[I ought to have a category label “my cognitive turn.” You might call this part of the series “My Adventures in Cognitive Linguistics, Cognitive Rhetoric, and Cognitive Poetics” that began with “My Cognitive (Re)Turn.”]

conceptual blend diagramI’ve read a fair amount of books and articles on blending, a topic with which I seem to have, metaphorically speaking, a “tip of the tongue” relationship. I understand it and understand how it describes the cognitive processes behind various mnemonic practices I’m interested in, but I have a hard time explaining it. Sort of. I mean, I can explain it and do so in such a way that people seem to understand what I’m talking about, but, at the same time, I feel like I don’t get it. Maybe my problem is with diagramming blends beyond something simple such as the diagram on the right, taken from Mark Turner’s “Blending and Conceptual Integration” page and used in a number of publications authored and co-authored by him.1 Any way, having read a fair amount of this stuff, I thought I’d post a good, succinct definition of conceptual blending or conceptual integration since I always find myself rereading to assure myself I’m not missing something:

Blending is a process of conceptual mapping and integration that pervades human thought. A mental space is a small conceptual packet assembled for purposes of thought and action. A mental space network connects an array of mental spaces. A conceptual integration network is a mental space network that contains one or more “blended mental spaces.” A blended mental space is an integrated space that receives input projections from other mental spaces in the network and develops emergent structure not available from the inputs. Blending operates under a set of constitutive principles and a set of governing principles. [From Mark Turner’s “Blending and Conceptual Integration” page.]

Gilles Fauconnier, co-developer of conceptual blending and frequent collaborator with Turner, explains that “the essence of the operation is to construct a partial match between input mental spaces and to project selectively from those inputs into a novel ‘blended’ space” (1).2 Actually, in contemplating this, I think I struggle with identifying the generic space as well. But I’m getting a head of my self here. Let’s back up and I’ll provide a concrete example of a blend and explain it in terms of the diagram.

I think I first encountered the theory of blending in Turner’s The Literary Mind. One example was the anthropomorphic personification of Death, the scythe-carrying hooded skeleton. This representation of Death, Turner explained, is a blend that emerged out of agrarian medieval Europe. Mental spaces provide for us the inputs from which the blend emerges. In this case, Turner suggests, we have clerical class and their clothing, particularly monks, from which we get the cowl and scapular; dead and decayed bodies, from which we get the skeleton; and harvesting, from which we get the scythe. So, for this blend, we have three mental spaces providing three inputs. The generic space, if I had to guess, is death/end of life. Clergy, Turner explains, are connected to death because of funerals, funeral processions, and praying for the dead. I assume I don’t need to explain the connection dead bodies and the harvest have to death. 🙂 Okay, so, the three input mental spaces (medieval clergy, dead bodies, harvest) selectively project into our new blended mental space, the concept of an anthropomorphic personification of Death (aka Grim Reaper) that functions as a harvester of souls.

If this sounds similar to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s theory of conceptual metaphor, that’s because it is.3 Both emerge out of cognitive linguistics and serve as evidence for embodied cognition. Traditionally, while rhetoric and poetic have regarded metaphor as a special use of language, these theories argue that metaphor underlies all thought to such an extent that we don’t recognize most thought as metaphorical. From the places and images mnemonic and the cognitive images of monastic rhetoric to understanding how social memory functions rhetorically—to say nothing of database rhapsody—metaphor has its tentacles throughout my scholarship. My pedagogy too.

I’m scared of metaphor.

I’m scared of metaphor because I could become lost in it. I could just dive into the study of metaphor and never return to anything else. I also ind myself flailing around until I go cross-eyed and develop a headache when I try to read some of the more complex theories of metaphor. So, metaphor scares me. For me, studying metaphor is a studying a black hole. No matter how close I might get drawn to into it, there’s an event horizon I dare not cross, only, the closer in I go, the more strongly it pulls me in and that damn event horizon isn’t clearly marked at all. So I’m scared of metaphor.

Today I decided I needed to delve in again by reading Paul Ricoeur’s “The Metaphorical Process as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling” (Critical Inquiry 5.1 (1978: 143-159), an article I’ve been avoiding for a few years now.4 Good stuff. What I found most interesting about this article is that Ricoeur sets the stage for the work of Turner, Lakoff, Johnson, and Fauconnier. Ricoeur, writing in 1978, demonstrates the inadequacies of traditional theories of metaphor and concludes that “there is a structural analogy between cognitive, the imaginative, and the emotional components of the complete metaphorical act […]” (159). The theories of blending and conceptual metaphor and other related concepts provide the cognitive model Ricoeur argues we needed.

  1. Truth be told, I never been able to do more than diagram a simple sentence, so maybe it’s diagramming and not blending I have a problem with. []
  2. From his presentation “Conceptual Integration,” available online as part of the proceedings of the 2001 Workshop Emergence and Development of Embodied Cognition. []
  3. See Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By and Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things []
  4. Avoiding, of course, because I’m scared Ricoeur might be an event horizon. []