Friday, December 10, 2010

Mihailo Antovic - From Oceanic Feeling to Image Schemata: Embodied Mind and the Construction of Identity

Another cool open access article from Social Science Research Network. This is a pretty challenging article if you are not familiar with some of the main concepts, so I am including some of the introduction below the abstract.

Mihailo Antovic
University of Nis; Case Western Reserve University - Department of Cognitive Science

October 10, 2010

IDENTITY ISSUES: LITERARY AND LINGUISTIC LANDSCAPES, V. Lopicic. B. MisicIlic, eds., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Forthcoming

This paper discusses the notion of identity against some fundamental concepts of modern cognitive semantics. A Freudian perspective is first accepted, according to which individual identity emerges when the child renounces its original oceanic feeling of oneness with the world and begins to understand that there are some boundaries imposed on the ego (where the first other object to be conceived of is, as a rule, that of the mother). The school of cognitive semantics expands on this thesis claiming that early binary discretisation of bodily interaction with the environment results in subsequent conceptualisation of abstract domains. I discuss how these constructs, „image schemata‟, may influence the construction of adult concepts. In particular, the image schemata VERTICALITY, SOURCE-PATH-GOAL and CENTRE-PERIPHERY are analyzed using examples of visual, musical, and linguistic cognition (in Serbian and English). The analysis suggests that early visual experience is of particular importance for the development of concepts, many of which remain entrenched in the two languages, forming a part of native speakers‟ identity.

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Full Citation:
Mihailo, A. (2010, October 10). From Oceanic Feeling to Image Schemata: Embodied Mind and the Construction of Identity. IDENTITY ISSUES: LITERARY AND LINGUISTIC LANDSCAPES,
V. Lopicic. B. MisicIlic, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

I'm not a huge fan of Freud, in the original, but it seems that a lot of Europeans still are - so I tolerate it or ignore the irrelevant parts. I encourage you to do the same.
The problem of identity is central to human existence. As such, it is the focus of various fields in social sciences and humanities, from philosophy, over theology, to sociology, psychology and literary theory. As identity is typically expressed through the medium of language, the field of linguistics can also offer a contribution to the research of this uniquely human phenomenon.

This paper discusses a possible way in which linguistic semantics can contribute to the study of identity. It relates the Freudian notion of the oceanic feeling with image schemata, a central construct of modern cognitive semantics, which postulates a theory of how humans develop abstract concepts from early bodily interactions. The first section of the paper introduces the oceanic feeling and its possible elaborations in traditional semantics (1). The discussion then moves on to the embodied mind theory and image schemata from cognitive semantics, attempting to link this Freudian construct with more modern efforts in the study of meaning (2). The next section introduces three image schemata proposed by cognitive semanticists (VERTICALITY, SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, CENTRE-PERIPHERY), and illustrates them with some actualisations in the visual, musical, and conceptual domains, in Serbian and English (3). Finally, possible cognitive mechanisms underlying image schemata are set against the common call in literary criticism to "return to the original oneness", i.e. restore the individual's prelinguistic and preconceptual identity. The conclusion is that, if the embodied mind theory is on the right track, this restoration would only be possible if humans were devoid of language (4).

The Loss of Oneness and Semantic Dichotomies
Ideas of "lost oneness" have recurred in human thought for centuries. A typical such image presents human beings as having "descended" from the original blessed state of harmony with the world and "fallen" into consciousness, which results in an unbearable existence and urge to get back to the original, preconscious condition. This fundamental existential split has found numerous iterations: from mysticism in the East to that in the West, from Prometheus' stolen fire to the Biblical Garden of Eden, from archetypal criticism invoking the forlorn Triple Goddess of Complete Being, to more modern literary conceptions, such as T. S. Eliot's dissociated sensibility.

An interesting notion in early 20th century psychology closely related to the idea is found in Freud's well known book Civilization and Its Discontents. Citing a letter by a "friend", later disclosed to be the Nobel prize winner Romain Rolland, Freud talks of an oceanic feeling – that of an "insoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole" (Freud, 1929/1962: 12). Meticulous as always, though rigidly intellectualist in his approach and a bit wary of the concept, Freud considers the proposal in the following way:
"Normally, there is nothing of which we are more certain than the feeling of our self, of our own ego. This ego appears to us as something autonomous and unitary, marked off distinctly from everything else. […] Towards the outside, at any rate, the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation".
Elaborating on the conception of ego development, Freud contends that the first disruption of the oceanic feeling occurs when the child singles out one object from the omnipresent oneness that surrounds it. As a rule, this object is the mother – more precisely, the mother's breast:
"[…] other sources evade him [the infant] from time to time – among them, what he desires most of all, his mother's breast – and only reappear as a result of his screaming for help. In this way there is for the first time set over against the ego "an object" in the form of something that exists "outside" and which is only forced to appear by a special action" (Ibid: 14).
This seems to be the moment at which the very idea of "otherness" appears, as before that moment the child had believed that all the world around it was a constituent part of its own ego. There was nothing else but the "I". The early binary opposition ("I/other") hence disrupts the oceanic feeling. What is to become adult ego starts to emerge and the first gist of future identity appears. In a way, the "fall" starts exactly at this point.
Read the whole interesting article at the link above.

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