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Thinking of Thinking Conceptual Metaphors of Cognition in the Plutarchan Corpus



Description of the problem to be solved

The project aims to answer the question of what and how the ancient Greeks of the early Roman imperial period (1st/2nd c. CE) thought about functioning of the human mind. The reconstruction of their conceptualization of human cognitive abilities is crucial for our understanding of their mentality, and, by extension, the organization of their social world. Mentality, i.e. a collective thought of a society (Lakoff & Johnson 1999), informs various social phenomena – beliefs, values, theories, practices and institutions – and is reciprocally informed by them. The results of the project will thus give us an insight into the ancient mind caught at a specific historical moment. The imperial period brought many important authors, with Plutarch as one of its most prominent representatives. His immense literary output will serve as our source material for the reconstruction of the imperial Greek mentality. Based on a single author of a highly diverse body of texts, we will obtain a vast and simultaneously coherent picture of the ancient mind in action.

These research goals will be achieved by the application of methods of cognitive linguistics which are still a novelty in historical analyses. Relying on the conceptual theory of metaphor (CTM) we will examine metaphors related to cognition in the corpus of Plutarch’s Moralia and Lives. Cognition is here an umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of mental activities including: learning, acquiring knowledge, understanding, memorizing, forgetting, and the like (hereafter referred to as “categories of thinking” or CTh). The project will identify the metaphorical linguistic expressions in these writings and will survey how the CTh were described and conceptualized through them. From that kind of linguistic evidence, it will be possible to reconstruct popular cognitive models (hereafter “folk models”) that capture how people’s perception and thoughts influence the way they feel and behave in a specific cultural environment of a given historical period.

A reconstruction of the full spectrum of conceptual metaphors of cognition in Plutarchan texts will allow us to generate a “cognitive map” of ancient perceptions of the human mind and its implications for social life. In cognitive studies it is presupposed that stable preferences for certain metaphors of cognition may reveal underpinnings of various social constructs (such as e.g. conception of childhood, family structure or mental illness) and institutions (e.g. education system, perception of moral responsibility or political constitution). In addition to standard philological methods, we will adopt the heuristic approach of cognitive history which synthesizes the methods and tools of historical research and theories of cognitive science to explain and understand human behavior, communication, and thinking in the past (Dunér & Ahlberger 2019). Our historical research will be conducted using ideas that have arisen within cognitive linguistics.

The project is based on the conceptual theory of metaphor (CTM) as defined by Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980, 1999) and later developed by Kövecses (2005, 2015) and Semino (2008) among others. According to CTM, metaphors allow for understanding and experiencing one kind thing in terms of another (Lakoff and Johnson 1980:5). For instance, our preliminary research indicates that Plutarch conceptualizes the idea of superstition as a drag-net in which its followers are bound together. The association thus draws from the domain of fishing to illustrate the lack of freedom of thought in the case of mistaken beliefs.

CTM assumes that metaphors do not appear in isolation. Individual conceptual metaphors due to a systematic mapping between two conceptual domains enter into complex structural relationships called idealized cognitive models (ICMs, Lakoff 1987). In this way, certain domains are cognitively accessible to people only because they systematically think of them in terms of another kind of domain. For instance, in modern Western societies the abstract domain of mental activity is conceptualized as manual manipulation of solid physical objects; compare English expressions such as “to search for an idea,” “to gather information,” “to grasp a concept” (Jäkel 1997). The research methodology of cognitive metaphor theory involves the reconstruction of conceptual metaphors from empirically available linguistic material. Generalization of such results, in turn, allows us to reconstruct ICMs that, reflecting how people think about the world, are often essential parts of folk models and theories of the mind. One way to reconstruct such folk models of mind in Plutarchan writings is to analyze how he speaks about this domain and reconstruct from which domains the metaphors used by him originate and whether they are systematic in nature and are the basis for some ICMs.

In the project, the study of folk epistemology and models of mental activity aims to explore how the view of the nature of human cognitive processes is reflected in the organization of the Greek imperial society. How one understands human cognitive abilities (e.g. who can have certain knowledge, what kinds of knowledge there are, how it is acquired), interplays with the social organization of a community.  It is crucial for the perception of the role of various social groups and institutions such as the family (here, in particular, it is important to ascertain how the mental abilities of women, children, or slaves are conceptualized), education (how the transfer of knowledge and cultural values is organized, who can be a teacher and who can be a student) or political institutions (how the system of power and authority is distributed with regard to the cognitive abilities of the members of society).

The project thus seeks to uncover such conceptual systems structuring the ancient Greek thought and reveal the cultural models discernible in it—its beliefs, values, theories, practices and institutions. The cognitive historical studies will be based on cognitive linguistics and corpus analysis, which will be used as tools for the historical analysis concentrated on reconstruction of ancient mentality and its interplay with the socio-cultural environment.

Research questions

The groups of the following questions will provisionally constitute chapters of the planned book:

  1. Conceptual Patterns related to Cognition: What kinds of categories of thinking are distinguished by Plutarch? Which domains do the metaphors conceptualizing the categories of thinking originate from?
  2. Consistency as a base for idealized cognitive models: Is the Plutarch’s metaphoric system cohesive and consistent? Does any mental activity, state or process related to cognition share a metaphor with other mental activities, states or processes?
  3. Originality vs. Conventionality: Which metaphors are recurrent and which are unique to Plutarch? Were some metaphors taken from earlier philosophers? Which metaphors seem to be conventional and which seem to be creative?
  4. Purposes and Functions: How does Plutarch’s metaphors of cognition realize representational and heuristic language functions? What are the social, pragmatic, rhetorical and aesthetic functions of Plutarch’s metaphors of cognition? Why do particular metaphorical domains dominate, whereas others are less represented?
  5. Between the Human Mind and the Surrounding Historical World: What can the conceptual systems represented in Plutarch’s writings tell us about the nature of human beings as endowed with an unobservable mental life? What can the conceptual systems represented in Plutarch’s writings reveal about the material culture and everyday life of his times? What is the nature and direction of the interaction between mentality and socio-cultural environment in Plutarch’s writings? What can the conceptual systems represented in Plutarch’s writings tell us about the social and cultural models (beliefs, values, theories, practices, activities, institutions) of his times? Is the mental realm similarly conceptualized in Plutarch’s writings as it is today: is there a sharp division between body and mind, and is there a division between the cognitive part, which is active, and the emotional part, which is passive?

The construction of a corpus of metaphors in Plutarch

The project is based on conducting research on the corpus of the Lives and the Moralia by Plutarch. The Moralia to be examined include 64 writings generally considered authentic (numbered from 14d to 1130e, as well as two others, i.e. Desire and Grief; The Affective Element in Man). The Lives include 22 extant pairs of the Parallel Lives and 4 unpaired Lives. The works considered spurious will not be of immediate relevance; these are: 1a-14c, 101f-122a, 172b-242d, 305a-316b, 568b-574f, 771e-775e, 826a-827c, 832b-852e, 955d-958e, 874d-911c, 1131b-1147a, as well as On nobility; On Homer; On the Names of Rivers and Mountains; On the proverbs of the Alexandrians. Fragmentary works which are scanty and corrupted will be excluded.


State of the art. The large ensemble of ideas that may be classified as cognition has not been studied as a whole in the grounds of Greek ancient literature with the use of cognitive linguistics methodologies. Due to its interdisciplinary nature, the project brings together two areas of research: i) on metaphorical language in Plutarch and in ancient Greek and Roman writings, and ii) cognitive historical dimension of ancient folk epistemology and models of mental activities. i) There are several comprehensive studies which approach Plutarch’s metaphorical language, e.g. Dronker (1892), Fuhrmann (1964), Hirsch-Luipold (2002). They are focused on what they broadly categorize either “images” or “symbols” in Plutarch. Plati (2020) uses cognitive linguistics to discuss medical imagery conceptualizing the political realm in Plutarch. There are also many detailed studies on the role of individual metaphors and imagery in Plutarch, e.g. Borthwick (1991), Larmour (2002); Zadorojnyi (2010), Xenophontos (2013) Doroszewska (the PI; 2019),. These studies approach the metaphors in Plutarch mostly from different perspectives and with different aims or have much narrower scopes. Although their findings will be confronted with those obtained within the present project, we propose to approach the Plutarchan corpus with a new methodology and with new questions that will reveal a specific dimension of the Greek mind from the imperial period. ii) Quite surprisingly, cognition has not been studied in the grounds of Greek ancient literature with the use of cognitive linguistics methodologies. Rare existing studies deal only with particular aspects of cognition and concern mainly early Greek culture (e.g. Cairns 2003, Olsen 2019, Zankler 2019) and studies of political metaphors in the ancient world e.g. by Pagán Cánovas (2011); Filonik (2017), McVay (2000). Yet much has been researched on metaphorical conceptualization of ancient Greek emotional concepts (e.g. Theodoropoulou 2012, Pagán Cánovas 2014; Cairns 2016, Kazantzidis 2017). Thus, while there are virtually no works that are devoted to conceptualizing human cognitive abilities in ancient classical writings, the methods of cognitive linguistics and the theory of conceptual metaphors have already been successfully applied to ancient texts. The research planned for the project will fit into this stream of research, expanding it to explore a new kind of conceptualizations. The most important inspiration for the use of cognitive linguistics in the historical inquiry of classical antiquity is the work of William Short (2012, 2013). By using patterns of metaphorical expression in Latin he sought to reconstruct the sorts of conceptual models that organize Roman culture at large. He examines how the conceptualization of various mental activities by Latin speakers influences many cultural and social phenomena of the ancient Romans, thus enabling us to better understand them. The historical anthropological perspective on the Latin texts adopted by Short will serve as a source of inspiration in dealing with Plutarch’s writings for the cognitive historical research planned in the project that is aimed at reconstructing ancient mentalities and their interaction with the socio-cultural environment.

Justification for tackling a specific scientific problem. Cognitive studies are published at a much faster rate than in other areas of humanities, since this emerging interdisciplinary field strives to better understand perhaps the most fascinating phenomenon: the human mind (Meineck et al. 2018:1). This project is focused on what the human mind in specific historical conditions thinks of itself. Studying the metaphorical linguistic expressions related to cognition in the Plutarchan Greek thus not only reveals the ways this author and his contemporaries thought in general, but also what and how they thought about cognitive abilities themselves. The ancient folk theory of cognition is shaped by environmental factors and shared cultural codes of the society which produced them. Examination of their conceptual systems sheds new light on the environmental factors and cultural codes that reciprocally shaped their mentality. All this shows why cognitive methodologies are so useful for the classicists who try to better understand the ancient human mentalities: application thereof in classical studies has an enormous impact on our understanding of the ancient world as a whole.

Why is Plutarch important? Plutarch is a crucial source for our understanding of the ancient Greek and Roman mentality for several reasons. Firstly, his writings remarkably abound with metaphorical images. Secondly, his literary and cultural output is one of the largest extant ancient collections of a single authorship which calls for decoding its mental universe. Thirdly, Plutarch’s variety and breadth of intellectual interests include religion, politics, history, ethics, physics, medicine, literature, and language, thereby providing a diversified material for a thorough examination of conceptual metaphors related to the categories of thinking. It thus opens a large context for the reconstruction of the imperial Greek mentality. Furthermore, Plutarch may be considered as one of the principal witnesses to the intellectual world of his own times, who preferred the Greek of his times over the Atticism cultivated by other contemporary intellectuals. Decoding the metaphors traceable in Plutarch’s corpus has the potential to reveal a wide mental landscape of one of the most important ancient authors, and, by extension, many and various aspects of the historical world he lived in. His literary heritage exerted a profound influence on later ages of Western culture. He is thus a key author who is an intermediary and translator between his own culture, our modern culture, and the in-between periods. The project will enable a better understanding of our mental concepts and our world which is to a great extent rooted in the Greco-Roman tradition and its forms of thought.

Justification for the pioneering nature of the project. So far, there is neither a study of the conceptualization of cognitive abilities in the Greek texts, nor an interest in the literature of the imperial period from the cognitive perspective. Although cognitive approaches have for some time now been employed in studies on ancient Greek and Roman thought, this scholarly field is still in its infancy. Admittedly, the metaphor is an area in which classicists have been particularly active to date, yet their surveys embrace mostly the early Greek texts, or literary genres in a diachronic perspective. Strikingly, however, the imperial Greek prose of the first centuries CE has been so far omitted in the scholarship on the topic. Whereas this very period was particularly creative in terms of cultural production, and Plutarch was one of its most prominent representatives. The aim of this project is thus to fill this significant scholarly gap and provide a systematic and coherent study of the metaphorical concepts related to cognition that are to be found within one of the largest ancient corpora of one of the most important ancient authors. Another highlight of the project is that it will study the Moralia alongside with the Lives, while these two groups of texts that have been customarily studied separately.

The impact of the project results on the development of the research field and scientific discipline. The outcome of these interdisciplinary studies will be presented at international conferences and seminars and published as a volume in English, submitted to a leading publishing house (e.g. Brill) and a series of articles in renowned, peer-reviewed, international periodicals available in the Open Access (such as Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies or Classical Philology), which will be a significant contribution to the studies on the conceptualization of various crucial ideas in Plutarch, thereby stimulating discussion and development of this research field. The results of the research project will be of particular interest and use not only to historians and classicists but also to scholars of various disciplines, such as linguistics, literary studies, philosophy, cultural anthropology, psychology and sociology.


The plan for achieving the project’s objectives is based on a two-pronged strategy: i) the creation of a suitable database of metaphors from Plutarch’s Corpus (Part 1), ii) research on particular ICMs related to cognition and the folk epistemology emerging from Plutarch’s writings (Parts 2-4).

Part 1. Plutarchan corpus of metaphors of cognition. The creation of the database of conceptual metaphors in Plutarch’s writings will consist of i) considerations on Plutarch’s conceptualization of CTh, ii) development of a framework for identification and description of conceptual metaphors of cognition, iii) development of appropriate metadata tags and annotation procedures of individual instances of metaphors of cognition, and iv) collection and annotation of the corpus and computer facilitated analysis to identify frequency of metaphorical expressions of a given type. Qualitative and quantitative analyses will be carried out on the corpus of metaphors thus prepared, with the function of providing material for analyses related to the implementation of Parts 2-4.

Part 2. Conceptual metaphors of cognition in the database. This part of research will consist in exploring the conceptual metaphors of cognition that can be found in Plutarch’s writings and in reconstructing the ICMs emerging from them. The research will include: i) theoretical investigations delimiting the criteria that permit the identification of an expression as an example of conceptual metaphor, ii) close reading of samples of texts with the aim of identifying candidates for metaphors and their evaluation in relation to the criteria for the established definition of conceptual metaphor. The result of the conducted work will be a typology of cognitive abilities distinguished by Plutarch and a reconstruction of the ICMs associated with them.

Part 3. Cognitive and pragmatic dimensions of the Plutarch’s conceptual metaphors of cognition. Plutarch’s system of metaphors for cognition is partly shaped by the philosophical influences of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Stoicism. The purpose of this part of the research will therefore be to identify the philosophical origins of Plutarch’s conceptual metaphors of cognition and to establish the extent of Plutarch’s originality in thinking about human cognitive abilities. These findings are also expected to answer the question to what extent the metaphors in Plutarch serve other functions than representational or cognitive: in particular discursive, pragmatic or aesthetic.

Part 4. Socio-cultural dimension of the Plutarchan conceptual metaphors of cognition. This stage of the research has two objectives. The first is related to the study of conceptualization of source domains from which Plutarch draws metaphorical expressions. The task will be to describe those elements of the life of the ancients that serve as the basis for Plutarch’s conceptual metaphors. The second objective here is to find out whether or not the established metaphorical patterns of thought influenced how ancient subjects thought and acted in a society. Our analysis will imply discussion of the discerned thinking patterns in the context of such social phenomena as family, education and political organization to see how they are conditioned and motivated by the folk concept of mind that emerges from Plutarch’s writings.

Results of preliminary research. The preliminary research included both the study of an individual conceptual metaphor in a broader cultural context and a short corpus study of three Moralia texts. The results of the first one have been published by the PI as an article in the periodical Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies (Doroszewska 2019). The corpus study brought a handful of observations on how reason is conceptualized by Plutarch as a ruler or animal trainer of other cognitive abilities and how knowledge acquisition is understood as a production of objects by craftsmen.

Risk analysis. The material to be examined within the framework of the project is tantamount to more than 5200 pages of the original Greek text. This task will be covered by three team members (the PI and two postdocs) with complementary help from a doctoral student for 3 years whose work will be supervised by the PI. The team members with expertise in ancient Greek will be supported by two other members who are experts in cognitive linguistics and philosophy who will be responsible for annotating and coding of the texts. The material to be examined is estimated as feasible to be processed with good work planning and managing. Since two investigators are members of the Laboratory of Experimental Philosophy “KogniLab” which specializes in building for various purposes text corpora and their qualitative and quantitative analysis, its resources will support the research in the project.


Located in the interdisciplinary area of cognitive history, the planned research combines methods of historical inquiries with theories and methods of cognitive science. The methods of cognitive linguistics, especially CTM, will provide a theoretical conceptual framework and analytical tools that will be used to identify conceptual metaphors. Systematic analysis of the vast amount of linguistic material will be aided by methods of corpus linguistics (Deignan 2005, Steen et al. 2010, Stefanowitsch, Gries 2006) and content analysis (Krippendorff 2018). Research on conceptual metaphors related to the CTh will be carried out in two ways: i) the introspective historical-literary approach, and ii) with application of corpus-based approaches. The results of the investigation of cognitive metaphors in Plutarch’s writings will be subsequently used as a material for historical and socio-historical analysis in order to reconstruct cultural models discernible in ancient society’s conceptual systems. The implications of folk epistemology and theory of mind for the functioning of selected social institutions will be juxtaposed with the secondary literature on the analyzed social phenomena.


The studies planned in the project are a wide-ranging, multidimensional and interdisciplinary task, demanding a methodological approach that combines several fields of research with diverse and complementary competencies including corpus linguistics (specifically programming and statistical skills), cognitive linguistics, epistemology/philosophy of mind (both general and the ancient ones), excellent command of ancient Greek, knowledge of the Roman imperial period history, literature and culture, and knowledge of Plutarch’s literary production in particular. Only such collaborative work will allow us to approach the complex issues defined in the project by developing new and diverse analytical methods, as well as providing solutions to potential problems on the way to answering the research questions. Teamwork thus enables the exploration of new possibilities and opportunities to obtain ground-breaking and innovative results of the planned research.


Source editions: Plutarchus, Moralia, vol. I (Paton et al. 1974); II (Nachstädt et al. 1971);  III (Paton et al. 1972); IV (Hubert 1971); V.1 (Hubert et al. 1953); V. 2.1 (Mau 1971); V.2.2 (Häsler 1978); V.3 (Hubert et al. 2001); VI.1 (Hubert-Drexler (1959); VI.2 (Pohlenz-Westman 1971); VI.3 (Ziegler-Pohlenz 1966). Vitae Parallelae, vol. I.1 (Gärtner-Ziegler 1969); I.2 (Ziegler 1994); II.1 (Lindskog et al. (1964);  II.2 (Lindskog et al. 1968); III.1 (Ziegler – Gärtner 1971);  III.2 (Ziegler 1973);

Secondary literature:

  1. Borthwick, E. K. (1991). Bee imagery in Plutarch, Classical Quarterly 41.2: 560-62.
  2. Cairns, D. (2003). Myths and Metaphors of Mind and Mortality, Hermathena 175, 41-75.
  3. Cairns, D. (2016). Mind, Body, and Metaphor in Ancient Greek Concepts of Emotion. L’Atelier du Centre de recherches historiques. Revue électronique du CRH, 16.
  4. Deignan, A. (2005). Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing.
  5. Doroszewska, J. (2019). Windows of Curiosity. Eyes and Vision in Plutarch’s De Curiositate (Mor. 515-523), Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 59(1), 158-78.
  6. Dronker, I. (1892). De comparationibus et metaphoris apud Plutarchum. Van Hoekhoen.
  7. Dunér, D., & Ahlberger, Ch. (eds). (2019). Cognitive History. De Gruyter.
  8. Filonik, J. (2017). Metaphorical Appeals to Civic Ethos in Lycurgus’ Against Leocrates. In L. Cecchet, A. Busetto (eds). Citizens in the Graeco-Roman World (pp. 223-258). Brill.
  9. Fuhrmann, F.  (1964). Les images de Plutarque. C. Klincksieck.
  10. Hirsch-Luipold, R. (2001). Plutarchs denken in Bildern. Mohr Siebeck.
  11. Jäkel, O. (1997). Metaphern in abstrakten Diskurs-Domänen. Lang.
  12. Kazantzidis G. (2017). Cognition, Emotions and the Feeling Body in the Hippocratic Corpus. In M. Anderson (ed.), Distributed Cognition in Classical Antiquity (pp. 136-153). Edinburgh University Press.
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  14. Kövecses, Z. (2015). Where Metaphors Come From: Reconsidering Context in Metaphor. OUP
  15. Krippendorff K. (2018). Content Analysis: An Introduction to its Methodology. Sage Publications.
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  17. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.
  18. Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh. New York: Basic books.
  19. Larmour, D. (2000). Metaphor and Metonymy in the Rhetoric of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In L. Van Der Stockt (ed.). Rhetorical theory and praxis in Plutarch (pp. 267-80). Société des études classiques.
  20. McVay, J. (2000). The Human Body as Social and Political Metaphor in Stoic Literature and Early Christian Writers, The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 37(1-4): 135-147.
  21. Meineck, P., Short, W., Devereaux, J. (2018). The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory.
  22. Olsen, S. (2019). Sappho’s Kinesthetic Turn: Agency and Embodiment in Archaic Greek Poetry. In The Routledge Handbook of Classics and Cognitive Theory (pp. 281-296). Routledge.
  23. Pagán Cánovas, C. (2011). The Genesis of the Arrows of Love: Diachronic Conceptual Integration in Greek Mythology, American Journal of Philology 132(4): 553-579.
  24. Pagán Cánovas, C. (2014). Cognitive Patterns in Greek Poetic Metaphors of Emotion: A Diachronic Approach. In J. Díaz Vera (ed.), Metaphor and Metonymy through Time and Cultures. De Gruyter: 295-318
  25. Semino, E. (2008) Metaphor in Discourse, CUP.
  26. Short, W. (2012). A Roman Folk Model of the Mind, Arethusa 45(1), 109-147.
  27. Short, W. (2013). ‘Transmission’ Accomplished? Latin’s Alimentary Metaphors of Communication, American Journal of Philology 134(2): 247-275.
  28. Steen, G. (ed.). (2010). A method for linguistic metaphor identification: From MIP to MIPVU. John Benjamins.
  29. Stefanowitsch A., Gries S. Th. (2006). Corpus-based Approaches to Metaphor and Metonymy. De Gruyter.
  30. Theodoropoulou, M. (2012). The Emotion Seeks to be Expressed: Thoughts from a Linguist’s Point of View. In A. Chaniotis (ed.), Unveiling Emotions (pp. 433-468). Franz Steiner Verlag.
  31. Xenophontos, S. (2013). Imagery and Education in Plutarch, Classical Philology 108(2): 126-38
  32. Zadorojnyi, A. (2010). Hosper en esoptro: the rhetoric and philosophy of Plutarch’s mirrors. In N. Humble (ed.). Plutarch’s Lives: Parallelism and Purpose (pp. 169-196). The Classical Press of Wales.
  33. Zanker, A. T. (2019). Metaphor in Homer: Time, Speech, and Thought. CUP.