In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Embodiment and Language

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Embodiment and Evolution
  • Embodiment in Development
  • Embodiment and Meaning Schemas
  • Embodiment and Metaphor
  • Embodiment and Construal

Linguistics Embodiment and Language
Jordan Zlatev
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0296


The concept of embodiment is used in cognitive science and linguistics in a number of different ways. A common denominator is the emphasis on the active role of the living body—and not just the brain—in constituting key features of human cognition and language, and to include this in explanations of cognitive and linguistic structures. Most approaches to embodiment acknowledge phenomenological philosophy, and especially the work of Merleau-Ponty, as a key source of inspiration. Embodiment theories are typically formulated in opposition to dualism, where mind is categorically distinct from the body, and theories that assume that cognition and language operate on the basis of abstract inner representations and/or computations, as in cognitivism (e.g., Fodor) and generativism (e.g., Chomsky). At the same time there are ongoing debates among proponents of the embodiment thesis on its scope (e.g., “radical” versus “moderate embodiment”) and interpretations. Many of these debates concern traditional debates such as whether embodiment primarily involves conscious experiences versus unconscious processes, and universal (pan-human) aspects of cognition/language or (culture) specific ones. The term “embodiment” is also used in over-extended senses, where the “body” in question is that of artifacts or cultural practices. These senses are currently handled under related but distinct notions such as “extended mind” and “embedded/situated cognition.” The current entry limits its scope to embodiment via the living/lived human body, thus also omitting embodiment research in robotics. Another limiting principle, given that the article falls under linguistics, is to focus on citations that deal with language, directly or indirectly. Finally, gestures and non-verbal bodily communication are not dealt with as a separate topic, but only when relevant for other topics including Embodiment and Evolution and Embodiment in Development.

General Overviews

The classical philosophical work on the fundamental role of bodily experience is Merleau-Ponty 2002, which can with profit be read alongside the commentaries of Hass 2008. Varela, et al. 1991 made both “the embodied mind” and Merleau-Ponty well-known in cognitive science, introducing what is currently called “4E cognition” (embodied, enactive, embedded, extended), contrasting this with the abstract representations and computations of “cognitivism.” This new paradigm is developed further by Thompson 2007, with explicit links to biology and phenomenology, as well as by Gallagher 2005, with the well-chosen title How the Body Shapes the Mind. Within linguistics it is above all the school of cognitive linguistics that is committed to (one or another version of) embodiment, and the standard book-length work on the topic is Lakoff and Johnson 1999, where three kinds/levels of embodiment are distinguished: neural, phenomenological, and “the cognitive unconscious.” Zlatev 2007 offers a critique of this approach, suggesting an alternative with focus on “bodily mimesis” (see also Donald 1991 and Donald 2012 under Embodiment and Evolution and Zlatev 2005 under Embodiment and Meaning Schemas). Gibbs 2005 is in accordance with the approach of Lakoff and Johnson, but generalizes the discussion to cognitive science, including reviews of many studies from cognitive psychology and their ultimate relevance to language, often under the banner of “embodied simulation”; see also Bergen 2012 under Embodiment and Construal. Rohrer 2007 provides an informative overview of how the term “embodiment” has been used with more or less distinct senses in cognitive linguistics, and the tensions between some of these. Johnson 2018 is one of the most recent expositions of how embodiment is used in this tradition, with reviews of research concerning “image schemas” (see also Johnson 1987 under Embodiment and Meaning Schemas) and “conceptual metaphors” (see also Gibbs 2017 under Embodiment and Metaphor).

  • Gallagher, Shaun. 2005. How the body shapes the mind. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199271941.001.0001

    An important publication in “embodied phenomenology” in the tradition of Merleau-Ponty, with theoretical distinctions between, e.g., “body schema” and “body image,” grounded in empirical studies, mostly from clinical psychology. While language is not in focus, most of the phenomena under investigation, including gesture, are arguably pre-conditions for language in evolution and development.

  • Gibbs, Ray W. 2005. Embodiment and cognitive science. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511805844

    A comprehensive overview of embodiment research above all in cognitive psychology and cognitive linguistics, less focused on theoretical arguments and more on the review of a large number of studies.

  • Hass, Lawrence. 2008. Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

    A clear introduction to the thought of Merleau-Ponty, including his later work with more explicit focus on language and “expression.” Quite accessible for non-philosophers, and recommended to be read in parallel with Phenomenology of Perception.

  • Johnson, Mark. 2018. The embodiment of language. In The Oxford handbook of 4e cognition. Edited by Albert Newen, Leon De Bruin, and Shaun Gallagher.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198735410.013.33

    A recent overview of the dominant take on embodiment in cognitive linguistics from one of the leading representatives of that approach. Apart from the more familiar topics of “image schemas” and “conceptual metaphors,” newer constructs such as “embodied simulation,” “embodied construction grammar,” and “neural theory of language” are covered.

  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books.

    An influential but also quite controversial book, criticized (especially by philosophers) for presenting a rather biased perspective on Western philosophy, and its relation to empirical research in accordance with the type of embodiment theory developed by the authors.

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 2002. Phenomenology of Perception. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203994610

    Originally published in French in 1945, this is the most famous book of the “philosopher of embodiment” per excellence. Drawing from the posthumous, and at that time yet unpublished, work of Husserl, as well as a wealth of empirical studies in clinical and developmental psychology, Merleau-Ponty develops an impressive, if at times hard-going, account of how bodily experience underlies not only perception and action, but also memory, imagination, intersubjectivity, and ultimately language.

  • Rohrer, Tim. 2007. Embodiment and experientialism. In The Oxford handbook of cognitive linguistics. Edited by Dirk Geeraerts and Hubert Cuyckens, 25–47. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A short piece in a representative handbook, offering twelve senses of “embodiment” as used in the literature, some of which are in conflict (e.g., “neurocomputational” versus “phenomenological”) while others are overextended (e.g., “the social and cultural context”). It can help explain some of the confusion concerning the term “embodiment.”

  • Thompson, Evan. 2007. Mind in life: Biology, phenomenology and the sciences of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive synthesis of modern biology and the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, making a strong case for the central role of conscious experience in human embodiment, and to various degrees in other (though not all) living beings. Illuminating case studies on, e.g., mental imagery, emotions, and intersubjectivity, though not much on language.

  • Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Elenor Rosch. 1991. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/6730.001.0001

    The key reference for the theoretical significance of embodiment for cognitive science, introducing the notion of cognition as “enaction”: the bodily interaction between the subject/organism and an environment, through which a world of experience is enacted or “brought forth” rather than represented.

  • Zlatev, Jordan. 2007. Language, embodiment and mimesis. In Body, language and mind. Vol. 1, Embodiment. Edited by Tom Ziemke, Jordan Zlatev, and Roslyn Frank, 297–337. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    A critique of the (standard) cognitive linguistics approach to embodiment of language, arguing that it cannot account for three essential properties of language: representation (sign function), conventionality (normativity), and accessibility to consciousness. An alternative approach is sketched, based on the concept of “bodily mimesis.”

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