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Building mental spaces

My previous examples are meant to show that context creation or, in other words, mental space building is far from being a deterministic procedure. Space building is a quick response to novel parameters introduced by speech participants or by a novel situation perceived. Space building is experimentation with mental space dynamics and partial projections between them. Such novel parameters are introduced whenever figurative language or non-literal uses of linguistic expressions need to be interpreted.

Despite the fact that abstraction (e.g. metaphorical or metonymical mapping) opens up new levels of meaning, making sense of anything requires being rooted in the human condition, the result of which is the intrinsic embodiment of experience reflected in thought, language and culture. According to Contemporary Metaphor Theory (CMT) the power of meaning construction lies with direct back-coupling to “existing physical entities” and with the returning to basic situations of concrete life.

It is important to note here that the mental process of metaphorization involves a solid ontological commitment: the embodiment of experience in humans is an ontological act which is reflected in the articulation of thoughts.

Conceptual Blending Theory (CBT), on the other hand, believes in the “power of mental creation” detachable from the bodily. What is more, blending theory, based on the construction and mixing of mental spaces, demonstrates the power of thought to manipulate the concrete source domains derived from bodily life. It recognizes that no mental image is identical with the concrete event that produced that image. According to CBT, meanings are constituted by mental spaces which have already been lifted from a bodily context and shaped by thought. The power in meaning construction lies with thinking in order to achieve meaning, not with trajecting (mapping) existing meanings from concrete source domains. Blending theory sets out to show the high plasticity of cognition and to identify the various powers of the mind to shape new meanings by such operations as selection, compression, projection, counter-factual reasoning, integration, etc.

Cognition (understanding and reasoning) with metaphorical meaning extension respects experience, thus it utilizes and exploits already existing mental constructs.

Cognition (understanding and reasoning) with meaning extension via conceptual integration ventures for new experience by experimenting with possible mental constructs. Some of the innovative results (nonce meanings) might be nonsensical (they need to be discarded), some of them are silly, some of them are witty.

Contemporary Metaphor Theory (CMT) and Conceptual Blending Theory (CBT) seem to disagree about the nature of the mental processes applied in mapping and blending. In Komlosi (2006) I argue for the complementarity of two different aspects of human cognition:

A. New, extended meanings in metaphor theory are faithful to their source substance.

Thinking in metaphor theory is seen as unidirectional and reproductive, since with the compulsory back-coupling to source domain the thoughts and their vehicles (the mental constructs) remain a repetition of previously established patterns of experience, maintaining the source substance.

B. New, extended meanings in blending theory are flamboyant (and promiscuous) with any substance they can mix with. Thinking in blending theory is perceived as selective, manipulative, and powerful in transforming experience.

Metaphor theory is characterized by conceptual determination from below, blending theory is characterized by experimentation into the autonomous “ways we think” (for CMT, see Lakoff 1987, Kovecses 2002, 2006; for CBT, see Fauconnier 1998, Fauconnier and Turner 2002, Komlosi 2006).

My objective in this study is to contribute to the understanding of the nature and role of context in interpretation and of the relationship between situative mapping and contextual projection. I mentioned above that the contexts we build for the convenience of interpreting situations are conceptually comparable to mental spaces in CBT.

Mental spaces are small, ephemeral conceptual pockets constructed as we think and talk, for purposes of local understanding and action. They are very partial assemblies containing elements structured by frames and cognitive models. They are interconnected and can be modified as thought and discourse unfold. Mental spaces are dynamic and flexible.

As a result of my contextualization research, I am proposing that cognition should be seen as a special mixture of different cognitive abilities and a result of a culture-specific, contextualized socialization that ought to make use of both (i) the reproductive-analytic mode (mapping existing conceptual structures) and (ii) the experimenting-holistic mode (blending and integrating elements of potential input mental spaces) of meaning construction.

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