Thursday, September 22, 2011

George Lakoff: "The contemporary theory of metaphor" (1993)

George Lakoff's contribution to the second, expanded version of Metaphor and Thought (1979/1993) is written like a corrective to the "old," "traditional," and "classical" metaphor theories of the dark ages preceding Metaphors We Live By (1980). Lakoff's article gives paradigmatic examples of the thinking, rhetoric, and evidence he applies.

Literal means understood-without-mappings
Lakoff defines "literal" in terms of his hypothetical entity, the conceptual mapping:
those concepts that are not comprehended via conceptual metaphor might be called "literal." (p. 205)
He gives the sentence the balloon went up as an example of a literal utterance. It is thus not, according to Lakoff, comprehended through the use of a mapping. A sentence like the line goes from A to B does, on the other hand, does use a mapping (see also p. 215).

This definition is interesting, not only because it renders the concept of literal language dependent on Lakoff's theory. It also highlights the fact that what counts as literal and what counts as metaphorical is an empirical and psychological question. Lakoff should thus, according to his own theory, give an argument as to why the balloon went up does not require some pre-established bridge between various parts of the brain, and why the temperature went up does.

Note that he also implicitly hypothesizes that we do not need any conceptual infrastructure to comprehend surprising but presumably literal expressions such as the camel flew away or a wooden balloon.

If there is such a thing as conceptual mappings, it is not self-evident that they are only involved in what lakoff calls metaphorical expressions, and he gives no argument to that effect.

Literal language is identified by intuition
Later in the text, he relies even more explicitly on his intuition. He want to argue that the phrase ahead of is used metaphorically in the sentence
John is way ahead of Bill in intelligence. (p. 214)
To do so, he states:
To say that there is no metaphorical mapping from paths to scales is to say that "ahead of" is not fundamentally spatial and characterized with respect to heads; it is to claim rather that "ahead" is very abstract, neutral between space and linear scales, and has nothing to do with heads. This would be a bizarre analysis. (p. 214-15)
Again here, there is some confusion as to what counts as definition, and what counts as data. Lakoff clearly has the intuition that the meaning of ahead of is traceable to its spatial meaning, but he does not provide any criterion for literality or centrality other than this case-by-case intuition.

Since less clear-cut examples can be given, his extrapolation to all conceptualizations of magnitudes and scales is somewhat dubious.

Metaphor relates the abstract to the concrete
According to Lakoff, the function of metaphor is to conceptualize the abstract in terms of the concrete:
as soon as one gets away from concrete physical experience and starts talking about abstractions or emotions, metaphorical understanding is the norm. (p. 205)
Metaphor allows us to understand a relatively abstract or inherently unstructured subject matter in terms of a more concrete, or at least highly structured subject matter. (245)
Metaphors are mappings across conceptual domains.
Such mappings are asymmetric and partial. [...]
Mappings are not arbitrary, but grounded in the body and in everyday experience and knowledge. (p. 245)
This entails that we can picture the the metaphorical relations as a partial order on the set of domains. In this order, concrete, physical experience would be minimal elements, and all other domains could be placed somewhere higher up in the lattice corresponding to the order.

Conceptual mappings, a shy bird
One of the most interesting and controversial claims of cognitive metaphor theory is that there are no "dead" metaphors (see, e.g., pp. 227 and 245). We should be careful how we read this claim, though, to get its meaning and explanatory power right.

When asked how a particular metaphor is understood, we can pick an answer somewhere between two poles: In one extreme, we allege that the whole linguistic expression is stored in memory, along with its meaning, so that only recall and no "thinking" is required. In the other extreme, we claim that the metaphor requires a search from scratch for a good interpretation, perhaps in terms similarity, relevance, or both.

Lakoff and Johson's theory lies in between these two poles: They claim that the linguistic expressions are not stored, but that a non-linguistic infrastructure---"a huge system of thousands of cross-domain mappings" (p. 203)---is.

Thus, when I say that I'm boiling mad, you do not retrieve a stored meaning of the phrase. Instead, the metaphorical expression exploits an already existing mapping. This mapping works because activation in the concept "heated to the boiling point" will propagate into the concept "very, very angry." Thus, no stored phrase is needed; no search in conceptual space is needed.

Although there is nothing wrong with the picture of this neurological propagation, it fails to explain the linguistic data. The unfortunate effect is that clinging to a rigid structure behind metaphorical expressions (fixed mappings) is either wrong or a good old similarity-based account on a new bottle.

The mapping account: Motivation and idea
The mapping account of metaphor in its most basic form explains a metaphor with reference to a structure-preserving function from the source domain to the target domain. The explanatory power of the theory lies in the fact that this function can be employed by different linguistic terms, not just a fixed, finite set of phrases.

Lakoff himself exemplifies this mechanism by his stipulated function from the domain of travel to the domain of love. The theory then says that travel concepts map onto love concepts, but not only that: The relations that hold between any specific set of travel concepts are preserved by the function so that we reason as if they also hold between the love concepts.

So for instance, the images of IMPEDIMENTS and VEHICLE under this mapping are DIFFICULTIES and RELATIONSHIP. And since IMPEDIMENTS can cause the VEHICLE to stop (a relation in the source domain), so can DIFFICULTIES cause the RELATIONSHIP to stop (the corresponding relationship in the target domain).

So far, the theory is simple and true. It does seems to warrant the conclusion that we use these mappings, and using them for reasoning and not just talk. But then the problems begin.

Ontological gaps in the mapping
The first problem is that not all objects fit into the function.

It goes fine if we plug entities like DESTINATION, FUEL, etc. into metaphorical expressions---these are then discovered that to have been related to LIFE GOALS, EMOTIONS, etc. all along.

But other objects seem to have no equivalents in the target domain. GAS STATION, MAP, PASSPORTS, and numerous other entities are only feebly related, if at all, to entities in the domain of love.

A the quote above (from p. 245) shows, Lakoff is aware of this problem, and he recognizes that metaphors are only "partial" mappings. The functions can only be defined on a subset of the source domain

There is no explicit discussion of why that might be the case, given that the mappings are real, coherent objects, but the arguments I discuss below may throw some light on the mystery.

Epistemic gaps in the mapping
The second problem is the fact that not all source domain structure is in fact preserved in the target domain. For instance, as Lakoff notes,
you can give someone a kick, even if that person doesn't have it afterward, and [...] you can give someone information, even if you don't lose it. (p. 216)
Thus "giving" a kick and "giving" information does not have the same structure as "giving" a present.

Lakoff explains this by saying that the "inherent target domain structure automatically limits what can be mapped" (p. 216). He calls this, in super-sinister fashion, "the Invariance Principle," and he launches it as an empirical hypothesis, not a patch on his theory (p. 215).

It should be clear, though, that this principle takes the piss out of the theory to a quite considerable extent. Remember that the empirical justification for introducing the invisible conceptual mappings was the fact that they could explain an array of facts without invoking conventionality or learning of particular phrases; and a part of its attraction lay in the fact that it warranted the hypothesis that these mappings governed thought as well as speech.

Modifying this strong hypothesis with a cautious "principle" that can be invoked every time a mapping begins to look like nothing but a handy label on a bunch of contingent conventions significantly reduces the attractions of the theory. If mapping can't predict anything and only explain some things some times, then they should indeed be an endangered species.

The cyclicity of the language-thought-language argument
A last point that resonated well with McGlone's criticism is the fact that Lakoff sometimes seems to use his own hypotheses as evidence for his theory. An example concerns the mapping SEEING IS TOUCHING, which accounts for metaphors like their eyes met. Lakoff writes:
This metaphor is made real in the social practice of avoiding eye "contact" on the street (p. 243)
The example is quite similar to the ARGUMENT IS WAR example in Metaphors We Live By:
It is important to see that we don't just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. [...] It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; its structures the actions we perform in arguing. (p. 4)
Given what Lakoff has said about the "Invariance Principle," this suddenly seems a lot less likely. If the target domain can really override the relations of the source domain, why should the mapping then provide any new information?

Apparently, we already have such an extensive knowledge of argumentation that we can filter out siege his argument from attack his argument. So why should the metaphor have anything to say with respect to our actions?

At best, the metaphor can fill out some roles that were not already filled or structured by our prior knowledge of the target domain -- but this is a much weaker statement than the one Lakoff (and Johnson) actually made.

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