As I’ve said before, the primary (if not the only) real experimental evidence for conceptual metaphor theory — the theory that abstract concepts are structured by more concrete (i.e., closer to sensory/perceptual) concepts — comes from one domain: time. Time, according to conceptual metaphor theory, is structured primarily through spatial metaphors. In English, there are two dominant spatial metaphors: the ego-moving metaphor, in which we are moving toward the future (e.g., “I’m coming up on my 30th birthday”), and the time-moving metaphor, in which we are stationary while time moves towards us (e.g., “My 30th birthday is fast approaching”). Most of the experiments on time-space metaphors follow the same basic desgin: either the ego-moving or time-moving metaphor is primed (e.g., by showing people a picture depicting motion consistent with one or the other), and then given an ambiguous temporal statement like, “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days.” When asked what day the meeting is now on, people tend to answer in a way that is consistent with the primed spatial metaphor. Thus, if the ego-moving metaphor was primed, people will tend to answer that the meeting has been moved to Friday, and they tend to answer Monday if the time-moving metaphor is primed. Here’s a great illustration of this from a poster by Dennis and Markman1:
In the past (including in the linked post), I’ve maintained that it was possible to explain the results of such experiments as simple priming effects. Here’s how I explained it before:
But the priming procedures that all of these experiments use may provide evidence of nothing more than, well, priming. We would also predict these priming effects just by noting that temporal and spatial language use the same words. Sure, at some point in the distant past these words may have been used metaphorically, but now the metaphors are “lexicalized,” or put differently, “dead.” The words used to speak about time are now only about time, but are homonymous (or polysemous, which amounts to about the same thing6) with the words used to talk about space. We would predict the priming effect because, as research on suppression in language comprehension has shown, when we read/hear a word, we activate all of its common meanings, and then suppress those that are irrelevant in the present context7. However, simply activating the irrelevant meanings can lead to priming effects. Therefore, after viewing a spatial prime, reading a word that can have a spatial or temporal meaning will lead to priming effects even in temporal domains.
In other words, I have always argued that when spatial terms are used to talk about time, the spatial meanings are active long enough for the spatial primes in these experiments to influence their interpretation, even if time is not conceptualized through metaphorical mappings to space.
It turns out there may be another explanation for these results that also has nothing to do with whether time is conceptualized through metaphorical mappings to space. This explanation was proposed by Dennis and Markman, and has to do with the grammatical structure of the ambiguous temporal sentences. Again, the sentence that is generally used is, “Next Wednesday’s meeting has been moved forward two days.” Dennis and Markman note that a difference between the ego-moving and time-moving interpretations of the sentence has to do with whether the “ego” is either active or passive. In the ego-moving interpretation, the “ego” is an active agent, while in the time-moving interpretation, the “ego” is a passive patient. If the spatial primes in previous experiments prime a particular representation of agency (either active or passive), it can affect the interpretation of the spatially ambiguous sentence even if our concept of time is not metaphorically structured by our concept of space.
In order to test this interpretation, Dennis and Markman had participants unscramble two types of sentences. Half of the participants unscrambled sentences using the first-person subject pronoun “I.” The other half unscrambled sentences using the first-person object pronoun “me.” Here are their examples of each:
- Subject pronoun: Mary I bridge under kissed the (“I kissed Mary under the bridge”)
- Object pronoun: Mary me kissed the bridge under (“Mary kissed me under the bridge”)
The sentences using the first-person subject pronoun sentences prime the ego-as-active representation of agency, and the first-person subject pronoun sentences prime the ego-as-passive representation. Thus, Dennis and Markman predict that when participants unscrambed the subject-pronoun sentences, they would answer that the meeting had been moved to Friday, consistent with the ego-moving interpretation, and when they unscrambled the object-pronoun sentences, they would answer that the meeting had been moved to Monday, consistent with the time-moving interpretation. This is in fact what they found: 71% of participants answered “Friday” after unscrambling the subject-pronoun sentence, and 60% answered “Monday” after unscrambling the object-pronoun sentence (proportions consistent with past studies using spatial primes). Thus, they argue that the results of previous studies using spatial primes can be explained as resulting from people’s “unconscious representations of agency/passivity.”
Now, this research is ongoing (it was presented at a conference, but hasn’t been published in a peer reviewed journal yet), but I’m not sure how you would interpret these results from a conceptual metaphor theory perspective, and even if you could, they show that the evidence for the metaphorical structuring of time in terms of space has plausible alternative interpretations. I’m sure the debate about how to interpret previous results will continue, and that more really interesting work will be done, but for now, I think it’s safe to say that the evidence forthe metaphorical structuring of time is on very shaky ground. Without that evidence, it’s not clear that conceptual metaphor theory has an empirical leg to stand on.
1Dennis, J.L.M., & Markman, A.B. (2005). Are abstract concepts structured via more concrete concepts? Proceedings of the 27th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2467.