The Cognitive Commitment and Situated Context
A key concept behind Cognitive Linguistics is that language reflects the mental processes and their functions. This concept enables the linguist to work on multiple problems simultaneously, studying language and language use, but also studying the processes whereby language is created, and studying subjects such as the structure of categorization, mental maps, polysemy, and other cognitive processes.
“…it follows from the ‘Cognitive Commitment’ that language and linguistic organization should reflect general cognitive principles rather than cognitive principles that are specific to language.” [41, Evans & Green, 2006]
Language mirrors the mind, according to Evans & Green. But it also reflects the mind in a situated context. Take this from Lakoff:
“Language is thus based on cognition. The structure of language uses the same devices used to structure cognitive models – image schemas, which are understood in terms of bodily functioning. Language is made meaningful because it is directly tied to meaningful thought and depends upon the nature of thought. Thought is made meaningful via two direct connections to preconceptual bodily functioning, which is in turn highly constrained, but by no means totally constrained, by the nature of the world that we function within.” [291-292, Lakoff, 1987]
Lakoff goes a step further to assert that language reflects cognition which reflects embodied mind which reflects the situated context in the world. Another way to think of this is that the embodied mind interacts with the situated context to permit meaningful language constructions. If you and I were standing face to face, something that is on my right cannot be on your local right at the same time. The construction that is selected is dependent on the context. The context determines the appropriate structure. This is an engineering principle.
“Think of the design process as involving first the generation of alternatives and then the testing of these alternatives against a whole array of requirements and constraints.” [Simon, 1981]
Those requirements and constraints are the contextual situation, if the design does not satisfy the requirements and constraints then the design is a failure in that situated context. Likewise, the language construction that you choose for a situated context has to meet the requirements of the situated context [in our face to face example this is the limitation of our projector-based reference frame]. A situated context provides realities that shape the conceptualization process.
This relationship between language and thought is similar to an idea from my understanding of the presentation of self.
Consider this example: You apply for a job as an editor using a resume that credits your attention to detail. Within that same resume you fail to use a comma in the appropriate place. Your resume claims that you are attentive, but it does not show that you are attentive. A successful and credible resume would be one that does not need to claim what it can demonstrate.
Your cognitive process which should alert your attention to a missing comma did not trigger you to insert a comma, an interpretation of this failure could easily and reasonably be that you either did not attend to the resume as an editor would, or you did not know that a comma should have been used as an editor would. In either case, you don’t become editor because you could not demonstrate your proficiency as an editor in your own work.
Failure to use a comma reveals a knowledge deficiency. Appropriate use of a comma reveals a knowledge competency. Comma use reflects knowledge.
Similarly, in Cognitive Linguistics, it is your language use that reflects the faculties which produce the language itself. Your usage demonstrates the means of production. But that is not all; besides reflecting the faculties of cognition, language use also reflects the perspective of an identity in three dimensions: content knowledge, context knowledge, and conceptual mechanisms.
Think about the variables found in each of these three dimensions. Content Knowledge and Context Knowledge are clearly situated, they depend on experiences, retention, connection, et cetera, and are as variable as the external situation serves up. Conceptual mechanisms, on the other hand, are less variable, but even some of these mechanisms are variable within humans. People conceptualize time, space, orientation, differently because of differences in physiological sensors (i.e., eyes, nose, circadian rhythm, CNS), calibration (i.e., metabolism, color blindness), and cultural recognition of categories produced through the particular calibration of sensors (including ideas about color, flavor, and other sensory stimuli)…but wait! cultural recognition of categories is a matter of context knowledge rather than of conceptual mechanisms. The particular culture is the context used to interpret the content provided by the sensor for conceptualization. The physiological mechanisms merely presents the stimuli to be understood as content in terms of context. This leaves physiological sensors and calibration as our possible variables. Since humans are still the same species, the only variation in the sensors and calibration will be idiosyncratic and situated to a particular individual (a color blind individual) and the subsequent group of people who share the same variation (chain smokers who no longer have strong taste buds?, individuals with red-green color blindness, et cetera). It is individuals, rather than species, that have different degrees of sensor and calibration variation, so we can safely say that conceptualization is partly based on an individual’s contextual worldview.
But people have different experiences in life. Lifestyles are different, environments are different, learned behaviors are different.
In short, worldviews are different.
I am interested in how an individual person’s worldview shapes their situated and idiosyncratic language use.
From my perspective there are four dimensions/domains to this problem: the internal domain which houses the worldview lens, the external domain which is viewed through the lens, the limitations of one’s cognitive and physiological sensors, and the temporal domain which permits the external domain/context to change.
By using or not using certain language in certain contexts you reveal information about your personal context and worldview. In other words, you can only talk about things that you know something about, and likewise, you can only conceptualize things which fall within your capacity to conceptualize. (i.e., I cannot conceptualize what it is like to have the ability to see in the infrared spectrum without technical aid.) But worldviews and world experiences can change and adapt; it is possible to acculturate into a system of thought which would permit conceptualization through category systems different from your native categorization schema. Change in Context, then, permits a change in the way that we conceptualize the world. I wrote about this concept in The Art of War Against Boredom where I discuss how to see familiar things with unfamiliar eyes. Any change in perspective augments conceptualization of the situated context.
Dewey, R.A. (2010). The art of war against boredom, NewBotany Books
Evans, V. & Green, M. (2006). Cognitive linguistics, an introduction, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Lakoff, G. (1987). Women, fire, and dangerous things, what categories reveal about the mind, University of Chicago Press
Simon, H.A. (1981). The sciences of the artificial, 2nd edition, MIT Press