Philosophy:Image schema

From HandWiki
Figure 1 - containment image schema

An image schema (both schemas and schemata are used as plural forms) is a recurring structure within our cognitive processes which establishes patterns of understanding and reasoning. As an understudy to embodied cognition, image schemas are formed from our bodily interactions,[1] from linguistic experience, and from historical context. The term is introduced in Mark Johnson's book The Body in the Mind; in case study 2 of George Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: and further explained by Todd Oakley in The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics; by Rudolf Arnheim in Visual Thinking; by the collection From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics edited by Beate Hampe and Joseph E. Grady.

In contemporary cognitive linguistics, an image schema is considered an embodied prelinguistic structure of experience that motivates conceptual metaphor mappings. Learned in early infancy they are often described as spatiotemporal relationships that enable actions and describe characteristics of the environment. They exist both as static and dynamic version, describing both states and processes,[2] compare Containment vs. Going_In/Out, and they are learned from all sensorimodalities.

Evidence for image schemas is drawn from a number of related disciplines, including work on cross-modal cognition in psychology, from spatial cognition in both linguistics and psychology,[3] cognitive linguistics,[4] and from neuroscience.[5] The influences of image schemas is not only seen in cognitive linguistics and developmental psychology, but also in interface design[6] and more recently, the theory has become of increased interest in artificial intelligence[7] and cognitive robotics[8] to help ground meaning.

Johnson: From image schemas to abstract reasoning via metaphor

Figure 2 - containment image schema (as applied to the English word out)

Image schemas are dynamic embodied patterns—they take place in and through time. Moreover, they are multi-modal patterns of experience, not simply visual. For instance, consider how the dynamic nature of the containment schema is reflected in the various spatial senses of the English word out. Out may be used in cases where a clearly defined trajector (TR) leaves a spatially bounded landmark (LM), as in:

(1a) John went out of the room.
(1b) Mary got out of the car.
(1c) Spot jumped out of the pen.

In the most prototypical of such cases the landmark is a clearly defined container. However, out may also be used to indicate those cases where the trajector is a mass that spreads out, effectively expanding the area of the containing landmark:

(2a) She poured out the beans.
(2b) Roll out the carpet.
(2c) Send out the troops.

Finally, out is also often used to describe motion along a linear path where the containing landmark is implied and not defined at all:

(3) The train started out for Chicago.

Experientially basic and primarily spatial image schemas such as the Containment schema and its derivatives the Out schemas lend their logic to non-spatial situations. For example, one may metaphorically use the term out to describe non-spatial experiences:

(4) Leave out that big log when you stack the firewood. (Schema used directly and non-metaphorically.)
(4a) I don't want to leave any relevant data out of my argument. (Schema metaphorically projected onto argumentation.)
(4b) Tell me your story again, and don't leave out any details. (Schema metaphorically projected onto story-telling.)
(4c) She finally came out of her depression. (Schema metaphorically projected onto emotional life.)

Johnson argues that more abstract reasoning is shaped by such underlying spatial patterns. For example, he notes that the logic of containment is not just a matter of being in or out of the container. For example, if someone is in a deep depression, we know it is likely to be a long time before they are well. The deeper the trajector is in the container, the longer it will take for the trajector to get out of it. Similarly, Johnson argues that transitivity and the law of the excluded middle in logic are underlaid by preconceptual embodied experiences of the Containment schema.

Lakoff: Image schemas in Brugman's The story of Over

In case study two of his book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, Lakoff re-presented the analysis of the English word over done by Claudia Brugman in her (1981) master's thesis. Similar to the analysis of out given by Johnson, Lakoff argued that there were six basic spatial schemas for the English word over. Moreover, Lakoff gave a detailed accounting of how these schemas were interrelated in terms of what he called a radial category structure. For example, these six schemas could be both further specified by other spatial schemas such as whether the trajector was in contact with the landmark or not (as in the plane flew over the mountain vs. he climbed over the mountain). Furthermore, Lakoff identified a group of "transformational" image schemata such as rotational schemas and path to object mass, as in Spider-Man climbed all over the wall. This analysis raised profound questions about how image schemas could be grouped, transformed, and how sequences of image schemas could be chained together in language, mind and brain.

Relationships to similar theories

Johnson indicates that his analysis of out drew upon a 1981 doctoral dissertation by Susan Lindner in linguistics at UCSD under Ronald Langacker, and more generally by the theory of cognitive grammar put forth by him.[9] For the force group of image schemas Johnson also drew on an early version of the force dynamic schemas put forth by Len Talmy, as used by linguists such as Eve Sweetser. Other influences include Max Wertheimer's gestalt structure theory and Kant's account of schemas in categorization, as well as studies in experimental psychology on the mental rotation of images.

In addition to the dissertation on over by Brugman, Lakoff's use of image schema theory also drew extensively on Talmy and Langacker's theories of spatial relations terms. Other theories making use of similar conceptual primitives to capture meaning include Jean M. Mandler's spatial primitives, Anna Wierzbicka's semantic primes[10], Leonard Talmy's conceptual primitives, Roger Schank conceptual dependency theory and Andrea A. diSessa's phenomenological primitives (p-prims).

Image schemas have also been proposed to be descriptors of Gibsonian affordances. An object like a cup affords the image schema Containment to liquids and an abstract concept like transportation offer the affordance of moving something from one point to another as an image-schematic combination of Source-Path-Goal and Containment (alternatively Support).

Formal specification of image schemas and role in artificial intelligence

Some members of the Source-Path-Goal family.[11] [12]

While originally a theory for cognitive linguistics, the theory of image schemas and the underlying ideas behind embodied cognition have become of increased interest in artificial intelligence and cognitive robotics to help solve issues with natural language comprehension and the application of affordances. The research on formal accounts (e.g.[13][14]) of these abstract patterns date back several decades and has been proposed as a way to deal with geographical information science ,[15] natural language comprehension, automatic ontology generation[16] and computational conceptual blending.[17]

As a direct relation to embodied cognition, and more specifically embodied construction grammar, formal approaches to image schemas often limit the research area by looking at image schemas exclusively as spatiotemporal relationships. This provides a feasible foundation for knowledge representation to represent each individual image schema as well as their interconnection as relationships in a 3D space. One formal language to describe them is the ISL (Image Schema Language), a logic language combined by different formal calculi and first-order logic that builds on creating hierarchical families of logical micro-theories that is able to represent different degrees of specification of the image schemas.[14]

In artificial intelligence, image schemas are also used as an inspiration to advance natural language comprehension of metaphors, conceptual blending and creative language use. This is extended to also include non-linguistic reasoning such as commonsense reasoning (e.g. see Davis' Egg cracking problem and the approach made to describe it image-schematically[18]) and the formal structure of events[19] prototypical as some of the biggest challenges in AI.

Lists of image schemas

While Johnson provided an initial list of image schemas in The Body in the Mind (p. 126), his diagrams for them are scattered throughout his book and he only diagrammed a portion of those image schemas he listed. In his work, Lakoff also used several additional schemas.

Schemas discussed by Johnson

Spatial motion group
Cyclic Climax
Force Group
Removal of Restraint
Balance Group
Axis Balance
Point Balance
Twin-Pan Balance

Schemas listed, but not discussed, by Johnson


Additional schemas discussed by Lakoff

Transformational group
Linear path from moving object (one-dimensional trajector)
Path to endpoint (endpoint focus)
Path to object mass (path covering)
Multiplex to mass (possibly the same as Johnson's undefined Mass-Count)
Reflexive (both part-whole and temporally different reflexives)
Spatial group
Vertical Orientation
Length (extended trajector)

Schemas proposed and discussed by others

Rough-smooth/Bumpy-smooth (Rohrer; Johnson and Rohrer)
Straight (Cienki)

Mandler and Canovas' image schema hierarchy[20]

  1. Spatial primitives. The first building blocks that allow us to understand what we perceive: PATH, CONTAINER, THING, CONTACT, etc.
  2. Image schemas. Representations of simple spatial events using the primitives: PATH TO THING, THING INTO CONTAINER, etc.
  3. Schematic integrations. The first conceptual representations to include non-spatial elements, by projecting feelings or non-spatial perceptions to blends structured by image schema

See also


  1. Mandler, J. M. (1992). "How to build a baby: II. Conceptual primitives". Psychological Review 99 (4): 587–604. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.99.4.587. PMID 1454900. 
  2. Cienki, Alan (1997), "Some Properties and Groupings of Image Schemas", Lexical and Syntactical Constructions and the Construction of Meaning, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company) 150: pp. 3, doi:10.1075/cilt.150.04cie, ISBN 978-90-272-3654-8,, retrieved 2021-02-08 
  3. Boroditsky, L (2000). "Metaphoric structuring: Understanding time through spatial metaphors". Cognition 75 (1): 1–28. doi:10.1016/s0010-0277(99)00073-6. PMID 10815775. 
  4. Croft, W., & Cruse, D. A. (2004). Cognitive Linguistics (p. 374). New York: Cambridge University Press .
  5. Rohrer, Tim (2005-12-15), "Image schemata in the brain", From Perception to Meaning, Cognitive Linguistics Research, 29, Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 165–198, doi:10.1515/9783110197532.2.165, ISBN 978-3-11-018311-5,, retrieved 2021-01-26 
  6. Kuhn, Werner; Frank, Andrew U. (1991), "A Formalization of Metaphors and Image-Schemas in User Interfaces", Cognitive and Linguistic Aspects of Geographic Space (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands): pp. 419–434, doi:10.1007/978-94-011-2606-9_24, ISBN 978-94-010-5151-4,, retrieved 2021-01-26 
  7. Hedblom, Maria M. (2020) (in en). Image Schemas and Concept Invention: Cognitive, Logical, and Linguistic Investigations. Cognitive Technologies. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-47329-7. ISBN 978-3-030-47328-0. 
  8. Astor, James (2011-03-15). "Saying what you mean, meaning what you say: language, interaction and interpretation". Journal of Analytical Psychology 56 (2): 203–216. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5922.2010.01902.x. ISSN 0021-8774. PMID 21434900. 
  9. For example: Langacker, Ronald W. (1987). Foundations of Cognitive Grammar: Theoretical Prerequisites. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0804712613. OCLC 37499775. 
  10. Wierzbicka, Anna (1996). Semantics : Primes and Universals. UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780191588594. 
  11. Hedblom, Maria M. (2020) (in en). Image Schemas and Concept Invention: Cognitive, Logical, and Linguistic Investigations. Cognitive Technologies. Cham: Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-47329-7. ISBN 978-3-030-47328-0. 
  12. Hedblom, Maria M.; Kutz, Oliver; Neuhaus, Fabian (2015-12-01). "Choosing the Right Path: Image Schema Theory as a Foundation for Concept Invention". Journal of Artificial General Intelligence 6 (1): 21–54. doi:10.1515/jagi-2015-0003. ISSN 1946-0163. Bibcode2015JAGI....6...21H. 
  13. Chang, Yu-Han; Cohen, Paul R.; Morrison, Clayton T.; Amant, Robert St.; Beal, Carole (2006), "Piagetian Adaptation Meets Image Schemas: The Jean System", From Animals to Animats 9 (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg): pp. 369–380, doi:10.1007/11840541_31, ISBN 978-3-540-38608-7,, retrieved 2021-01-26 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Hedblom, Maria M.; Kutz, Oliver; Mossakowski, Till; Neuhaus, Fabian (2017). Esposito, Floriana; Basili, Roberto; Ferilli, Stefano et al.. eds. "Between Contact and Support: Introducing a Logic for Image Schemas and Directed Movement" (in en). AI*IA 2017 Advances in Artificial Intelligence. Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Cham: Springer International Publishing) 10640: 256–268. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-70169-1_19. ISBN 978-3-319-70169-1. 
  15. Kuhn, Werner (2007), "An Image-Schematic Account of Spatial Categories", Spatial Information Theory, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg) 4736: pp. 152–168, doi:10.1007/978-3-540-74788-8_10, ISBN 978-3-540-74786-4,, retrieved 2021-01-26 
  16. Bennett, B., & Cialone, C. (2014, September). Corpus Guided Sense Cluster Analysis: a methodology for ontology development (with examples from the spatial domain). In FOIS (pp. 213-226).
  17. Hedblom, Maria M.; Kutz, Oliver; Neuhaus, Fabian (September 2016). "Image schemas in computational conceptual blending". Cognitive Systems Research 39: 42–57. doi:10.1016/j.cogsys.2015.12.010. ISSN 1389-0417. 
  18. Hedblom, Maria M.; Kutz, Oliver; Peñaloza, Rafael; Guizzardi, Giancarlo (2019-07-17). "Image Schema Combinations and Complex Events". KI - Künstliche Intelligenz 33 (3): 279–291. doi:10.1007/s13218-019-00605-1. ISSN 0933-1875. 
  19. Robert St. Amant, Clayton T. Morrison, Yu-Han Chang, Paul R. Cohen, and Carole Beal. An image schema language. In International Conference on Cognitive Modeling (ICCM), pages 292–297, 2006.
  20. MANDLER, JEAN M.; PAGÁN CÁNOVAS, CRISTÓBAL (2014-05-13). "On defining image schemas". Language and Cognition 6 (4): 510–532. doi:10.1017/langcog.2014.14. ISSN 1866-9808. 


  • Johnson, Mark (1987). The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason, University of Chicago.
  • Lakoff, George (1987) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rohrer, Tim (2006) "Image Schemata in the Brain", in Beate Hampe (ed.) From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Online version (PDF) — A recent book chapter which explores the evidence from cognitive neuroscience and cognitive science for the neural underpinnings of image schemas.