Friday, September 9, 2011

Ray Jackendoff and David Aaron's review of More Than Cool Reason (1991)

In 1991, George Lakoff and Mark Turner's book More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (1989) was reviewed by Ray Jackendoff and (the religious studies scholar) David Aaron.

The review was generally favorable, but also included an emphatic and very elaborate criticism of Lakoff and Turner's theory. The main points of this criticism are:
  1. The book is insufficiently sourced; it fails to situate itself properly within the fields of linguistics and literary studies (Secs. 2 and 3).
  2. It identifies concept applications as metaphors far beyond reasonable limits, as indicated by a linguistic tests of metaphoricity devised by the two reviewers (Sec. 4).
  3. The book includes no theory of concept acquisition or learning; Aaron and (primarily?) Jackendoff suspect that such a theory would probably have to be much more nativist than Lakoff and Turner would like (Sec. 5).
  4. Their theory fails to account for the aesthetic and "affective" aspects of poetic metaphor, and their analyses consequently come off as quite "flat" (Sec. 6).
The metaphor diagnostic
The test for metaphoriticy that Jackendoff and Aaron propose involves explicating the metaphor. Compare the following two examples (p. 326):
  • Of course, machines aren't people---but if they were, you might say that my computer died on me.
  • *Of course, animals aren't people---but if they were, you might say that my dog ran down the street.
The fact that the first example seems natural shows that my computer died on me is a metaphorical application of the word die. The fact that the second example seems quite strange shows that my dog ran down the street is a literal application of the word run. As Jackendoff and Aaron explain,
The incongruity of treating dogs as humans is acknowledged, but the relevance of this mapping to the expression my dog ran down the street is totally unclear. (p. 327)
The issue is thus whether we must necessarily think of running in human terms before we can unpack what it means for a dog to run.

I suspect that this test coincides pretty much with just asking an informant directly whether a word is used literally or metaphorically. They don't report having asked anybody else about their example sentences, and presumably, they haven't. In some cases, this leads to slightly dubious results, even though I think the test has some value (see, e.g., their discussion of Death carried him away, p. 330).

Literal belief or conventional expression?
There's a really deep issues buried in Jackendoff and Aaron's discussion of literal applications of words under conditions of false belief. They complain that
there is no parameter available in L&T's system to make the distinction between literal beliefs and conventionalized I-metaphors [= metaphors that pass their test] (p. 330)
So for instance life flowed out of him is probably metaphorical to a modern reader. But in ancient Hebrew culture, such expressions were literal, Jackendoff and Aaron state, since the life of an organism was then believed to be the blood of the organism (p. 327). (By the way, this examples is strikingly similar to Julian Jaynes' discussion of the breath-metaphor in ancient Hindu culture.)

Later, they raise a similar object with respect to seeing expressions such as a loyal dog as metaphorical:
[T]he attribute 'loyal to X' has a major component something like 'willingly stays with X when X is in trouble'; this component applies equally in characterizing people or dogs as loyal. (p. 331)
And in a footnote, they add that if dogs were indeed like computers or cars, then their loyalty would have to be construed as metaphorical. But dogs do in fact do things "willingly," and they are in fact "sentient," and therefore, the term loyal can be literally applied to them.

Both of these examples touch on the issue that the membrane between language use and world view in general is soft and transparent. There is no linguistic fact of the matter that could resolve this issue, neither is there a cognitive; the correct vocabulary to discuss these matters in is an anthropological one. To get on the right track with respect to these issues, we need to put or Wittgenstein hat on and ask, "How would a culture look if it really believed that life and blood was the same thing?"

The sticky issue of 'basis'
In More Than Cool Reason as well as in other publications, Lakoff (and Turner) hypothesize a basic vocabulary of literal terms, here called "autonomous concepts." Jackendoff and Aaron quote three revealing passages that tries to define this region of conceptual space:
Semantically autonomous concepts [...] are grounded in the habitual and routine bodily and social patterns we experience, and in what we learn of the experience of others. (p. 113)
 [D]epartures, journeys, plants, fire, sleep, days and nights, heat and cold, possessions, burdens, and locations are not themselves metaphorically understood, [...] but rather by virtue of their grounding in what we take to be our forms of life, or habitual and routine bodily and social experiences. (p. 59)
We acquire cognitive models in at least two ways: by our own direct experience and through our culture. Thus, people who have never seen millstones can nonetheless learn, via their culture, that they are used in mills to grind grain, and that they are the enormous round flat stones that rotate about an axis. (p. 66)
Jackendoff and Aaron's point in exhibiting these quotes is to show that Lakoff and Turner's theory can't really account for the emergence of abstract concepts (because it isn't Chomskyan enough, i.e., it doesn't include preprogrammed learning algorithms).

That's not my reason, though; I reproduce them here to show how ill-defined the class of "semantically autonomous" concepts is. Note, for instance, how the definition wobbles between different domains: In the original 1980 formulation of their theory, Lakoff and Johnson only accepted bodily experience such as pressure, cold, or weight as basic. Now, "social" experiences such as possession has crept into the list, but still sticks out like the ad hoc addition that it is.

Even more strikingly, what we have experience with "through our culture" is now also an item in the conceptual base along with "social" experience. Of course, this accounts for war and ownership being on the list; but unfortunately for Lakoff and Turner, it also includes almost every single target domain that they have ever claimed to be abstract: Death, marriage, arguments, animals, computers, etc., etc.

Perhaps a few domains are still left outside the realm of "cultural" or "social" experience, such as abstract Newtonian time or musical structure, but the line seems nearly impossible to draw, and it definitely includes way more than it was supposed to.

Metaphors and "affect"
Just one last comment, because it's such a nice topic: Jackendoff and (primarily?) Aaron are disappointed that
the books fails to make sufficient contact with aesthetic concerns that distinguish poetic metaphor from ordinary metaphor. (p. 336)
They complain that the Lakovian theory depicts a metaphor as a machine that produces knowledge when in fact it should be something more like a machine that produces pictures or aesthetic experience (in any sense of the word). Thus, in comprehending a metaphor,
the entities of the source domain are vividly present to us [...] The cognitive effect is not unlike that in dreams, where we can experience a person who carries one individual's appearance but at the same time is 'known' to be someone else. (p. 334)
They footnote this comparison with a reference to Donald Davidson, but to me, this suggest much more a kind of "schizo-analysis" in the key of Deleuze, or specifically, the "double bookkeeping" or "double exposure" of schizophrenia, discussed by Louis Sass and others.

In any case, this theme suggests that there is more to the metaphor than a straightforward transferal of properties (be it one-to-many, many-to-one, or one-to-one). And, I would say, this depth partly stems from the fact that there is more to the source domain than meets the eye: An egg, a branch, a knife, or a snake is not just a "computable" object, it's a real, cultural item whose meaning can't be controlled. This essentially makes creative metaphor use an anarchic phenomenon that wildly overgenerates associations.

Jackendoff and Aaron explain:
[T]he superimposition operation itself has important effects. The most obvious is the affect contributed by using one entity as a symbol for another. This phenomenon is much more general than metaphor; it appears, for example, in the widespread use of ritual objects as symbols for religious abstractions. The object, just by virtue of being a symbol, is infused with a deep meaningfulness and immediacy that extends to actions in which the object is used. (p. 335)
Again, Louis Sass' discussion of the schizophrenic's sense of deep and inexplicable meaningfulness comes to my mind. Think for instance of the bizarre effect that obtains in Nuer tradition of sacrificing a cucumber as if it were a cow if you don't have a cow to spare (as discussed by Evans-Pritchard in the 1960s and by Ralf Norrman in his contribution to the second volume of The Motivated Sign).

To the extent that we have something to say about "understanding" such practices, this goes far beyond what Lakoff and Turner's somewhat square theory can contain. Appropriately, Jackendoff and Aaron also admit:
We have no explanation to offer for this affect, but it is clearly a part of human cognitive and emotional life (p. 335).
That's hard not to agree with. Now they only have to realize that this has consequences for ordinary language use as well.

No comments :

Post a Comment