Monday, October 17, 2011

Gibbs: "Metaphor and Culture" (1999)

In Ray Gibbs' contribution to his and Gerard Steen's anthology, Gibbs air some pretty serious second thoughts about his whole notion of where metaphor.

Thus, looking back at his extensive record of experimental work in metaphor theory, he comments:
My thinking about the role of conceptual metaphor in people's use and understanding of language has mostly embraced an individualistic view of cognition. (p. 151)
[T]his work did not explicitly acknowledge that social and cultural constructions of experience fundamentally shape embodied metaphor. (p. 155)
The alternative is "supra-individual" picture (p. 154) in which metaphors are "cognitive webs [...] spread out into the cultural world" (p. 146).

How Does the Supra-Individual Work?
It's not entirely clear what the dynamics of this more muddled picture would be.

Gibbs give as an example a report of a therapy session in which a couple were asked to think about their sex life in terms of food (p. 158). This clearly is not a metaphor arising spontaneously out of immediate experience, and yet it changed their behavior. Thus, the environment provided the cognition.

Somewhat more obscurely, he also noted that when you get angry, you are already exhibiting some cultural know-how about, e.g., politeness and retribution (p. 155-56). This is, of course, a kind of cultural knowledge build into your body and your immediate reactions, but the example would also benefit from some conceptual clarification.

Filling the Gaps
Gibbs is right about many things in this paper, but I think there are a number of observations that could have improved his thinking:
  • Language is primarily a tool for communication. The problem is not just that the subjective semantics that some person has is influenced by the environment---rather, the idea of one isolated person "having" a semantics already misconstrues the situation.
  • Language, subjective experience, and the symbolic order (i.e., the social norms) are three different dimensions of the theory, and we should name them so that we can talk about their interactions. I feel fairly certain that the symbolic order is by far the strongest and most immutable of these three.
  • The linguist is a member of a culture. Therefore, when the linguistic has intuitions about meaning, these are shaped by social norms. Therefore, when the linguist says, "We experience things this way," the assertion may in some cases be more of a datum (revealing a norm) than an observation (revealing an a priori structure).

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