Linguistic vs. Cultural Evidence: Metaphors of Heart and Brain and the Conceptualization of Humans
Empirical research on metaphor use has produced interesting insights into folk models for different domains: Time, love, emotions, life, communication and so on. Can metaphoric patterns in language also reveal how we conceptualize humans, thus, ourselves? Where is the self, the personality located in our folk and/or scientific models of human beings?
Taking a look at metaphors used to describe the self, personality, emotions and the like, the heart seems to be of major importance. In German, we find thousands of metaphorical and idiomatic expressions using the word Herz ‘heart’, to refer to personal features, especially feelings and personality. But on the other hand, neuroscientists tells us that almost everything of interest for our self, our consciousness and our personality is located in our brains. And indeed, many social and cultural practices put the brain in the center of a person, whereas the heart is of minor interest in court orders, medical ethics, and transplantation medicine.
Using a large corpus I analyze how the words Herz ‘heart’ and Gehirn ‘brain’ are used in German. What can these findings from linguistic data tell us about how people actually think about the body and the mind, their self and their feelings? Conceptual Metaphor Theory, as first outlined by Lakoff & Johnson (1980) claims that systematic occurrences of metaphors in language are linguistic realizations of conceptual metaphors. Conceptual metaphors structure and guide our thinking and reasoning about things. It is indeed appealing to accept this as an explanation for systematic metaphors in language. But does systematic occurence necessarily indicate an underlying conceptual metaphor which structures our thinking? And is this true for our concepts of hearts, minds, and the self?
To approach this question, I compare the metaphorical model that is suggested by the corpus data with some evidence from culture. It becomes obvious that these two kinds of empirical evidence don’t fit neatly, but seem to be contradictionary. Therefore I will question the claim that systematic occurences of metaphors provide a sufficient basis for claiming a folk model. I argue for more interdisciplinary research and the use of different kinds of data – metaphors in language being one important part of it – to get a more realistic picture of how we conceptualize ourselves and the world around us.