Code: TP - 31


Conceptual Blending as Participation: Cognition and Classical American Philosophy


Abstract: John Dewey’s description of human thinking as primarily human participation in environment finds empirical support in recent cognitive science research. In this paper, I present an account of human cognition in light of recent cognitive science research as likewise an articulation of Deweyan pragmatism. In doing so, I present the possibility of a re-articulation of what pragmatism means in light of this contemporary research.


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Conceptual Blending as Participation: Cognition and Classical American Philosophy

A joke that I heard recently involves three conversations that George W. Bush has in one night a la Charles Dickens. One is with George Washington, one with Thomas Jefferson, and one with Abraham Lincoln. Bush asks each what he can do to best fulfill his presidential function. Washington counsels Bush to never tell a lie; Jefferson counsels Bush to serve his country above all else; Abraham Lincoln counsels Bush to go to the theater. Now, this joke might elicit some reaction in you other than laughter—but in order to register any reaction you must be able to imagine the three-fold scenario it describes. Registering this reaction, in fact, some wisecracker’s writing the joke, is an act of what two cognitive scientists, Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner call "conceptual blending." This conceptual blending facilitates every expression of human thinking, and that conceptual blending facilitates every expression of human thinking constitutes an articulation of what makes claims, in John Dewey’s words, "warrantedly assertible." Dewey’s own conception of human thinking, articulated at the very start of relevant sociological and psychological conversations, now appears vague in light of recent theses in the cognitive sciences such as that of Fauconnier and Turner. For this reason, I present here an attempt to connect Dewey’s nascent insights to the advances that have been made with respect to questions about "how we think." In this paper, I will describe conceptual blending and the Deweyan conception of warranted assertability, which it bolsters. My point will be two-fold: (1) an account of human cognition as a function of conceptual blending is likewise an articulation of Deweyan pragmatism. More specifically, "conceptual blending" constitutes what John Dewey calls participation. (2) Human cognition as a function of conceptual blending is a rearticulation of what "pragmatism" means. This second claim in particular is one in which I see much promise for Deweyan scholarship. Therefore, I end with some description of how I see this rearticulation developing further.

            What is "conceptual blending"? In the case of the joke recounted above, conceptual blending is the cognitive capacity to imagine Bush having conversations with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Bush lives in 2003, in the information age and with a Starbucks on every corner. Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln were dead and buried long before the developments of assembly line production and presidential secret service personnel. To conceive of these men as conversing requires—more than a suspension of disbelief in the abilities of dead men—a creative leap associating at least two scenarios: one in which Bush is alive and contemplating the issues of his own presidency in 2003 and one in which each former president is alive in his respective time period contemplating the issues of his own presidency. The conceptual blend in this situation is the unified story of one conversation out of the two separate ideas of (1) Bush engaged in conversation and of (2) a long-dead former president engaged in conversation.

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner discuss a similar example of conceptual blending, which they call "the Debate with Kant."[1] This conceptual blend is a lecturing professor of Kantian ethics saying, "Now, Kant claims this, and I disagree with him. Kant and I disagree on the issue." This conceptual blend is organized according to a "mirror network." The mirror network means that the information inputs (Kant conversing and the professor conversing) share the same generic framework: Thinker, Claims and Musings, Mode of Expression, Language, Issue, Purpose, Time. These elements constitute the "generic space" of the mirror network. The information inputs of "Kant" and "professor" map onto this generic frame: Input 1 is Kant, Claims and Musings, Writing, German, Reason, Search for Truth, 1784. Input 2 is Professor, Claims and Musings, Speaking, English, Cognitive Processes, Search for Truth, 1995. The following is a diagram in which these inputs operate:[2]


With reference to the input 2 framework, Kant is deceased and never aware of the professor. Nevertheless these two inputs create a blend with the same framework as both the generic space and the input spaces. The blend is an integration of inputs 1 and 2: Kant and Professor, Claims/Questions/Answers, Speaking, English (note same language), Cognition, Search for Truth, Kant and Professor both alive, both aware of each other. In this scenario, what looks most obvious to you as you hear the professor speak about her disagreement with Kant is what is most interesting. That Kant and this professor participate in the same framework despite the dissonance of 200 years, linguistic and conceptual differences, etc, looks very simple at the outset. Actually, it is a feat of cognitive activity, which owes its apparent ease not to any simplicity or inevitability of its own, but to the ease with which human cognition achieves such a blend.

            The mirror network is not the only example of conceptual blend organization in networks.[3] In the interest of space, however, I will discuss only one other: double-scope conceptual integration. Whereas in a mirror network, all elements (generic frame, inputs and blend) share the same framework, a double-scope network integrates a frame and two inputs that are not alike in structure and that produce a blend that is also not like the frame and inputs in structure. The differences between the two inputs in a double-scope integration network are often due to contradictory elements of the inputs. These contradictions produce blends that are decidedly innovative.

Fauconnier and Turner give the example of the Computer Desktop as a double-scope network. This network involves two inputs: that of an office with a trashcan, folders, mailboxes and that of a computer with conventional commands. So, the blend that these inputs inform is an integration of how things get done in an office and how things get done by a computer. However, the elements of the frames of these inputs are incommensurable. The guiding principle for the integration is, then, not the generic framework (as there is not one), but the notion that a computer screen is the top of a desk in an office. The cognitive result of this incommensurability is an innovative blend in which, for example, the trashcan is placed on top of the desk.[4]

For Fauconnier and Turner, the sort of double-scope conceptual integration that the Computer Desktop represents is what makes the development of language (as well as the development of ritual, art, science and tool use) possible. Simply put, double-scope blending is the cognitive capacity to associate disparate concepts, and every linguistic system the world over demonstrates such association in its categorical assumptions about people, food, houses of different groupings. Moreover, the very act of applying linguistic forms to the world around us, making claims on that world with our categorical assumptions is an act of double-scope blending. In this way, even the most simple grammar rules rely implicitly on double-scope blending. In other words, communication in the form of language relies on a fully developed capacity for double-scope blending.

As Fauconnier and Turner put it: "Language is like flight: an all-or-nothing behavior."[5] Either a group of humans has the cognitive capacity for double-scope blending and they express this in language, or there is no language at all. What’s more, there is no evidence of a more simple language without double-scope blending having ever existed.

In modern humans, double-scope blending constitutes the basis of what it makes sense to say and what it does not according to the frameworks that it presupposes. As has been demonstrated, the distinctive characteristic of double-scope blends is the extent to which the inputs are incompatible and the subsequent extent to which the blends are innovative conceptions. This cognitive activity is constantly building upon and improvising on the content of former activity. Fauconnier and Turner refer to this continual process as "running blends." Put simply, human cognition is running blends that create ubiquitous "binding," or the creation of associations that did not exist before the running of that blend. As Fauconnier and Turner put it, binding cyclically feeds "the blend that becomes a new integrated motion."[6]

This particular aspect of Fauconnier and Turner’s understanding of human cognition—that cognition is always and everywhere a function of conceptual blending (particularly double-scope blending)—is what I suggest amounts to Deweyan pragmatism. Fauconnier and Turner’s claim, simply put, is that human cognition supplies the conceptual connections necessary for its own functioning in a way that is both creative (as can be seen in the case of the Computer Desktop) and conservative (in that once one "runs" a given blend, that blend irrevocably informs future thinking and acting with regard to itself.) I want to suggest that this is equally true of Deweyan pragmatism. For example, in "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology,"[7] Dewey challenges the functional distinctions "stimulus" and "response," because the response to any given stimulus is the re-association of that stimulus for the responder. There can be no simple delineation of the two terms "stimulus" and "response" because of the continual re-association that constitutes any given event in which a stimulus and response can be identified. For Dewey, this continual re-association is characteristic of all experience and cognition with respect to experience. New associations (in this case, response) involve themselves in old concepts (stimulus) and this new understanding becomes the new experience. Dewey expounds upon this insight in later work in which he claims that he does not use the terms "knowledge" or "belief" precisely because of the ever-present possibility for the reappraisal of what is called "knowledge" or a "belief" in light of new associations, new meanings.[8] Instead, Dewey talks about the "warranted assertibility" of a concept in a specific context at a specific time—with the admitted realization that the human-recognized warranted assertibility of a given concept takes a creative and conservative role in what a person is willing to call "warrantedly assertible" subsequently. To use the integrated words of Fauconnier and Turner and Dewey, that human cognition is a function of conceptual blending means that what we can say with warranted assertability about the world is always one step behind the influence of that claim on the world it describes.

For Dewey, cognition and its linguistic expression are human and environmental negotiation. I suggest that the activity of conceptual blending discussed by Fauconnier and Turner constitutes what John Dewey calls "participation," or the reciprocally influential relationship between humans and environment.[9] Participation signals for Dewey more than a coexistence of humans and environment. Rather, it means that there is mutually informative exchange between them so that the organic experience of being a human participant in negotiation means, "Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place."[10] Conceptual blending is a particularly good way of expressing the idea that every thinker "puts the world in peril," or influences its course in some minute way every time she opens her mouth, indeed every moment in which she is breathing and therefore thinking. In the construction of conceptual blends, cognition functions as a creative arbiter—making new associations, reinforcing old stereotypes. Warrantedly assertible claims are a function of conceptual blending as the active, participatory way in which humans are in the world. 

Deweyan pragmatism holds that what is warrantedly assertible is the outcome of the desire to determine any given indeterminate situation. For this reason, the way in which meaning operates in a given social setting is key to understanding what can be claimed and what cannot. This act of appropriating "truth" is a characteristically human activity by which humans and environment interact for the purpose of desired stability in a precarious world. As Fauconnier and Turner claim, all thinking, including the appropriating of "truth" is a function of conceptual blending—which is itself a creative act always fundamentally interacting with the world on which it claims to pin static labels of "truth" and "stability." In this way, conceptual blending becomes another way of articulating pragmatism as a way of describing the relationship between human thinking and the world in which humans live. Conceptual blending, of which human thinking is a function, is an active participant in the constitution of the world. In saying this, I mean both that conceptual blending is itself participation in the world and that it is an understanding of human cognition consistent with the concerns of pragmatism, which it rearticulates.

To what extent can one claim that existence is a function of participation in the form of conceptual blending? Are there semantically-free concepts such as rocks and trees that are what they are regardless of human conceptual negotiation? For Dewey, humans do involve themselves organically in the world; this involvement is both an indicator and instigator of human language and thinking. The influence is at all times subtle and ubiquitous. As Dewey puts it, "Everything that exists in as far as it is known and knowable is in interaction with other things."[11] And as he goes on to say in the same paragraph, this interaction is not merely associative but always mutually informative.

As has been said, Fauconnier and Turner advocate that it is conceptual blending (specifically double-scope blending) that is responsible for the development of human societies as we understand them. Language, religion, science and art and their influences on the natural and social worlds in which we live are all by-products of human cognition. Without conceptual blending, there would be no participation in the world in the way that we know it. Here’s my point: conceptual blending, active, creative human cognition, plays an organic role in existence. It is not solely responsible for the world; if humans quit thinking, the sun would still rise. However, conceptual blending and the values it instantiates and alters are active and accountable players in the natural, intellectual and social worlds in which humans live. For this reason, even trees and rocks do not escape the influence of human cognition insofar as, for example, the way in which human environmental concerns affects trees and rocks. The existence we regard is always already affected by the way in which we regard it. The importance of this claim cannot be overstated: human thinking informs, for better or worse, the possibilities for future experience, for what we can call "warrantedly assertible," in a finite world.        

I have claimed here that an account of human cognition as a function of conceptual blending is likewise a claim consistent with Deweyan pragmatism. I now want to close with some idea about what this connection might mean for Deweyan scholarship. Conceptual blending plays an active role in the world we live in, and the act of taking account of the world is always already influenced by this active role. Moreover, taking account of the world is itself a creative act. So, this claim can be stated differently: human cognition as a function of conceptual blending is another way of articulating pragmatism as a stance in opposition to traditional ontology, insofar as participation is a quintessentially pragmatic concept. Unfortunately, though Dewey was espousing these claims very early in the fields of sociology and psychology, his claims lack the specificity that findings in contemporary cognitive sciences promise. By connecting the common pragmatism of Dewey’s work and that of contemporary cognitive scientists, scholars stand to gain more specific description of the implications of Deweyan thought with regard to cognition generally, as well as with regard to the role of habit in warranted assertibility. But cognitive scientists have much to gain from this connection as well: Dewey’s ever-vigilant desire to demonstrate the relevance and the repercussions of making claims about human cognition.

Works Cited

Dewey, John. Experience and Nature, in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Vol. 1. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.


Dewey, John. "The Problem of Logical Subject-Matter," in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Vol.12. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.


Dewey, John. "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," in The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol.5. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.


Fauconnier, Gilles and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.



[1] Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 59-62.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] Ibid., 337-345.

[4] Ibid., 340.

[5] Ibid., 181.

[6] Ibid., 22.

[7] John Dewey, "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" in The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898. Vol.5. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), 96-110.

[8] John Dewey, "The Problem of Logical Subject-Matter," in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Vol.12. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 9-29.

[9] John Dewey, Experience and Nature, in The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953, Vol. 1. ed. Jo Ann Boydston. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), 138.

[10] Ibid., 172.

[11] Ibid., 138.