Monday, September 12, 2011

Reuven Tsur: "Lakoff's Roads Not Taken" (1999)

This is another paper that criticizes Lakoff's metaphor theory for being "flat"---or in Tsur's terms, having "little literary subtlety" (sec. 6).

Tsur's point is basically that Lakoff conflates quick decoding with slow interpretation. This conflates revolutionary language and conventional chatter, and consequently, "its literary application may be harmful" (sec. 4).

Metaphors: Fast or Slow?
Lakoff sees metaphors as instances of cognitive maps. This has the consequence that expressions like life's road or My career was at a crossroads receive stable meanings.

Tsur frowns at this description because he feels it conflates meaning (the product of reading) with understanding (the process of reading). This essentially accommodates metaphorical understanding to literal understanding: Both occur instantly and on the basis of standard tools.

This instant decoding, however, "is not necessarily a competent response to a piece of literature" (sec. 2). In particular, not all sentences are equally pregnant, significant, and ambiguous, and a theory that predicts certainty and intelligibility will hide this fact.

To illustrate this, he uses a sentence from Oedipus the King:
"Lauis was slain where three highroads meet" (sec. 2).
As he says, this sentence's "'air' of significance" is not explained by standard mappings like LIFE IS A JOURNEY. Something else must be going on, both in terms of product and process.

His theory is that this sense of significance kicks in because the meeting of the three roads seems unmotivated. We therefore shift to the slower process of "delayed conceptualization," and this produces more readings and more uncertainty. (And the pieces, by the way, fall into place as it is later revealed that it was Oedipus himself who killed the old king).

Uncertainty, Confidence, and Openness
In a sense, we can see Tsur's theory like this: A reader reads words, understands their meaning, and everything is going fine; but then something---a textual clue or an obnoxious English teacher---pushes the reader out of equilibrium, and the text suddenly seems riddled with loose ends. This tension triggers a search process, and the tension is relieved when a locally most consistent reading is found.

This seems reasonable and consistent with Davidson's observation that, once we start thinking about it, there is not end to what a metaphor might mean. Man is a wolf might be an instantiation of PEOPLE ARE SAVAGE ANIMALS, and it might be an instantiation of PEOPLE ARE PACK ANIMALS, and the metaphor can easily borrow some meanings from both mappings at once.

Tsur wraps this in a quasi-cognitive language by saying that a metaphor is "an efficient coding of information" because it "increases the number of meanings encoded in one spatial image" (sec. 3).

The point, however, is still that there is no algorithm for understanding. Once we're in the land of deep reading, the increased expressivity is bought at the priced of decreased certainty.

Contradiction and Falsehood as Metaphor Triggers
In fact, Tsur himself seems to be saying (following Monroe Beardsley) that this mode of reading is always triggered by "indirectly self-contradictory or obviously false" statements. Tsur is thus in line with Grice on this matter.

Unfortunately, truth is and consistency is not the whole story, as Donald Davidson's example No man is an island shows. However, the Gricean analysis still holds if we allow other conversational oddities to trigger a "deep" reading (e.g. irrelevance).

Lakoff, though, seems to reject all Gricean analysis. That's problematic, since reading-time measures seem to suggest that original metaphors and conversational implicatures are understood in much the same way. (Tsur cites Rachel Giora for this claim.)

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