Unveiling Knowledge: pre-linguistic experiences and metaphors

Experience-driven metaphors reveal knowledge (C) NewYorker

How can we access Knowledge?

This question was triggered by Slobin’s book, Psycholinguistics, originally written in 1971 that I was reading in its second edition.

Slobin reflects on language and the role of psycholinguistics, and there he states that “language, like all systems of human knowledge, can only be inferred from careful study of overt behaviour. […] It is important to grasp the distinction  between overt behaviour and underlying structure. In English and other languages, the distinction is expressed  in the concepts of LANGUAGE and SPEECH: SPEECH has a corresponding verb form, whereas LANGUAGE does not.” (Slobin 1979 :2).

This distinction reminds Saussures’ Langue and Parole, when he says that language should be considered as the norm of all other manifestations of speech (1916 :9). Though Slobin, by pointing out the active nature of speech, that corresponds to a verb, to an action, has brought in something I have found worth a thought. So, what if we shift Slobin’s definitions and equal knowledge to language and speech to the act of meaning making?

If we consider Langue or Language as knowledge, following Slobin we can say that knowledge can be inferred from the study of overt behaviour, where overt behaviour and underlying structures are identified from a conceptual point of view by two distinct linguistic expression: the former is a verb, an action, while the latter, is a noun. Therefore, if we want to understand the conceptual structure that represents what people know, we need to consider the overt manifestation of such a concept in action.

Slobin (1979) reflects on the relationship between Language, the structure, and Speech, which is the material expression of the structures of language, conceptualised by a verb, to speak, which therefore represents the structure into an action.

This relation between structures that can not be revealed unless they show themselves in action, creates a qualitative relationship between the underlying structure and its expression, where concepts and structures can emerge in the action by using those structures productively. In this case, when referring to a productive system, I am not thinking to organisational studies or economy, but to the creative ability to construct and to form new utterances and understand actions derived from the system – i.e. language is  productive system where language allows the coding and decoding of infinite speeches.

If knowledge is the underlying structure, ‘stored in the brain’ (Slobin 1979 :3)  which can be revealed through an action, to reveal knowledge, we need to put people into action. To access knowledge we need to enact a meaning making process. We need to enter from linguistics into the cognition realm, and look for something that could combine the needs – accessing knowledge – with the hypothesis that knowledge can be revealed through action.

The connection came from Lakoff and Johnson and the concepts of embodied cognition.
Slobin first, and later Lakoff and Johnson (originally in 1980, though I am referring to the second edition, 2003), have notices and highlighted the metaphoric relationship existing between abstract concepts and physical experience. They took different path to highlight such a phenomena and provide complementary yet strictly related evidences: Slobin, underlines how most languages in the world have a SOV / SVO / VSO structure [where S stays for  subject, O for Object and V for Verb] where the subject always precedes the object: this, Slobin states, (1979: 64) reflects the prelinguistic experiences where perception-based cognition of the subject leads to the definition of the structure of Language, proving how embodied cognition experiences precede the pure abstract thinking and how abstraction is derived from experience. In prelinguistic experiences, the subject is an animate agent, with a greater emotional significance for the speaker, and the action goes from the subject to the object and such an attitude justifies the tendency to construct putting the subject before the object. Slobin already pointed the direction that Lakoff and Johnson followed later, when he writes: “languages generally seem to express abstract notions by metaphorical extensions of concrete experience” (Slobin 1979 :65). Therefore, if we want to put people into action, and access the knowledge that is stored in the brain, we need to overcome the linguistic experience and introduce a pre-linguistic-like experience, where concepts are experience driven, because knowledge is “a perpetual construction made by exchanges between the organism and the environment, from the biological point of view, and between thought and its object, from a cognitive point of view” (Piaget 1980 :110).

If we want to talk about something intangible like an abstract concept, to make such intangible ideas much more understandable and approachable, we need to make them concrete, we need knowledge to be experienced and unveiled through the material experience and expressed by and though the experience. To say it with Lakoff and Johnson (2003), we need to find a way so that the target, which is knowledge, the abstract concept and the structure, can be explained with a source domain, a tangible immediately clear source, typically derived from physical experience. Lakoff and Johnson note that metaphors emerge pervasively in the speech when abstract concepts (Target) are explained by referring to an experiential and perceptive source: i.e. Life [Target] becomes/is expressed as a journey [experience, therefore, the source]. This is because “metaphors are grounded in systematic correlations within our experience” (Lakoff & Johnson 2003 :61).

Metaphor – Lakoff and Johnson write – is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning[…] If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we thinks what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” (Lakoff & Johnson 2003)

Therefore, to unlock that stored knowledge, we can capitalise on experience and let the experience to express the concept through perception and experience-driven speeches.
The whole cognitive process enacted by creative and constructive methods, takes advantage of the human ability to express abstract concepts in terms of physical experience; to enhance such a cognitive capacity, constructive methods that includes physical exposure, by capitalising on the double nature of experience – both as a way to conceptualise abstract thoughts and as a way to make meaning, empowers the metaphorical thinking to such an extend that ideas connect and emerge in a constant dialogue between the action of making and the reflection on the action, between an object and the subject who made it. The embodied experience of making, gives a material shape to concepts, and the material objects reflects metaphors and elicit metaphorical thinking themselves.

By enhancing a pre-linguistic action that allows people to explore and adventure their abstract and conceptual realm and by eliciting reflection and story telling through the objects, people can create and shape both the abstract structure of knowledge and the creative experience. By capitalising on metaphors to explain the target, we can access a range of knowledge and a level of reflection that is strongly embodied and that requires that concepts are broke down in objects representing something else.
Thus, the power of constructive method is amplified by the act of making, by the action that triggers connections and ideas and imbues the object with new meanings, taking them from the realm of abstraction into the physical tridimensional dimension. And this is a double capitalisation process, where experience drives cognition and speech lends its expressions from experience. By explaining the object, which becomes part of the individual after its creation, by telling stories that have strong similitudes with the knowledge stored in the brain, people is driven by their embodied experience to reflect and by talking by metaphors, they drive the abstract into the experienced domain and reflect on a different level that can not be accessed directly but which demands for actions to be revealed.


Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, Ill. ; London: University of Chicago Press.
Slobin, D. I. (1979). Psycholinguistics (2d ed. ed.). Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman.
Piaget, J. Conversations with Jean Piaget (1980) interview by Jean Claude Bringuier, Chicago University Press
Saussure, F. Course in general linguistics(1916) edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with the collaboration of Albert Riedlinger, [1966] McGrow-Hill


3 Responses to “Unveiling Knowledge: pre-linguistic experiences and metaphors”

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