Shoes that fit like a glove: the visceral roots of human cognition.

image00Marked by a row of five individual toe sheaths designed to replace the singular ‘toe’ of each shoe, Vibram’s FiveFingers® footwear is instantly recognizable. Over the course of a single decade the brand has generated a saga all its own, morphing from the sudden paragon of a fitness revolution into the sudden target of a multi-million dollar lawsuit. The trend has also taken its licks from the fashionistas: loathed by GQ as “creepy and ugly”, lambasted on Gawker as a tyrannical force that “must be stopped immediately” and lampooned on Deadspin as the “favorite toe-shoe of vegan restaurant servers and 55-year-old men with ponytails”. In spite of such hullabaloo (and because of it), sales flourish and enthusiasts gush, praising the shoe for being “the next best thing to going barefoot” and for “letting your feet do the job they did for your genetic ancestors” (see Amazon). Here I take the shoes down a road less travelled by drawing attention to the embodied semiotics of FiveFingers footwear. The pattern that emerges is an object of inquiry in a long-term research project, one that may well lead to a better understanding of the visceral roots of human cognition. Inquiry into the buried origins of ‘double-scope conceptual blending’, one of the pillars of contemporary Cognitive Linguistics, is of particular interest.

According to Fauconier & Turner (hereafter F&T), Conceptual Blending is pervasive in human thinking and meaning making (F&T 2002). Blends function as memory-based networks of compressed relationships formed and shared between clusters of patterned experience called ‘frames’ or ‘mental spaces’. F&T (2002: 119-135) identify four types of blending networks, listed here in order of increasing sophistication: 1) simplex, 2) mirror, 3) single-scope and 4) double-scope. Double-scope networks are of particular interest since, as F&T argue, they grow out of types 1-3, each of which, in turn, slowly developed over the course of human evolution (2002: 171-187; 2008). As such, double-scope blends are said to have emerged late in human evolution and are thought to underlie the singularity known as the human language faculty.

One of the most oft cited examples of a double-scope network is the Computer Desktop blend (F&T 2002: 131, Birdsell 2014: 80). The computer desktop imaginatively integrates certain accessories of an office workspace with certain features of a digital screen, resulting in new previously unconsidered functional possibilities such as the placement of a trashcan on one’s desktop alongside folders and files. Vibram’s FiveFingers shoes are also an example of a double-scope network, involving the imaginative blending of two frames that feature bodily extremities and their coverings: a hand-finger-glove frame (input space 1) and a foot-toe-shoe frame (input space 2). As a consequence, this blend requires the cross-domain mapping of fingers placed inside shoes and toes inserted into gloves! Such thought experiments result in the novel suggestion that shoes can function as gloves by enveloping each individual digit autonomously—an imaginative blend that has now become physical reality.


Though at first the point may seem merely obvious, there is something special about the FiveFingers double-scope network that warrants careful attention. Dealing directly, as it does, with fingers and toes, hands and feet, shoes and gloves, the FiveFingers blend is radically embodied. While most theories and constructions in the Cognitive Linguistics continuum lay claim to ‘embodiment’ broadly conceived, certain levels are more directly or immediately engaged with bodily experience than others. Primary metaphors are more immediately embodied than conceptual metaphors (compare, e.g., “a cold decision” with “a costly decision”). Overtly image-schematic constructions are more directly embodied than their grammaticalized counterparts (compare e.g., “going to Seattle” with “going to sneeze”). Such distinctions are important because of the grounding and continuity they provide between the corporeal and the abstract. Thus far, no comparable level of corporeal grounding has been identified for conceptual blending theory. Blends are said to involve compression or conversion to “human scale” (F&T 2002: 322-324), but is this the extent of their bodily grounding? If so, how did the ability evolve at all? Primary metaphors have been identified as a unique input class for forming conceptual blends (Grady 2005); and ‘somatic marking’ (finding out how to feel about something) has been identified as a better account of why we seek to use blends to achieve human scale (Slingerland 2005); but apart from a brief discussion in Pelkey (2013), no explicitely embodied accounts have surfaced that ground the human ability for conceptual integration in overt bodily experience. As a result, rather pressing questions such as “How were the first mental spaces formed?” and “What were the first double-scope networks?” have scarcely been asked.

image02The FiveFingers blend highlights (and exploits) our ability to think of toes as fingers and fingers as toes—hands as feet and feet as hands. Humans have developed highly specialized uses for their hands and fingers relative to their feet and toes. Because of this specialization (and its construction through patterns of markedness and opposition), the shoe’s ability to evoke the grotesque is conspicuous. The reactions of fashion critics cited above provide good evidence for this claim. Further evidence can be observed in social semiotic patterns embedded in the contemporary Vimeo web series High Maintenance. FiveFingers footwear is leveraged as a semiotic strategy for characterization in the series. Lead actor Ben Sinclair plays “The Guy”, a marginalized pot dealer who makes private house calls on his bike wearing a shirt, jeans and FiveFingers shoes. The wardrobe decision contributes to a feeling of personal distance or uneasy revulsion between the dealer and his clients, clients for whom he incidentally provides counsel and therapy. In one episode, an otherwise satisfied customer censures the footwear as “disgusting”. To be sure, there is something repulsive about even so much as imagining putting one’s clean fingers deep into the toe(s) of a smelly shoe. There is also something profane, or ridiculous, about the image of trying to force one’s toes into the fingers of a glove. But the ambidirectional blend happens effortlessly and instantly in ways that are beyond our conscious ability to control. In an apparent effort to turn the tables on this visceral PR problem, Vibram devised the ad at left (Twitter), suggesting that perhaps the truly “weird” state of affairs is our normalization of the single ‘toed’ shoe. Social construction can be bizarre, but can the FiveFingers blend itself be dismissed as a freak product of fitness mania and marketing hype?

Our ability to imagine our hands as feet, and our feet as hands, might go down as a mere curiosity if the FiveFingers blend were an isolated instance of this pattern. But this is not the case. In fact, the blend is one token of a cross-linguistic pattern so robust that it might reasonably be identified as a universal feature of human tacit cognition. Though many sources of evidence can be cited in support of this claim, the claim itself has not been clearly or systematically articulated to date. The brief commentary here is simply a promissory note to that end. To tip my “hand”, though, and provide a “toehold” on things to come, one key research direction will follow up on Wilkins (1996), a much cited historical linguistic project exploring universal trends in the semantic shift of body part terms. One of Wilkin’s discoveries is a systematic, syncretic relationship between the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ appendages and their analogous membership. He finds, in language families around the world, that “Where the waist provides a midline, it is a natural tendency for terms referring to parts of the upper body to shift to refer to parts of the lower body and vice versa” (1996: 273-274). It is commonplace, for instance, to find a word that once meant “toenail” having shifted to mean “fingernail” and vice-versa. Furthermore, upper and lower appendages show directly analogous patterns of metonymic semantic shift from part to whole such that words which once meant “palm” may gradually shift to mean “hand” and, likewise below the waist, words that once meant “heel” may gradually shift to mean “foot”. The reflexive embodied paradigms implicit in Wilkin’s discovery have received very little attention in the literature (cf. Pelkey 2013).

Jamin Pelkey

Other sources of evidence range from systematic semantic mappings and polysemous word usage across languages to human anatomical planes and the history of symmetry (Hon & Goldstein 2008). Piecemeal lexical evidence is particularly plentiful. Consider the Dene Sųłiné word for “fingerprint(s)” (Rice 2014: 90): dene-lá-ké, glossed ‘person-hand-foot’. This lexicalization strategy only makes sense by recognizing that ké foot has been extended in the language to denote ‘footprints’. Thus, the lexicalization involves a (radically embodied) blend of hand/finger prints with toe/foot prints. The two sets of appendages and their digits are, after all, imminently analogous. Perhaps such relations also played a key role in the original human ability to construct mindful analogies. That, at least, would seem to be where all the fingertracks and toeprints are leading.



Birdsell, B. J. (2014). Fauconnier’s theory of mental spaces and conceptual blending. In J. Littlemore & J. R. Taylor (Eds.), The Bloomsbury Companion to Cognitive Linguistics (pp. 72–90). London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.
Fauconnier, G., & Turner, M. (2008). The origin of language as a product of the evolution of double-scope blending. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31(5), 520–521.
Grady, J. (2005). Primary metaphors as inputs to conceptual integration. Journal of Pragmatics, 37, 1595–1614.
Hon, G., & Goldstein, B. R. (2008). From summetria to symmetry: The making of a revolutionary scientific concept. Berlin: Springer.
Pelkey, Jamin. (2013). Cognitive chiasmus: Embodied phenomenology in Dylan Thomas. Journal of Literary Semantics, 42(1), 79–114.
Rice, S. (2014). Corporeal incorporation and extension in Dene Sųłiné (Athapaskan) lexicalization. In M. Brenzinger & I. Kraska-Szlenk (Eds.), The Body in Language: Comparative Studies of Linguistic Embodiment (pp. 71–97). Leiden: Brill.
Slingerland, E. G. (2005). Conceptual Blending, Somatic Marking, and Normativity: A Case Example from Ancient Chinese. Cognitive Linguistics, 16(3), 557.
Wilkins, D. P. (1996). Natural tendencies of semantic change and the search for cognates. In M. Durie & M. Ross (Eds.), The comparative method reviewed (pp. 264–304). New York: Oxford University Press.


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