Image Schemas: The Physics of Cultural Knowledge?10 min read

Recent posts by Omar (see here and here) discuss the importance of specifying underlying philosophical claims when conceptualizing culture. The first post distinguishes ontic philosophical claims (about the nature of an entity/process) from epistemic philosophical claims (about the best way to gain knowledge about an entity/process), noting that “a lot of recent (productive) disagreement in cultural analysis has been really about epistemic claims…However, ontic claims usually have implications for epistemic claims.” That is, inquiring about the best ways to study culture (epistemology) involves at least some prior assumptions about what that culture is made of and what it is like (ontology).

This post—based on my recently published article (Rotolo 2019)—discusses the ontic compositional claim that humans’ most basic conceptual structures consist of “image schemas,” which exist independently of language and constrain understanding and reasoning to a basic set of schematic concepts derived from sensorimotor experience. In the full paper, I show the importance (and gain) of starting from ontological claims—in this case, well-established, scientific theories about the cognitive structures involved in meaning-construction—rather than working backward to them or ignoring them when making claims about culture. Doing so leads to better claims about how culture works and is patterned. It also avoids problems arising from focusing solely on explicit discourse without concern for the cognitive scaffolding and processes that shape discursive expression.

What are Image Schemas?

Image schemas are “recurring, dynamic pattern[s] of our perceptual interactions and motor programs that [give] coherence and structure to our experience” (Johnson 1987: xiv). Arising from recurring perceptions and embodied experiences, image schemas represent the most basic forms and relations we sense and perceive. Repeated types of sensory experience and spatiotemporal information, like the perception of near and far, give us image schemas (NEAR-FAR), which can then be used to provide the logic of abstract concepts and ideas (e.g., “Our relationship is not very close.”)

Cognitive scientists across subfields agree that a relatively small number of image schemas about space, force, motion, and relations between entities combine in nearly infinite ways to structure everything from unique personal meanings to even our most complex philosophical ideas. Cultural knowledge, then, “can be thought of as an assemblage and elaboration of these basic, prelinguistic images” (Rotolo 2019: 4). Image schemas are something like the “physics” of cultural knowledge.

While there is no definitive list of image schemas, 14 image schemas compose “the core of the standard inventory,” based on their recurrence in a wide variety of studies over the past three decades—CONTAINMENT/CONTAINER, PATH/SOURCE-PATH-GOAL, LINK, PART-WHOLE, CENTER-PERIPHERY, BALANCE, ENABLEMENT, BLOCKAGE, COUNTERFORCE, ATTRACTION, COMPULSION, RESTRAINT, REMOVAL, DIVERSION (Hampe 2005: 2).

In my article, I identify a total of 5 image schemas used by the 50 adults in my interview sample to explain their understanding of religion’s role in life—PATH, SOURCE, CENTER, CONTAINER, and LINK (visualized above). These image schemas provide the underlying logic for inferences and reasoning about religion, including respondents’ explanations of their motivations and self-reported action. For example, one Conservative Protestant described religion as “taking a journey, “following God,” and “going down the right path” to “get further in the Lord’s work,” demonstrating a frequent and exclusive reliance on the PATH schema to explain his views.

Does it Matter that People Use Image Schemas?

Image schemas alone provide a somewhat skeletal analysis—they do not account for emotion (but see Kövecses 2003), interaction, speech-act conditions, and so on (Johnson 2005: 24-5). So do they really improve cultural analyses? Here, I outline three benefits of using image schemas to study the link between culture and cognition:

  1. As the basic building blocks of conceptual knowledge, image schemas pinpoint the conceptual meaning in people’s understandings and discourse. They help us identify both the where and the how of ideas, rather than a selective focus on surface patterns of discourse. For example, Lizardo (2013) uses image schema analysis to explain and compare conceptions of the structure/agency relationship in different social theories. He concludes, “When it comes to the conceptualization of social structure, some version of the organicist PART-WHOLE + ENTITY + LINK CIS appears to be the only game in town” (Lizardo 2013: 166). The same is true for my analysis of religious understandings. By focusing on image schemas, I was able to recognize that much of my respondents’ prolix, complicated, unique, and often inarticulate discourse about religion drew on the PATH schema. They primarily understand religion’s role in life in terms of paths, tracks, journeys, quests, and walks with different directions, routes, and obstacles. The PATH schema also oriented their thinking on action related to religion, like “not veering from the path,” giving their children “a compass,” and “guiding their steps.”
  2. Image schemas illuminate another level at which cultural knowledge may be uniquely patterned. In my analysis of religious understandings, I used principal factor and regression analysis to identify patterns of variation in image schema use and established that these patterns had statistically significant associations with key demographic variables. I found that women and those with higher educational attainment were more likely to use the CENTER and LINK and less likely to use the PATH schema. Black Protestants used the PATH and SOURCE schemas more frequently, and Muslims and other religious minorities in America used the CONTAINER schema more regularly. Upon reexamining the interviews in light of these findings, it became clear that these image schema patterns related to substantively different understandings and reasoning about religion’s role in life that were not obvious at first glance. For example, those who scored very high on the first factor exemplified a highly metaphysical understanding of the religion, in which religion serves as a CENTER identity and a LINK to reality to keep one from floating in meaninglessness. On the other hand, those who scored very low on this factor expressed a very practical understanding of religion, in which religion is a PATH tied to everyday decision-making. This first pattern, then, indicates a continuum between metaphysical and practical understandings of faith that varies significantly by gender and education level. As another example, the use of the CONTAINER image schema by Muslims and other religious minorities was associated with a conception of religion as a framework, structure, or set of boundaries, often involving set rules, observances, and restraints. These respondents often prefaced statements with, “Within our faith…” as a way of distinguishing their religion from others. This difference (which is mostly implicit) stems from perceptions of their religion as significantly different from other religions in America.
  3. Image schema analysis also improves our understanding of “how culture works” by grounding studies in established theories about human cognition. Much debate in sociology and anthropology has revolved around questions about the coherence, consistency, and sharedness of culture. However, these arguments have often relied solely on patterns in explicit discourse and sometimes on respondents’ speaking abilities, articulacy, and demeanor. These standards alone can be highly misleading, as “we can know more than we can tell” (Polanyi [1966] 2009: 4), and our cultural knowledge is more elaborate than what we can consciously express. On the other hand, by focusing on image schemas, we can detect implicit patterns of consistency, coherence, and/or sharedness in cultural understandings, in spite of the challenges and biases that explicit discourse analysis presents. The religious discourse in my study was often disorganized, idiosyncratic, and scattered, which could imply conceptual incoherence and difference among respondents. However, at the level of implicit image schemas, respondents exemplified highly coherent and similar religious understandings with only 5 image schemas structuring their thoughts on religion. The 5 image schemas were also found among respondents of nearly every demographic category, indicating that they are widely shared ways of understanding religion, even if certain groups rely on particular schemas more than others.

To bring to the surface, the image schemas implicit in my own argument: image schemas are just one PART of the WHOLE of cultural knowledge. However, they are the SOURCE of the conceptual dynamics that give meaning to our thoughts and reasonings, typically UNDER the SURFACE of conscious thinking. By working FORWARD from them (and other ontological claims about culture and human cognition), we can better understand the PROCESS of cultural knowledge construction and avoid some of the conceptual DIVERSIONs brought about by attempting to work BACKWARD.



Hampe, Beate. 2005. “Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics: Introduction.” In Beate Hampe (ed.), From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics: pp. 1-11. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Johnson, Mark. 1987. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Mark. 2005. “The Philosophical Significance of Image Schemas.” In Beate Hampe (ed.), From Perception to Meaning: Image Schemas in Cognitive Linguistics: pp. 15-33. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kövecses, Zoltán. 2003. Metaphor and Emotion: Language, Culture, and Body in Human Feeling. Cambridge University Press.

Lizardo, Omar. 2013. “Re-conceptualizing Abstract Conceptualization in Social Theory: The Case of the ‘Structure’ Concept.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 43: 2: 55-80.

Polanyi, Michael. [1966] 2009. The Tacit Dimension. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Rotolo, Michael. 2019. “Religion Imagined: The Conceptual Substructures of American Religious Understandings.” Sociological Forum 35(1).

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