Mental Spaces and Conceptual Integration

Beijing Lectures

Cognitive Construction of Meaning

 Gilles Fauconnier


Mental Spaces

As we think and talk, rich arrays of mental spaces and connections between them are constructed unconsciously.  This lecture outlines the simple and general principles that govern mental space construction.  When combined and applied to rich pragmatic situations, the principles yield unlimited numbers of meanings and unlimited nesting.  Grammar is the link between invisible backstage cognition and the observable behavior of humans when they talk and think.  The cognitive theory of mental spaces explains a variety of logical phenomena, such as opacity, presupposition projection, and analogical counterfactuals.  It leads to the theory of conceptual integration which will be presented in the following lecture.

Conceptual Integration

Conceptual integration (blending) is a basic mental operation that leads to new meaning, global insight, and conceptual compressions useful for memory and manipulation of otherwise diffuse ranges of meaning.  It plays a fundamental role in the construction of meaning in everyday life, in the arts and sciences, in mathematics, and in religious thought.  The essence of the operation is to construct a partial match between inputs, to project selectively from those inputs into a novel 'blended' mental space, which then dynamically develops emergent structure.  It has been suggested that the capacity for complex conceptual blending ("double-scope" integration) is the crucial capacity needed for thought and language.  This lecture illustrates conceptual blending through examples drawn from everyday human behavior, and presents the constitutive and governing principles that constrain the cognitive operation.

Causal Compressions in Language and Thought

Compression of vital relations is a key component of conceptual integration.  This lecture focuses on the compression of causal chains and discusses the remarkable human capacity to decompress elaborate causal chains when prompted by minimal linguistic cues.  The overall problem raised by causal compression phenomena is the following:  elaborate space configurations are set up and processed in the absence of explicit grammatical markings for the frames, spaces, and connections needed.  Language guides us in certain directions and constrains the configurations, but it does not directly specify the causal chains that need to be constructed in order for meaning to emerge.  Types of compression are discussed, along with the principles that govern them.  Consequences for grammar, design, and communication are discussed.

Emergent Structure in Conceptual Networks

A powerful aspect of conceptual integration networks is the dynamic emergence of novel structure.  Emergent structure is manifested in the blended spaces created by a network, and also in its overall web of connections between mental spaces.  In this lecture we will analyze data from language, mathematics, technology, and advertising.  The analysis will highlight the ways in which conceptual structures can evolve, both culturally and individually.  Emergent structure that humans can develop through double-scope blending is the key to scientific and artistic creativity, and to the construction of religious experience.  But creativity with emergent structure also takes place routinely in everyday life and is especially visible in humor, cartoons, and irony.  The unity of human invention in very different areas will be shown through the study of the underlying integration networks.

Metaphor and Conceptual Blending

Metaphors are usually double-scope conceptual blends.  The standard source-target model has been very useful in developing metaphor theory, but a deeper account requires a framework in which to study emergent structure and compression produced by metaphor.  This lecture will focus on the emergence of complex metaphors through successive conceptual blends.  The conceptualization of time will be discussed.  The time as space metaphor that we observe in everyday language is itself emergent when we consider the full spectrum of relevant data.  Multiple inputs and succesive integrations operate in the elaborate conception of time that humans create over long periods and that children acquire in a short period through a mix of supervised and unsupervised learning.  

Integration and Grammatical Constructions

A basic function of grammar is to  prompt for the construction of mental space configurations during ongoing discourse.  In particular, grammatical constructions are typically templates for blending form and content.  In this lecture, we will look in some detail at causative grammatical constructions in English, French, and Hebrew.  Grammar, as it turns out, is a powerful compression tool.  Understanding a language is having the ability to decompress grammatical constructions in context.  Typically, this depends on the mastery of conventional blends and their creative application to novel situations.  We will show that this is equally true of the simplest constructions, such as noun-noun compounds or "x of y", and the most complex ones commonly studied in linguistics as syntax.

Origins of Language

During the Upper Paleolithic, human beings developed an unprecedented ability to innovate. They acquired a modern human imagination, which gave them the ability to invent new concepts and to assemble new and dynamic mental patterns. The results of this change were awesome: human beings developed art, science, religion, culture, refined tool use, and language. A key factor was the evolution of the mental capacity for conceptual blending. In this lecture, we will explore the implications of these findings for the origin of language. There are many problems besetting theories of the origin of language.  These problems include the absence of intermediate stages in the appearance of language, the absence of existing languages more rudimentary than others, the appeal to some extraordinary genetic event unlike any other we know of, and the difficulty of finding a defensible story of adaptation.  Conceptual integration theory opens up a different way of looking at the origin of language that is free of such problems.

Material Culture and Meaning Construction

The cognitive anthropologist Ed Hutchins has shown that material objects can be powerful anchors for conceptual blends.  In particular, technology evolves to produce cultural human artefacts such as watches, gauges, compasses, airplane cockpit displays, with structure specifically designed to match conceptual inputs and integrate with them into stable blended frames of perception and action that can be memorized, learned by new generations, and thus culturally transmitted.  Existing structure in the world can also be recruited opportunistically for the same purpose.  Like mathematics and grammar, technology evolves through successive blending, as for example in the case of banking and computing blended to the human manipulation of automatic teller machines.  This lecture will discuss such cases and show their importance for understanding how language, whether signed or spoken, is anchored materially by gesture, sound, and writing.   

Generalized Integration Networks

This lecture will point out some useful generalizations that emerge from the study of integration, along with some of the pervasive fallacies that stand in the way of making such generalizations.  Through the analysis of attested data, we will explore the notion of "generalized integration networks" and how they allow the construction of a multiplicity of surface products in human thought and action.  Labels like metaphor, metonymy, counterfactual, help to classify our superficial intuitive observations, but they do not correctly reflect the wide array of possibilities offered by conceptual mappings.  Surface phenomena need to be analyzed more deeply with a precise characterization of the cognitive operations and constructions involved in each particular case.  Specific typical cases will be examined and used to illustrate the more general theoretical consequences for the study of language.  

Methods and Generalizations in Linguistics

In contrast to sharply autonomous views of language structure, cognitive linguistics has resurrected an older tradition.  In that tradition, language is in the service of constructing and communicating meaning, and  it is for the linguist and cognitive scientist a window into the mind.  Seeing through that window, however, is not obvious.  Deep features of our thinking, cognitive processes, and social communication need to be brought in, correlated, and associated with their linguistic manifestations. We are achieving a genuine science of meaning construction and its dynamics by intensively studying and modeling the cognition that lies behind language and goes far beyond it.  In this last lecture,  I will use the results obtained in the study of conceptual mappings to illustrate the powerful methods developed within cognitive linguistics, guided by the general scientific principles of economy, operational uniformity, and cognitive generalization.




Contact: Gilles Fauconnier