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COPYRIGHT: John Barnden, 1997. This page of the databank may be freely copied for non-commercial research/instructional use provided this copyright notice is included.


Mind as World-Definer

In a typical manifestation of this metaphor, a belief (or other mental state) of an agent X is reported by describing the situation that is believed or whetever and adding a qualifier like ``in X's mind.'' For example, we might have ``In John's mind, terrorism is getting worse every day.''

This is analogous to the use of qualifiers like ``in the novel,'' ``in the movie'' and ``in the painting,'' where the ``in'' takes us into a fictional world. We can call a novel, movie, play, painting, etc. a WORLD-DEFINER. (Notice that this analogy plays an important role in Jackendoff (1983), although Jackendoff does not think that a metaphor is involved.)

Qualifiers like ``in his mind'' can indicate states such as planning (``He was writing the letter in his mind'') or merely entertaining or imagining (``In his mind, he was scoring goal after goal''). Which state is conveyed is delicately dependent on the nature of the target situation (e.g., terrorism getting worse) and syntax. On the question of syntax, compare the goal-scoring example just given with ``He was scoring goal after goal in his mind.'' The latter is more susceptible than the former to an interpretation in which the goal-scoring is a metaphorical description of successful problem solving events, as opposed to imagined sporting events.

Some manifestations of the metaphor explicitly refer to the defined ``world'' rather than using an ``in X's mind'' tag. There is currently only a small number of clear examples of this type in the databank (noted in the examples page as involving "AGENT'S WORLD}", but the phenomenon is more common than that fact implies. Another possible example is ``Mike lives in a world in which everyone is after him.'' This could in some contexts that everyone in Mike's real environment (``world'') is indeed after Mike, but in other contexts it could mean that Mike thinks that everyone is after him.


Not all uses of a tag like ``in his mind'' signal Mind as World-Definer. In a sentence like ``The embarrassment he had caused her was in John's mind all day long'' the ``in John's mind'' tag is not being used adverbially to qualify a situation description; instead, it is being used predicatively of something (the embarrassment). I claim that the sentence actually manifests Mind as Physical Space, and the phrase ``the embarrassment he had caused her'' is being used metonymically to refer to some idea that John had of the embarrassment.

This claim is backed up by the fact that we get natural variants of the embarrassment example by referring to particular locations within the mind, for instance by using ``in the back of John's mind'' in place of ``in John's mind.'' Such localization is not natural for examples like the terrorism one --- the sentence ``In the back of John's mind, terrorism is getting worse every day'' sounds peculiar.

An obsolete name I have also used for the metaphor is Ideas as Models.


Jackendoff, R. (1983).
    Semantics and cognition.
      (4th printing, 1988). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.