Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Gendlin-Johnson debate

Eugene Gendlin is a philosopher and psychoanalyst who's been writing on the interaction between logical thought and intuitive thought since the 1970s.

He argues that we should view intuitive thinking is a resource that may inform logical thinking, but not be simulated by it. He thus recommend a kind of thinking that crosses back and forth between intuitive thought and formalizations of this intuitive thought.

In 1997, he and Mark Johnson engaged in a debate on metaphor. This sprang out of Gendlin's essay "Crossing and Dipping" (1997), but the debate took place in a volume of critical essays on Gendlin's philosophy (Kleinberg-Levin: Language Beyond Postmodernism, 1997).

Gendlin on Metaphor
With respect to metaphor, Gendlin stated in the essay that he sees the meaning of a metaphor---indeed, any sentence---as something that can be explicated, but only on a case-by-case basis and with reference to intuitive understanding.

This means that we may understand and explicate a given metaphor, but not in general formalize the mechanism that produces this understanding. He explicitly cites Wittgenstein for this idea. The resultant theory resembles both the thought of Donald Davidson and of Derrida.

Consider for instance the way he tries to show how language can produce meaning without necessarily relying on a preexisting system:
Even conjunctions can say something when they come here: I promise to and your many viewpoints, rather than to but them. Once some words have worked in a slot, the slot can also speak alone: I will try to . . . . our discussion. (sec. II)
This is indeed creative as well as intelligible tokens of language use, although they come with a quite considerable amount of uncertainty.

Gendlin seems only partly to appreciate the fact that metaphors can be more or less easily understood. He would probably recognize uncertainty on the formal level, but not on the intuitive.

He further stresses the fact that understanding a metaphor requires quite a lot of knowledge, not only about the source domain, but about the target domain as well. A "use-family," as he calls the source concept, can easily be applied wrongly by an incompetent hearer.

A metaphor thus has a "precise new meaning" (p. 174), but this meaning can only be retrieved by "crossing," not by computation (p. 172).

Problems with the Ordering
Gendlin criticizes several key issues in Lakoff and Johnson's theory. For instance, he rejects the idea that the concreteness ordering has bottom elements, or maybe that it is an antisymmetric order. He thus writes of Johnson that
he sometimes sounds as if he were speaking literally about the physical motion domain as if it were original or "basic." (p. 169)
He similarly criticizes Lakoff and Johnson's claim that there is an identifiable set of elements in the ordering that serve as the ultimate basis of our conceptual system.

To exemplify this, he produces a typical cognitive-semantic interpretation of the prices rose. This bases the metaphor on the mapping MORE IS UP, which allegedly arises from our experience with piles and the like.

He then provocatively states:
But I think that prices "rise" because the numbers get larger, and we count up from 1. (p. 171)
This calls the empirical evidence for the cognitive analysis into question. Why would our concrete experience with numbers---including talking about them---not bear any weight on the issue? Could years of schooling not make any difference to whether we saw something as concrete?

Gendlin extends this critique Johnson's way of tackling metaphors in general:
He imports a cognitive scheme in which he formulates the "correlations," and then selects the fewest that could account for the variety of instances. But what he calls "basic" or "experiential" correlation seems no different in character from all the rest, which he calls "resulting" or "subsequent" (p. 171)
This is very similar in style to some of the other critiques of Lakoff and Johnson. Often the components of their analyses seem to come out of nowhere, with no independent motivation, and do exactly the right thing at the right time.

Taking such an analysis as evidence of anything is therefore quite dubious. Gendlin says this in terms of "revers[ing] the order" of explanation (Sec. I) or "reading concepts back" (p. 169). Haser and McGlone puts it in terms of circularity.

The Limits of Prediction
In Gendlin's reply to Mark Johnson (pp. 173-74) as well as in his essay (Sec. II), Gendlin gives examples of the limits of metaphorical inferences.

Johnson seems to admit that he has no systematic theory that can account for the precise layout of these limits:
What cognitive semantics cannot capture in its generalizations, however, is the affective dimension of this experiential grounding of meaning. We can point to it, but we cannot include in our mappings and generalizations the felt sense that is part of what the metaphor means to us, not can we include the way it works in our experience. (p. 167-68)
However, calling this an "affective" issue belies the fact that this actually leads to wrong inferences, not just to anemic descriptions.

What none of these authors seem to consider, though, is that the meaning of expressions may not be entirely settled in the head of one individual. It is true that prior knowledge will inform the best guess of any hearer, but as metaphors fossilize, a social decision process is also going on. This points in the direction of a role for convention.

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