ChapterPDF Available

[Embodied mind] How Does Body Ground Mind? Margaret Wilson, Internalization and Metaphor



How body relates to mind is the fundamental question addressed by embodiment theory. Margaret Wilson’s (2002) wide-ranging review assessed six versions of the theory. Wilson concluded one to do with internalization is effective: allegedly abstract cognitive processes “make use of sensorimotor functions in exactly this kind of covert way” (p. 633). Alas, we argue, internalization assumes rather than provides the basics in theory of cognition. We conclude physical skills can be driven by ideas as much as concepts can use our experience of our body.
Embodied mind
How Does Body Ground Mind? Margaret Wilson, Internalization and Metaphor
John M. Kennedy & John Vervaeke
University of Toronto
Festschrift: Essays in honour of Dunja Jutronic
University of Maribor epublication
November 17, 2008
Editor: Prof. Dr. Bojan Borstner,
Philosophy Department, University of Maribor
Koroska cesta 160,
2000 Maribor, Slovenia
Running head: Embodied mind
Authors’ address:
University of Toronto at Scarborough
1265, Military Trail
Toronto, Ontario M1C1A4 Canada
Tel 416—287—7435 Fax 416—287—7642
Correspondence to: John M. Kennedy FRSC
Fellow, Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 2008-9
Embodied mind
How body relates to mind is the fundamental question addressed by embodiment
theory. Margaret Wilson’s (2002) wide-ranging review assessed six versions of the
theory. Wilson concluded one to do with internalization is effective: allegedly abstract
cognitive processes “make use of sensorimotor functions in exactly this kind of covert
way” (p. 633). Alas, we argue, internalization assumes rather than provides the basics in
theory of cognition. We conclude physical skills can be driven by ideas as much as
concepts can use our experience of our body.
Embodied mind
“The embodiment issue” -- how a person can be both someone who knows things
and a physical body -- is a key problem in theory of knowledge. Some linguistics,
philosophy and psychology proposals on the table seem hair-raisingly far-fetched, and
some do not add anything to common sense. In Vervaeke & Kennedy (2004) we sifted
through claims made by philosophers and linguists about embodiment and metaphor and
concluded the goals were impressive and the suggestions eye-catching, but the methods
of inquiry involved special pleading and the explanations failed to generalize. Here we
contribute to the active debate today about metaphor and embodiment (Al-Zahrani, 2008)
by examining a popular and powerful “internalization” argument, in a version proposed
by a psychologist.
Margaret Wilson’s (2002) review article, a lively discussion of “embodied
cognition,” develops intriguing views on internalization. However, we argue the
internalization thesis fails in principle as a general explanation of cognition, and turn her
directions around -- thought influences action just as acts influence thought.
We are pleased to offer this essay to honour Dunja Jutronic. She has helped us in
research on symbolism and language (Kennedy & Kennedy, 1998; Liu & Kennedy, 1997)
and her analysis of social forces behind language formation we found informative and
Induction and embodiment
A few words about embodiment and epistemology may help introduce our goals
here. Conant (2008) writes that prominent philosophers Dreyfus and McDowell clash
over the nature of intelligence in everyday skills -- the extent to which conceptual
understanding enters into perception and action. Their questions center on Kantian
Embodied mind
concerns about understanding in perception and its Hegelian counterpart -- theory and
practice in relation to action (Hamlet’s dilemma).
To delve into these issues, a good place to start is with the unsolved problem of
induction. An infinite number of hypotheses fit any limited set of facts. If we see 7 black
birds in a field on Monday and 6 on Tuesday and 5 on Wednesday, what hypothesis might
we induce? That the number of birds is decreasing? That there will always be some? That
birds will be black till 2055 and green thereafter, as Nelson Goodman (1966) famously
joked? A mind presented with a set of experiences can induce an infinite number of half-
baked possibilities.
Usually, something about our limits as thinking entities makes us consider only a
few possibilities about the birds. As with birds, so goes our body, our language and our
Gallagher (2005), following Henry Head (1920), points out we have a body sense
that enables us to move our hand under a table to locate a fastening mechanism. We
connect vision of the tabletop and our own kinesthetic body sense. We relate optic
energies to mechanical ones, despite optics and kinetics being physically distinct. We
sense one world in the different energies, and our body in that world.
Children hear snatches of language and induce their native language. The snatches
trigger a language faculty to induce the native language’s rules about, say, pluralization.
Similarly, following a few quick eye movements, we can see a world with a ground plain
supporting objects and a sky above. We could not if the only thing we had to use was the
possibility of induction from the limited data of the senses.
Embodied mind
To bypass the chasm of induction, we need bridges. For vision, the bridge is
surely this: The world is highly constrained by surfaces, their visible borders and textures.
The laws of projection from surfaces fit perceivers’ abilities like a key into a lock. We
grow up in a physical environment of sounds and sights constrained in major ways, and
our abilities need to be tuned to those ways. But what constraints? And what tuning?
There lies the debate.
Perception’s constraints and tuning are clear. We can state the physical elements
involved precisely and exhaustively. The environment’s surfaces are flat or curved, with
edges that occlude like rooflines or smooth hilltops. At the occluding edge, the depth
from the observer falls away abruptly. Part of the surface is foreground and at the
occluding edge there is an abrupt step in depth to the background. The observer is in front
of the occluding surface.
Flat surfaces can form convex and concave corners. At a corner there is an abrupt
change in slant. A convex corner points to the observer and the concave one enfolds him
or her. The corners indicate the observer’s location.
A surface’s texture reflects patterned light to the observer. That is, besides borders
of surfaces there are borders on surfaces. The texture is due to changes in reflectance on
the surface or to mottling from light and shade on the surface, like light perking through
the leaves of a tree and spreading across a sidewalk. The texture structures the light
coming to the vantage point of the observer, and the light contains information about the
Surfaces are visible because the light from them meets certain conditions. The
textured light has a regularity that allows the elements to group in a single plane. Hence it
Embodied mind
appears opaque. The absence of information for two planes in one direction is the
information for opacity. The light from a natural surface often indicates its stiffness and
durability, that is its ability to resist the force of our actions on it. If the light from the
surface specifies it is horizontal, it indicates it can support objects resting on it. If it
specifies a wall, its size and stiffness indicates whether it blocks our passage, or we can
step over it or push through it. Much as Gibson (1979) wrote, the light specifies the
affordance of the surface for a Henry Head body of a certain size.
Surface borders – borders of surfaces and on surfaces – are made visible to
observers via 8 optic borders. These are constructed of changes of luminance (brightness)
and spectral composition (colour). The luminance and spectral borders can be monocular
or be purely binocular. That is, differences in left- and right-eye monocular borders can
create purely binocular divisions. If the left eye receives 123O56 and the right eye
receives 12O456 the difference generates binocular optic borders, with the O appearing in
the foreground. The O occludes the 4 for the left eye and the 3 for the right eye.
Likewise, moving borders reveal purely kinetic divisions. A display can show 123456789
at one time and 12345789 a moment later. A moment later still it shows 1234589. Next it
shows 123459. Finally, 12345 alone. This will look like 12345 are foreground and 6789
are part of a background moving behind 12345. The 6789 texture units move, shrink and
vanish from sight (optic deletion). In reverse they would appear (9, then 89, then 789 then
6789), increasing (via optic accretion) their presence at the border by seeming to come
out from behind the 12345 foreground. Further, in principle, two kinetic borders, one in
the left eye and one in the right, can have shape differences that make for a purely
binocular border.
Embodied mind
Observers have specialized physical equipment to respond to these optic borders.
In other words, we must be properly embodied to respond effectively to an environment
that is well organized. The study of perception involves technical analysis of the key
elements in the physical environment and the matching physiological locks in the human
The corners of buildings and occluding edges of rooflines tell us where the
observer is. They specify an observer’s location. The vantage point of the observer is
enclosed by corners. It lies where part of a roof is in front of the observer, and part is the
back surface of the foreground object. Kinetic edges show what is coming out from
behind a foreground surface, and coming into view (accretion) and what is going behind
a foreground surface (deletion), at a particular vantage point. Being aware of these
surfaces is being aware of what lies around our vantage point. The observer is physically
“grounded.” The observer is at a specified place, in an environment.
The indissoluble pairing of the environment and perceptual physiology is the
solution to the problem of induction in perception. In an environment with constraints on
surfaces and their borders perception can gain information about what lies around the
observer. The constraints are precise and technical.
We began by saying induction allows infinite hypotheses in an unconstrained
world. Our analysis of vision shows this daunting puzzle is merely a tautology. The
tautology is clear when stated this way: if there are no constraints on the environment,
there are no constraints on what could be in the environment. Goodman’s humorous
black-green birds hypothesis would be as good any other. But if the environment is
constrained, the optic borders delivered to the perceiver are good information about what
Embodied mind
is generating the optic borders. It behooves the embodied observer to be tuned to the
In sum, embodiment’s goal is to solve the problem of induction. If perception
theory is any guide, embodiment theory needs to be technical about the body, and the
world in which the body grows up. The lock and the key need to be specified. Therefore,
when we turn to psychology for a convincing, useful argument about embodiment, we
might look for a technical description of the resources of the environment and the body’s
signature abilities that allow it to respond to the environment.
Let us see how far “internalization” can encourage us in this respect. The basic
idea is that many of our skilled actions in the environment become reduced to shadows of
their full-scale selves, and these echoes of actions, internalized, are the basis for
cognition. Some of them are used metaphorically, which expands their usefulness
enormously. If internalization is vital, we should study how it proceeds in great detail. If
it is a non-starter, the need for detailed study can be dismissed, and a lot of labour saved.
Margaret Wilson
Wilson (2002) writes “the mind must be understood in the context of its
relationship to a physical body that interacts with the world” (p. 625). Tying shoelaces
and dancing brilliantly are skills that we have trouble putting into words, so they exist to
a considerable extent in their own right, as embodied knowledge without language.
Intriguingly, Wilson notes much of the argument for embodied cognition today has to do
with metaphor, that “mental concepts are deeply metaphorical” and rely “on analogies
between abstract domains and more concrete ones”(p. 634). Thereby “even highly
abstract mental concepts may be rooted, albeit in an indirect way, in sensory and motoric
Embodied mind
knowledge.” (p.634). The sensory and motoric knowledge has to be internalized, Wilson
argues. She says embodied cognition is a "widespread phenomenon in the human mind"
and that it "reflect[s] a very general underlying principle of cognition (p. 635)."
The body plays many uncontroversial roles in cognition, such as requiring us to
have names for head, arm, eye etc. So let us flag right away the major question, and stress
that the game of interest is not to do with easily settled matters. Subjects often use parts
of their body to count, gesture with their hands when talking, move expressively when
reacting to a happy or sad event, react physically to the finer points of a sport they are
watching, and write down shopping needs rather than remembering them directly. No-one
disputes that we do all of these. Cognition of course is shot full of body-features like
these. Each of these is certainly well worth studying in its own right. Improve a bodily
skill enough and you win an Olympic medal. But if this were all, major philosophers and
linguists of our day would not have joined the lists. There would be no ontological drama
to the inquiry. Rather, at the core of the debate are fundamental ideas such as symbol
grounding (how an arbitrary event can take on a specific meaning), the connection
between understanding and action, the place of perception and imagery in
comprehension, the power of metaphors to do with space and the body, and the
communication of ideas through a material medium (Grady, 1999; Gibbs, 2003).
Helpfully, Wilson distinguishes six different claims. We concur with her in dismissing
five. The internalization one that she considers especially valuable we will critique and
then come to grips with embodiment’s metaphor theory.
Five of the Margaret Wilson six: Space, time and notation
Embodied mind
First Wilson notes observers interact “with the things the cognitive activity is
about” (Wilson, 2002, p. 626). An athlete has skills with a bat and a ball. Important as
skilled action is, Wilson rightly disposes of this as a general account of human cognition
because “our ability to form mental representations about things that are remote in time
and space” (p.626) does not involve interaction in the here and now with these things. We
can add that neither the idea of infinity nor the idea of zero can be reduced to skilled
action. There is no “infinite action” and “no action” on anything is indistinguishable
from a particular action in that sitting doing nothing is actually sitting. It is not “just
nothing.” As the saying goes, sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.
Actions can serve as metaphors in a dance e.g. a love affair can be portrayed by a
dancer simulating a flower growing. However, no skilled action in and of itself is a
metaphor. It is only a metaphor if it is being used to refer to some other matter. The
skilled action in and of itself does not refer to anything outside of itself.
Second Wilson asks if cognition is inherently time pressured. Cognizers often
have to come up with quick and appropriate responses to fluid evolving situations (Giora,
2003), like couriers in heavy traffic. We react to looming and zooming objects in near-
reflex fashion from early in life. Wilson’s spot-on criticism is that this cannot be a
general account of human cognition. We “often behave in a decidedly off-line way;
stepping back, observing, assessing, planning, and only then taking action” (p. 628).
Thirdly Wilson notes we off-load cognitive work. We leave information in
physical media and “we physically store and manipulate those details out in the world, in
the very situation itself” (p. 629). A clear example is the use of a diagram to solve a
spatial reasoning task. The use of physical resources “for cognitive purposes not directly
Embodied mind
linked to the situation has potentially far-reaching consequences for our understanding of
cognition in general” (p. 629).
For Wilson, it is not clear “symbolic off-loading” (p.629) is embodied thought.
What is the mental status of the physical notation? It is a mark not a mind. We can use a
calculator to find the square root of 8790, and it will succeed before we would in mental
arithmetic. But what should we make of this?
Off-loading is an odd argument for embodiment. Besides discussing the
observer’s physical body, we are now relying on physical objects outside the body. The
appeal of this argument is that sometimes we feel as if we were touching a distal object
when we use a tool such as a fork. But the target for the explanation is our thoughts about
numbers, diagrams and notes to ourselves, not an extended sense of our presence.
Abstract thought can indeed be allied with a physical notation that can be
scanned, used as a memory aid, manipulated or programmed (Vervaeke & Kennedy,
2004). But abstract thought precedes, both individually and historically, the existence of
the notations. It is presupposed in the learning of a notation. A circle means zero for
reasons other than its form, colour or size. The notation’s meaning lies elsewhere.
Graphic elements on a screen signal a square root to us. But not to the machine that
produced them. Beads on an abacus mean things to us, not to the beads.
Children count on their figures and physicists gesticulate when discussing models
of elementary particles. Should we generalize and argue that seriously-demanding off-
line abstract thought (about a number, or a particle) is grounded in embodied and on-line
forms of representation (fingers and their motions)? Rather, these examples are not
directly about basics. They are descriptions of taxing endeavors. They show that when we
Embodied mind
are cognitively stretched we turn to simple models. But each time we say a tough
problem is communicated or solved by using something simple, one implication is surely
that we understand the less-demanding concepts directly, without models. The use of
notations for stressful high-order endeavors does not tell us about the base of cognition.
We may use pencil and paper to add 34567 to 76543, but there is no need to claim
numbers like 1 and 2 are understood via pencil and paper. Rather, we need an account of
what is understood directly, without ever-simpler models always intervening. This would
produce an infinite regress.
We can count on beans as readily as on fingers, and so one might say that the
body is just one of many objects that could be brought into service by the cognizer.
Fingers, beads and computer graphemes are all physical elements we use, but they are all
“just beads” in one form or another, nothing more. The system that takes a finger, a bead
or a grapheme as a representation of a number such as “3” is what we need to explain.
Because we understand 3, we can recognize new and different instances. The fingers,
beads and graphemes are recognized as instances because we understand what “3” is.
Wilson’s fourth take on embodiment asks if the use of beads, calculators and
fingers shows that cognition is not an activity of the mind but is actually “distributed
across the entire interacting situation, including mind, body, and environment” (p.630)?
Is cognition people-and-place, not people per se?
Wilson argues precisely and clearly that distributed causality does not equal
distributed identity. Hydrogen interacts with other elements but hydrogen can also be
studied on its own, and much scientific understanding of hydrogen “came from
Embodied mind
understanding the workings of the narrowly defined system that is the hydrogen atom” (p.
Wilson notes that across activities “perceptual mechanisms, attentional filters,
working memory, and so on – retain their fundamental roles” (p. 631). In other words,
the cognitive system preserves its parts and organization across time and in a wide variety
of contexts (Gentner & Goldin-Medow, 2003). As such it can be understood as a system
in its own right (p. 630). We can close our eyes, think, talk to ourselves, conjure up
images and entertain metaphors.
Wilson fifth claim is about the purpose of cognition: Cognition is embodied if all
of cognition is for the sake of embodied action. (This is surely just a value judgment. It
devalues contemplation, as in “Don’t just do something! Stand there!”) We
“conceptualize objects and situations in terms of their functional relevance to us” (p.
631). (This underestimates the number of functions. Any object can have an infinite
number of uses e.g. we can brandish a toothbrush as an example of a foolish expense, or
as an art exhibit, or to show an object not made by Picasso etc., etc.. )
Wilson rightly concludes that mental representations are largely purpose-neutral.
What specific useful action does “blue” provide, we are prompted to ask. Comprehension
uses “information about the nature of the external world” that is “stored for future use
without strong commitments on what that future use might [be giving us an] enormous
advantage in problem-solving flexibility over a creature that encodes purely in terms of
presently foreseeable activities” (p. 632). Let us say we observed an accident. Does it
matter that it was sunny or Wednesday? It depends! One moment’s gist is another’s
Embodied mind
irrelevancy. We cannot remember everything but we should not always recall just one,
only one, central fact. That would be unwise – inflexible.
In sum, Wilson asks about 5 embodiment theses whether they offer a general
account of cognition, and answers no.
Wilson’s sixth view: Internalization
What embodiment thesis could hold any promise of a general account of
cognition of distal events? Wilson asks us to imagine someone relying on their fingers in
order to count, and then to imagine progressively more and more covert and internalized
versions of this. This recaps Piaget’s (1954) vivid account envisaging sensorimotor
intelligence becoming internalized and representational between age 1 and 2. It also
echoes the J. G. Taylor (1962) idea that perception is internalized action. Likewise,
Barsalou (1999) and Mandler (2000) argue internal simulations are repetitions of key
parts of experiences. All these suggestions are subject to the criticisms we develop here.
Limits to internalization: Internal actions
A reduced version of counting on fingers might involve twitches of the fingers.
Later we might just have “only the priming of motor programs but no overt movement at
all” (p. 632). The claim is that many “centralized, allegedly abstract cognitive activities
….make use of sensorimotor functions in exactly this kind of way” (p. 632). That is,
cognition C (such as counting) is now making use of internal acts (such as purely
internalized finger motions).
That some cognitive processes work this way is trivial since many people count
on their fingers, and we can do this internally. But do major forms of cognition? The
interesting claim is that cognition relies on internalized sensorimotor functions that “run a
Embodied mind
simulation of some aspect of the physical world, as a means of representing information
or drawing inferences” (Wilson, 2002, p. 633).
As Wilson puts it, mental “structures that originally evolved for perception or
action appear to be co-opted and run ‘off-line,” decoupled from the physical inputs and
outputs that were their original purpose” (p. 633).
One major problem with schematic finger-counting is that it is just an internalized
version of the situated-cognition claims that Wilson rejected as thoroughly inadequate to
deal with what is far removed from us in space and time.
Fingers are actual, real, fleshy things, close by, and not distant in time and space.
What did their becoming reduced do? If they had become tiny in physical size, it would
be obvious that Wilson’s rejections would still apply. If they went inside physical objects
such as gloves or mittens, the rejections would still hold. But nothing more is bought by
making them internal fingers than is bought by putting them inside mittens. All that
seems to have happened is that a simulated environment (inside the head) has taken the
place of the real environment (and inside mittens). Something is missing: How the fingers
became representations in the first place. That is, how they decoupled from their original
function and recoupled with a new. The issue of internalization is to a considerable extent
a red-herring. It says nothing about new functions.
As Goodman (1966) and Perner (1993) have elegantly pointed out, saying X is
like something else or is shrunk like a toy, or has moved inside a mitten or inside a head
is not enough to establish that it is a representation. What is it that makes X, albeit now
psychologically disentangled from its original cause, and its direct effects, a
representation of Napoleon, a battle, or a stinging defeat?
Embodied mind
Internalized fingers in Wilson’s theory are being observed by a little-man-in-the-
head. For internalized fingers to be interesting they must involve what Wilson herself
described as symbolic, i.e., the internalized sensorimotor patterns (fingers moving) are
symbols for things other than fingers. The original objects in the sensorimotor interaction
(fingers waving) come to stand for other things such as Napoleon and his troops.
Sensorimotor simulations (external or internal) of some aspect of the physical world
“assist in thinking and knowing” (p. 633) in general (about any person or any thing,
including Napoleon).
The symbolic function was never external, just the object (the finger) being
considered as a symbol. Putting the object (the finger) inside something such as our head
has no bearing on the symbolic function. Of course thinking finds symbols (notations of
any kind) useful. If all that embodiment theory wants to claim is that sometimes we do
useful thinking using parts of our body (internalized or not) this is innocent, without
controversy. The claim of consequence has to be stronger or fall prey to faint praise.
Let the fingers twitch in a particular order as reduced versions of piano playing, a
complex “hello!” wave, a deft foil-fencing move, etc. What we need to know is how they
begin to stand for numbers, Napoleon giving orders, etc.
Wilson could say that reduced versions of anything are automatically
representations. The reduced piano playing stands for piano playing. The reduced wave
stands for hello. The reduced fencing stands for fencing. Since it is a representation of X
(piano playing, hello and fencing) it can be a representation of Y (Napoleon). This
argument is intriguing but it presupposes what it sets out to conquer. The reduction is not
Embodied mind
just a reduction – it is a representation, the argument states. But how representation is
established is what we want to explain.
Our hands change size with age. Does this make them representations? No. They
change colour with use. Does this make them representations? No. Change alone does not
a representation make. Reduced hands are similar to normal-sized hands. Does this make
them representations? No. Similarity is not needed for representation, for a word need not
be similar to its referent. What specifically in the change called internalization makes the
hand able to represent Napoleon? The Wilson argument offers no answer. The bastion of
symbolism is not breached by recourse to internalization.
If we are correct, Wilson’s internalization hypothesis assumes the heart of any
general theory of cognition: representation. She told us about some of the things that
could be representations (internalized acts), but not how they became what they are – not
only decoupled from their original uses, but recoupled with a new object. Alas,
internalization just assumes that anything can be a representation of something, if so
Limits to internalization: Imagery as illustration
Besides internalizing actions, Wilson claims, we can simulate external situations
internally. Mental imagery “is an obvious example of mentally simulating external
events” (p.633). Imagery provides appearances, much as pictures do (Ritchie, 2008). We
need to critique the role Wilson assigns to images as pictorial representations (Hopkins,
1998; Kennedy, 1993, 2008; Lopes, 1996) to show they cannot be the basis of thought.
Mental pictures cannot be a general basis for abstract cognition because of
properties central to cognition.
Embodied mind
Pictures cannot represent the central logical function of negation. “Pictures can’t
say no,” as Sol Worth put it (Kennedy, 1993). There is no difference between a picture of
Peter not being in the room and one of Alfred not being in the room, or a blue whale not
being in the room, etc.
Pictures cannot represent the important quantifier “all” as distinct from some.
What would a picture of “all objects feel gravity” or “all flying birds build nests” look
like in any way that would not just as accurately be described as revealing that some
objects exert gravitational attraction, or some flying birds build nests?
Pictures cannot represent abstract classes such as “food” or “danger.” What do
food or danger invariably look like? Prototypical food (carrots) or dangers (cliffs) cannot
help here because as Fodor (1981) noted we can form abstract or relatively concrete
classes for which there is no prototype (e.g. the class of abstract classes for which there is
no prototype, and the class of hot dinners). So while we may have a prototypical image of
a city or even of an Irish city or even of a Northern Irish city, we do not have one for
Northern Irish cities which cheerfully celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving, but we can freely
think about this category. We can ask if there is such a city. We can ask if it is full of
Europeans. And so on.
Not only are pictures incapable of representing important logical properties and
sustaining crucial types of inferences they are inherently ambiguous in the domains in
which they function. Consider pictorial representation of an observable fact. What
proposition is entailed? A picture of John in Shaftesbury Square is equally a picture of
John not wearing a hat, of the fact that John is tall, that John is male, that John is human,
that John has gained weight, alas, that John is smiling (nevertheless), that John is happy,
Embodied mind
that John is back from Maribor, etc. Pictures do not have the representational precision to
pick out specific propositional claims, and therefore are inadequate to represent those
claims, to affirm the claims or to be the basis of inferences based on the claims.
Pictures are very useful in certain contexts, we must add, when their particular
referent is further specified easily by non-pictorial means (Reisberg, 1996). If Jeanne asks
“Did John wear a disguise at Michelle’s picnic?” we might hold up a picture of him bare-
faced in Maribor woods, and Jeanne might well say, “I see! The answer is no!” The work
of specification is done by the context plus the picture. The picture alone is inadequate.
So as to the radical question whether they are crucial to cognition as bases for logical
concepts independent of context the answer is assuredly no.
The specificity (Gibson, 1979) of a representation is alarmingly missing when
concrete particulars whether fingers or situations are internalized or imaged and deemed
to be symbolic. Fingers are symbolic of what – a number, a piano key press, Napoleon?
Pictures are specific to what – John is tall? Handsome? Clean? If only! Internalized
simulations cannot be the general basis of abstract thought on pain of significant
circularity. The specificity is brought by the context. Images are used by the
representational faculty, just like beads on an abacus are used.
The problems for images as representations of something specific are exacerbated
if the imagery is used figuratively as well as symbolically (Kennedy, 2008; in press), as
in a church bell standing for peace and freedom. Yet this is exactly the use of internalized
simulations that is most crucial to the present discussion. It is the use of the bell to stand
for the topics (peace and freedom) that matters. It is the counting not the waving fingers
Embodied mind
that matters. This is why we can shift to counting on our toes, or freckles on our arms. Or
use a statue of The Black Man to stand for freedom. Loss of fingers leaves us still
counting (our remaining blessings perhaps). Melt down the bell and switch the statue and
we can still think of peace and freedom.
In the conceptual metaphor theory (CMT) of Lakoff & Johnson (1980; 1999)
abstract reasoning is “based on a kind of second-order modeling of the physical world”
and relies “on analogies between abstract domains and more concrete ones” Wilson avers
(p. 634). About the concept of communication Wilson states that the “internal structure
of this concept is deeply parallel to our physical understanding of how material can be
transferred from one container to another.” Indeed, “our mental representation of
communication is grounded in our knowledge of how the transfer of physical stuff
works” (p. 634). So “even highly abstract mental concepts may be rooted, albeit in an
indirect way, in sensory and motoric knowledge” (p. 634). Does she simply mean we can
draw parallels between communication and transport? If so no-one will quarrel or be
enlightened. Or, that literally carrying stuff is logically prior and necessary for
understanding communication? If so, discussion is sorely needed.
Conceptual Metaphor scrutinized
One meaning of communication is active when Wilson is talking formally about
our concept of communication. It is as technical and theoretical as our discussion above
of surfaces and induction. It involves conceptual and inferential processes such as Grice’s
(1975) conversational implicatures that make any communication possible. Just such a
technical interpretation is suggested by the parallel Wilson points out between the
“structure” of the concept of communication and the procedural knowledge used in
Embodied mind
manipulating objects and moving them between containers. In this parallel,
communication and transport are defined independently. Then parallels are drawn
between the two, much like defining hawks and tanks and then comparing one to another.
Another interpretation is suggested by Wilson’s phrase “our mental representation
of communication” (p.634). In this version, conceptual metaphors about containers are
necessary to get us to communicate, a very interesting strong claim. It is tantamount to
saying children learning to communicate use analogy -- they learn about containers and
intuit that communication is taking ideas out of their heads as urns, metaphorically, and
putting them into other people’s heads, as if they were also urns.
However, one problem here is, once again, what is assumed, surely. Children
learning about communication itself are supposed to be considering two processes and
noticing their likeness. But how did they discern each process in the first place? To spot
likenesses between A and B we first have to distinguish A and B. The very thing to be
explained is assumed, alas. We must have the ability to communicate before we can
discover it is like something else.
Communication is surely even more basic than the conceptual and inferential
processes necessary to spot parallels. Glucksberg & McGlone (1999) point out the
embodiment claim about learning a process in early childhood via metaphor involves “a
definition of metaphor that is so broad that it loses its traditional denotation” (p. 1554). It
is a chicken-and-egg puzzle if we explain conceptual metaphors in conceptual and
inferential terms, but claim the metaphors are the basis of all conceptual and inferential
processes. If so, “conceptual metaphor” is a phrase pointing at its own base, a self-
wrapped mystery. Ergo, CMT theory is rich in analogies, but impossible as a theory.
Embodied mind
CMT cannot form the basis of “a very general underlying principle of cognition”
(Wilson, 2002, p. 635).
Metaphors just point out, in a perfectly useful way, some features a concept has in
common with a another (Chiappe & Kennedy, 2001; Roncero, Kennedy, & Smyth,
2006). Communication involves Ray affecting Sam. Sam can be said to have a new idea
in his head, as if he was a container, and of course we can image Sam in this fashion. But,
crucially, the gist of the description does not depend on physical details of the event. The
fact that containers have to be upright does not imply Sam should be standing. In this
vein, we can assert that internalized sensorimotor acts and simulations of perceptible
situations can have significant cognitive functions simply because some of their features
capture some significant features of what they symbolize, and the cognizer has selected
those features for use, while ignoring lots of others.
Incidental details versus the meaning
We are not arguing internalizations of actions, images and thoughts of containers
are useless. Far from it. They are widespread and influential. But they act alongside the
crucial cognitive processes.
Consider a case in point. Masson & MacLeod (2002) argue images prime ideas
that are not their gist. Images of words such as RED and READY and REASON have
orthographic priming effects due to their perceptual appearance and not their conceptual
meaning. They prime us to complete -- EAC -- as REACH rather than TEACH or
BEACH. The priming comes from “a form of covert orthographic processing of target
words, in which [subjects] visualize a target’s printed appearance” (Masson & MacLeod,
2002, p. 859). The analogy to Wilson’s sensorimotor simulations is compelling. The
Embodied mind
internalized simulation has causal effects in priming graphic units, though priming of
letters is not the gist of reading (that is, not the end of the process by which words are
This Masson & MacLeod example is instructive. Priming by sensorimotor
simulations is not evidence that they are the basis of cognition or even that cognition is
dependent on them. Indeed, we can form a new category such “black birds over the white
sands of Antrim” without the new category requiring any priming effects from names or
specific orthographic icons. Studies that show that internal simulations may be present
and very active in cognition do not demonstrate that abstract thought is dependent on
them (Gibbs, 2003).
We stress that internal actions, perceptual simulations and metaphors do useful
work. They remind us of things. They form novel combinations. They prime other ideas.
They are omnipresent -- indeed we live with constant use of metaphors about love,
money, war and politics -- but they are the crowd of extras behind the soloist. They are
not the basis of cognition in a strict sense. They have many effects, but comprehension
does not depend on them. They are distracting as often as they are useful. We have literal
ideas about love, money, war and politics. These are the headline artists.
Spoken metaphors do not have to be understood and processed via underlying
conceptual metaphors. McGlone (1996) found people do not “modally paraphrase
metaphors in CMT terms,” “metaphors with a common CM derivation are not perceived
as more similar than those with no such relations,” and “terms describing the relevant
CM source domain are relatively ineffective cues for metaphor recall” (p. 560). McGlone
(1996) concluded that “the most parsimonious conclusion that can drawn from our results
Embodied mind
is that people’s interpretations of metaphors are not necessarily related to an underlying
conceptual metaphor” (p. 560).
In “situations that warrant contemplation and analysis, such as the study of poetry
or creative writing, people may recognize and/or utilize conventional analogies of the sort
Lakoff has described” (Glucksberg & McGlone, 1999, p. 1556). If so likely the CMT
metaphors are rich and useful, but often pro tem. In certain contexts cognition is shot full
of them, but they are not the basis of cognition (Howe, 2008).
Vervaeke & Kennedy (2004) argue familiar spatial conceptual metaphors (such as
“I’m feeling close to you”) help us to attend to complex relations in patterns of
information – not to understand the information in the first place. On the phone we can
say ironically we feel very close to a friend (Katz, 1996). The spatial metaphor conveys
ideas, but the ideas about affection are prior to space. The spatial content of “Nancy is
higher than Larry in popularity” reflects an order, and allows one to wonder by how
much, or who is higher still or who is on a pedestal. Space is useful in metaphors not
because we have bodies but because of space’s actual features – order and magnitude.
Our most general lesson may be this. Where others seek to assert the body
compels us to think thus and so, about space, or containers or metaphors, we see the
advantages of features of bodies, space, containers and metaphors for alluding to what we
want to think about and express. We do this because we use features of our body and our
environment rationally.
Neural networks and internalization
Promising theories of internalization stem from Piaget (1954) arguing
internalization supports learning, insight and representation, and exciting theories of
Embodied mind
metaphors of the body as essential for cognition stem from Lakoff and Johnson (1980).
Since we argued in the negative that neither provide the constitutive elements of
representation we should close our argument with positive suggestions. Happily, we can
use neural theories to do so. Fresh ideas about learning provide technical conceptions of
internalization that richly deserve to be treated here. They are motivated by a special
problem -- getting neural networks to learn without being supervised.
For a standard network learning proceeds via back propagation of error
(backprop). The network produces some output and then the difference between its output
and the desired value or target value is calculated. Once the error has been calculated
each connection in the network is altered slightly in hopes of reducing the error. This
process is repeated until the network can produce the target value.
Alas, the backprop process is circular and an unrealistic explanation of a lot of
learning. It relies on a body external to the network knowing the correct value in the
world. This deus ex machina controls the network, supervising its calculations. But for
neural-network theories to count as a general explanation of learning they must allow
unsupervised learning.
Hinton, Dayan, Frey & Neal (1995) proposed an ingenious solution that lessens
supervision. The core insight involves internalization. The network is divided into two
parts and two stages of processing. First, a part of the network models an environment by
picking up patterns within the information available. Event A is statistically relevant to
event B if the conditional probability of B given A is greater than the base rate of B alone.
Networks pick up statistics quite readily much as living organisms do in Pavlovian
conditioning (Rescorla, 1988). However, networks often model environments horribly
Embodied mind
because there is no external feedback via backprop providing the correct answer, i.e., the
best fit to the full pattern of information. But this is where a second stage comes in.
The model in the network, albeit an initial reaction to the environment, is treated
as if it was the environment and the second part of the network basically tries to emulate
this imperfect model. That is the machine possesses a target value (a model) and can
provide it to the learning part of the network so as to correct its performance. Basically
backprop has been internalized.
Of interest, what the second, learning part of the network can begin to develop is
the skill of modeling. Granted the horrible, imperfect model the second stage is
generating is largely useless, but what is of special significance here is that stage two
improves its ability to model. In an interesting twist, stage two then uses its improved
ability to train the first part of the network to be a better modeler. Then the whole process
begins again, and now the first part forms a slightly better model of the environment,
which then better trains the second part at modeling etc., until a very good model of the
environment is created.
We can use Hinton internalization to explain our treatment of Wilson’s proposals.
How so? Well, for the purposes of our main argument in the present paper, we wish to
stress here that the initial and final models in Hinton machines are not representations.
Models involve patterns of information and procedures operating on them. The
internalized model generated from the world does not stand for the world; it functionally
stands in for the world in the process of training procedures of pattern detection.
Representation involves propositions and inferences that make use of symbols that stand
for the world, i.e., make truth-valuable claims about the world. Thinking of the
Embodied mind
machine’s models as something like representations, i.e., as like propositions or images
(pictures plus propositions) is deeply confusing and misleading. Internalization can be
about making unsupervised learning possible, and still not be about creating internalized
images of the world or of one’s body in the world.
Dual processes and missing links
Distinguishing models and representations helps clarify big issues addressed in
embodiment theory. Once the distinction is drawn we can ask about the relationship
between these two as processes. Such dual processing approaches are becoming
dominant in psychology because of many independent lines of converging information
(Evans, 2003, 2007; Stanovich, 2004), and one of the central questions facing these
theories is the nature of the relationship between pattern-procedural processing (thought
to operate like a neural network) and propositional-inferential processing (thought to
operate like a symbol processing computer). One might see the Lakoff & Johnson (1980)
conceptual metaphor theory as an attempt to explain this relationship by positing that it is
metaphorical in nature. We have criticized this theory for not being explanatory in nature.
The gist of our criticism is that propositional-inferential cognition must have its own
abilities to structure information and its own operations in order to avoid circularity of
explanation. We’ve argued that these are independent abstract procedural abilities. This
may point to the link sought after. Perhaps the procedural structure of our propositional-
inferential operations is an instance of abstract modeling that can also be instantiated as a
motor pattern and vice versa.
Vandervert, Schimpf & Liu (2007) have recently proposed that since the
cerebellum deals with repeated procedures it can be a locus of internalization. Their novel
Embodied mind
suggestion is that the cerebellum models the behaviour of other systems and then feeds
back to those systems to improve their efficiency and adaptability. Of great interest, in
their proposal the cerebellum does this equally for representational processing, as in
working memory, and for motor behaviour. Just “ like the repetitive components of
bodily movements, it is the above repetitive actions (manipulation and rehearsal) and
interactions of the components of working memory that are modeled in the cerebellum
and subsequently fed back to working memory making its operations faster, most
efficient, and more adaptive” (p 4.). In fact, “there is little doubt that whatever working
memory accomplishes, it does it through collaboration with the cerebellum” (p.4). It is
important to note that this modeling in the cerebellum is highly abstract in nature. Its
functionality and adaptability depends on this. Vandervert et al. (2007) argue that the key
to these models is that “they do not learn specific movement and thought patterns but
abstract the dynamics of such movement and thought” in a process they call “abstractive
construction” (p.11). Identification of “repetitive components” is not trivially easy, since
this raises the induction problem, but if the erstwhile “motor-control” brain abstracts
orders in thoughts, this is embodiment writ large.
The relationship between motor patterns and thought patterns is not one of
metaphorical projection from motor patterns to thought patterns. Rather both can be
instantiations of more abstract procedural processes arising out of internalized
unsupervised learning via the cortex and cerebellum. This would help to explain why the
experimental evidence for conceptual metaphor has not confirmed its thesis that abstract
thought depends on the underlying bodily metaphor (McGlone, 1996; McGlone, 2007;
Keysar et al., 2000). However, such metaphors of thought can be useful in novel
Embodied mind
situations where insightful problem solving is needed (Keysar et. al., 2000). Likewise,
surely our metaphoric understanding of our tasks and sports boosts our motor skills. Our
skiing can flow, in tennis we can unwind to serve, our shots can be ahead of the game in
hockey, and our diving can be catlike. Such metaphors could trigger both conceptual and
motor procedures in a dual processing manner. The one could help reconfigure the other
in insightful problem solving, Vandervert et. al. argue (2007). Likewise, conceptual
metaphors can modify cognitive processing, just as much as literacy modifies the
relationship between perception, speaking, and memory. Literacy is not a constitutive
process of cognition, but powerfully enhances it. Similarly, conceptual metaphor is not a
constitutive process of cognition, but can empower it. Like literacy it can become
automatic and pervasive in our cognitive experience, without being cognition’s base.
Similarly, Vandervert et al. (2007) give no priority to motor patterns. A reciprocal
relationship between thought patterns and movement patterns is mediated through the
internalized abstract modeling of the cerebellum-cortex system.
If embodiment theory avers that the reasoning and conceptual abilities of the mind
come from the muscles of the body then it is clearly wrong. If it argues the body can play
a crucial and reciprocal role with the mind in internalization for the purpose of
unsupervised learning, then it may be on the right track, for “embodiment” influencing
our thinking and “em-mindment” influencing our skills are reciprocals.
Wilson championed an internalization version of the embodiment thesis.
Wilsonian internalization assumes abilities such as representation, the use of specifying
contexts, and the identifying of features to which metaphors allude. Embodiment theses
Embodied mind
do not require internalized sensorimotor simulations as the basis of cognition. Perhaps it
is wise to see action being driven by mentation as much as mind being dependent on acts.
Embodied mind
Al-Zahrani, A. (2008) Darwin’s metaphors revisited: Conceptual metaphors, conceptual
blends, and idealized cognitive models in the theory of evolution. Metaphor and Symbol,
23, 50-83.
Barsalou, L. W. (1999) Perceptual symbol systems. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22,
Chiappe, D. and Kennedy, J. M. (2001) Literal bases for metaphor and simile. Metaphor
and Symbol, 16, 259-276.
Conant, J. (2008) The philosophy and phenomenology of everyday expertise. Proposal
for a conference. Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
Evans, J. St.B. T. (2003). In two minds: Dual process accounts of reasoning. Trends in
Cognitive Sciences, 7, 454–459.
Evans, J. St.B. T. (2007). On the resolution of conflict in dual process theories of
reasoning. Thinking and Reasoning, 13, 321–339.
Fodor, J. (1981) The mind/body problem, Scientific American, 244, 124-132
Gentner, D., & Goldin-Medow, S. (2003). Wither whorf. In D. Gentner, & S. Goldin-
Medow (Eds.), Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and thought. (pp. 3-
14). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Gallagher, S. (2005) How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Gibbs, R. (2003) Embodied experience and linguistic meaning. Brain and Language, 84,
Gibson, J. J. (1979) The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-
Embodied mind
Giora, R. (2003) On our mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Glucksberg, S., & McGlone, M.S. (1999). When love is not a journey: What metaphors
mean. Journal of Pragmatics, 31, 1544-1558.
Goodman, N. (1966) Languages of art Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Grady, J. E. (1999) A typology of motivation for conceptual metaphor: Correlation vs.
resemblance. In R. Gibbs and G. Steen (Eds.) Metaphor in cognitive linguistics (pp 79-
100) Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Grice, H. P. (1975) Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. L. Morgan (Eds.) Syntax and
semantics, Vol. 3: Speech acts (pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.
Head, H. (1920). Studies in neurology (Vol. 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hinton, G. E., Dayan, P., Frey, B. J. & Neal, R. M. (1995) The “wake-sleep” algorithm
for unsupervised neural networks. Science, 268, 1158–1161.
Hopkins, R. (1998) Picture, image and experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Howe, J. (2008) Argument is argument: An essay on conceptual metaphor. Metaphor and
Symbol, 23, 1-23.
Katz, A. N. (1966) On interpreting statements as metaphor or irony. In J. S. Mio & A. N.
Katz (Eds.) Metaphor: Implications and applications. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, Inc.
Kennedy, J. M. (1993) Drawing and the blind. New Haven: Yale Press
Kennedy, J. M. (2008) Metaphor and art. In R. W. Gibbs (Ed.) Metaphor and thought.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kennedy, J. M (in press) Metaphoric drawings devised by an early-blind adult on her
Embodied mind
own initiative Perception
Kennedy, V.R. & Kennedy, J.M. (1998) Form symbolism can be extended by style
Acta Analytica , 20, 155—174.
Keysar, B., Shen, Y., Gluckberg, S., & Horton, W. (2000). Conventional Language: How
Metaphorical Is It? Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 576-593.
Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999) Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its
challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.
Liu, C.H. & Kennedy, J.M., (1997), Form symbolism, analogy and metaphor
Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 4, 546-551.
Lopes, D. (1996) Understanding pictures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mandler, J. (2000) Perceptual and conceptual processes in infancy. Journal of Cognition
and Development, 1, 3-36.
Masson, M. E. J., & MacLeod, C. M. (2002). Covert operations: Orthographic recoding
as a basis for repetition priming in word identification. Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28, 858-871
McGlone, M.S. (1996). Conceptual metaphors and figurative language interpretation:
Food for thought? Journal of Memory and Language, 35, 544-565.
McGlone, M. S. 2007. What is the explanatory value of a conceptual metaphor?
Language and Communication, 27, 109-126.
Perner, J. (1993) Understanding the representational mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Piaget, J. (1954) The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books
Embodied mind
Reisberg, D. (1996) The non-ambiguity of mental images. In Cornoldi, C., Logie, R.,
Brandimonte, M, Kaufman, G. & Reisberg, D. (eds.). Stretching the imagination:
Representation and transformation in mental imagery. (p.119-172). NY: Oxford
University Press.
Rescorla, R. A. (1988) Pavlovian conditioning: It’s not what you think it is. American
Psychologist, 43, 151-160.
Ritchie, L. R. (2008) Gateshead revisited: Perceptual simulators and fields of meaning in
the analysis of metaphors. Metaphor and Symbol, 23, 24-49.
Roncero, T., Kennedy, J. M. & Smyth, R. (2006) Similes on the internet have
explanations. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 13, 74-77
Taylor, J. G. (1962) The behavioral basis of perception. New Haven: Yale University
Stanovich, K. (2004) The robot’s rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin.
University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
Vandervert, L. , Schimpf. P., & Liu, H. (2007). Creativity Research Journal, 19, 1-18.
Vervaeke, J. & Kennedy, J.M. (2004) Conceptual metaphor and abstract thought.
Metaphor and Symbol, 19, 213-231.
Wilson, M. (2003) Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9,
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.