose our understanding of existence, on a literal sense without a body we cannot exist, but at the same time the body influences the ways in which the mind perceives the world.

The body is important to the way the mind processes information from the maladies of the body giving the brain perception whether in genius or handicap, to the body actually giving the mind a direction whether the eyes draw in visual information or the feet move us to new destinations whereby we can come across a variety of events. As with a similar note, it would be difficult to separate the mind from the body as it wold be difficult to separate thought from language. Within the contexts we engage in with our own physical selves, we come to process our surroundings and our own individual selves. Our cognitive processes clearly shape us, not only as a species, but as the individual writers and thinkers that we aspire to be. Memory should not be discarded in rhetorical analysis but used to navigate through a plethora of academic discourses so as to make decisive decisions about what is significant in thought and what is less thought provoking.

In conclusion, metaphor, imagination, and memory are all subjects of debate in the cognitive theory world and also relay a great deal of information on language. Metaphor helps to relate less tangible concepts while also making the farfetched and abstract relatable, while also looking at it with the lens of cognition we find that metaphor is ordinary and a process necessary for human experience since much of our experience relies on subjectivity. Imagination is the vehicle where we can explore our ideas and be open to possible conjectures, which is often an area where students may struggle since they may want to hold on to certain ideas, but within the scope of imaginative thinking and concentrating on creating scenarios, visuals, and the like students are able to further their understanding of reality as well as submerse themselves into an open kind of critical thinking. Memory allows us to discover what we find significant not only in our past selves, but also within research building, which supports the idea that spending time in research to process the ideas helps in creating a strong and sound argument. Overall, cognitive theory is in development as steps are taken to understand the various cogs of the mind. Accepting that language and thought are closely related should help to bridge cognitive theorists with rhetoricians together to have a better understanding of metaphor and its myriad of influences on the individual self, persuasive thought, as well as society.

Works Cited

Carroll, Joseph. An Evolutionary Paradigm for Literary Study. St Louis: University of Missouri, 2009. 1-323. Print.

Fahnestock, Jeanne. "Rhetoric in the Age of Cognitive Science" The Viability of Rhetoric. N.p.: New York State: State University of New York Press, 2005. 159-79. Web. 15 Nov. 2011.

Gibbs, Jr., Raymond W. The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language, and Understanding. Santa Cruz: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Johnson, Mark J. "The Review of Metaphysics." A Philosophical Quarterly 46.2 (1992): 425-26. JSTOR. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Lakoff, George. "The Contemporary Theory of Metaphor." Ortony: Metaphor and Thought 2 (1992): 1-46. Print

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago Presswi, 1987. Print.

Pinker, Steve, perf. Steve Pinker on Language and Thought. 2005. TEDGlobal. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.

Plato and Walter Hamiliton. Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. New York City: Penguin Books, 1973. Print.

Richardson, Alan. "Literature and the Cognitive Revolution: An Introduction." Poetics Today

23.1 (2002): 1-8. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Nov. 2011.

Whorf, Benjamin L. Language, Thought, and Reality. N.p.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956. Print.


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