Saturday, September 29, 2007

We Don't ALWAYS Live by Metaphors!

It is probably still hard to find anyone in cognitive science these days who does not worship at the temple that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson built with their Metaphors We Live By book, even if most of the important points in this book had been made at least a decade before its publication by Continental literary theorists, such as Roland Barthes and Paul Ricœur. It was therefore refreshing to read what philosopher Colin McGinn had to say about Steven Pinker's latest burnt offering at this temple in the course of his review of Pinker's new book The Stuff of Thought, which appeared in the September 27 issue of The New York Review. McGinn is no slouch when it comes to Continental thinking, which makes his take on metaphor interesting reading:

Our language is transparently shot through with metaphors of one kind or another. But it is far from clear that everything we do with concepts and language can be accounted for in this way; consider how we think and talk about consciousness and the mind, or our moral thinking. The concept of pain, say, is not explicable as a metaphorical variation on some sort of physical concept.

While I appreciate McGinn's effort to deflate blanket generalizations, I am not sure I agree with specific examples. Indeed, because the concept of pain is so subtle, metaphor is often the best, if not the only way, to describe it, particularly when it is necessary to form an effective bridge between our own mundane vocabulary and the far more specialized terminology of the physician we have consulted about the pain. When we get to "consciousness and the mind," our knowledge of what we may call the objective reality is still so impoverished that, as is the case with pain, just about anything we have to say involves invoking one metaphor or another.

No, my beef with the Lakoff-Johnson acolytes and priests is that we engage more than metaphor when we express ourselves through tropes. This is why I feel they committed a great sin of omission in disregarding those Continental literary theorists, because Continental writing tends to example all of the tropes (or, as we were probably taught to call them in school, figures of speech). Indeed, one major spiritual godfather of such Continental thinking, Roman Jakobson, even developed the hypothesis that the decision to invoke metaphor or metonymy may serve as an indicator of a particular cognitive function. (Actually, Jakobson began with the problem of trying to account for cognitive dysfunctions; but this is a case where you can learn from looking through either end of the telescope, if one allows that metaphor!)

Out general ignorance of the breadth of figurative language was brought home to me last night in an amusing way. My wife and I were watching the DVR recording I had made of Akellah and the Bee. One of the words that trips her up was "synecdoche." What tripped me up was the discovery that I had never heard the word pronounced, so I only got it once I heard it defined. I then realized that, for all of the times I had read this word in both books and papers, this was the first time I had ever heard it uttered, even though it is used so frequently in our ordinary speech. Could it be that many of the problems we have in dealing with "real reality" stem from the fact that we are now too vocabulary-impoverished to describe that reality?

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