Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fauconnier and Turner: The Way We Think (2002)

Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner have written a number on texts on "conceptual blending." I have read their article "Rethinking Metaphor" from Gibbs (ed.): The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought (2008) and their book The Way We Think (2002).

Both texts are easy-to-read introductions to their theory of conceptual blends, and both of them exhibit a shocking lack of academic conext and depth.

Contrast With Mappings
The two main differences between the cognitive mapping account and the conceptual blending account of metaphor are the following:
  1. Conceptual blending allows nesting: After you have conceptualized the day as a rotation, you can conceptualize the rotating day as the face of a clock. This allows more complicated blends to be build up in a stepwise fashion.
  2. In a blend, source and target domains are on more equal footing than in a mapping: The conceptual mapping theory claims that we think about the target domain as if it were the source domain. The conceptual blending claims that we think of certain slice of the world as if it were both the source and the target domain at once, like a double-exposure photograph.
The main effect of this second shift of focus is that it dodges the allegation that not all structure from the source domain is inherited in the target domain.

The theory does, however, not explain why or when one domain gets more weight, or under which conditions new objects may appear in the blend. Some hand-waving is done in chapter 16 of The Way We Think, but this mostly amounts to throwing around the words "relevant" and "purpose" a little.

The Lack of Explanations
Conceptual blends explain surprisingly little. The contrast between the awe that the authors display, faced with their own postulated entity, is only matched by how whimsical and cursory the examples and applications are.

Alarm bells should thus go off when we are told, in just two pages, that the cognition behind conceptual blends is "mysterious," "powerful," "complex," once again "complex", "exceptional," "remarkable," once again "remarkable", "elegant," once again "powerful,", "marvelous," and, once again, "marvelous" (p. xi-xii). Since "complex" is often nothing more than another word for "not covered by my theory," this should warn us that The Way We Think is exceptionally vague in its ideas.

And it is indeed. Already early on in the book, we are told, with reference to blending:
Nobody knows how people do it. (p. 20)
Later it is added that
[...] blending is not deterministic. (p. 55)
[...] it would be nonsense to predict that from two inputs a certain blend must result or that a specific blend must arise at such-and-such a place. (p. 55)
[...] constructing blended meaning is no simple task. (p. 69)
Apparently, then, predicting a blend can only be done on a case-by-case basis by a qualified individual. We should thus not expect much in the way of a strong theory of conceptual blends.

In light of that, it does seem slightly odd to find highly specific assertions like "Mental spaces are built up dynamically in working memory" later in the book, boldly thrown out there without the slightest shred of evidence or even a reference (p. 103). Thus, in spite of seemingly recognizing that their claims are virtually untestable, the authors do not seem to be afraid of spewing out new postulates and hypothesizing new cognitive operations.

Neither do they attempt to compare their analyses to real alternatives. Once in a while, a strawman is refuted with an undocumented reference (such as the case of Grice, p. 69). But more relevant reference points---like Ronald Langacker, James Pustejovsky, Ronald Kaplan, Joan Bresnan, Dan Sperber, or Deidre Wilson---are nowhere to be found.

The Arbitrariness of Analysis
Even without going into the lack of psychological evidence for the claims in The Way We Think, there seems to be one huge problem that faces every single analysis in the book, namely the question: Why?

Let's take an example from analysis of the character of the Grim Reaper.

According to Fauconnier and Turner's analysis, on of the "input spaces" in this mental image is a frame that they call "Causal Tautology" (p. 291-92). This space is a highly general schema for understanding an event without any visible cause, and it works by imposing some generic cause upon an event that could otherwise not be explained. By imposing this very general frame on the event of a certain dying person, we create the a generic cause called "Death." By mixing this blend with a killer and a reaper, we create the Grim Reaper.

The question this analysis raises is then: Why not the opposite? Here's another little story about this event: A particular person is dying, and we mix this event with a generic Killer frame, thus creating an unfilled killer role in our understanding of the scene. By mixing this with a Harvest space, we further fill the killer role with a reaper.

We thus have two different stories that can explain the same phenomenon. How do Fauconnier and Turner know that their account is the right one? They give no argument, perform no experiments, deduce no observable consequences, and compare it with no alternatives. If we should accept any story that fits the facts, then why not choose a more colorful one with some goblins and elves, or perhaps repressed desires and penis envy?

The Reaper and The Grave Digger
More examples can be given of the many possible analyses that Fauconnier and Turner seem to pick randomly from, without any underlying system or principle.

For instance, when they explain why the Reaper is insusceptible to persuasion, they state that this property is inherited from actual literal death (p. 293). Why not somewhere else?

For instance, since the character arose out of a blend with a Killer space, then why not claim that the Reaper inherited this particular property from the killer? Killers are usually pretty bend on their activities and pretty difficult to reason with. Is there anyway to tell the difference, or is all this just a story we're telling ourselves?

Similarly, in their analysis of the sentence "You're digging your own grave," Fauconnier and Turner state that the causality of the digging causing the death comes from the target domain, since normally, deaths causes grave-digging and not the other way around (p. 132-33). But why not some other story?

We could equally well say that graves and deaths are fused in a conceptual blend, since a grave represents a dead person, and a dead person is the end product of a dying event. We could then let the relation of representation be compressed into a relation of causation and, voilà!, we have a genuine Fauconnier/Tunerian conceptual blend that explains the same data.

All of these examples point in the direction of the same problem: Fauconnier and Turner have invented a theory that can find structure and meaning in anything. Since their system is not kept within any set of well-defined boundaries, the world now appears to them to be one large pool of positive evidence. Nothing could ever go wrong.

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