Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Joseph E. Grady: "Theories Are Buildings Revisited" (1997)

This paper is a proposed solution to the fact that there are gaps in metaphors (*The theory has French windows). The proposed solution is to treat THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS as a "unification" of two simpler metaphors.

Grady's Criticism: Unpredicted Gaps and Lacking Basis
Grady has two empirical problems with Lakoff and Johnson's claims about the THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS metaphor. Once concerns gaps, the other concerns the lack of concrete experience that could found the metaphor.

Regarding the gaps, Grady notes that the foundation of a theory, a solid fact, a shaky argument etc. are OK, but he then (p. 270) gives the examples
  • ?This theory has French Windows.
  • ?The tenants of her theory are behind in their rent.
Even though windows are "some of the most experientially salient elements of the source domain of buildings," they "fail to map onto theories" (p. 277). This calls for an explanation.

Regarding the basis, he notes that there is no concrete experience that links THEORIES and BUILDINGS in the same sense that, e.g., MORE is associated with some visible feature going UP.

This is of course true, but we should remember that there isn't any experience linking INCREASED UNEMPLOYMENT and UP, either. Or in general, there is no concrete experience linking any abstract domain to anything at all, since we cannot per definition have concrete experience of something abstract.

Perhaps Grady would respond to this by treating The unemployment went up as a compound metaphor. In that case, his theory would probably soon turn out to overstretch quite a lot, since almost nothing would then count as a simple metaphor.

Grady's Proposal: Splitting the Metaphors
We can account for the gaps in THEORIES ARE BUILDINGS as well as its lack of basis by treating it as a compound motivated by two independent metaphors, Grady claims (p. 273). It would then consist of ORGANIZATION IS PHYSICAL STRUCTURE along with PERSISTING IS REMAINING ERECT.

He explains the operation that combines the two metaphors as a "unification" in the sense of lexical-functional grammar (p. 275). That's not quite in order, since a unification per definition can only produce more entailments, and he really wants to cancel some rather than add some. If he wants his theory to fulfill any purpose, he must look at the intersection of two functions, not the union.

But given this point, let's try his theory on. Our brains should now translate a theory into a physical structure and add that this physical structure is standing up if the theory is sound. The theory can then be described by any phrase that could be used equally well to describe a tall statue, the Empire State Building, a standing person, or a flagpole.

This explains metaphorical expressions such as The theory was shot down, His point still stands, The argument was supported by facts, and it predicts the infelicity of *The theory has French windows,  *There's plenty of furniture in his points, and *a two-bedrooms argument.

Problems With His Proposal
Unfortunately, that's not all. There are two problems with Grady's theory, one having to do with undergeneration, and one with overgeneration.

First undergeneration: Flagpoles and standing people don't have foundations, so on my reading, Grady's theory ought to predict that THEORIES would have foundations, either. Since this is clearly wrong, either the intersection is the wrong operation to apply, or else the set of physical structures should be specified more.

Since grady cites architects as a necessary part of a PHYSICAL STRUCTURE, he seems to exclude people and flagpoles from the category, although statues of Saddam Hussein or piles of books might possibly still be included. There seems to be no clear rule for deciding what counts as the essential features of a PHYSICAL STRUCTURE, but apparently an architect are on the list, but a location is not (*His theory had a nice location).

Then overgeneration: If ERECT PHYSICAL STRUCTURES have architects, foundations, and frameworks, they can collapse, topple over, and be supported, and they can be solid, shaky, or stable. These features of PHYSICAL STRUCTURES are included because they are relevant to their standing up.

By any reasonable measure, then, they should also have been constructed by some team of (more or less competent) construction workers, they should be made out of a certain (more or less durable) material, they should be constructed by some (more or less reasonable) method. All of these can be eminently relevant to standing up, too.

However, that seems to a stretch. There are plenty of structural features of a building that don't translate directly into theory-language:
  • *the stainless steel frame of his theory
  • *a tall, thin theory
  • *That's a cheap material to build a theory from!
  • *Take extra care when building your theory in an earthquake zone
Some of these examples may in certain contexts potentially acquire some predictable meaning, and some of them are perhaps unfairly picked. But note that this is no different from the examples like This theory has French windows.

Believing Too Hard in Systematicity
Grady's claim is that his theory provides an in-principle account of the difference between intelligible and unintelligible metaphors. As a matter of empirical fact, though, his criterion for (immediate) intelligibility does not seem to coincide with actual (immediate) intelligibility.

His own answer to the undergeneration is that sometimes, other metaphors might be triggered. The THEORIES ARE PHYSICAL STRUCTURES metaphor can then be combined with other metaphors such as, perhaps, BEHIND IS HIDDEN, to yield examples like the following:
  • [...] this does not mean introducing quantum theory on a "back door" into classical theory.
The larger question given the ciritique above is now: If any metaphor can always in principle be extended, how do we know whether a certain phrase is infelicitous or not? Or, with Jackendoff and Aaron, we could ask: How do we know what image scheme to apply when we encounter a given phrase? How do we know that a metaphor is compound, and how do we know how to analyze it?

Grady seems to think that consistency is the key (p. 286). But just like hierarchical models of metaphors will always create penguins-can-fly entailments, so will consistency criterions in metaphor theory always eventually come back to the problem that anything is like anything and that any phrase is potentially meaningful.

Grady claims that his theory draws the line between felicitous metaphors and infelicitous metaphors systematically and once and for all. I don't think there is such a system to be found -- his approach will at best gloss over the fact that frequency and conventionality plays a larger part than he or Lakoff and Johnson are willing to admit.

Given the many back doors in his theory, so to speak, it seems that his theory either allows anything to be intelligible (because anything potentially might be rationalized) or barely anything (because concepts can't live on abstract meaning alone).

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