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Analogy, Metaphor and Relational Concepts

Dedre Gentner, Northwestern University

I seek to bring together two lines of research from adjoining fields: metaphorical mappings and relational categories. Cognitive linguistics has demonstrated the pervasiveness of large-scale metaphoric mappings in language and cognition, and a persuasive case has been made that many of our abstract ideas arise from metaphors originating in embodied domains.  My first guiding question is How do these metaphoric systems arise, and how are they processed?  The second question arises from a gap in work within cognitive psychology.  Despite vast amounts of research on concepts and categories, hardly any attention has gone to relational categories—categories like barrier, for which membership cannot be expressed in terms of common intrinsic properties.

I will make the case for the Career of Metaphor theory, according to which
  • Metaphors and similes are typically understood via a process of structure-mapping from a base concept—which is often concrete and embodied—to a target concept.
  • Metaphoric bases undergo gradual abstraction over use, resulting in conventionalized metaphoric meanings
  • Because structure-mapping favors relational mappings, the conventionalized meanings are often relational abstractions.

I present evidence for this account from psychological experiments, as well as from historical studies. This account underscores the intimate connection between metaphoric extension processes and the evolution of abstract concepts in language. Further, this account sheds light on the nature of relational categories and suggests a connection between relationality and abstractness.

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