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Most of the reading I have to do for my exams is fairly boring in that it's stuff I already know about or have read before but need to revise (like gender linguistics, or Gothic literature) but some of it is also new and interesting. One of the two fields I picked for my oral exam in English linguistics is "cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory" and one of the monographies I had to read for this is a book called "The Way We Think" by Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002) and it's both challenging, interesting and full of weird examples that make the somewhat dry topic of cognitive operations a lot more fun. It's more a cognitive science/psychology book than a proper linguistics book, but it explains the mechanisms that underlie many aspects of language: analogy, grammar, metaphors, counterfactual statements (i.e. lies, stories, speculation) and how we manage to talk about complex, abstract or novel things by using a few simple human scale patterns.



"The Way We Think" is the kind of book I loved to read as a teenager. I had a phase where I voraciously read non-fiction books - popular science, like Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" or Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time". I preferred a fairly narrow range of subjects: astrophysics/cosmology, evolution, biology and later philosophy/ethics. Kinda surprising given that I turned into more of an arts/social sciences grown-up but I think the reason I liked these books is that they didn't require you to have expert skills/knowledge in mathematics, physics or chemistry and at the same time fulfilled a gap in my education: that left by religion or a rigid system or morals and a prescribed worldview. Pretty much the only guidance my family gave me in that respect was: religion is fiction, it is a system of faulty and arbitrary beliefs, it may be fascinating and creative, but it is no more true than any other fiction.

But I think the need to understand the world and ourselves in a systematic way is a basic human need. We can't really live in a world that is just an infinite number of unrelated, chaotic things and events, we want causal relationships, categories, patterns. Mythology, religion, social hierarchies and customs ("we do this because it is the way it is done", "it is true because I say it is") are one way to structure our experience and sense of self, science is another. Science as an activity performed by humans may work differently (we don't usually try to test the hypotheses of religion or mythology, although we may believe in "proofs" of their reality, like miracles or magic) but one of the purposes of science is to tell a story (i.e. a model) of how the world works. (The other purpose is real world applications - e.g. building a tool - but then, magical or religious worldviews also have "real world applications" like ritual or prayer).

"The Way We Think" is interesting in that it attempts to explain both why we need to structure the world in this way and how we do it with seemingly basic cognitive operations. Here are a few of the book's ideas:

1) The way the minds of living organisms work is more complex than it may seem. (This is a basic assumption of cognitive science). When we see a blue cup of coffee, for example, we don't actually see a blue cup of coffee. What happens is that our eyes perceive light and our brains make sense of this data by interpreting it as "a blue cup of coffee". A one-year old baby would not see a blue cup of coffee" but it would see "a blue object". This is not a given. If human beings had a different scale (for example if we were the size of atoms or stars), we would perceive something very different, or nothing at all. But because we are human-size, we perceive the cup not as atoms or a speck of nothing, but as an object in our surroundings. And for some reason, we perceive it as ONE object, not for example two objects (cup and handle). When we see an animal or a plant, we don't perceive it as a conglomeration of organs and cells and microbes, we see one big organism. We integrate all the sensory data we get (light, smell, touch) and from this we construct the mental concept of "this is an object" (i.e. the blue cup). Robots are still pretty bad at interpreting sensory data in this way.

2) But we do more than this. We don't just stop at perceiving the blue cup as "one object", as contemporary Western adults, we manage to perceive it as "a blue cup" (not "a conical blue object which is hollow inside and has an opening and contains liquid"). But a person who has never seen a cup, or whose culture has cups but they're never blue and never this shape, would not see a blue cup (maybe they'd see "a small, oddly shaped blue bucket"). As adults, we don't perceive each object we encounter as a completely novel and context-free thing, but we understand it in terms of mental concepts and categories that we already have. Growing up, we gradually learn these categories step by step (objects I can touch, taste, manipulate --> some objects are containers --> some containers are used for food --> different types of food containers: glasses, bowls, cups).

A category, though, isn't something that really exists, and to arrive at a category like "container" requires several mental steps, according to Fauconnier and Turner. Step 1: all the individual instances we perceived containers. Step 2: realizing that there is an analogy - they all had something in common (they can contain stuff). Step 3: this analogy becomes the basis for the mental concept of "container". This mental concept does not refer to any real, individual object (as do our memories of all the individual containers we have encountered). Instead, it is simply a list (or a network) of the features these individual instances had in common: can be touched, hollow, can contain stuff, has an inside and an outside, etc.

3) Now that we have managed to create this general space "containers" within our minds, we see the world with new eyes. We encounter an object, and instead of perceiving it as just a new, random, never before seen object (although that is what it is), we perceive it as a container. But how do we do this? Intuitively, you'd think that our minds operate like this: they analyze the sensory data, compare it to the mental space "containers" and if it fits, the mind concludes that this new object is a container of some sort.

But this assumes that our mental spaces in some way directly represent the real world - that categories are somehow real, the way Platonic ideas are real. But containers only exist in our minds. At the sub-atomic level, the concept of "container" doesn't really make any sense at all.

And the things we perceive as containers don't really have a lot in common, once you think about it: cups are containers, but so are our bodies, houses, nations, even transient phenomena like "winter" ("there's snow in winter" assumes that winter is a sort of container which contains months like December and holidays like Christmas and certain kinds of weather) or abstract concepts like "an hour" ("imagine how much work you could fit into an hour").

This (according to this theory) is because once our mind has learned a category or concept that can be applied to its immediate surroundings in useful ways (it is useful to understand that all objects of a certain kind can contain stuff: I can put water into a container, but I can't put water into a flat surface like a table), it keeps this category as a mental space, and begins to apply this mental space also to objects or even events and states that are less immediate - like a nation, for example.

This goes in two ways: on the one hand, it is easier to understand a nation as a container ("France is a container that contains all these regions, buildings, people, customs etc." than to think of France as a complex, abstract historically grown and socially constructed idea. On the other hand, we arrive at the notion of "a nation" because we perceive areas as containers: everything I can see is "contained" within my field of vision --> a spatial area is a container. By this same logic, a forest is a container ("all the animals in the forest"), a city is a container ("the city is filled with noise and pollution") and so on. But cities aren't cups. The city doesn't physically "hold" the noise and pollution inside the way the cup holds the coffee inside. It has no natural boundaries, only the boundaries we perceive. Nevertheless we can think of the city as a container and this mental operation is useful to us as a concept ("in the city", "not in the city"). France isn't a cup, either. It doesn't really hold all the French people and cities and prevent them from flowing away to all sides the way the cup holds the coffee. Nevertheless, we say "Paris is in France, but Berlin is in Germany."

So how do we make France a container? According to cognitive linguistics, we do it through a mental operation called "blending". This is how it works:

1) We have formed a mental space "containers" in our mind. This mental space is (through memory and our recognition of analogies) connection to real world instances of containers-we-have-known. Our mental space "containers" consists of all the features we have come to associate with containers.

2) We have learned another category, that of "nation". This corresponds to a mental space "nation" in our minds, with all the things we know of and associate with nations (geographical features, cities, a language, people, but also patriotism or war or travel).

These two spaces are the "input spaces".

3) Because humans love to see patterns even where there are none, we compare these two mental spaces and find "common" features: "outside the container" corresponds to "not part of the nation". But we also see structures that the two mental spaces don't share: nations have no openings, but containers sometimes do, containers can be empty, but nations can't (they'd cease to be a nation). From this emerges a new mental space with all the shared features, but none of the dissimilar features. In this case, this would be a mental space with features like: has a spatial extension, contains other objects, has an inside and an outside. Note that all the features in this case are determined by the "container" template. Fauconnier/Turner call this third mental space "generic space".

4) And now the blend happens. We can imagine the blend as a fourth mental space. It has the structure of the generic space, and features from both input spaces, but it is also its own, independent mental concept. In this case: nations-as-containers. It is only in the blended space that we can say that a nation has a physical border. Only by blending "containers" and "nations" can we say that we live in France, or that many people immigrate to France. Immigration is conceptualized as a move from one container into another container.

This is kinda hard to follow, and I'm afraid my nations/containers example isn't very good, but here's another, more familiar one (also inspired, though indirectly, by this book): consider Hooker AUs. Yeah.

So we have two input spaces:

1) Input 1: Hookers and what we know or think or know of them - our mental space dedicated to hookers

2) Input 2: A fandom, let's say Avengers and all the things we associate with this fandom

Somehow, through fannish mental contortions, we arrive at a generic space of features that the Avengers have in common with hookers:

3) generic space: attractive people, unusual skills, social stigma, dangerous work etc.

So they have some things in common, but not really enough to justify a hooker AU blend. This means that we have to take additional features from one of the input spaces and map them onto the blend, even though they aren't shared, in this case features such as: sex for money, customers, pimps etc.

The blend that results is our Avengers hooker AU fic:

4) Blended space: Avengers hooker AU

Blending is very similar to how metaphors work because metaphors are a kind of blending. Conventionally, we regard metaphors as a device used to understand one concept in terms of another concept: in "winter is coming", we understand "winter" in terms of a person that can act intentionally, and do things like come and go. "winter" is the target domain, and "people" is the source domain.

Newer views of metaphor accept that this is not a one-way relationship: we don't simply take features of the source domain and map them onto the target domain. What we actually seem to do is a blend: we take features from both domains and create something that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a person. The blended winter-person is a kind of hybrid being: it can act like a person by moving, threatening us, hurting us, it can be male or female etc., but it is also cold and has powers over the weather and so on.

Blending not only allows us to think and talk about complicated things in ways that we find less complicated, it also allows us to think about things that aren't real and make very little sense. For example I just read a tumblr post in which some tumblerite imagines a turtle version of Starfleet (don't ask). Turtle Starfleet makes no sense in the real world: turtles aren't sentient, they have no thumbs, Starfleet doesn't exist. Yet amazingly, human beings can imagine Turtle Starfleet quite well: we blend "sentient beings" with "turtles" and then blend these sentient turtle people with the prexisting blend Star Trek and voilĂ . What we get is probably a bit like that Voyager episode with the Earth dinosaurs who emigrated to the Delta quadrant after the asteroid hit.

"The Way We Think" is chock full of great examples (though not as great as Turtle Star Trek) and mental excercises to make your head spin. I find a lot of it very intuitive - in a way it explains basic stuff that we already know, so some of it seems trivial, but since we usually don't notice these mental operations (they're usually subconscious) it's fascinating to try and think about them. It also offers great explanations for rituals and for ingrained prejudice: one of the blends examined is "jail bait". Jail bait blends "fishing/trapping" with "underage persons" and "ending up in jail" in such a way that the resulting blend has some features of the fishing input space (a fisherman who puts bait on a hook on purpose) that it seems as though the man who commits a crime by having sex with an underage girl has been intentionally tempted, and is the fish/innocent victim. But who does the fisher correspond to in real life? There is no fisher. No one actually baited the sex offender. But this blend directs us to look for a fisher, so its very structure implies blaming the underage girl (or possibly another tempting agency like "the Devil" or "the law").


So, it's a really interesting book. (yes, I have been working for seven hours straight and now am too tired to finish this post in a proper way.)
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