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Mental Spaces. By Gilles Fauconnier. Gilles Fauconnier as a person…. Again, his name is pronounced [ʒil fo.kɔ.nje]. He is a french linguist currently working in the US. He is a professor at UC San Diego in the department of Cognitive Science.

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Mental spaces

Mental Spaces

By Gilles Fauconnier

Gilles fauconnier as a person
Gilles Fauconnier as a person…

Again, his name is pronounced [ʒil fo.kɔ.nje].

He is a french linguist currently working in the

US. He is a professor at UC San Diego in the department of Cognitive Science.

His work with Mark Turner founded the theory of conceptual blending.

His works include:

  • The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities (with Mark Turner)

  • Amalgama Concettuale (with Mark Turner)

  • Mappings in Thought and Language

    And our current favorite:

  • Mental spaces: Aspects of meaning construction in natural language

Lakoff and sweetser on mental spaces
Lakoff and Sweetser on Mental Spaces

“The more traditional theories assume that natural language semantics can be adequately studied with the tools of formal logic. Fauconnier has, however, recognized that the tools of formal logic fail when confronted with the full range of natural language phenomena. He has realized that what is needed instead is a cognitive theory…”

Examples of mental spaces vs formal logic
Examples of mental spaces vs formal logic:

The following are examples of english language which can be explained by mental spaces but not by formal logic:

  • (Split Self)

    If I were you, I’d hate me.

    • and

      If I were you, I’d hate myself.

      Both Me and Myself are first person and should refer to the speaker, but they do not. In addition, the self in these two sentences is split – one into a part that refers to me and one which refers to you. There is no way in formal logic to explain how this can make sense with two different meanings.

Examples continued
Examples continued.

2) (Split Coreference)

If Woody Allen had been born twins, they would have been sorry for each other, but he wasn’t and so he’s only sorry for himself.

In this example Woody Allen serves as the antecedent of both they and he. Formal logic also has no way to deal with this.

On to mental spaces
On to mental spaces…

There is no easy way to explain Fauconnier’s theory, save to refer to many examples….

Take the sentence:

  • In this painting, the girl with the brown eyes has green eyes.

    In the theory of mental spaces, ‘In the painting’ is a space builder.

Space builders
Space Builders

Space builders set up a mental space in the mind of the reader that is different from the mental space of the real world.

In the case of this example, ‘In the painting’ sets up the space of the painting. Let’s call this space P, and let’s call reality R.

Having these two mental spaces means that it is possible to have in P a girl who has green eyes, and have in R a counterpart of that girl who herself has brown eyes.

An example of mental spaces and presupposition
An example of mental spacesand presupposition…

3) John’s children are blond.

This presupposes that John has children.

But in the sentence:

4) If John has children, John’s children are blond.

It is not presupposed that John has children.

In mental space theory the If sets up a mental space that is conditional – Call it C – that is separate from reality – Call it R. In C, John has Children, but the same in not necessarily true in R. Therefore, in C the second clause – John’s children are blond – is true in C but nor necessarily in R.

Two separate spaces of possibility are created. The space that is conditional allows us to consider a possibility other than reality, and therefore to consider the sentence with two distinct possibilities. In example 3), only R can be considered. As a result, the sentence is presupposed to be true in R.

An elaboration
An elaboration…

Now that we have some basis for imagining mental spaces, we can delve more deeply into what mental spaces are made up of.

The spaces themselves are domains. Domains are created as we speak or listen, and are not part of grammar. Nevertheless, they are essential to language.

Domains are structured by elements, roles, strategies, and relations.

Connectors triggers and targets
Connectors, Triggers, and Targets

All three of these are elements of pragmatic function.

“[Nunberg] shows that we establish links between objects of a different nature for psychological, cultural, or locally pragmatic reasons and that the links thus established allow reference to one object in terms of another appropriately linked to it.”

Pragmatic function in diagram form
Pragmatic Function inDiagram Form…

In this diagram, author is the trigger and is used to identify the target by means of the connector.

Authors books continued
Authors/Books Continued.

So, in this diagram, let’s assume that the author is Plato and the books are any of his works.

This system of triggers, target, and connectors allows example 5) to mean the same as example 6).

5) Plato is on the top shelf.

6) The books by Plato are on the top shelf.

Plato works continued
Plato/Works Continued.

Now, the successful connection that has occurred allows the target to become an antecedent for pronouns and other anaphors, such as in this example:

7) Plato is on the top shelf. It is bound in leather.

However, the trigger is also a potential antecedent such as in :

8) Plato is on the top shelf. You’ll find that he is a very interesting author.

More interesting, both are possible at the same time.

9) Plato is on the top shelf. It is bound in leather. You’ll find that he is a very interesting author.

To elaborate into the realm of image
To Elaborate into the Realm of Image…

Now, imagine that the trigger is a person – Call her Lisa – and the target is the realm in which she is seen. This could be represented with the following diagram:

Lisa continued
Lisa, continued.

Let us pretend that Lisa has blue eyes, and in the image she has green eyes. There is a pragmatic relation between the model and the image – The image is a representation of Lisa by means of some mental connection.

Lisa and reality continued
Lisa and Reality, continued.

Now we see the entrance of mental spaces in addition to the targets, triggers, and connectors.

Take this example:

10) Len believes that the girl with blue eyes has green eyes.

That is accompanied by a diagram that includes the mental spaces of Len’s belief – call it B - and reality – Call it R. Inside of the mental space R exists a girl (Lisa, presumably) with blue eyes. Inside of mental space B exists the target, a girl with green eyes.

Diagram of r to b
Diagram of R to B…

Now our diagram appears like this:

A reversal
A Reversal.

Now, let’s say the example is spoken while standing in an artist’s studio and staring at a painting:

11) In reality, the girl with green eyes has blue eyes.

The scheme is thus reversed. Instead of going from reality to the picture, we are going from the picture to reality. The trigger is now the image and the target is now the real Lisa.

Diagram of b to r
Diagram of B to R…

Our diagram now appears like this:


Let’s formalize this some amount.

12) Max believes that in Len’s picture, the girl has brown eyes.

SB will here mean Space Builder, and M will be a mental space. So, the new diagram will look like this:


This new diagram may look confusing, but it isn’t.

Max’s belief is the parent space in which the entire statement is made; it is therefore M’.

Len’s picture is a separate mental space – the image as opposed to Max’s belief – but it still falls within the space of Max’s belief. It is therefore M.

“Max believes” and “in Len’s picture” are just the phrases that create the spaces. They are therefore space builders, or SB M’ and SB M, respectively.

It is important to note that SB M will always create M within the parent space M’.

Fun questions and their answers
Fun Questions and Their Answers…

Q1] Let’s say that Max believes that he has inherited a castle and a park. A speaker says:

  • In reality, the castle is a run-down shack and the park is a junkyard.

    What does the pragmatic function diagram look like?

Mental spaces

[Q2] Can you figure out the two most likely interpretations of the follow example and define the mental spaces?

2) In that movie, Clint Eastwood is a villian.

But he thinks he’s a hero.

Answer to q2
Answer to Q2

Interpretation 1: The character in the movie is a villain but thinks he is a hero.


Answer to q2 continued
Answer to Q2, continued…

Interpretation 2: The character in the movie is a villain, but Clint Eastwood misunderstands the role and thinks the character is a hero.

The diagram to this interpretation is the same as the preceding diagram; however, a few things are understood differently.

This diagram begins relative to R – Reality. That is to say, the parent space is R, with M’ following within R and M following within M’. Also, the first ‘he’ in the second sentence points to Clint Eastwood, not the character in movie. The second ‘he’ still refers to the character in the movie.

Q3 an extension of q2
Q3 – An Extension of Q2

[Q3] What is the third, less likely, interpretation of 2)?

Answer to q3
Answer to Q3

Interpretation to 3: While Clint Eastwood may play a villain in that movie, in reality the real Clint Eastwood considers himself a hero.

Diagram (To the Best of my Ability):

Answer to q3 continued
Answer to Q3 Continued…

The third interpretation also functions within a parent space of Reality. M’ falls within R, but R1 does not fall within M’. Therefore, R exists as a parent space with R1 and M’ within it.