Are 'spatial relations' Universals?

David Mark (
5 Jul 1995 15:40:44 GMT

After years of working with spatial relations, through analysis of natural
language, through human subjects experiments, and through formal mathematical
methods, I have begun to suspect that there may be a rather small set of
'basic' or 'focal' spatial relations that are human universals. These
might be innate, but most likely arise out of the experience that an
individual has with the world through their body and senses. (Lakoff's
"Experiential Realism".) My guess is that the situation is rather like
that for color perception, reasoning, and naming. There, the salient
or focal colors seem to be based on retinal sensitivity. Then, a language
may name some of these, or most, with basic names, group several under
a single term, etc. (Berlin and Kay.) But whatever the grouping, the
same physiologically-based focal colors are given as 'best examples'
(prototypes) for any named categories. Also, for color names, it appears
that theses colors, which neither exist in the external world in a meaningful
sense, nor which are arbitrary labels and boundaries in some continuum, are
named in about the same hierarchical sequence. The possibly-universal basic
spatial relations seem to be closely related to Lakoff and Johnson's
Image-schemata, singly or in combination. The CONTAINER schema gives
rise to "in". perhaps the most basic spatial relation. "Outside" is
derived from "in" by negation. And so on.

Does anyone out there in net-land know of any specific work on the possible
universality of basic spatial relations, on their formal recognition
or cognitive confirmation, or their experiential basis, on their relation to
Image-schemata, etc.? Or have any nice counter-examples to my explicit and
implicit claims regarding spatial relations, above?

| ________________ |
| David M. Mark | | |
| Center for Cognitive Science and | (See why I'm | |
| National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis | interested?) | |
| |________________| |