Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Marina Rakova's debate with Mark Johnson and George Lakoff

In the September 2002 issue of Cognitive Linguistics, Marina Rakova had a short and bloody exchange of ideas with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

She criticized their theory for being "philosophically inconsistent" and "contradicted by empirical evidence" (p. 215), and they accused her of "systematic misreadings" (p. 260).

Rakova's paper is not very well-structured, but it does contain some interesting points that I do find worth mentioning:

1. Consistency with developmental psychology

It seems that there may possibly be some measure of evidence that the developmental story implied by cognitive metaphor theory doesn't quite fit our knowledge of actual child development.

She mentions for instance (p. 220) that children are able quite early to use sentences such as There's a butterfly in the garden even though the theory (perhaps) predicts otherwise.

It is not entirely clear to me how much this argument depends on the claim that one needs abstract thought in order to apply a container schema (cf. pp. 232 and 235).

2. Conflicting motivations

Picking up very small things is exceedingly difficult. So why is there no DIFFICULT IS VERY SMALL metaphor, when such post-hoc analyses can motivate the metaphors IMPORTANT IS BIG and DIFFICULT IS HEAVY? 

3. What governs the governor?

If we can have independent knowledge of a target domain, and if we need not use a metaphor automatically, then exactly can we conclude about the role of metaphor?

If metaphors can be switched on and off depending on whether they are useful in the specific context, is there any real content to the claim that we "think metaphorically"?

This is, as far as I understand, the question Rakova raises on the bottom of p. 227.

See also p. 234 and p. 236, where she seems to hint that a bodily experience doesn't just become a crisp, logical concept without some sort of additional enforcement. Lakoff and Johnson mention this on p. 259.

4. Are primitive really universal or just sort-of, so-far universal?

If some conceptual mappings are universal and others are not, and those that are universal are only partly universal, is there any content to the claim that certain concepts are universal?

If there is no theoretical support for the claim, then it should just have the status of "All swans I have seen so far seem to be white," which is not particularly strong or interesting.

In Rakova's words, the theory badly needs to mark off some "boundaries between significant and nonsignificant cultural variations" (p. 229).

By the way, Johnson and Lakoff refer in their response to "mountains of evidence" and "evidence that fills the pages of our discipline to overflowing" (pp. 251 and 261).

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