Spatial Concepts That Are Related To The Body

[some of this is from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy In The Flesh]

We do not sense these concepts in themselves, but infer them in relation to bodies, particularly our body.

Near - Far:

We don't sense space in itself, but objects in space. Obviously, near and far deal with proximity to ourselves.

In front of - behind:

Again, this relates to our position.


We bring our spatial categories and logic to the world. We sense inside, outside, and boundary. The point is not that something is not inside something else, but that this becomes a descriptive spatial category for us. How much of a boundary does there have to be, to be "in?"

Front - back:

What makes something have a front and a back? Not just proximity to us, but our uses or intentions for the object. Furthermore, this distinction only makes sense in a world of beings like us, who have fronts and backs. What if we were spheres, undifferentiated on any side? Would the world have fronts and backs to us?

And where is the front of something, if it is presented to you? Where do you assume it is? In most Western cultures, the assumption is that it is "facing" you. In other cultures (e.g., Hausa), the assumption is that it is "facing" away.


What makes something "on" something else? When are you on a hill, or on a tree? Suppose someone is wearing a hat and hanging upside down - is the hat "on" his head? Or is his head on the hat?

The point to all this: We bring assumptions about spatiality to the world, and it enables us to structure our world. Some of these assumptions are neurological, some are cultural, but our sense of space is not simply "out there". But there's more.

Some of our uses of spatial terms actually refer to states of the person. Consider these contrasts:



  • He was in his house.
  • She was at work.
  • He was under the car.
  • She is in the garage.
  • She was in love.
  • He was at (his) work.
  • She was under a lot of pressure.
  • He is in a good mood.

Are these just metaphorical uses of spatial terms? One might see our spatial sense of the world as the metaphor. These terms are about what matters. Spatial proximity has to do with what's important or not.