Self as Container? Metaphors We Lose By in Understanding Early China

Antiquorum Philosophia 5:11-30 (2011)
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As part of a trend in modern cognitive science, cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, and philosopher, Mark Johnson claim to provide a biologically-based account of subsymbolic meaningful experiences. They argue that human beings understand objects by extrapolating from their sensory motor activities and primary perceptions. Lakoff and Johnson’s writings have generated a good deal of interest among scholars of Early China because they maintain that “our common embodiment allows for common stable truths.” Although there are many grounds on which Lakoff and Johnson’s theories have been criticized, this essay focuses in particular on problems related to their schema of Self as Container. Lakoff and Johnson contend that there are no pure experiences outside of culture, while nevertheless arguing that the experience of being a closed-off container is “direct.” “The concepts OBJECT, SUBSTANCE and CONTAINER emerge directly,” they write. “We experience ourselves as entities, separate from the rest of the world—as containers with an inside and an outside.” By “emerge directly,” they do not mean emerging free of culture, but rather that some experiences within culture, specifically physical experiences, are more directly given than others. My study explores the pitfalls of presuming the “direct” experience of containment makes good sense of texts from Early China (ca. 500–100 B.C.E).


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