Wednesday, February 3, 2010

George Lakoff- a Non-Rant

George Lakoff is one of the big names in cognitive linguistics, and one of his big things is the role of metaphors not only in language and communication, but in cognition itself.

He is a linguistician, and what he discusses is mostly within his field of expertise; this isn't a post about how he's talking a load of nonsense about things he doesn't understand (though he should be a bit more careful when talking about mathematics, which I may come back to sometime). Also, the paper linked to is only an introduction to the ideas developed in the book, and is intended to provide some background and some examples to get the thing moving. It is not meant to be rigorous, which is fortunate really, because it has too many holes to be a true theoretical foundation for anything.

No, my beef with Lakoff is not really a beef a all, merely a few comments about what he says:

- Argument is war: there are many expressions used-he gives a list- which conceive of argument in these terms, and although he concedes in an aside that the concept of argument os only partially structured in these terms, he immediately states that this is the normal way of understanding argument, viz. as a form of war.

He seems to be overegging this considerably. At the level of conceptual metaphor we could equally construct an understanding of war in terms of argument, and there is, of course, a reason for this. Argument and war share the idea of difference and disagreement. Once that is understood, it becomes clear (if it wasn't already) that we think of argument as conflict, contest, competition, confrontation, difference, sport, and many other things, depending on context, the only common characteristic is that two people are not in initial agreement. (Even this is not strictly true, in that argument can at times be a form of solitaire.) There is no intrinsic need, and the metaphors do not always have or require, the idea of violence, bloodshed, physical battle.

Many of the expressions he gives, though possibly miltary in origin, are commonly used with no martial sense, and so there is no metaphor of war, but rather one of sport or game, or the underlying metaphor may be argument itself. Examples of this are 'target', 'strategy', even 'win' and 'lose' themselves. A battle is not, and never has been, the only thing that can be won or lost, and whether it is the first think we think of when we use them depends on our social and cultural circumstances, and the context of the use.

- Time is money: this one is even easier to deal with. Time is conceived as having value because it does have value. Yes, we can earn money with it, but we can also do many things that add value to our lives (what they are will depend on each one of us, but they may obviously include studying, reading, fun, entertainment, family and friends, wine, women, song, sex, drugs, rock'n'roll, quiet contemplation of the world or of one's navel, even Celebrity Big Brother on a Desert Island with Optional Ballroom Dancing). These thing have value in the same way that money does, and time is what allows us to do them.

Time is very strictly limited, and if you need reminding of that there's a chap with a scythe I'd like you to meet. Time has value, as money has value. It isn't even a metaphor. Time has almost certainly been valued for longer than money has existed. And 'spend' doesn't work in many languages, which is a minor quibble, but too typical of the anglo-centric school of linguistics.

- Transport studies- the conduit metaphor: this is the one that I frequently have professional dealings with, as it were. We tend to think of communication in terms of wrapping a message into a parcel in our brains, sending it on a journey from our mouth to the ear, and then the brain, of the listener. It is certainly true that we conceive it this way, and it is undoubtedly a metaphor. Many of the expressions listed by Lakoff bear this out. Wittgenstein pointed this out, and Michael Reddy is one of those who developed the idea, and tried to discover why it is so pervasive and persuasive, at least in English.

It isn't easy to think of counter-examples, that is, expressions we use, metaphorical or otherwise, which use a different underlying image, but they do exist. We speak of 'bringing to mind', 'I want you to think about', 'imagine', 'I couldn't make him see' and so on, which conceive of communication as a way of directly creating an image in the mind of the listener, not sending it on a little Platonic carriage from one brain to the other.

This is, I think, the best metaphorical foundation for Lakoff's later work as set out in the book, and probably the one he understood best as well, given his background. It might even have been the one he started from and would have liked to stick to, but he thought he should broaden the scope of the examples before developing a theoretical framework.

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