Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Tilford, Nicole L., Sensing World, Sensing Wisdom: The Cognitive Foundation of Biblical Metaphors (AIL, 31; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2017). Pp. ix + 246. Softcover. US$34.95. ISBN 9781628371758.

This monograph uses conceptual metaphor theory to explore how human senses of perception shape the image-world of the wisdom corpus of the Hebrew Bible. The foundation of conceptual metaphor theory is that metaphors are products of the fundamental processes of human cognition, not merely literary devices. In that vein, Tilford comments that biblical metaphor developed as “an ongoing, preconscious process by which ancient scribes ascribed meaning to their experiences and organized their cultural worldview” (p. 4). Conceptual metaphor theory has grown in prominence in biblical studies in recent decades. Tilford's contribution here is to explore how conceptual metaphors interact across a corpus that is larger than a single passage or even a single book. This puts the universal aspect of conceptual metaphors into view: if similar metaphors occur across the broad corpus, then they reflect shared processes of fundamental cognition.

Tilford's introduction contains a discussion of the theoretical foundation of conceptual metaphor and how it is rooted in human interaction with the surrounding environment. The next chapter sets the wisdom literature against its cultural and historical backdrop and follows a relatively standard understanding of the development of Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet. This chapter's key feature is to underline the development a worldview that held that life could be perceived and comprehended by the Israelite scribal community. This outlook is what makes the wisdom project feasible. In the third chapter, Tilford articulates the broad outline of her core conceptual metaphor (“Cognition is Perception”) before subsequent chapters divide the source domain of “Perception” into constituent elements which include seeing, hearing, touching, ingesting, breathing, and moving. A final chapter moves toward “complex metaphors,” which result from the combination of the above-mentioned modes of perception. Each of these chapters on perception follows a similar structure, first listing and discussing the lexemes that the Hebrew Bible uses to describe each mode. She then explores the various ways in which that mode of experience (sight, sound, etc) is used in the wisdom corpus to reflect processes of cognition. In light of this consistent pattern, the review discusses the first and third chapters in some detail since they provide the foundation for the subsequent analysis. It then offers more general observations on the chapters, focusing on particular modes of perception.

Tilford's first chapter is especially helpful. She argues for moving beyond a dualistic approach to perception that separates the mind from the body. Instead she suggests that the ways in which we interact with the world shape our understanding of it and the image schemas we use to make sense of it. This leads to a brief but very enlightening survey of conceptual metaphor theory and its uses in biblical studies. One key point drawn from this chapter is the observation that physically accessible source domains describe less accessible ones. This explains how images related to sight, sound, and touch can be used to describe less physical processes like comprehension and evaluating. Tilford also addresses a critique of conceptual metaphor theory, which is that it is overly mechanistic. She notes that while conceptual metaphors may be rooted in universal aspects of interactions with one's environment, the linguistic expression of these processes can be quite imaginative.

The third chapter introduces the foundational conceptual metaphor of this book, noting that “[T]he phenomenological experience of perception serves as a natural source domain for cognition across the world” (p. 35). However, Tilford also rightly acknowledges that the expressions of cognition have cultural nuances. To explore these, she employs a model developed by linguist Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano that expresses the prototypical properties of each mode of perception. These properties reflect universal human modes of perception but, “since cultures determine which properties and values are assigned to the modalities, typologies will differ, as will mappings based on them” (p. 45). She illustrates this by pointing to an example from Ibarretxe-Antuñano, in which the modality of smell can map onto both the cognitive process of “knowing” or “guessing” depending on the cultural background. Tilford acknowledges that ancient Israelites did not list the mechanisms for each modality of perception, but she suggests that looking at the major lexemes used for each mode of perception will provide a point of entry.

From this foundation, Tilford's chapters in which she discusses all of the different modes of perception reveal both the promises and the challenges of the conceptual metaphor approach. She goes into great detail to demonstrate how processes of perception provide a wealth of source domains to express different aspects of cognition. For example, the source domain of “seeing” can be mapped onto cognitive functions including “considering,” “understanding,” and “concluding,” among several others. Similarly, the source domain of “hearing” may express functions such as “obeying” or “paying attention.” These relatively obvious source domains give way to modes of perception whose function as a source domain for conceptual metaphor is less apparent. This includes “breathing,” in which Tilford explores the semantic range of רוּחַ to demonstrate that it can map onto the concepts of knowledge and various emotional states (patience, impatience, and pride). All of this detailed work reveals the ways in which sensory perception provides a repository for metaphorical expressions of cognition.

Tilford's work also brings to the fore an issue endemic to cognitive metaphor studies, which is the tendency to find it everywhere. Occasionally, she lists multiple conceptual metaphors undergirding various passages, which can be overwhelming to the reader. Further, as the chapters on modes of perception reveal clusters of conceptual metaphors related to each mode, it becomes difficult to evaluate individual ones on their own merits. Each chapter concludes with a chart of these clusters that also refers to how they relate to the inherent properties of these modes. In practice, these charts can be challenging to read since each mode of perception has multiple mappings that draw upon different properties. It is necessary to return to the discussion of these properties in the third chapter in order to evaluate these charts.

It is also unclear on occasion whether identifying a particular expression as an element of a broader conceptual metaphor enhances our understanding of the text in question. For example, Tilford identifies “Thinking is Walking” as a conceptual metaphor and cites Prov 6:6 (as well as Qoh 2:1, 3). This verse uses an imperative of הלך to direct the hearer to go observe the ant and gain wisdom. In my estimation, the idea of physical movement is so far removed from the semantic purpose of the proverb that identifying movement as the source domain does not actually aid much in its interpretation. There are numerous other examples in this vein. These passages may use imagery originating from the source domains of modes of perception, but understanding their semantic function does not require a deep knowledge of the intrinsic properties of the source domain.

In summary, despite these critiques this is a worthwhile resource for anyone interested in conceptual metaphor and its application to the biblical text. Tilford's concise survey of the field provides readers with a good entry point and her discussion of the universal and cultural elements of how interactions with the physical world inform the creation of metaphorical concepts is excellent. Her focus on human senses of perception uncovers the ways in which some biblical authors conceived of knowing, evaluating, and judging. However, the sheer volume of metaphors she identifies and their complicated taxonomy reveals that while we can identify conceptual metaphors there remains work to be done in connecting the source domains to the semantic function of the metaphors in their specific contexts.

Joel Barker, Heritage College