Categories of the Mind

We sort more and less exciting things into consistent, conventional mental categories and subconsciously associate those in each category with each other.

“For it is by earth that we see earth, by water water,

By aether divine aether, and by fire destructive fire,

And fondness by fondness, and strife by baleful strife.”

— Empedocles (Kingsley and Parry 2020)

“Through history and prehistory, people have had an immediate understanding of the difference between a liquid and a solid, without needing scientists to explain the difference to them.”

— Dutton (2009)

“Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature.”

— Lakaoff and Johnson (2008)

Evidence we relate qualities within categories of higher and lower excitement lies in how we think of and describe hotter temperatures, brighter lights, and faster speeds as “higher” or “up” and their opposites as “lower” and “down.” Verticality is not involved, or apparent in any way when temperature, brightness and speed change. One can see the relationship between qualities in the same category in various words with more than one meaning. For instance the word “spring” can mean the season of increasing heat, upward movement, sudden movement or a fluid running out of the ground. Heat is like a fluid in “heat wave,” “sunbath,” “meteor shower,” “baptism of fire,” the Egyptian and Christian mythological lakes of fire and the Greek fire river Phlegethon, which Dante described in Divine Comedy as a river of boiling blood, instead of fire, apparently to match the heat in the veins of the people standing in it forever as punishment for evil deeds committed under the influence of “blind cupidity” and “wrath insane” (Aligheri 1982). Disorder is like a fluid in “riptide,” “the fog of war,” and the words “blow” and “winding.” We call the sun coming up disorderly in “the break of day,” “daybreak,” and “the crack of dawn,” and the sun going down orderly in “the evening.” We call the mornings up in “top of the morning,” the sunset down in “nightfall,” the weather getting warmer up in “spring” and getting colder down in “the fall.” Dynamic change is fluid in “run like the wind,” “sea change” and “winds of change,” bright in “a flash,” “lightening speed” and “the living daylights, hot in “a blistering pace,” “a hot clip,” and “hot pursuit,” disorderly in “fast break,” “warp speed,” and “on a tear,” both bright and disorderly in “flash crash,” upward in “overdrive,” and outward in “spike.” Multiplicity is up, dynamic and out in “high turn out.” But nothing is perceptibly fluid, broken, cracked, upward or outward about light, or hot, spiky, bright, broken, torn or elevated about rapid changes and fast movements.

Brightness and fluidity remind us of each other, as in a “splash of color,” the “shining sea,” the Milky Way, the Cosmic Ocean, the Celestial River, the frequency of liquids and sea animals in constellations (as in the part of the night sky known as “The Sea”) and the luminiferous light-propagating aether, with the word aether coming from Latin and Greek words meaning light air, breath of the gods, bright, shine and burning. Some rendition of “Milky Way” has been the name historically for the bright band of light corresponding to our galaxy amongst the Romans, Italians, French, Germans, Hebrews, Arabs, Chinese and the Micmac tribe of northeastern North America (Wintemberg 1809). Thus the name has probably been invented more than once, so it has a way of catching on, or at least there’s something about it that sounds acceptable to many people. How the milk got into the sky varies between cultures. In Greece it came from the breast of the goddess Hera. For the ancient Hindus it was scattered by the red cow of the evening.

The Milky Way is also widely associated with dynamic motion and flowing water. The Kiowa, Cheyenne and plains tribes thought of the area as a track for running Buffalo and Horses. In the Cherokee myth a dog runs across the sky spilling corn meal. The Ottawa imagined the galactic light to be the result of a turtle swimming over the sky and stirring up mud, and Wintemberg says:

“Thus, from time immemorial, it has been known as ‘the River of Heaven’ or of the sky. In Egyptian mythology it was ‘the inaccessible stream.’ The Euphratean name was ‘the River of the High Cloud.’’ To the Akkadians it was the ‘Snake-River,’ ‘River-of-the-Cord-of-the-God-great,’ ‘River-of-the-Abyss-great,’ ‘River-of-the-Shepherds-hut, dust cloud high,’ ‘river-of-the-Divine-Lady,’ and ‘River of Nana,’ the wife of the Heaven-god. The Arabs called it Al Nahr, which signifies ‘the River,’ and it was known to the Hebrews as Nehar di Nur, ‘River of Light.” In Cinga, as well as Japan, it was Tien Ho, the ‘Celestial River’ and ‘the Silver river, whose fish were frightened by the new moon, which they imagined to be a hook,’ Among the Hindus of Northern India it is known as the ‘course of the Heavenly Ganges,’ In Sanscrit legend, according to Al Biruni, it is called the ‘Bed of Ganges.’ It was also long known as Eridanus, the ‘Stream of Ocean.’ Another ancient name for it was ‘Canal’ of the sky. The Sauks and Fox Indians call it the ‘white river’” (Wintemberg 1809).


Other evidence for mental categories can be seen in how roughly synonymous words corresponding to qualities within a category can often be exchanged in expressions without significantly altering the overall meaning. Words we use for order, both simple geometric order and social order, are often also used to express agreement. The orderly words “even,” “straight,” “level,” “correct,” “rectify,” “right,” “alright,” “square,” “just” and “true” are all ways to say we agree, and so are the words “solid,” “down,” “tight,” “contract,” “dig it” and “I’m in.” All these concepts are somewhat synonymous with each other and with those of social order. Our concepts of knowledge and reality are associated with the same set of orderly qualities, while learning and humor associate with the set comprising their more exciting opposites.

Words we use for humor (from the Latin word for moisture), small distractions from social order, often refer to disorder (for example “wisecrack,” “broke as a joke,” “dirty joke”) but also other qualities from the hotter category such as heat, speed, up and out, like in “on fire,” “quick wit,” “running joke,” “bust up,” “crack up,” “uproarious” and “break out into laughter,” similar to the way all of the more exciting qualities are found in use to describe drugs and drug use. Language we use for humor and drugs are biased on the exciting side and those for agreement are biased on the less exciting side. Brokenness, cracks, busting, dirtiness, heat, fire, quickness, speed, up and out are synonymous with each other and with social disorder.

In “Metaphors We Live By,” Lakaoff and Johnson (2008) say that metaphorical patterns in language are reflections of the conceptual system that governs how we think and behave at a fundamental level, and therefore language can be investigated in the interest of understanding how the mind works:

“If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.” The most important claim they make “is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words. We shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical.”

The authors point out that some metaphorical relations tend to take priority over others and some types of opposites are nonrandom, “sharply delineated,” systematic, and occur more cross-culturally than others (e.g., up — down, in — out, light — dark, warm — cold, central — peripheral, active — passive). These are many of the same dualities which idioms indicate are fundamental.

Phenomena the authors show to be associated with upwardness, based on commonly used metaphors, several examples of which are given, include happiness, consciousness (being awake), life (herein referred to as a type of dynamism), dominance, “more,” (herein referred to as more, many or multiplicity), the future, high status, rationality and the male gender. Meanwhile sadness, sleep, death, submission, less (herein less, fewer or singularity), the past, low status, emotion and the female gender are down. That rationality is up and emotion down, as the authors propose, is probably incorrect; otherwise the author’s conclusions are largely aligned with those reached here about up and downwardness, by a similar process, but assuming a different mechanism.

Acquiring Conventional Metaphors

Lakoff and Johnson provide what they call a plausible “physical basis” for the widespread existence of each metaphor, consisting of ways in which each up-related phenomenon and its opposite could have been observed in the outside world to be related to the directions up and down. For instance they say it makes sense happy is up, because sad people slouch and happy people stand up straight. Since this is so generally true people may have observed the fact about ourselves and each other and casually built it into languages. More simply, though, universal relations between downwardness and sadness could be simultaneously responsible for sad downward bodily positioning, happy bodily upwardness, and the accordance of popular expressions to the metaphors, with the association itself predating both human language and body language.

The love metaphors “love is a journey,” “love is war,” “love is an electromagnetic phenomenon,” “love is madness” and “love is a game” are given to illustrate that no single abstract concept can encompass all of the things we relate to love. However, it’s notable that since journeys are outward, war is disorderly, light is bright, madness is disorderly, games are dynamic and fun, and outwardness, disorder, brightness, dynamism and fun are all more exciting than their opposites, love could therefore be associated with all of them by way of psychological excitement.

The potential physical basis given for “rational is up,” and “emotion is down,” that humans are rational, animals are not, and we see ourselves as above them is probably flawed because it does not explain why we would see ourselves as higher than other animals or how that relates closely enough to rationality to make sense. This seems counter to other evidence from language showing that we relate knowledge to downwardness and other unemotional (e.g., cold, collected and calculating) things, and that emotion would be down is contrary to “happy is up,” and also to “mundane reality is down (as in ‘down to earth’),” which they give as a basis for “low” in the scientific term “low-level phonology.” Curiously, most of the authors examples of how the basic metaphor “theories are buildings” can be used imaginatively, such as a theory with winding corridors, a baroque theory, one covered with gargoyles and one with a plumbing problem, involve adding fluidity to the building/theory.

Works Cited

Aligheri, Dante. “The Divine Comedy of Dante Aligheri: Inferno.” Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Bantam Books (1982).

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago press, 2008.

Dutton, Denis. The art instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution. Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.

Kingsley, K. Scarlett, and Richard Parry. “Empedocles.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 7 Apr. 2020,

Wintemberg, W. J. “Myths and Fancies of the Milky Way.” Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, vol. 2, 1809, p. 235–247.

Life in terms of the nonliving. Universal animal preferences for mixtures of simple, more and less exciting psychological opposites.

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