Examples of the pervasive container metaphor

The container metaphor is one of the most important and deeply ingrained metaphors in the human cognitive toolkit. Take the example of being “in love” with someone. This metaphor uses container logic. I always get a kick out of literally imagining a metaphor. When I visualize the “in love” metaphor, I imagine that falling “in love” is like someone stepping into a box that is labeled love. When you are in love, you are in the box; when you are not in love anymore, you are no longer in the box. It’s a simple metaphor, but very powerful, since it compels you to think of love as an on-off switch, since objects are usually either in a box or not in a box, but not often only half-way in the box due to gravity. So when we say “I don’t just love you, I am in love with you”, this is a powerful expression since it signifies the presence of a powerful, not lukewarm, feeling.  It means you are fully immersed in the love box. But I suppose the container of love doesn’t have to be a box. There are a lot of things you can be “in” besides boxes. But the box-logic is I think more pervasive. Think of how naturally a young child takes to container logic from the interactions and observations of boxes being used. They understand what it means to place something in a container. They watch milk being poured into a glass. They watch the toy going into the toy box. They crawl inside giant cardboard boxes. Children are probably exposed to the human use of containers many times a day, every day. It’s obvious why such a metaphor would be deeply ingrained in our minds. Containers are one of the greatest human inventions. A wicker basket to help you forage more efficiently would have had helped families gather more food to better prevent starvation in their young.

As Lakoff and Johnson point out, container logic is also helpful for imagining logical schemas stemming from “inclusion” e.g. Container A is inside Container B and Entity C is inside Container A, then Entity C is inside Container B. Moreover, container logic is probably most important in grounding how we think of our own minds. It’s fairly natural for an English speaker to say things like “He has a great idea in his mind”, “I’m feeling out of it today”, “That went over my head (didn’t go into the box)”. We imagine memories being “stored” in our minds as if our mind was a storehouse of goods, with separate rooms or containers for each memory trace or idea.



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

3 responses to “Examples of the pervasive container metaphor

  1. Gary-

    This may be tangential, but your talk about container logic very closely mirrors my dislike of the term “contents”, as applied to mental states. From one of my own essays:

    [begin quote]
    Many writers use the term [i.e. “contents of our thoughts”] with confidence that it has meaning, then go on to spend a lot of effort trying to analyze it and figure out what the content of our thoughts is, or whether content is narrow (dependent on one’s internal state) or broad (dependent on one’s state plus the state of the world). It always seems to go without saying that there is some fact of the matter. The content of a thought is a lot like the extension of a word. It is whatever the thought is “about”. I find the term at best to be a strong pretheoretic nudge in a particular direction, and at worst grossly misleading.

    I may have a box. If I put a cake in the box, then the cake constitutes the contents of the box. I could have put the cake in a different box, in which case that other box would have had the same contents that this box now has. Or I could have put some old newspapers in the box, in which case the same box would have different contents. The box is blank, empty, until I put some contents into it. These are the sorts of images and relationships we drag into play as soon as we invoke the highly loaded term “content”. I have thoughts, that is all. As far as I can tell, I have no separate “contents” of those thoughts.
    [end quote]

    You are right, container logic is somehow very primal, one of those fundamental metaphors. As such, it can be very seductive, and like other metaphors, can start out as a convenient turn of phrase, and subtly end up steering our whole train of thought in certain directions and away from others.

    -John Gregg

    • Gary Williams

      Hi John,

      I don’t think your comment was tangential at all! I agree with you completely that many philosophers are “seduced” into using metaphorical language without examining the metaphorical nature of such language. You’re right, the whole vocabulary of “content” stinks of spatial metaphor, something Heidegger points out many times in Being and Time. I have no problem using metaphor in philosophy. Imagery is helpful in conveying a complex point. But we must remain vigilant in not letting the metaphor become a replacement for a genuine theory.

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