The Body in the Mind in the Body: The Promiscuity of Cognitive Metaphor


In this essay, I contrast the concepts of body-as-signification in the psychological theories of embodiment pioneered by Lakoff and Johnson and in psychoanalysis. I then discuss why the morphological significations so important to psychoanalysis are not addressed in Lakoff and Johnson’s proposal and the work in cognitive metaphor that they pioneered. I argue that the bodily ego of psychoanalysis (Freud) does not lend itself to the formulation of a physical body that provides metaphors for intellectual abstractions (Lakoff and Johnson), and that cognitive scientists take for granted the very concepts, including the assumption that metaphor is the most apt way to describe signification, that psychoanalytical thinkers — especially feminists engaging with psychoanalysis — seek to question and explain (Irigaray). Lakoff and Johnson do not think to examine bodily significations that precede the mind-body split necessary for metaphor because these significations, especially phallic ones, provide the framework for their argument, which is a repeated verbal penetration of bodies into minds and vice versa as if they were separate in the psyche before this convenient coupling.






“But what if the object started to speak?”
-Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman

I, and I imagine many women, have been confronted with foreign values and aspirations in men’s feelings about their penises. Physiological processes I had never thought about are of the utmost concern to them.  One male friend described his flaccid penis as “sad,” as if it were slumped down in sorrow, and his erection as “happy,” as if it were jumping for joy. Another felt embarrassed for a friend of his whose semen dribbled rather than shot out, and bragged that if he went a while without sexual release, he could probably ejaculate from my bed to my door. This baffled me. Why would hard be better than soft or shooting better than dribbling?

This question was about more than penile engorgement and propulsion; these words have meaning beyond their literal anatomical referents. Within these questions about the valorization of certain physical processes is a series of questions about cultural values: Why is “hard” science the most legitimate kind? Why is a “softy” an easily persuaded person, or a “soft spot” a weakness? Why do war hawks talk about the awesomeness of shooting powerful guns with rhetoric eerily similar to teenage boys competitively masturbating?
Any attempt to separately answer these two sets of questions — those about bodily sensations and those about cultural values — turns circles. One could say we valorize hardheartedness because little boys enjoy their hard penises. But then why is this emotional content ascribed to hardness in the first place? Because we culturally value hardness? This is probably the position of social constructivist feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, who argued in “Destiny,” originally part of The Second Sex (1949):

“The hole, the ooze, the gash, hardness, integrity are primary realities; and the interest they have for man is not dictated by the libido, but rather the libido will be coloured by the manner in which he becomes aware of them. It is not because it symbolizes feminine virginity that integrity fascinates man; but it is his admiration for integrity that renders virginity precious. Work, war, play, art signify ways of being concerned with the world which cannot be reduced to any others” (46).


One might want to know, then, from whence such ethereal pursuits derive their pleasure. And so the snake eats its tail. This circularity of questioning reveals the problem with treating “nature” and “nurture” as (phalically) autonomous by asking which is originary. Though “work, war, play, art” need not be “reduced” to bodily functions, arguing that noble, clean intellectual values “render” the body meaningful is equally reductionist and regresses philosophy back to Descartes, where the body is just an inconvenient obstacle that the mind acts upon.

The cognitive scientific theories about embodiment work that have been crowding the shelves in bookstore psychology sections work along similar lines (Lakoff, Johnson, Lakoff and Johnson, Glenberg, Niedenthal et al., Kövecses, Varela). The question they rarely dare pose because it exposes the ambiguity of the theory — “Does metaphor reflect or constitute cultural models?”, the answer to which is first constitute then reflect (Kövecses 200) — misses the point of using metaphor to bring the theoretical mind and body together. They have addressed the question of bodily signification by posing the (natural) body as a set of raw materials available to the (cultural) mind for meaning building.

The basic proposal, known as conceptual metaphor or cognitive metaphor, is that world languages are full of metaphors involving size, shape, texture, orientation, space, and motion because our perceptual systems precede and give rise to our conceptual understanding through metaphor. For example, it is the experience of bodies as containers, each with an inside and an outside, that allows us to think about words containing messages or emotions being bottled up inside or one concept containing another (Metaphors 29).  I will return later to the psychoanalytical account of internality and externality and the problems with envisioning a self closed off from the outside world — or at least with envisioning this selfhood without giving an account of how it arises through a phallic assertion of autonomy and disavowal of maternal dependency. The authors claim that “we project our own in-out orientation onto other physical objects that are bounded by surfaces” without acknowledging that this personal orientation is itself a projection (ibid.).

Another metaphor investigated by Lakoff and Johnson that I will both employ and criticize is the linear path representing temporality and deterministic causality: that which appears first on the “journey” through life causes that which appears further along the trail through the “Causes are Forces” metaphor (Philosophy 222-23). I hope to demonstrate how the path of temporal causality loops and circles and leaves those attempting to find its origin or destination lost. Though Lakoff and Johnson are describing rather than prescribing the metaphors people use in everyday life, I argue that these metaphors’’ premises are not sufficiently challenged. For more examples of the metaphors theorized and studied through experiments, see Lakoff’s Conceptual Metaphor Home Page.

Before criticizing Lakoff and Johnson and their legacy’s maintenance of the nature-culture distinction that Derrida famously — or perhaps not-so-famously to those in the sciences — undid (Writing and Difference), I want to flesh out how cognitive metaphor theory challenges the causal primacy of the body, if not the mind-body dichotomy, and why it has received attention in psychology as a step away from Cartesian dualism.

Cognitive metaphor gives an account of the body’s influence on the mind that does not necessarily submit itself to a “just-so” story — a phrase used in the behavioral sciences to criticize ad-hoc evolutionary psychological explanations of complex human behaviors. Behavioral and social sciences are obsessed with the nature-nurture debate, but when they attempt to isolate the two and figure out what exactly “nature” is, they often end up with such reductionist narratives. Scientific theories of the body’s influence on thought, particularly in evolutionary psychology, are compelled to posit a just-so at the beginning of every physical-psychological mechanism because they operate within a causal hierarchy in which something physical must have come before everything else. In Derrida’s critique of metaphysics, this initiator is the “origin” that cannot precede what it purports to create and that cannot exist without its supplement, (Dissemination).

The “bottom-up” (in cognitive science terminology) account of biology treats the body as autonomous and neglects the fact that it has meaning. A neuron fires, and boom, a psychological tendency, no explanation necessary. It is tempting to posit a “causal bridge” between physiology and thought, in which “the mind just does it, subintentionally, nonrationally, and for a strategic purpose” (Lear 118) because this approach appears to sidestep mind-body dualism by making the body the cause of the mind. However, “it is an important fact about the human mind that for a wide range of cases, the mind doesn’t just do it” (ibid.). We must also make the body a product of the mind and, by doing so, move beyond causation.

Rather than positing that the body simply makes people behave the way they do, as a biological determinist account would, cognitive metaphor creates a distance between genes and behavior, explaining how, not brain impulses and hormones, but morphology — as interpreted by the linguistic mind — influences behavior. As in Irigaray, who said “I am born woman, but I must still become this woman that I am by nature” (Love 107), thought in cognitive metaphor is neither genetic nor cultural; it is based on perceptions of the body that are several steps removed from both. Like Irigaray, Lakoff and Johnson stress that supposedly objective truths are situated in the body, though the latter do not consider whose body is “the” body (Two 90; Metahpors ix-x). In these accounts, as in dynamic systems theory (Fausto-Sterling, Damasio), there is no straight path between genes and behavior. Cognitive metaphor contributes to the project of dynamic systems of pushing obstacles onto evolutionary psychology’s clear and unobstructed path from genetic material to thoughts — a goal along the lines of Derrida’s in criticizing the metaphysical notion of an inner essence that presents itself automatically without linguistic mediation (Dissemination, Writing and Difference).

Psychologists are right to point out that the ability to think abstractly relies on the meanings of the body, and some of the associations they pick up on have already been observed in psychoanalysis and feminist theory. For example:

  • Lakoff and Johnson claim that “the UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING metaphor overlaps with the CONTAINER metaphor, where what we see is the content (through the surface of the container)” (Metaphors 104). A psychoanalytical engagement with this symbolism could reveal how the cultural obsession with peering beyond surfaces in both literal bodies and bodies of knowledge relates to voyeuristic impulses toward both the woman/mother and mother earth (Irigaray, Speculum).
  • The “getting is eating,” “desire is hunger,” and “emotional intimacy is physical closeness” metaphors (Lakoff) could be seen as rooted in the oral stage, during which “the breast and its product, which first gratify [the child’s] self-preservative instinct as well as his sexual desires, come to stand in his mind for love, pleasure and security” (Klein, “Love” 90). This early bond could also explain the proposed association between warmth and caring (Lakoff), which has been empirically proven in an experiment that manipulated people’s generosity by having them hold a hot or iced coffee (Glenberg 591).
  • When Kövecses discusses “Marriage as union” (217-233), the lack of discussion of sex is glaring. Marriage is often spoken of to inadvertently signify sex.
  • Child psychologists have noted that “there” and “gone” are among the first concepts a child learns (Gopnik, Meltzoff, and Kuhl). Freud discusses these concepts in relation to the game “fort”-“da” (“there”-“gone”), which a baby invents to handle the absence of his mother after weaning (601). Lacan discusses presence and absence in relation to the breast, the mother, and the phallus.


The problem is not with the largely correct observations that cognitive scientists are making about language; it is their (lack of) theorization of it and consequent oblivion to the patriarchal roots of the language they examine. They come closest to addressing physical differences in the discussion of the primacy of the up/down metaphor, a variation of which Kövecses phallically describes as “Being good is being upright” (175). The reasons psychologists give for this metaphor are that mood affects posture, that lying down is associated with sleep and death, that authorities are usually taller, and that being above another person gives one an advantage in a physical confrontation (Niedenthal et al. 187; Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors 15). Though plausible, these explanations assume post hoc that, in the situations that lead us to believe up is good, up is already good. Irigaray instead contends that the privilege of height comes from the association between height and erection, which in Western culture signifies power (“Lips”).

Lakoff and Johnson admit that though it may seem like up and down are part of an objective reality, “what we call ‘direct physical experience’” is contingent upon “having a body of a certain sort”: “imagine a spherical being living outside any gravitational field, with no knowledge or imagination of any other kind of experience” (Metaphors 57). Such imagining has become the work of science fiction (Chiang). But for Irigaray, to conceive of an alternative to homo erectus, we only need attend to the signifying potential of female morphology:


“[W]e are at home on the flatlands. We have so much space to share. Our horizon will never stop expanding; we are always open. Stretching out, never ceasing to unfold ourselves, we have so many voices to invent in order to express all of us everywhere, even in our gaps, that all the time there is will not be enough. We can never complete the circuit, explore our periphery: we have so many dimensions.” (“Lips” 213)


When it comes to why the body has the meanings it has, cognitive metaphor theory only offers a just-so. Though Lakoff and Johnson offer various theories of how metaphors arise by repeated neural firing in response to two stimuli simultaneously (sort of Pavlovian), they insist that something objective must precede and give rise to these responses, claiming that “all basic sensorimotor concepts are literal” (Philosophy 58). They concede two points to what they term “disembodied objective scientific realism,” the ideology that they otherwise oppose: “There is a world independent of our understanding of it” and “we can have stable knowledge of it” (Philosophy 90). While cognitive metaphor obstructs the linear causal path from body to mind, it still begins with the body, places culture and language at the end, and leaves the path from morphologies to the concepts they represent empty and effortless to travel.

Representation as Lakoff and Johnson conceptualize it works through containment. The mind scoops up the body and closes the lid, reining it in and employing it for lofty linguistic and literary achievements. One of Johnson’s books is titled The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Though the title and content of this book create a new metaphor of the body in the mind rather than the typical mind-in-body metaphor that the authors observe is commonly used, the body still serves the phallic function of inserting itself into something that already is fully formed. This formulation has a subtext of nostalgia for dualism: if only this pesky, promiscuous body would stop penetrating our cultivated minds, it mourns, maybe we wouldn’t be so biased by the debased earthly aspect of our existence.  On the flip side, the same thinkers that talk about the flesh in philosophy and the body in the mind talk about Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Lakoff and Johnson, Philosophy). Here, the masculine mind penetrates past the skin of the passive body and assigns it meaning to elevate it from mortal materiality.             These contradictory accounts of the mind and body are two sides of the same coin, both presupposing that the body and mind exist independently until they come together in what Lakoff and Johnson call metaphor. This contradiction of the embodied mind and the minded body exposes the limits of the containment metaphor: we cannot describe the mind and the body as things contained within each other. The experience of the mind as separate from the body is characteristic of post-sublimation and particularly masculine thought — the ethereal mind has risen, an illusorily unified ego has been erected and can insert itself into the world, and the material body has been pushed down to the womb/earth — as opposed to the preceding stages during which there is no hierarchy of mind and body as signifier and signified or vice versa, and what one takes in and expels are continuous parts of the diffuse bodily ego (Klein, “Psychoanalysis”).  For psychoanalysis, it takes work for a child to conceptually separate mind and body. For Lakoff and Johnson, it is as if the mind has the authority to pick and choose which parts of the body get to speak and to silence those which would make too much of a ruckus. Cognitive science in this regard suffers from reverse arrested development, stuck at the genital stage.

Psychoanalysis’s account of the mind and body is infantile and dirty in comparison. The psychoanalytic body does not have an inherent inside or outside, nor do the significations intertwined with this body. Passive and active, warm and cold, hard and soft, here and gone, empty and full, are all bodily concepts. Their physical components are not symbols with meanings but the meanings themselves; for a nursing child, drinking is experienced directly as — not as a metaphor for — taking or getting (Wilson, “Underbelly”). “[T]he difference between a phantasy and a physiological process is moot for the infant” for Klein in particular, according to Wilson; “Eventually, the infant begins to distinguish between sensation and feeling, phantasy and reality, inside and out” (“Underbelly” 205). The body does not acquire a signifying function with the onset of language acquisition; it is always already meaningful. Though it is a minded body, a culturally marked body, and a symbolic body, it is not a body under the isolated mind’s control. “To claim that sexual differences are indissociable from discursive demarcations,” which brings the concepts of body and mind further together, “is not the same as claiming that discourse causes sexual difference,” which divides them (Butler 1).      Within this epistemology, it is impossible to theorize a brain that perceives the body and utilizes those perceptions for its intellectual work. The body has always already done some of the work. The “body” in fact demands mental work, according to Freud, and the “mind” represents and responds to these demands (Ferrel). At the same time, lest this account pose the body as originary, bodily sensations do not preexist their representations; the mind is the supplement that appears secondary to the body’s drives but actually is needed for their existence. This type of signification does not have a primary and secondary term. The signifying mind need not swoop in to assign the signified body a label. The signifier and signified mutually influence each other, and neither can exist without the other; the signified is only known through the signifier (Lacan), and the “body” is only known through the “mind.”

Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge that there need not be one adhered-to scientific framework since no theory is based on an objective reality, and that the container metaphor in particular is situated, yet employ this metaphor themselves to talk about symbolization where the double helix or the two sides of a sheet of paper would be more apt analogies (Saussure). Like Freud in Irigaray’s critique, they neglect the cultural determinants of the phenomena they theorize (Speculum). The container’s metaphor’s alleged basis – that the body is experienced as having an inside and an outside – is actually an effect of that metaphor, which exists within a phallocentric symbolic system incapable of thinking in a structure of inside-outside blurring that Derrida calls invagination (“Law”). Female morphology poses a challenge to the containment that Lakoff and Johnson characterize as a feature of “the” (universalized) body and, by extension, to the notion of metaphor-as-container that allows Lakoff and Johnson to make their argument in the first place. Because cognitive metaphor is based on gendered ideas about the mind and body, subject and object, and signifier and signified, it is unable to address these ubiquitous gendered metaphors — or significations more tightly wound than metaphors — or at least is unable to identify them as gendered.

Feminist activist Gloria Steinem, in a recent talk at Brown, discussed trouble she gets for being so focused on issues related to gender. The best retort, she said, is a challenge for the critic to name something else, any issue in the world today that does not have to do with gender. To this day she has them stumped. This is because gender structures our very language – not only in metaphor, but also in deeply rooted entanglements of signification that require effortful detangling before such a thing as a metaphor is imaginable. Following Lakoff and Johnson’s format of listing metaphors prevalent in the English language, I will list some umbrella categories of gendered signification, noting that this list is necessarily limited because there is no field of study or concept that does not rely on any of them.


  • Cosmology: The earth is humanity’s mother, the sky is the father, the sun is masculine, and the moon is feminine
  • Religion: the mother/matter keeps us from (male) God; the (erected) sky is a holy place (Lakoff and Johnson Metaphors 40)
  • Philosophy of science: It is the noble task of (traditionally male) scientists to penetrate the veil of Mother Earth (Speculum)
  • Physics: privileging of projectiles, use of rockets and cannonballs to illustrate concepts in science classes (Bug 885)
  • Chemistry: privileging of solids (Irigaray, “Mechanics”)
  • Philosophy of mind: First it was that the (masculine) immortal, immaterial soul was housed in the (feminine) body; then it was that the (masculine) mortal mind was housed in the (feminine) body; then it was that the (masculine) mind is implemented in the brain, which is implemented in the (feminine) body. Lakoff and Johnson are following an extensive tradition of penetrating the body with masculine constructs like mind and brain.


The consequence of this language is that women are constructed as objects of every type of discourse rather than subjects. Like Lakoff and Johnson’s spherically shaped alien trying to learn the concepts of up and down (Metaphors 57), girls trying to learn physics or religion or philosophy face supposedly objective facts counterintuitive to their own bodies. This is not to say that coming into language happens to a lesser extent for women — quite the contrary, they adapt all to well to a system that marginalizes them — but that such an entrance requires an extra step: the adoption of a male-bodied perspective, a perspective outside their own bodies. Though thought is always embodied, it is not always to the same extent embedded in the body of the thinker. In order to think in English (and any language structured according to the patriarchal symbolic order), a woman must situate herself within the body that provides reference for ideas like self as container and time as linear and harder as better. This may be why women are considered more self-conscious: They speak from outside their bodies, perceiving the world and themselves through bodies that are foreign yet all too familiar to them. This is similar to the dual consciousness described by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks (1952):


“Sealed into that crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. Their attention was a liberation, running over my body suddenly abraded into nonbeing, endowing me once more with an agility that I had thought I had lost, and by taking me outside the world, restoring me to it. I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there…” (109).


Fanon’s “stumble” evokes the awkwardness of not feeling at home in one’s body — a discomfort not lost to feminist theorists like Iris Marion Young, who argues that the athletic clumsiness emblematic of femininity demonstrates a feeling of disconnection from the body and a confused sense that one is acting on objects in the world yet is an object. Though to be female is not necessarily to think in a feminine manner, the subordination of feminine logic does concrete damage to real women. Even at its most abstract level, patriarchal discourse is rooted in a hatred for the female body. Because supposedly abstract concepts are so connected symbolically to the body, a woman cannot affirm living and knowing as a perpetual penetration of the world and disavow feminine ideas like autonomous, unified subjects are supposed to without doing violence to herself. She cannot view the earth as a mere object of human discovery without on some level viewing herself as a mere object of male desire. She cannot buy into the idea that the body is a container with an inside and an outside without abandoning her own body, or selling it to men who will demarcate its borders like property.

Irigaray claims that since language has been so dominated by the masculine and is fit only for a masculine subject, women must speak a different language to gain connection to their own bodies. In response to the metaphors discussed in the previous list and throughout this paper, here are some others that are helpful in giving a voice to the repressed feminine. While acknowledging that these concepts are not inherently female but constructed as feminine, and hence patriarchal, I also argue that they are associated with female bodies on a deeply rooted unconscious level in our culture and cannot be disavowed theoretically without marginalizing real women, and that they gain the power to subvert patriarchy through their excess.


  • Enveloping – an alternative to being penetrated which grants a woman a greater status than the passive voice, as well as a form of interaction not focused on breaking into an object and discovering it; an alternative to the container metaphor in which the enclosing object has agency, the enclosed object is not consumed, and neither is taken or owned (Irigaray, “This Sex”)
  • Vagination (Derrida, “Law”), or the Mobius strip (Fausto-Sterling) – a way of thinking about identities, categories, and bodies as not having an absolute inside and outside; also a challenge to the container metaphor; helps illustrate the internality of language’s designated outside.
  • Metonymy – the more continuous counterpart of metaphor, which is privileged because of its phallic function (Irigaray, Speculum)
  • Relationality – “two lips in continuous contact … but not divisible into one(s)” (Irigaray, “This Sex” 24)
  • Cyclical, nonsequential rather than linear, causal time (Kristeva)
  • Fluidity of identity and knowledge (Irigaray, “Mechanics”)
  • The placental economy – a society, modeled after the “ethical character of the fetal relation,” which accepts the other’s difference and does not try to classify everything with the same language; a relation that respects alterity (Irigaray, je, te, nous 41).
  • a spirituality that does not seek out origins and is based on the earth rather than an abstract God


Because it is difficult to unthink the presumption that mind-body connections are causal, this proposal could be interpreted as too extreme in either direction: favoring the body or the mind. In case the call to heed to sex’s influence on various figures of speech could be interpreted as reductionist, saying that all signification is sexed is not saying that only sex determines the structure and content of language. I do not altogether discount the clean version of bodily signification, though I am wary of the gentrification of psychology’s body and the decapitation that dominates thought about the brain. Perhaps the man who considered his erection happy really did experience himself jumping for joy with happiness and slumping with sadness — the source of the association of happy with “up” and sad with “down” in Lakoff and Johnson’s account — before he projected this jubilation onto his penis and the sensation of sexual arousal. But even where sex is not the primary signifying term, it is never absent. Whatever the reason he decided his erect penis was happy, it is still a penis, and it will be tied with (not contained within or entered by) the idea of happiness once that association is made. To address any place that may have suggested cultural determinism or a concept of sex that preexists its cultural construction, the argument that nothing is outside signification doesn’t mean that nothing has to do with the body. All language does. The body of flesh and blood is just as much a signification as any body of knowledge, and body language is as much a language as words.


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