A couple of months ago, Sing your own Lullaby posted a list of theories of meaning (here). I intended to comment on the list but never got my act together. There is more commonality then difference between various ways of looking at meaning. So we have constructs, frames, schema, conceptual networks, models different but similar ways of explaining how we think and communicate. For years I have thought in terms of models and metaphors. These ideas are no better (or worse) then others but easier for me to write about.
Here is an old piece of mine about metaphor.
The problem with meaning is that we often think that something has meaning: a word has meaning, a symbol has, an event has. But this is wrong – a single thing cannot have meaning. Meaning is the relationship between things. We see this clearly in a dictionary. Every word is defined in terms of other words, which in turn are defined by others, and so on. When we have a large number of things that have mutual relationships so that each contributes meaning to the whole and each gets meaning from its place in the whole, then we have one of these structures that have been called constructs, schema, conceptual networks, maps of the territory, models and so on. They comprise our understanding. By blending or metaphor or elaboration, we can built more complex and larger structures we can increase our understanding.
But this still leaves a problem. With the circular dictionary, we have to ground it by relating a few words to the world. We have to do some ‘pointing’ to shared, real experiences. Similarly, to make our meaningful structures we have to have some starting point. We have to be born with some primitive concepts with primitive relationships been them in order to ‘boot up’ our understanding. We need a foundation on which to build a structure. We have to have the first few schema or maps of the territory in order to get the process of creating metaphors started. Once started, a structure of metaphors or models or maps of reality can grow in number and size to form the sum total of a person’s concepts.
Some basic metaphors would be so natural that very little ‘hard wiring’ would be needed to make them close to universal. An article in Psychological Science, The Thermometer of Social Relations Mapping Social Proximity on Temperature, by H. Ijerman and G.R. Semin, examines the two-way relationship between physical warmth and positive social feelings. (here)
In this view, abstract concepts and concrete experiences that are jointly expressed in a metaphor are coexperienced. In the case of warmth is affection, Lakoff and Johnson (1999, pp. 4560) argued that this coexperience is primary: Babies experience the feeling of being held affectionately by their mothers, and being so held induces a warm sensation. This association is underlined by evidence that the insular cortex is involved in processing both psychological and physical warmth (see Williams & Bargh, 2008a). As a result, people express and share the abstract notion of affection in terms of the coexperienced sensation of warmth. Examples are abundant in mainstream culture: The cold shoulder and a cold fish are examples of metaphors relating lack of warmth to social distance, whereas warm embrace and giving a warm welcome are metaphors linking warmth to social proximity.
Interestingly, we can see here both a social learning path and a brain architecture path to this metaphor. I think it is likely that either alone could be a foundation for this particular complex of metaphors, but, in what is normal situations, they are both present and re-enforce each other. Lakoff and Johnson proposed that concrete experiences (e.g., temperature) ground abstract concepts (e.g., affection). This perspective is referred to as embodied realism. Some other pairings include: cleanliness and moral purity, physical dirtiness and self-disgust, physical and emotional pain (here), time and space, muscular movement and any effort or accomplishment.
We need metaphors because we have limited resources. Imagine the simplest nervous system some sensory neurons with synapses with some motor neurons, like spinal cord reflexes. What allows sophisticated responses, memory, learning, thinking etc. is the complexity of networks of inter-neurons separating the sensory side from the motor side, in other words, a brain. But in the end the only thing that enters the brain is sensory signals and the only thing that leaves is motor (and glandular/chemical/emotional) signals. These primary signals must ground the metaphoric meanings we use to think with. The concepts and words we use have meaning by their relationships grounded in basic, primitive, hard-wired sensory, motor and chemical processes.